The Real Outlaw King: Robert Bruce’s Story in Six Scottish Locations

The story of Robert Bruce is riddled with complexities. Anyone searching for a simplistic figure, whether they want him to be a flawless hero-king or a self-interested power grabber, will search in vain. Terrible to his foes, magnanimous to his friends, often brutal and, yet, a statesman too, it is this tangled web of a man who we follow in Netflix’s Outlaw King.

 

OUTLAW KING

Chris Pine as Robert Bruce in Netflix’s Outlaw King

Warning: 700-year-old spoilers ahead!

 

From the film’s first moments with Edward I’s War Wolf unleashing its fury on Stirling Castle, I knew that history buffs were in for a treat. Though a risky decision, the film’s choice to focus entirely on the early years of Bruce’s campaign pays off in that we are treated to a closer look at a dramatic and formative time in Scottish history, relishing in rather than rushing through the details.

I was on my feet when James Douglas, played ferociously by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, bent the knee to Bruce on the high road in the Borders, and again during the desperate battles of Methven and Dalrigh. This period is a story that has begged to be told on-screen for a long time, and much of the historical depth is a credit to Dr Tony Pollard, Director of Glasgow University’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, and Scott McMaster, a leading expert on Bruce and Bannockburn, who were the film’s historical advisors. Inescapably a few liberties are taken in the adaptation, but Outlaw King is clearly devoted to accuracy in a way that few other films or shows are.  

Alongside fellow Scotlander Neil Robertson, I set out on behalf of VisitScotland to delve into the Robert Bruce’s remarkable story. While I focused on the real historical sites central to Bruce’s life, Neil sought out the filming locations you’ll recognise when you watch the film. You can read his account, here. Outlaw King was shot entirely in Scotland, and it’s already making a difference – at most of the sites featured below, I met people inspired to visit them due to watching the film.

 

Myself and Neil Robertson at the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre wielding spear and axe, respectively

Myself and Neil Robertson at the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre wielding spear and axe, respectively

 

As someone whose work is centred around encouraging people to see the wonder in the history around them, I am extremely encouraged by that. People have been visiting Scotland to experience its stories for themselves for centuries, be it thanks to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Walter Scott’s historical fiction, or, more recently, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Outlaw King is following in these footsteps.

Let’s learn more about the real ‘Outlaw King’ by touring six sites, in the order that they entered Bruce’s life (and death): Lochmaben Castle, Moot Hill at Scone, Bannockburn, Arbroath Abbey, Melrose Abbey, and Dunfermline Abbey. There are many more, which I’ll mention at the end, but these six give a comprehensive look at Robert Bruce, King of Scots.

 

LOCHMABEN CASTLE

 

Castles are pivotal in Bruce’s story. He was born in one; he spent much of his early campaigning years taking them back from English garrisons one by one; he fought his most defining battle, Bannockburn, in the shadow of one; and grants of land to his followers – including James Douglas, Thomas Randolph, and Angus Og – laid the foundation for the mighty baronial dynasties that would build national treasures like Tantallon Castle, Threave Castle, and many more. It was delightful to see them take centre stage in Outlaw King.

 

Tony Curran as Angus Og MacDonald in Outlaw King

Tony Curran as Angus Og MacDonald in Outlaw King

 

Bruce’s birthplace has vexed historians for centuries, and will probably always do so. Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire is the likeliest candidate, as it’s unlikely that his mother Marjorie, the powerful countess of Carrick, would deign to give birth in a draughty motte-and-bailey castle like the one then at Lochmaben. Still, Lochmaben had been at the heart of the Bruce lordship since the mid-12th century, and Bruce would have felt at home in the area.

 

Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire

Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire

 

The stone castle of Lochmaben which made the old timber castle redundant was built by Edward I’s forces in the occupying years following the submission of the Scots nobility on the Ragman Roll in 1296. It’s a peculiar one, with a watery channel running through two stone archways still being its most distinctive feature. Admittedly, visiting Lochmaben Castle leaves something to be desired – due to conservation concerns, there is fencing around much of the castle and there’s not all that much left standing, at least relative to better-known sites in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. Still, it’s appealing – in places the masonry looks more like a Mayan ruin than a Scottish one, and it’s only a short drive or cycle away to Dumfries where Bruce had his infamous encounter with John Comyn. You simply can’t follow the footsteps of Bruce without going through Dumfries & Galloway.

 

 

SCONE PALACE & MOOT HILL

 

If there’s one way to lose friends and alienate people in the medieval world, it’s to murder someone in a kirk. Having done precisely that, Bruce rushed to Scone, the traditional crowning place of Kings of Scots (importantly, it’s never the ‘King of Scotland’, but always the ‘King of Scots’) since the 9th century and the formation of the Scottish nation.

The Scone Palace we see today, which is well worth visiting in itself, is the result of much alteration over the centuries. Bruce would have encountered a much smaller abbot’s residence, yet his sights would have invariably been fixed on the small mound adjacent to it. Moot Hill, it is called, and in Scotland a hill is never just a hill. Imagine the giants of Scottish history to stride across it before you, and indeed before Bruce – Cináed mac Ailpín, David I, the ill-fated Alexander III, to name a few.

 

 

The ceremony to crown Bruce was so nice it had to happen twice. Bruce was crowned in great haste to offer him legitimacy, and ancient tradition held that a MacDuff of Fife had to do the honour. The MacDuff Earl was then in league with the English, but his wife, Isabella, had other ideas. Leaving her husband to his treachery, she rode to Scone and arrived the day after the ceremony. Her presence was so symbolically significant that they did it all over again!

 

A replica of the Stone of Destiny on Moot Hill. Edward I stole the real one from Scone in 1296...or did he?

A replica of the Stone of Destiny on Moot Hill. Edward I stole the real one from Scone in 1296…or did he?

 

The grounds of Scone Palace are open year-round, while the palace is open March through October. I suggest visiting in early autumn, when the colours are changing, or perhaps on 25 March, the very date that Bruce was crowned. The grounds are dog-friendly, a rare provision at historical properties, though mind the many peacocks milling about.

 

 

BANNOCKBURN

How do 7,000 Scots, lightly armoured and fighting almost exclusively on foot with long spears, defeat over 20,000 well-equipped English soldiers whose destrier warhorses could charge down a man like so much grass underfoot? To paraphrase a certain film-that-cannot-be-named, we all know the Scots can fight – but it’s wits that make the man.

 

Bruce lion rampant axe

 

Robert Bruce taught Edward II a master class in warfare on the boggy carse to the south of Stirling. Having laid the medieval equivalent of a minefield in the from of sharpened stakes along the main route to the castle, he forced Edward’s massive host into an impossible situation – a confined area of low ground, flanked by the Bannock Burn and the Pelstream Burn, in which the English army could hardly deploy never mind fight in good order. To grossly oversimplify, it was then a matter of the Scots spearmen, arrayed in formations known as schiltroms which amount to steamrollers of 15-foot-long spear points, simple pushing forward until there was nothing left to push against. The land itself proved Bruce’s greatest ally on those two days, June 23rd and 24th 1314, and Stirling – the ‘place of strife’ – proved its name.

If Bruce was the headmaster at Bannockburn, he was the pupil at Loudoun Hill, the battle which serves as the climax to Outlaw King. The tactics of negating the heavy cavalry with pits and spikes, choosing the right location above all else, and neutralising numerical advantages through choke points were all employed by Bruce at Loudoun Hill, and it probably surprised him as much as us that it all actually worked! Having avoided pitched battle for so many years after suffering the indignities of Methven and Dalrigh, at Loudoun Hill Bruce and his companions learned that victory in the field against overwhelming odds was possible.

 

 

The iconic monument of Bruce by Pilkington Jackson stands behind the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre, where got my true start in the Scottish history field as a ‘Battlemaster’ coordinating the centre’s battle experience wherein visitors are put in charge of digital soldiers to re-create, and indeed sometimes re-write, Bannockburn. It is positioned roughly where Bruce established his camp, on a low hill from which the massive English army could be seen approaching from the south along the old Roman Road.

 

 

The highlight of this campaign came when, at the statue, I encountered Harry, a young lad who, having seen Outlaw King the previous day, wanted to go learn more about the real Robert Bruce with his mum. We posed for some pictures, made our best ‘battle faces’, and all departed with beaming smiles. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s all about – if I can help get even one kid excited about Scottish history, I’ll consider my life’s work a success. Cheers, Sir Harry!

 

Bannockburn Outlaw King fans

 

ARBROATH ABBEY

 

While we so often think of Bruce as a warrior-king, he defies such simple categorisation. In 1320 a set of documents were drawn up at Newbattle Abbey, then sent to Arbroath Abbey and finalised by Abbot Bernard. Together, they were no less than revolutionary. The surviving document, one of three, is known as the Declaration of Arbroath. It is often called Scotland’s Magna Carta, yet I think that title does it a disservice – the Declaration of Arbroath goes far beyond the limitations imposed by Magna Carta, such that the seeds sown by it would eventually grow to inspire the writers of America’s Declaration of Independence over 400 years later.

 

Declaration of Arbroath

 

You’ll know the most famous, verse, of course:

“For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Well and good, but it’s what comes immediately before this that really stirred the pot:

“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King.”

It is utterly extraordinary that, in the early 14th century, this sentiment was even tolerated – never mind promoted by the very king it referred to! Basically, despite Bruce’s hero status amongst many of his people, the Declaration of Arbroath made no qualms about threatening to find a replacement if he didn’t keep up the good work. It is certainly too far to say that 14th century Scots were early democrats (they certainly weren’t), yet the philosophical premise that authority is earned rather than divinely mandated would shake the world.

 

Declaration of Arbroath Monument

 

There is a wondrous copy of the Declaration in the abbey, and the grounds contain the resting place of several other Kings of Scots including William ‘the Lion’. An excellent interpretation centre guides you through Bruce’s campaign and the significance of the Declaration, and the surviving elements of the Abbey can be marvelled at for hours. Few visitors stop in Arbroath, which is a great shame – it holds one of not just Scotland’s but the western world’s most powerful proclamations.

 

 

MELROSE ABBEY

If I could choose one character from Outlaw King to get a spinoff, it would be James ‘the Black’ Douglas, no question. One of the top three best knights in Europe and a force so terrible on the battlefield that may enemies fled at the mere sight of his banner, Douglas is a badass extraordinaire. His final deed was so spectacular that Mel Gibson nicked the moniker that resulted from it – ‘Braveheart’. Sorry, Wallace sits this one out. It’s all about Bruce and Douglas.

In Bruce’s dying hours, he called his lieutenants to his bedside at Cardross on the Clyde. Veterans all, he asked them who would redeem his soul for the many sins it had accrued by taking his embalmed heart on crusade. There could be only one – Douglas! Bearing the heart in a cask around his neck, Douglas and a picked retinue of Scottish knights set sail for Spain where they rendezvoused with Alfonso XI and his campaign against the Moorish Emirate of Granada. One account says that upon arriving at Alfonso’s court, an English knight challenged Douglas’ identity as he could not believed that so renowned a knight could possibly have no visible scars to show for all his bloody work. Douglas laconically replied, “It seems I have always had strong hands to guard my face” – that is, no one has ever got close enough to give me one!

 

Melrose Abbey bruce heart braveheart

 

Scots being Scots, when it came time for battle they found themselves in the thick of it. Realising that this would be his last stand, Douglas took the cask containing the heart, proclaimed:

“Brave heart, that ever foremost led,

“Forward! as thou wast wont. And I

“Shall follow thee, or else shall die!”

If my wish comes true and director David Mackenzie ends up making a trilogy where Outlaw King is part one, and which ends with Douglas’ expedition with the heart, I’ll just go ahead and empty my pockets now to whoever can make this happen.

 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James 'the Black' Douglas in Outlaw King

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James ‘the Black’ Douglas in Outlaw King

 

A visit to Melrose Abbey is a pilgrimage for history geeks like me, for it is here that Bruce’s heart is interred – separate from his skeleton, which is at Dunfermline, as you do. The Scottish Borders is an area for which I’ve developed great affection, replete as it is with castles and tower houses, Roman and Iron Age forts, standing stones, battlefields, stunning vistas, and hills and moors to rival those of the Highlands.

 

 

When you go to Melrose, don’t miss the small museum next to the Abbey which contains many precious artefacts from the area’s ancient and distinguished history. There is so much to see and do around Melrose that it warrants its own blog post at the least, but for now, suffice to say that my heart, as well as Bruce’s, rests well here.

 

DUNFERMLINE ABBEY

 

Fittingly, Neil and I concluded our campaign where Bruce’s tale also ends, Dunfermline Abbey in Fife. One of the most beautiful abbeys in Scotland, it is surrounded by the evocative ruins of a palace complex and kirkyard that convert this not insubstantial part of central Dunfermline into a sort of historical wonderland.

 

 

Why was Bruce buried at Dunfermline rather than, say, at Paisley Abbey or St Andrews, the latter of which was consecrated in Bruce’s presence in 1318? No one truly knows. Perhaps he was comforted by the presence of St Margaret, the 11th century queen who, amongst many other accomplishments, established a ferry across the Firth of Forth to facilitate the movement of pilgrims bound for St Andrews at the place aptly known as Queensferry. He also has kingly company at Dunfermline, with interred monarchs including David I, Alexander I, Alexander III, and many others.

Bruce’s tomb is within the Abbey Church of Dunfermline, a separate but associated institution from Dunfermline Abbey. The Abbey Church, and hence the tomb, is closed during the winter, but Dunfermline Abbey and Palace and, of course, the grounds, are run by Historic Environment Scotland and open year-round.

 

Robert Bruce tomb

 

Dunfermline Abbey can boast that it is both a ‘real’ Robert Bruce location and a ‘reel’ Outlaw King one, since it also was used to stand in for Westminster Abbey. Here Edward of Caernarvon swears on his swans, and Edward I proclaims, uproariously, “I am so SICK of Scotland!” A big thanks to HES steward Farrell Dewar, who pointed this out to us and gave me a tour around the Abbey and Palace that were invaluable for understanding the evolution of this fascinating place over nearly a millennium.

 

 

A TALE THAT GROWS IN THE TELLING…

As part of my castle hunting, I’m often on the trail of Robert Bruce. In addition to these core six, there are many more sites across Scotland that deserve to be seen. Off the top and by no means exhaustively, these include:

  • Castle Tioram, where Bruce was possibly sheltered by Christina of Gamoran
  • The Pass of Brander, where Bruce and James Douglas defeated the MacDougalls
  • Brodick Castle, attacked by Bruce upon his return to the history books
  • Glen Trool, site of another Bruce victory against Aymer de Valence
  • Whithorn Priory, destination for Bruce’s last pilgrimage

While I do have a few historical gripes with Outlaw King, such as Edward II’s presence at Loudoun Hill (he wasn’t there) and the use of fire arrows at Methven (they look great on screen and that’s about it), I’m happy to look past these relatively minor issues – insignificant compared to the inaccuracies in a certain other film! – and revel in what the film is already doing for Scotland. Scotland missed out on having much of Game of Thrones filmed here, but now that Netflix has filmed the entirety of it’s highest budget film to date here, hopefully we won’t miss such an opportunity again.

More importantly, I am thinking of the many people I met over just two days on this campaign who were exploring their own backyards with a renewed purpose: to feel closer to Scotland’s story, and therefore their own, because they watched a movie. That’s a beautiful thing.

 

Disclaimer

This campaign was sponsored by VisitScotland to promote and coincide with the release of Outlaw King on Netflix on November 9th, 2018. If you know me, you know I send my spare time doing this for fun – so when the opportunity came along to get involved formally, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. I had already visited and enjoyed all of the sites described in this post prior to the campaign and it was a joy to revisit them. 

Images from the film courtesy of Netflix.