Kinsfolk and Connections of Robert Bruce
THERE may be seen today in the kirkyard of Larbert, not very far distant from the tower of the modern church, a grave which gathers about it still the profound devotion of Scottish people, though nearly three hundred years have rolled by since it was digged. This historic sepulchre, while it is near to the western and of the modern Parish Church, is actually within the precincts of the pre-Reformation church which stood till the year 1820 in the kirkyard of Larbert. Master Robert Bruce, laird of Kinnaird and minister of Edinburgh, is the man whose dust rests in this holy ground. His piety restored the church, which had been neglected and deserted before the Reformation; his preaching gave distinction to the pulpit at the foot of which his mortal remains were laid in the year 1631.
A flat gravestone covers the spot. And here is the inscription upon it-the epitaph carved upon Bruce's tomb by the men of his own time. In the centre is the coat of arms of that distinguished Stirlingshire house from which Robert Bruce was sprung, a saltier in chief, a mullet in dexter side. The initial R.B. slightly defaced by a huge crack in the stone, the date at the top, 1631, with M beneath for the "Master," are easily deciphered and these words in Latin, Cristus in vita et in morte lucrum.1 - "Christ is to me both in life and in death advantage."
The Scotsman whose grave is beneath that old stone was one of the great Reformation leaders. His career bridges the interval between Knox and Melville on the one side, and Alexander Henderson on the other. Of Knox he could have said Virgilium vidi tantum; Melville was his master who gave its impetus to his resolute career; Henderson was his most famous disciple- the leader of the second Reformation.
The place occupied by Robert Bruce among his contemporaries was unique. Called early to the greatest pulpit in Scot land, that of Knox himself, he became at once the voice of the Church. So strong and so sustained was his power that, whether encountering royal favour or persecution, his ministry was sought after with an undiminished and even an increasing fervour throughout a long generation of time. His antagonists spoke of his bewitching the people, but on the other hand there is a unanimous testimony from his contemporaries of the Scottish Church Party, and especially from his brethren of the ministry, as to the exceptional and splendid position in which Bruce's gifts and his sanctity enshrined him. "That confessor, almost martyr of the Lord Jesus," are the words of Andrew Melville, his teacher. "No man since the apostles' time spake with such power," said a disciple of Bruce, John Livingstone, with enthusiasm. "Bruce," cried the Church historian Calder wood, "may my soul at the last be with thine."
While there is no certainty about the date or the place of Robert Bruce's birth, it is probable that he was born at Airth Castle in Stirlingshire in the year 1554. There is nothing recorded of his boyhood, and not till that moment when young men are confronted with grave problems of personal decision does he step into our view. It is told by himself, in that frank narrative written in his old age of which only a few fragments have been preserved, that about the period of his passing out of boyhood, deep, anxious reflections concerning sin and the way of salvation haunted his mind. As early as the year 1571, when he was about seventeen years of age, and when he was at the point of taking his degree at St. Andrews University; he tells that he could not mount on horseback nor alight without an accusing conscience.1 The thoughts of his heart troubled him day and night. Here, surely, was a sore situation for a young student. But perhaps there are more lads in their later teens suffering from stress of conscience than the world is aware of. Young Bruce had little help in his home: his mother was a bigoted Catholic; and the old laird was engrossed, it appears, with other concerns. For at least ten years, as a student of arts and of law, the young man carried his burden solitary, like Christian on his way to the Interpreter's House. One marked result was a precocity, a gravity of demeanour, which struck all observers. And no doubt it was the possession of these qualities, as well as the influence of his rank, that led to Bruce being thrust early into positions of responsibility in the Church.
The claim of this family of Airth to high rank in Scotland could be established both on the male and on the female side. Indeed, they could trace the nearest descent of any of their name to the blood royal.1 Sir Alexander Bruce, the laird of Airth, could show a direct descent from King Robert the Bruce; while his wife, Janet Livingstone, had a genealogy no less eminnent, being a great-granddaughter of James 1 and of Jane Beaufort his Queen. A sister of this Janet Livingstone was Mary Livingstone, one of the "four Marys" who were maids of honour to Mary, Queen of Scots. Sempill, of Beltrees, mar ried Mary Livingstone, and their son, a cousin of Robert Bruce, the minister, used his influence with the king more than once in after days on behalf of his persecuted relative.'
The family of Airth was not only high born; it had some claim also to distinction in the public service, The grandfather of our Reformer is famous in history for his spirited defence of Edinburgh Castle against an invading English army. A Sir John Bruce, of Airth, was in 1481 charged by the commissioners to call Alexander, Duke of Albany, to answer for the charge of treason. Sir Alexander, the father of Master Robert Bruce, was a rude, bluff baron, with a goodly proportion of acres for his estate, and behind him a powerful following of retainers. On one occasion, supported by his trusty followers, he encountered a party of the retainers of the laird of Weems in the High Street of Edinburgh, whom he attacked and pistolled, the skirmish being a very bloody one.²
1 Hill Burton, History of Scotland, vol. v. P.340.
2 See pp.129-130. 3 Birrel's Diary, p.
He was credited too, in company with his kinsman and neighbour, the laird of Dunipace, with having prompted the slaughter in 1595 of David Forrester, a Stirling man who was in the service of Lord Mar. This deed was reckoned one of the most foul in that troubled period; and the earl to express his abhorrence of the crime, adopted a dramatic fashion of interring the corpse of Forrester. In front of the funeral procession he caused to be borne a white sheet upon which had been rudely depicted a portrait of the dead man, with the bloody wounds upon it. In this wise, with every token of defiance of the murderers and honour to the dead, the funeral cort~e passed close by the very residence of Bruce to the place of burial at Stirling.1
A better side of Alexander Bruce's energetic character is shown in the generosity with which he dealt towards brothers, nephews, and dependants. He was lavish to a fault, and his descendants judged him too liberal with his posessions, even to the impoverishing of his estate.2
The family of Janet Livingstone, mother of Robert Bruce, like that of his father, had borne itself well in the service of the kingdom. Alexander, fifth Lord Livingstone, the grandfather, had a reputation for great integrity, so that into his hands the education of Mary, Queen of Scots, was committed, a responsibility which he discharged with faithfulness. The Livingstone family were Roman Catholic, and they were strongly opposed to the Reformation. The children of Sir Alexander Bruce and Dame Janet Livingstone were seven in number, two daughters and five sons. William, the eldest son, died during the lifetime of his father, leaving a son who became heir in entail. The second son was Master Robert, scholar and Presbyterian minister. The third son, Sir John, who had Kincavel and Westborland in Denny for his inheritance, was a man of fine character.
1. Spottiswood, History, p. 4rr. The Bruce who was an accomplice in this deed was the eldest son of Alexander "Bruce younger of Airth."-Pitcairn, Criminal Trials, i. 35r.
2. For the details of the Bruce family history recorded in this chapter the author is indebted to M. F. Cumming Bruce's Family Records of the Braces and the Cumyns (Blackwood, 1870), pp.
We shall meet him more than once, standing side by side with his distinguished brother, Robert, a support to him in his troubled career. Sir Alexander Bruce, of Bangour in Ireland, was the fourth son, while curiously enough the fifth son, like the second, was called Robert. It was not uncommon at the period to find a Christian name recur in the same family. In the family archives this Robert junior (as he is styled) is described as brother-german; and while the more illustrious Robert threw in his lot with the Reformers, the other appears to have adhered to the Roman Catholic faith. He was a priest, and had from his father "the chaplanrie of our Ladie aisle, founded and situated on the south side of the Kirk of Airth."
Everywhere in the neighbourhood of Airth are to be found signs that the Bruce family were once in possession of the land. The village cross, still to be seen in the main street of Airth, bears upon one side of it the ancient Bruce arms, on the other the arms of the Elphinstone family with the motto "Do well, let them say," the initials C.E. (Charles Elphinstone). In the chapel adjoining the castle, and on the gravestones which are huddled around it, one can decipher the names or the insignia of countless generations of Bruces, those knights and dames who of old dwelt here and had their being, and whose laughter filled those corridors with life. Today their dust fills the crowded kirkyard. There is one stone bearing the arms of Bruce of Airth, and the letters A.B., which is declared on good authority to be undoubtedly the coat of arms of Sir Alexander Bruce (died 1600), father of Master Robert Bruce, the Re former.
The ancient Castle of Airth, standing upon its abrupt rock high above the carse, is a composite pile, the oldest portion dating back to the twelfth century. Once upon a time the tide washed the castle rock, though today the river bank is nearly a mile distant. A portion of the castle is traditionally linked on to the days of Sir William Wallace. In "Blind Harry" it is related that an uncle of Wallace, priest in the parish of Dunipace, had been caught by English soldiers, and thrown into a dark dungeon which lay beneath the castle. Wallace of course attacked and slew the garson, releasing their prisoner.
There is in the Castle of Airth a Wallace room with ancient oaken wainscoting, which claims the attention of every patriotic visitor. But there is another chamber in an adjoining, newer wing of the building, which has at present a stronger claim upon our attention. There is no sure tradition indicating the exact room which Robert Bruce in his narrative describes as the "New Loft Chamber." In was in this room that, three hundred years after Wallace fought his fight, the young Scottish student, Bruce, encountered a struggle big with consequences both to his own career and to the Church of his native land. The great baffles of history have been fought in the intellect and the heart. It was a struggle of this kind which went on within the soul of Bruce on a summer night of the year 1581, as he lay in the New Loft Chamber of his father's castle. There is an inscription shown to this day upon the wall of one of the vaults upon which the castle stands, "Let tham say, 1581." It is strange that this was the very year of Robert Bruce's memorable conflict and decision. The sculptured motto upon yonder wall may be regarded as his testimony, on the night when, defiant of training and tradition, he cut his way through every barrier, and was obedient to the heavenly voice. Many tides of invasion have beaten against the rock of Airth; the most insidious of them all, threatening to sap the independence of the Scotch Church and to replace the fetters of Rome, was that tide of alien Episcopacy against the inroads of which Robert Bruce from the first to the last of a long career opposed himself. What he stood for was in its essence freedom of conscience and the liberties of the people; and it must be the verdict of history that he did not make his stand in vain. Vanished from the earth are all those bright dames and bold knights who once on a time occupied so proud a place in the activities of this realm; yet unquenched to the present hour in its essentials is the conten tion of our stout-hearted Reformer. We have entered into possession of that spiritual freedom which he and his comrades suffered to secure. Such men as these are the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, into the shelter of which many creep as to their hiding-place. They are knots upon the thread of a nation's progress. They have laboured, and we are entered into their labours.