In the footsteps of Robert the Bruce

01 January 2021
Author Gregor Ewing shares poignant moments from the start of a 1,000-mile walk accompanied by his faithful dog Meg and following in the footsteps of Robert the Bruce.

From the outset, I had planned to begin my journey on Rathlin Island, just off the coast of Northern Ireland. After his defeat at Dalrigh, the King was forced to flee Scotland and he spent some time on this small island during the winter of 1306–07 before returning to begin the attempt to reclaim his kingdom.

Rathlin seemed like the perfect place from which to launch my own invasion. In some D-Day-like dream, I had envisaged Meg and myself standing on the prow of a small craft, watching Scotland’s shoreline gradually fill the horizon. Approaching the beach, battered only by the wind and rain, we would jump into the sea and run onto the soft white sand of the Kintyre peninsula.

Unfortunately, just a few days before the start of my trip, the captain of the private charter boat I had hired, called to say that upcoming bad weather in the Irish Sea was going to make the sailing impossible. I couldn’t delay the trip as I had various rendezvous planned later in the walk, so I had no option but to cancel this leg of the journey. Instead, I made some hasty plans and headed towards Tyndrum in the Trossachs.

In Bruce's footsteps

So instead of a dreamy sojourn to a mysterious island, I began my journey at Dalrigh, just to the south of Tyndrum. On a bright, sunny day, this is a beautiful Highland landscape, with mountains, glens and rivers begging exploration. On a dull, wet and windy March morning, with the clouds just above head-height, it was just foreboding. My father-in-law dropped me off. After a short stroll together, a quick cheerio to him was far easier than my parting from home early that morning when everyone was upset, not least my wife as she contemplated nine weeks of juggling her full-time job, looking after the house and ferrying the children around, all on her lonesome.

The idea behind this hastily cobbled-together start to my journey was to follow the escape of King Robert the Bruce after he was defeated in battle for the third time in quick succession. This was a disastrous start to his revival of a kingship that had lain dormant since the forced abdication of King John Balliol ten years earlier. It was July 1306, Bruce had been King of Scots for less than four months, and it looked like his reign was to be the briefest of all Scottish monarchs. After reverses at Methven and Loch Tay, the remnants of his army crossed the River Fillan at Dalrigh where they were ambushed by a force of Highlanders under the command of John MacDougall.

There are no detailed descriptions of the battle, but as I stood by the ford I could easily imagine an army of screaming, leaping clansmen emerging from the mist.

Bruce’s ragtag forces, caught unawares, would have been seriously handicapped. They were caught in the midst of an awkward manoeuvre and burdened by the injured as well as by the women and children of the new royal family. MacDougall’s lightly armed Highlanders would have been at a distinct advantage on the rough ground and the mounted men of Bruce’s party would have been unable to deploy properly. An inscribed stone bench, between the river and Dalrigh field, marks the spot where Robert and his followers were ambushed. Retreating, they passed little Lochan nan Arm on the south side of the River Fillan, where the King and his followers discarded some of their weapons.

At some point during this retreat, the King split up his party and sent his Queen and other prominent females away under the guidance and protection of his brother Nigel. With just a few men left, Bruce took to the hills to make his escape. The King of Scots was now a powerless fugitive in his own country, his army defeated and many of his supporters captured or slain. Powerful and numerous enemies were bent on destroying him, and he was far from friendly territory where he could find safety.

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Legends of The Bruce

I started walking in the direction of Bruce’s retreat. Meg trotted beside me, knowing full well something major was beginning, because she had been saddled with a cumbersome rucksack. Local legend informs us that King Robert was forced to fight a running battle southwards and I followed the river down Strath Fillan on the footpath of the West Highland Way, the oldest and best known of Scotland’s Great Trails. Crossing under the A85 and with the tiniest of diversions I was soon at a natural widening of the river, looking at the Holy Pool of St Fillan. In bygone days, those with mental ailments went for a dip in the healing waters. Had I gone for a swim, then suitably cured I’d have been back in the car with my father-in-law. A 1,000 mile continuous walk! Only a dog for company and 65 nights in a tent in Scotland! Madness!

On the West Highland Way

The West Highland Way runs through Auchtertyre Farm and then past the scanty remains of a once substantial St Fillan’s Priory (pictured). This Augustinian priory was once over 50m in length and it was endowed by Bruce 11 years after his defeat here in 1306. St Fillan himself was an 8th-century monk who preached in this area. His sacred relics were revered and looked after by the Dewars of the Coigreach – the crozier and bell belonging to St Fillan survive to this day. In 1306, having already received forgiveness for his murder of John Comyn from the dominant Roman Church, Bruce was quite possibly in this area seeking forgiveness from the Celtic Church in the presence of these holy relics. The relics were called into use prior to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Most walkers tackle the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William, the scenery becoming more dramatic as they head towards the Highlands. I was going against the flow of walkers on this short stretch, and I was determined to make the effort to talk to as many people as possible during my walk, hopefully picking up little bits of advice or local knowledge as well as exercising underused vocal chords. I tried a few introductory lines like ‘Where are you heading?’ or ‘Have you come far?’ but just as ‘Do you come here often?’ never seemed to work for me on the dance floor, I didn’t get much response. Letting Meg do the talking seemed to work better as she immediately gained sympathy for her friendly demeanour and cruel panniers.

Crossing the main road again, the path heads uphill through a dense forestry plantation before descending to Crianlarich at the southern end of Strath Fillan. Passing through this village of converging routes, surrounded on all sides by 1,000m mountains, I followed a disused railway track alongside the a85 before coming to Loch Dochart. On a small island in the centre of the loch, partially hidden by trees, was a 16th-century castle. Unfortunately, 19th-century repairs made the ruins resemble an industrial chimney and spoiled the scene.

Crisis of confidence

Under the shadow of Ben More, the conical shape of which is so recognisable from Scotland’s Central Belt and which issues a magnetic charm to many Lowland walkers, I followed a track past a farm at the foot of the hill and continued on into Benmore Glen. Getting wetter and colder as I climbed gradually southwards, a sense of impending doom began to creep over me. Reaching a bealach (mountain pass)at a height of 500m, there were snow fields on the slopes above and patches of ice underfoot.

A crisis of confidence, mixed with a little bit of guilt, engulfed me. Why the hell was I doing this? What was I thinking about, spending weeks and weeks outdoors again? It had been two years since my previous foray into the hills and I had forgotten how cold, wet and lonely it could be. The rucksack felt bloody heavy as well; I couldn’t imagine day after day with this on my back. How selfish was I, leaving my family behind for over nine weeks to go on some self-fulfilling odyssey?

Trying to banish this negativity from my overactive mind, I tried to latch onto something positive, something to look forward to – but there were no cosy b&b’s on this trip; no meeting with friends or family for a while yet; no little carrots to dangle in front of my mind’s eye.

Extract taken from Bruce, Meg and Me, published by Luath Press.

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