The Douglas heart


In the early summer of 1329, Robert Bruce, King of Scots, lay dying.  He had been ill for some time and not even a pilgrimage in the spring to the shrine of Saint Ninian at Whithorn had eased his pain.  Robert had long hoped to go on crusade against the enemies of Christ.  He summoned the most powerful men of his kingdom and reminded them of his desire to go, like his grandfather, on crusade.  He asked that, after his death, his heart should be taken from his body, embalmed and carried on crusade by some worthy knight.  Among those at Bruce's bedside was James Douglas, his closest companion.  It was to this remarkable man that the task of carrying out Bruce's wish was given.

Robert Bruce died at the age of fifty-four, on June 7 1329.  His body was buried with suitable pomp in Dunfermline Abbey close by that of his wife, Elizabeth.  His embalmed heart was ready to begin its journey.  There was no prospect of going directly to the Holy Land, where there had been no Christian presence since the loss of Acre in 1291, but the infidel could be found in Spain, where Alfonso XI of Castile was about to campaign against the Moors.  It is likely that Douglas saw Spain as the first stage of a long journey for he had, we know, allocated seven years to the fulfilment of his promise to Bruce.  In the early spring of 1330, Douglas, with companions such as Robert and Walter Logan, William Keith, William Sinclair, and his brother John set sail from Scotland.  In a silver and enamel casket on a chain about his neck Douglas carried Bruce's heart.

At length, he reached Seville where he was welcomed by Alfonso.  Alfonso entrusted to Douglas the command of a division of his army in the campaign against the Moors of Granada.  The armies met outside the town of Teba de Ardales.  What followed brings us back to the flying heart of Drumlanrig Castle.  Douglas, known for his cautious and sensible methods in battle, for once forgot his military principles.  He allowed himself to be enticed into a reckless pursuit of a number of fleeing Moors.  He had been deceived by a tactic perfected by the Moors and cut off with three of his companions from the main flight.  Tradition has it that Douglas, realising that he could not escape, took Bruce's heart from the casket about his neck and flung it ahead of him into the midst of the Moors, crying: "Forward, brave heart, as ever thou were wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee or die".  That same tradition tells us that when Douglas' body was found after the battle by his grieving men, it was ringed by dead Moors.  Douglas had died in battle fighting with the fierce courage he had always displayed in the service of Robert Bruce.

Bruce's heart was brought back to Scotland by William Keith of Galston for burial in Melrose Abbey.  Douglas' bones, too, were returned to Scotland by William Keith and placed in the Church of St Bride in Douglasdale.  To this day, the motto of the Douglas family is 'Forward", an evocation of that cry by which the most celebrated bearer of the name guaranteed his lasting fame.