Bannockburn: 1314 and all that

The 700th anniversary of the Battle occurs on June 24. There have been some articles and programmes already about this decisive victory of Bruce and his Scottish forces over a larger English army under Edward II. It did not quite mark the end of the struggle for Scottish independence but certainly it was something of a turning point.

Thursday, 5th June 2014, 8:00 am
Statue of Robert the Bruce.

Doubtless there will be more articles and programmes about this battle fought near Stirling on St. John’s Day (i.e. John the Baptist).

There’s an old rhyme that runs: “As I was going down the stair I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish that man would go away!”

A very notable Man of the Mearns wasn’t there on the battlefield – he was in prison in England though in a way he was there! That man was Robert Wishart – a real thorn in the side of the English kings and a valiant and consistent supporter of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

George Wishart of Pittarow in Fordoun Parish, the scholar, preacher, reformer, friend of John Knox, martyred in 1546 at St. Andrews, is deservedly remembered but Robert Wishart is undeservedly forgotten. Yet, in truth the survival and security of Scotland was in part due to him. As far as the English kings were concerned this man, with his stubborn opposition to their policies of domination, just wouldn’t go away. If men like Sir James of Douglas and Andrew of Moray were prominent among Bruce’s right hand men, Robert Wishart of Conveth was perhaps the most prominent among his “left hand” men!

Robert Wishart was Bishop of Glasgow for a long time (1273 to 1316) but his origin was at Conveth (an old name for Laurencekirk, or maybe more exactly, an older nearby parish like Haukertoun). We know almost nothing about his birth save that of the old place name. The surname “Wishart” under various spellings : Guiscard, Wiscard, Wyshart etc is Norman-French in origin and basically means “cunning,” other suggestions are “wise heart.” Robert seems to have fulfilled the former meaning.

His uncle, William, had been Chancellor of Scotland and Bishop of St. Andrews. A degree of nepotism meant that several of the name filled top posts in the nation, e.g. in the 1290s a Thomas was Dean of Glasgow, a John most possibly archdeacon there, while a William was archdeacon of Teviotdale. For many centuries, churchmen - the most literate and best educated men of the age - held leading roles in state affairs

Doubtless due to ability and good connections, Robert not only became a bishop but after the death of Alexander III in 1286, he emerged as one of the strongest prelates. He was appointed one of the “Twelve Guardians of the Realm, helping to negotiate the betrothal of Margaret “the Maid of Norway” and royal princess to the child prince Edward of Caernarfon (the future Edward II).

That said, and with the death of the Maid and the threat of English domination, Robert Wishart became a great supporter, at times in armour, of Wallace and Bruce. He granted absolution to the latter for the 1306 assassination of his rival John Comyn; he participated in Bruce’s coronation - even supplying suitable vestments for the king.

Time and again, this cunning man with a fertile man, an eye to the main chance and the cause of Scotland, had to bend, swearing under pressure fealty to Edward I and Edward II, whom he exasperated, but he never broke!

He was imprisoned for eight years in England until after Bannockburn – he escaped a certain execution because he was a churchman; besides, the Pope though generally pro-English gave some protection – aged and going blind Wishart was exchanged after the Battle for the Earl of Hertford (a sign of Wishart’s importance) to die in 1316.

He was buried in Glasgow Cathedral where his supposed effigy (though sadly defaced) can be seen. He was quite a man – somewhat “invisible” to many historians but certainly “aye there” – a real pain and problem to the English Edwards. A former historiographer-royal and the great authority on Bruce,, G.W.S.Barrow, describes this “son of the Mearns” as “indisputably one of the great figures in the struggle for Scottish independence, the statesman in the period (1286-1291), the patron and friend of Wallace and Bruce, the persistent opponent of Plantagent pretensions, an unheroic hero of the long war”.