Me and Robert the Bruce

by Memoir Mentor on July 7, 2014


I’m embarrassed to admit I never heard of Robert the Bruce until I saw the 1995 Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, the Academy Award-winning biopic of thirteenth-century war hero William Wallace.

Raibeart Bruis, as he was known in Norman French, was more of a peripheral character in Gibson’s story, though Wikipedia says Robert the Bruce was one of the most famous warriors of his generation, eventually leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. He’s a national hero. The First King of Scotland. Who knew? As I said, I didn’t. I guess my attention was diverted by Gibson’s magnificent calves in his Braveheart kilt.

Flash forward a few years to about 2010. I was hunting through “Ancestry” one day and began looking more seriously at my Willoughby line. (Aside: Mary Jane Willoughby married John Ornduff. Their daughter Mary married Joseph Parrett, the Civil War ancestor I profiled in The Parrett Migration.) Anyway, the Willoughbys had always intrigued me because they were more illustrious by a long shot than the crop of farmers and coal miners that mostly people my family tree. Andrew Willoughby I (there are three Andrews, father, son, and grandson, and my line runs through all three), is sometimes called one of the founding fathers of Abingdon, Virginia, an early, thriving community in southwest Virginia. The three Andrews owned scads of land in Washington County and in Eastern Tennessee, particularly the Knoxville area, and are mentioned in a slew of documents, land records, town minutes, etc. After my experience piecing together the Parrett story from the few records that mention them, the Willoughby record coffers look like the mother lode.

The eldest Andrew, purportedly an Irish immigrant, married Elizabeth Wallace in Pennsylvania in 1750, about a quarter century before the Revolutionary War. Elizabeth Wallace, it turns out, descends from families named Maxwell, Douglas, Mongomery, Edmonstone, and Stewart, specifically two Robert Stewarts/Stewards, known as Robert II and Robert III, the second and third kings of Scotland. Robert the First, aka Robert the Bruce, may be my SOMETHING-TEENTH-GREAT-GRANDFATHER. Again, who knew?Robert-The-Bruce

Now, I’m always a little skeptical of online claims of family pedigrees that lead to royalty or folks like Attila the Hun or Joan of Arc. And I’m right in doing so. My husband says he’s found pedigree charts that link the Thurstons to the Norse god Thor, complete with Thor’s birth and death dates!

Still, it’s nice to ponder a possible family link with The Bruce, as he’s also sometimes called. Makes me stand a little taller in my shoes and all that. Some folks online have posted information that, if I calculate correctly, has me descending from the only offspring of Robert the Bruce and his first wife, Isabella of Mar—their daughter Marjory Bruce, who married Walter Stewart, Sixth High Steward of Scotland. The line descends from there, through assorted, kings, earls, barons and….


It seems that when Robert the Bruce died in 1329, he was fifty-four, a long life for that era. Besides all the amazing stories that exist that tell of his military conquests and reign as Scotland’s king, there are some especially intriguing ones—some would call them morbid—that involved his body after his death. Prior to dying, he purportedly requested that his heart be removed from his body after death, then embalmed and borne by a noble knight in a crusade against the infidels, the Saracens, before being buried in Melrose Abbey in Scotland. (Photo at the right shows his heart’s resting place.) It didn’t happen exactly as he envisioned, though almost. The true story is far more jaw dropping. You can read the gory details here. Talk about a brave heart!

I have plenty of Scottish ancestry on both sides of my family tree. Until recently, I’ve primarily focused my attention on my mother’s heritage, because her parents, a Scottish coal mining family, emigrated from Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1920, and I knew a lot about them. They came from many generations of coal miners, farmers and stocking makers. I wrote a family history about my maternal heritage in 1996 and published it in a book with a plaid-fabric cover. I’m proud to be descended from these hard-working, sacrificing people. I’ve always said, “I’m glad to be plaid.”

It would be more than another decade before my attention turned to my Scottish heritage on my paternal side of the family, where I discovered…Robert the Bruce. Like I said, who knew?