Robert Bruce, also known as Robert de Bruce, Robert the Bruce, Robert I King of Scots, King Robert, sometimes Earl of Carrick and Lord of Annandale.
“King Hood” the English called him. The outlaw king. All the more humiliating for its truth. Fewer than a hundred men remained of the proud force he thought capable of taking down the most powerful army in Christendom.
Even after the disaster of Methven, Bruce still held out hope. Then he met the MacDougalls at Dail Righ and suffered another devastating loss. In the hunt that followed, he was forced to separate from his wife, daughter, and sisters.
Less than six months after his coronation, they were a ragtag bunch of outlaws huddled together in caves. Weary, discouraged and feelings of hopelessness, Robert lay in the cave and noticed a big black spider on the wall above him. She seemed to be making a futile attempt to jump from one rocky ledge to another, but unable to grip the slick surface, she slid off and dangled by a single thread, swaying helplessly back and forth in the wind. Over and over she tried to build her web and failed, doomed to failure. He knew the feeling.
The spider tried again. This time she nearly succeeded in spanning the gap between the rocks with her silken thread, but was denied victory at the last moment by a sudden gust of wind. Bruce sighed with disappointment, strangely caught up with the spider’s hopeless efforts. Perhaps because they resonated. He closed his eyes and slept, too weary to do anything else.
The next morning Bruce opened his eyes to a beam of sunlight streaming through the cave. He looked at the rocks above his head and was amazed. Spanning about a twelve-inch space between two rocks was the most magnificent web he’d ever seen. The intricate threads of silk glistened and sparkled in the sunlight like a magnificent crown of thinly woven diamonds. She’d done it. The little spider had built her web.
Methven. Dal Righ. The deaths and capture of his friends. The separation from his wife. Maybe they weren’t God’s vengeance after all, but his test. And the spider was his messenger. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again. Words to live by.”
Perhaps one of the best-known legends about Robert the Bruce is the spider story. At least three caves in Scotland claim to be the location where this famous event took place, but Rathlin Island in Ireland seems to edge out the others as the favorite. The spider story is said to be the origin of the quote “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again.” Despite its pervasiveness, scholars question whether the event ever took place, attributing the story instead to Sir Walter Scott (who seems to be the source for so many of these kinds of legends).
Whether fact or fiction, the direness of Bruce’s situation at the time cannot be overstated. His reclaiming of his crown has to be one of the greatest “comebacks” of all time. Sir Herbert Maxwell summarized Bruce’s position in early 1307 this way: “He had not an acre of land he could call his own; three of his four brothers and most of his trusty friends had perished on the gibbet; of his other supporters nearly all had given up his service as hopeless, and reentered that of King Edward; his wife, his daughter, and his sisters were in English prisons.” (Evan MacLeod Barron, The Scottish War of Independence, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1914, p. 261.)
Bruce was crowned King Robert I at Scone by the Bishops of Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Moray, the most powerful churchmen in Scotland. In defiance of Edward Plantagenet, the north rose in his support. Sixteen earls from Perthshire, twelve each from Angus and Fife, eleven each from Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray, six from Lennox, four each from Stirling and Argyll, and one from Dunbarton declared for Bruce.
It was not until the decisive Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 that King Robert won Scotland’s independence.