Battle of Bannockburn narrated by Our Chief, The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine KT
Bannockburn June 1314 Bruce's address to his captains before The Battle of Bannockburn
Original written by John Barbour c. 1375
And certis me think well that ye
Forout abasing aucht to be
Worthy and of gret vasselagis
For we haff thre gret avantagis
The fyrst is that we haf the rycht
And for the rycht ay God will fycht.
The tother is that thai cummyn ar
For lyppynyng off thar gret powar
To sek us in our awne land,
And has brocht her rycht till our hand
Ryches into sa gret quantit´e
That the pourest of you sall be
Bath rych and mychty tharwithall
Giff that we wyne, as weill may fall.
The thrid is that we for our lyvis
And for our childer and for our wyyis
And for our fredome and for our land
Ar strenyeit in bataill for to stand,
And thai for thar mycht anerly
And for thai let of us heychtly
And for thai wad distroy us all
Mais thaim to fycht, bot yeit may fall
That thai sall rew thar barganyng.
And certis I warne you off a thing
That happyn thaim, as God forbed,
Till fynd fantis intill our deid
That thai wyn us opynly
Thai sall off us haf na mercy,
And sen we knaw thar felone will
Me think it suld accord to skill
To set stoutnes agayne felony
And mak sa-gat a juperty.
Quharfor I you requer and pray
That with all your mycht that ye may
That ye pres you at the begynnyng
But cowardys or abaysing
To mete thaim at sall fyrst assemble
Sa stoutly that the henmaist trymble
And menys of your gret manheid
Your worschip and your douchti deid
And off the joy that we abid
Giff that us fall, as well may tid,
Hap to vencus this gret bataill.
In your handys without faile
Ye ber honour price and riches
Fredome welsh and blythnes
Giff you contene you manlely,
And the contrar all halily
Sall fall giff ye lat cowardys
And wykytnes your hertis suppris.
Ye mycht have lyvyt into threldome,
Bot for ye yarnyt till have fredome
Ye ar assemblyt her with me,
Tharfor is nedfull that ye be
Worthy and wycht but abaysing ...
... Giff ye will wyrk apon this wis
Ye sall haff victour sekyrly.
Modern English version
I think indeed that you
Ought to be without timidity,
Worthy, and of great prowess;
For in three ways we have the edge:
The first is, that right is on our side
And God will always fight for the right.
The second is, they have come here
Trusting in their great power
To seek us in our own land;
And have brought here, right to our hands
Riches in such great plenty
That the poorest of you shall be
Both rich and powertul as well,
If we win, as well may happen.
The third is that for our lives
And for our children and our wives
And for our freedom and for our land
We are bound to stand in battle.
And they for their power only,
And because they think scornfully of us
And because they would destroy us all,
Makes them fight; but it may yet happen
That they will rue confronting us.
And indeed, I warn you of one thing
That if it happens that they (God forbid)
Find us fainthearted in our acts
So that they beat us openly
They will have no mercy on us.
And since we know their wicked will
I think it would suit our skill
To set bravery against cruelty
And make our fighting stand in that way.
Therefore I ask and beseech you
That with all the strength that you can muster
At the beginning you get ready
Without cowardice or holding back
To meet those that reach you first
So stoutly that the hindmost tremble.
And think of your great valour
Your courage, and your doughty deeds
And of the joy that waits for us
If it befalls, as well may be,
That we happen to defeat this great host.
In your hands, without fail,
You bear honour, reputation and riches
Freedom, wealth and happiness,
If you carry yourselves like men;
And exactly the opposite
Will befall if you let cowardice
And wickedness take over your hearts.
You could have lived in serfdom,
But, because you yearned to have freedom
You are gathered here with me;
So it is needful that you be
Strong and bold and without fear ...
... If you will behave in this way
You win surely have victory.
Legacy of the Bruce
Among the many illustrious members of the Family of Bruce, none is more famous than the
warrior king, Robert I, known simply as "The Bruce." Subsequent to taking the throne and after many years of struggle against, not only the English, but also some of his own countrymen, The Bruce led Scotland from under the yoke of its southern brethren at the Battle of Bannockburn and cementing the independent sovereignty of Scotland. After seizing the throne in 1306, The Bruce met with a number of defeats at the hand of Edward I. He barely escaped to an island off the west coast of Scotland where he bid his time, waiting for the right opportunity. It was while in hiding that the famous story of his studying the efforts of a spider in a cave occurred. While watching the spider continue to try to swing from one wall to the next to build its web, The Bruce learned a valuable lesson about perseverance. It is said that the phrase, If at first you dont succeed; try, try again was coined from this experience.
Further, as a spider modifies its web to fit into the area in which it finds itself, Robert also learned to adapt his fighting style to match his assets and circumstances. Robert knew that he had little chance of defeating the English in a structured, pitched battle. He lacked the proper resources. However, if he practiced what we now know as guerrilla tactics, he could make surgical strikes of growing importance. This he did through 1313 and, in doing so, had conquered virtually every important fortification in Scotland, save one - Stirling Castle.
Robert's brother, Edward, had negotiated a deal whereby, the castle would be surrendered
to the Scots if it was not reinforced within a year. Unfortunately, this deal gave the English what they had been unable to compel - require Robert to engage in a formal battle. Further, it allowed the English to prepare a large invasion force to hopefully deal the insurgent Scots a crushing blow. Luckily, times and circumstances were not completely stacked against The Bruce. His former friend and, later, bitter adversary, Edward I, had died, leaving an inexperienced son in his stead. Also, since Robert was under an excommunication from the Pope, Scotland proved to be a safe haven for a strong, wealthy, and disciplined military order also at odds with Rome - the Knights Templar. These two factors, along with the time to prepare before Edward II's advance, proved to be critical in Scotland's War for Independence.
Although his personal courage was not in question, Edward II was not the general his father was. Not only did he fail to realize how to effectively use his forces, especially his archers and cavalry, but he never clearly established a chain of command amongst his nobles. As a result, the nobles spent almost as much time and energy battling for position with their king as they did in preparation for battling The Bruce. Thus, Edward II was unable to capitalize on his numerous advantages over the Scots.
One of the most controversial theories concerning Bannockburn was the battle that the Knights Templar may have played in this drama. The Knights Templar were originally established as a result of the Crusades. In 1118, nine Crusaders founded The Order of Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. The order was established to keep the highways safe for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Although the individual knights took an oath of chastity and poverty, the Order became extremely wealthy and powerful.
Additionally, the Knights earned a reputation as ferocious warriors, obligated to fight to the death and never to retreat. In fact, their distinctive badge, the splayed red cross, was worn on the fronts of their surcoats only. They wanted their foes to always see the cross, so they would never turn their backs in retreat. Further, by the thirteenth century, the Templars were believed to possess magical powers, a myth that generated great fear and skepticism among the general populace. The Templars then became the first standing professional army in Christendom - another factor creating great fear among others. Nonetheless, Pope Innocent II in 1139 issued a Bill that the Templars were
responsible only to the pope; not subject to any other secular or church authority. Thus, so long as the Knights were needed in the Holy Land, there was little to fear on the home front.
This changed. As a result of the fall of Jerusalem in 1291, the Templars moved their
headquarters to Cyprus and obliged to find another reason for their existence. By 1306, it was rumored that they intended to establish an independent kingdom in southern France. This was not a welcome development for Philippe IV of France and there was a major power play between the Knights Templar and Philippe. A propaganda campaign depicting the Knights as heretics was begun in earnest and Philippe, playing upon the fear and jealousy of the Templars as well as the overall malaise at the Christians being expelled from Jerusalem (which the Templars were sworn to defend), persuaded Pope Clement V to excommunicate all Templars for heresy. The Order was officially dissolved in 1312 and all secular authorities were empowered to arrest the Templars.
In March 1314, the last Grand Master of the Order of Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple, Jacques DeMolay, was roasted to death over a slow fire on the Ile de Seine. Obviously, the remaining knights needed sanctuary. Scotland fit the bill perfectly. In fact, the Templars already owned considerable properties in Scotland and, with Edward II's outstanding order to arrest all Templars, relocating to Scotland was a logical choice. That the Templars should safely remain in Scotland was further aided by two other factors. First, in 1309, Edward II ordered his appointed Guardian of Scotland, Sir John de Segrave, to arrest all Templars in Scotland and report them to the Inquisitor's Deputy. This deputy was Bishop William Lamberton of St. Andrew's who, while paying lip service to the English king, was totally loyal to The Bruce.
Second, Robert himself had been excommunicated by the pope as a result of an incident
with Red Comyn at Greyfriar's Abbey in 1306. Although The Bruce desperately wanted to reconcile himself with Rome, he wanted to be King of an independent people more. Further, as a result of his strained relationship with the pope and the loyalty of the principal clergy in Scotland, Papal Bulls were never proclaimed in Scotland. Technically, since they had not been so proclaimed, the Templars had not been legally dissolved in Scotland. Thus, The Bruce had nothing more to lose by providing the Templars a safe haven in Scotland.
Archie McKerracher in his article, Who Won at Bannockburn? The Highlander, July/August, 1994, surmises the following scenario. In December 1309, Bishop Lamberton interrogated the two principal Templars in Scotland at Holyrood Abbey. However, instead of questioning them on charges of heresy, it is likely that he made them an offer they could not refuse, "Supply us with arms, money and expertise and we will give the Templars sanctuary in the only land
where the Pope's writ does not run." They apparently accepted this arrangement for, shortly
thereafter, arms began to arrive in great quantities and the Templars were the only ones with storehouses of weapons and the means to transport them to Scotland.
The matter of arms is another compelling indication that the Templars were involved with the Battle of Bannockburn. At the time in question, Scotland was a poor nation, especially having to bear the economical brunt of being at war with England for more than twenty years. Normally, each soldier had to provide his own armor and weapons. The typical Scot probably did not have much to aid him in this area. Yet, it was clear that the Scottish soldiers at Bannockburn were relatively well equipped. Given the fact that the Templars were extremely wealthy, had a great cache of arms, and the means to transport them, it is not a great stretch of imagination to suppose that they provided the necessary assistance. In the first weeks of summer in 1314, we found Robert the Bruce in earnest preparation for the imminent battle with Edward II, a battle for the very existence of an independent Scotland.
The previous year, Robert's brother, Edward, negotiated an agreement with the English who held the strategic center of Scotland, Stirling Castle. That agreement dictated a surrender of the castle to the Scots unless the English garrison was relieved by the next feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 1314. The strategic and political value of Stirling Castle made its relief by Edward II and the English host inevitable. The invading forces from the south have been estimated at approximately 100,000, including massive amounts of archers and light and heavy cavalry. The Scots had somewhere in the 30,000 range - mostly infantry with some light cavalry. These appeared to be seemingly insurmountable odds. Nonetheless, the Bruce had a number of advantages.
First, he could choose the battlefield, as well as his position therein. Second, he was fighting Edward II, not Edward I. Third, and sometimes underrated, the Scots were fighting at home for their homes. It has been said that the vast majority of the Scots fighting were landowners since it was felt that only those with a stake in the land could be trusted to fight for it.
Thus, we find the Bruce in June, 1314, preparing the battlefield on the northern banks of a
substantial side stream of the River Forth, the Bannockburn. The English, coming from Edinburgh, were marching from the south and the only way to reach Stirling before the appointed date was along an old Roman road. Although this was the only route for such a large contingent, it was less than an ideal pass.
Along this route, the Bruce had numerous pits dug, about 3 feet deep and a foot wide with
a stake in the middle and covered loosely with sod and/or branches. Additionally, he had a number of calthrops (iron triangles made so that one point was always pointing up) strewn about to lame oncoming horses. Although this could not stop an advance, it would greatly slow it down, leaving it vulnerable to counterattack and create confusion within an attack. To the east lay a carse, or bog.
This was large, low and open; all of which became very important. Consisting primarily of infantry, the Scots utilized a technique of placing a great number of men (upwards of 3000) very close together in the shape of a box. Each man carried a 14 foot long spear or pike. This formation was called a schilltron. It was extremely effective against cavalry
where the pikes were used to disable the oncoming horses and unseat their riders. Once on the ground, the rider was quickly engulfed and dispatched by the infantry. The Scots infantry was well trained and was able to move as one more quickly than one could realize.
The Scots army was located on higher ground in a wooded area called the New Park.
Initially, the Bruce set his forces in defensive positions waiting for the English to make their way through the pits and traps up the road toward Stirling. On June 23, Edward II sent two advance parties of cavalry to investigate the area around the New Park. The first party traveling up the Roman road was led by Sir Humphrey de Bohun, nephew of the Earl of Hereford. As luck would have it, he came across the Bruce himself, who was also inspecting his troops and the field. The Bruce had only a small contingent attending him. Recognizing the King of Scots and such a prime opportunity, de Bohun set his lance and began a charge.
The Bruce, on a smaller horse and wearing only mail for armor, was ill equipped to meet de Bohun in like fashion, took his battle axe and rode cautiously to meet de Bohun. Waiting until the last possible moment, he spurred his horse to the side, dodging the lance, and as de Bohun passed, he struck him with such force as to not only kill him instantly, but also to break his axe.
(This is probably the only supreme moment of personal combat of any sovereign of the countries of the British Isles.) The accompanying Scots ran off the remaining English, with the Bruce commenting on how he was sorry to have broken a perfectly good axe. The second English advance party was led by Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry de Beaumont. This party went a little further to the east from the first, along the carse road. As it approached, a schilltron under Thomas Randolph began to form from infantry pouring from the
trees. Sir Thomas Gray, a Yorkshire knight, argued with de Beaumont for an immediate attack. De Beaumont, confident that they could defeat this group of Scots, decided to wait until more of the Scots joined the field so that their would be more Scots casualties when the battle was joined. Gray attacked anyway and was immediately killed. Other knights also attacked, but not in any type of organized attack and, accordingly, were killed in turn. The English broke, most of which returned to the main English host. Edward II, seeing that a frontal assault on the Scots would be difficult at best, decided to attempt to flank the Scots to the east, following Clifford's route.
It was one thing for a small party of cavalry to skirt the New Park and avoid the carse; it was another to move an entire army into this open, inviting area. Still, Edward II moved his army across the Bannockburn and over to the east into the carse to begin their advance to Stirling. By the time all of the army crossed and shifted to the east, it was late in the day and time to set up camp. The intent was to begin the final assault in the morning. Edward could not have picked a worse place to camp. His men and horses were blocked to the rear and to their right by water and the land they occupied became a muddy bog.
They were also cramped, so not only were they hampered by being stuck in the mud, there was no room to maneuver. The Bruce quickly assessed the situation and quietly moved his troops from their defensive positions into place to meet the English before they could extricate themselves. The Bruce divided his infantry into four divisions. The center was commanded by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray.
To his left, the division was nominally led by the Steward, young James Stewart, but was
effectively headed by James Douglas and to his right, by Edward Bruce. The Bruce himself led a fourth division held in reserve. The cavalry, captained by Sir Robert Keith, the Marischal, was positioned to the far left to protect the Scots from an advance from Stirling Castle, as well as protect the exposed left flank.
In the predawn hours of June 24, the Scots received blessings from the clergy accompanying
them. They, then, quietly moved into position to attack the English before the English could realize their predicament. Still, before the Scots could actually meet the invaders, they had an opportunity to hastily draw up into two lines, the front line was made up of cavalry of approximately nine squadrons of 250 riders each. Nonetheless, the English were penned into a tight, muddy area severely limiting the ability of the cavalry to mount an organized, effective charge.
To the right, and opposite Sir Edward Bruce, the Earl of Gloucester impetuously attacked,
virtually alone. There are varying stories as to why Gloucester acted in such an undisciplined manner, but it pointed out the lack of a firm chain of command and battle plan by Edward II. Nonetheless, Gloucester attacked and was immediately killed. Edward Bruce's forces pressed the situation and advanced against the English. Upon seeing this, Randolph led the center and shortly thereafter, Douglas moved forward on the left so that the entire front was at issue. The Bruce kept his forces back a bit though they began seeing some action along the left flank. Still, the Bruce was most concerned with the English archers which to this point had not been effectively deployed. The archers would be utilized much like artillery and the Scots had virtually no defense against them. Edward I routinely used the archers to send wave upon wave of shafts into the Scots infantry to weaken them before committing his cavalry to finish the job. Edward II did not learn this lesson.
Finally, the archers attempted to move to the higher ground on the left. Once they were there, they began to unleash a deadly rain upon the Scots. The Bruce then quickly dispatched the cavalry under Keith. The archers had no defense and were quickly dispersed. Meanwhile the carnage below continued. Pressing the advantage of the field and the
inability of the English to mount an effective counterattack, the Scots were persevering, but the Bruce could see that the time would soon come where they would tire and the superior numbers of English may begin to turn the tide. It was at this time that he unleashed his surprise weapon - his reserves from a place in the rear called Gillies Hill. There are at least three versions of who made up these reserves.
The traditional story was that the reserves were a mass of camp followers and untrained, ill-equipped, common folk. Although there were supposed to be a quite large number of them, it is highly unlikely that the English, who were experienced soldiers, would be afraid of such as these, nor believe them to be a substantial new army. A second account, says that the reserves were an unknown number of highlanders. The highlanders were respected as fierce warriors and feared as barbarians by the English. Still, if confronted with an unorganized horde, the English may not feel sufficiently threatened to break and run. The third story is really a modification of the second.
This account has the highlanders being visibly led by members of the Knights Templar. As we discussed above, the appearance of the Templars was sufficient to put the fear of God into almost any man. Seeing them at the head of a horde of barbarian-like highlanders would be enough of a demoralizing event as to cause the English to abandon their fight a bid a hasty retreat. Thus, the Bruce committed his reserves. The English, feeling that all was lost, broke and ran. Many were killed in the retreat. Many were taken prisoner and ransomed. Edward II escaped and made his way back to England, but never made another real attempt toward Scotland in his lifetime. Scotland was free. The spirit of that freedom was eloquently stated a few years later in a letter to the pope called " The Declaration of Arbroath".
The most poignant passage is at the end:
... so long as there remain 100 of us alive, we will never give
consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For
it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honors, but it is liberty
alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose
but with his life.
- There are few references to draw upon to get an accurate picture of what happened
at Bannockburn. The two most traditionally authoritative are: The Lanercost Chronicles, written by Augustinian friars representing the English point of view, and The Brus, an epic poem by John Barbour telling the story from the Scots perspective. Neither of these resources mention the Knights Templar. However, since it would not have been politically astute to mention, much less glorify, an outlawed, and supposedly non-existent group, such an omission may not be hard to understand. Still, the presence of the Knight Templar is only a theory, and is one that is not widely supported, but certainly is plausible.
John Carlisle, editor, The Blue Lion
Man - James Bruce of Kinnaird
transcribed by John Carislie of our own "Blue Lion"
(The following is the
third installment of an article describing the life and
travels of James Bruce of Kinnaird. The primary source of
reference is Traveller
Extraordinary, The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird
by J.M. Reid.)
It is late 1768. To give
the reader a perspective of what was going on at that
In the Colonies -
The Stamp Act had been repealed, but the Townsend Acts
imposing a tax on imports to North America had taken its
place. The Mason-Dixon line had just established the
border between Pennsylvania and Maryland.
In Great Britain -
Joshua Reynolds was named the first president of the
Royal Academy. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was begun by
three Scots: Andrew Bell, Colin MacFarquahar, and William
On the European
continent - The Russo-Turkish War has been renewed by
Catherine the Great.
- While conducting the first French voyage around the
world, Louis Antoine de Bougainville claimed Tahiti for
In Africa - James Bruce began his journey into -
Bruce left Cairo by boat
up the Nile. Stopping in Thebes, the ancient capital of
Upper Egypt, he explored various nearby sites such as
Luxor and Karnak. He entered the Valley of the Kings and
examined a tomb, later identified as that of Ramses III.
There he found "a prodigious sarcophagus . . sixteen
feet high and six broad, of one piece of red granite . .
. I suppose the finest vase in the world." He was
fascinated by the frescoes, but since his guides were
afraid (of the murderous robbers in the region and of the
ghosts of the dead Pharaohs) his time at the site was
extremely limited. The fear was real for on the return
trip to the boat, he was ambushed and had to shoot his
way out to reach the vessel.
Then, he traveled to
Aswan, the location of the first cataract on the Nile.
Here, he once again acted as a physician treating the
Sheik of the Ababdeh - a great desert tribe. In
gratitude, the tribe swore to protect Bruce for as long
as one male child remained alive.
He doubled back to Kena
to begin his desert crossing to Koseir on the Red Sea. He
traveled with a caravan carrying corn to Mecca. Traveling
with a caravan was a necessity for protection from
various tribesmen. This party might well have been in
real danger if it were not for the promises of the
On April 5, 1769, Bruce
left Koseir to cross to the Red Sea. Even this portion of
his journey had a secondary purpose for he intended to
learn more about the navigation of the Red Sea. Up to
that time, British traders from India could only go as
far as Jidda, on the southern tip of the Red Sea. A route
to Suez would be extremely valuable. His book, with its
descriptions of harbors, channels and islands replete
with new calculations of latitude and longitude, became
the first scientifically reliable guide to this important
route. What was especially significant was that these
observations were fresh, i.e. he did not rely upon
earlier readings which would have merely perpetuated
To do this, Bruce
traveled north along the coast to the mouth of the Gulf
of Suez. Here they crossed to the Sinai and then hugged
the coast of Arabia to Yanbo. After a brief stop in
Yanbo, Bruce sailed into Jidda (now known as Jeddah).
Although on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, because of
the considerable trade between Jidda and Ethiopia, this
was the gateway to that isolated land. One of the
disadvantages of traveling "as a Turk," was the
occasional problem in convincing others who he truly was.
After a bit of work, Bruce made his presence known to the
right people and obtained letters and assistance for his
continuation into Ethiopia.
But, Bruce did not go
directly to Ethiopia. Instead, he went south to the coast
of Yemen and the Straits of Bab el Mandeb to see the
southern part of the Red Sea. After about two months of
charting the southern Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, Bruce
headed north to Luheia in Yemen. He picked up his guide
and headed across to the Ethiopian port of Massawa. He
was now at the end of the world that Europeans knew.
After two months of
political machinations by the ruler of Massawa, Bruce was
finally allowed to begin his journey into the interior of
Ethiopia. This journey was no cake walk either and the
easiest route was not necessarily the safest.
Before him rose three
ridges: in the foreground, broken foothills; above these,
a range of barer, more rugged heights; beyond this, sharp
mountains that appeared alpine. Even the lower levels
proved to be challenging, such as when a seemingly dry
creek bed saw a six-foot wall of water start cascading
towards Bruces camp. The next morning, the previous
torrent was no more than a trickle, a message about the
predictability and ferocity of the Ethiopian weather and
The Ethiopia of this era
was not like what Europeans were being introduced to from
other newly discovered areas, like the South Pacific.
These were not naive but moral "noble savages."
This was a land and culture more like the European Dark
Ages, almost feudalistic, where murder and war was as
much a political weapon as advertising is today. In
mid-eighteenth century Ethiopia, there were as many as
four main factions with an ever changing set of
alliances. Nonetheless, at the time of Bruces
arrival into Ethiopia, there appeared to be two main
camps: (1) the strongest local governor (Ras Michael)
with a young Emperor under his wing, and (2) the people
in the South called the Galla under a man named Fasil.
Bruce was entering a hall
of mirrors, where things may not be what they appear to
be and where any given situation could rapidly
deteriorate into one as slippery as a bald tire on black
ice. Only here, one misstep could be followed by death.
destination was Gondar, the only city in Ethiopia and its
erstwhile capital. This was the center stage of a soap
opera to beat all soap operas. And after three months of
hardships and an altogether painful journey through this
hostile land, on February 14,1770, Bruce was at last in
sight of Gondar.
Although arriving in
February, it was not until late May 1770 before Bruce
made his first trip to Lake Tana. Instead, he spent his
first three months living in court, observing (yet
staying relatively clear of) political machinations that
would have given Machiavelli reason for concern. Still,
this trip only brought him close to his ultimate
destination for he had to return to the safety of Gondar
and away from impending rains which could have trapped
him in a very hostile environment. It would not be until
October 20, 1770, before Bruce would set out for what he
thought was the source of the Nile.
This final trip from
Gondar, though less than a hundred miles, contained that
most dangerous obstacle - the rebel faction marching in
the direction from Lake Tana to Gondar. Bruce met the
leader of the rebels and after a few audiences with him
and an impressive display of horsemanship, he ingratiated
himself with these savages. The leader pledged his
support for Bruces safety and detailed some of his
soldiers to travel with and protect him.
Finally, in early
November 1770, Bruce reached three springs within a small
island in the middle of a marshy spot. In respect for the
local custom (and, thus, for his own safety), he removed
his shoes and ran to these "coy fountains," the
source of the Blue Nile. Taking a cup made from a
coconut, he drank a toast to King George III. Twenty
years later, he wrote of his thoughts at reaching his
Kings had attempted
this discovery at the head of armies, and each exhibition
was distinguished from the last only by the difference of
the numbers that perished, and agreed only in the
disappointment which had uniformly, and without
exception, followed them all. Fame, riches and honour had
been held out for a series of ages to every individual of
those myriads . . . without having produced one man
capable of gratifying the curiosity of his sovereign, or
wiping off the stain upon the enterprise and abilities of
Then, he remembered that
his journey was only half completed for he still faced
the precarious adventure of returning. As difficult as it
was to reach this place, could he expect it to be any
less difficult to return? Still, now was not the time to
become laden with depression. Bruce had reached his
quest, he found the source he was looking for. (Only
later, was it determined that the true source of the Nile
was the source of the White Nile.)
He spent five days
mapping out the area, describing its flora and fauna and
learning from an old priest the nature of river worship
that he believed to be as old as ancient Egypt herself.
The area was called Gish and there was an abandoned
church nearby, St. Michaels. (The church had
been built by Ethiopian Christian missionaries.) One
hundred and fifty years later, a British consul found the
church, in use again, and it was known as St. Michael
Zarabruk and wondered if the second of these names meant
that Bruce had been transformed into an Ethiopian saint.
On November 10, Bruce
left Gish returning to Gondar; returning to yet another
round of seemingly ceaseless civil war.
(The following is the fourth of five installments of an article describing the life and travels of James Bruce of Kinnaird. The primary source of reference is Traveller Extraordinary, The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird by J.M. Reid.)
It has been eight years since the beginning of James Bruce's extraordinary adventure. Starting with the preparation in late 1762 through Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Crete, Syria, Arabia and, finally, Ethiopia itself, Bruce had reached his ultimate goal C the source of the (Blue) Nile. Still, all of this would have gone for naught if he could not return and persuasively tell his story. But, first it was finally time to go . . .
Out of Africa
Ethiopia was in the midst of yet another round of its seemingly perpetual civil war as Bruce returned to the city of Gondar. The fact that Bruce was able to survive the various coups and counter-coups was a testament to his diplomatic abilities. Bruce was, however, in a unique position of being able to maximize his considerable talents in this strange land.
Bruce was a man of apparent contradictions. He was a veritable giant of a man who unflinchingly displayed his personal bravery whenever necessary. He possessed unsurpassed horsemanship and marksmanship with weapons that were unequaled in this land. Yet, he was also a man known in this land as much for his prowess at healing as for his potential to inflict death. He was an outsider who spoke their tongue and possessed great knowledge, yet did not try to convert them to his world and its mores. But, perhaps his greatest survival skill was his ability to convince all of the various warring factions that he would not take sides within their struggles. With the exception of certain religious leaders who were convinced that Bruce would try to convert the people to Catholicism (an absurd notion since Bruce was a staunch Protestant and was certainly no missionary), each faction wanted the help of Yagoube – Bruce's Turkish name.
Bruce arrived in Gondar at Christmas-time 1770. Gondar was at the center of yet another struggle for power and Bruce had to play "Switzerland" once again. For a full year, Bruce remained in Gondar assisting the Emperor survive the machinations among those who would rule under his aegis. It seemed that the real battles were between the elements who wanted to be at the Emperor's right hand. Still, it was dangerous indeed and Bruce's life was in peril on numerous occasions. Bruce's artist/ companion, Luigi Balugani, was not so lucky. He died waiting to leave. But, by Christmas 1771, the war drums were silent, the power was stabilized for the moment, and Bruce was finally in the position to begin his return home.
Bruce left Gondar with three Greeks, an old Turkish janissary from Cairo, a Copt who was going to Sennar and a few Ethiopian servants in charge of the mules which carried the baggage. This was a feeble party for the beginning of what was to be the most dangerous and exhausting part of all of his travels. His plan was to travel west to Ras el Fil, a province the Emperor had at one time given to Bruce to govern, albeit in name only. From there, he would travel through the burning Sudanese lowlands to Sennar on the banks of the Blue Nile. Next, he would make his way to the White Nile near modern Khartoum and then, partly by river but mostly through desert, to Aswan in Egypt. All in all, this trip would total some 1200 miles, the worst parts of which were unknown to European travelers.
It took the better part of two months' journey to reach the village at the center of Ras el Fil now known as Gallabat, but then known as Hor Cacamoot – "the Valley of the Shadow of Death." This was an ominous sign for Bruce fell deathly ill with dysentery in this stifling heat. He stayed here for another two months before he could resume his journey to Sennar on the Blue Nile. On March 18, 1772, Bruce and his party finally departed Ethiopia, en route to Sennar, the capital of the Kingdom of the Fung.
The first part of this leg was to go through the province of Atbara whose Governor was Sheikh Fidele. Fidele lived in Teawa, now known as Gederaf. Fidele had advised Bruce this was the safest route and that guides from the rulers in Sennar would meet Bruce in Teawa. All of these plans hinged upon the word of Fidele -- that he would protect Bruce in his journey to Teawa.
The Fung Kingdom of Sennar was a strange and mysterious land. Indeed, some things in its history are still uncertain; Bruce himself was the first traveler to give a reasonably clear account of it to the West. A few Europeans had, indeed, visited it before him, some on their way to Ethiopia, but these travelers had not been fortunate. If Sennar was remembered in Europe, it was for the murder of the French envoy to Gondar in 1705.
It could be said that the kingdom lived by flies, which were at once the greatest curse of its nomad herdsmen and a main foundation of its rulers' authority and wealth. Bruce was the first Westerner to describe the insect, which the Ethiopians knew as tsaltsalya and the Arabs as zimb or seriut. (This was not the tsetse, whose characteristics and effects were examined a century later by Sir David Bruce.) This infamous fly was said to be a bit larger than a bee with a hairlike triple proboscis about a quarter-inch long. As soon as the tropical rains began, great swarms of these flies appeared wherever the earth of the Sudanese plain and Ethiopian borderland was fertile and loamy. When their buzzing was heard, cattle and camels ran wildly to avoid them. The flies attacked these animals to suck their blood and infected them with a disease, so that the "body, head, and legs swell out into huge bosses which break and putrefy, to the certain destruction of the creature." To escape this, the tribesmen were forced to leave these lands and head into the desert. To do this, they had to pass certain checkpoints which allowed the rulers to exact their taxes and control their kingdom.
It had taken Bruce a week to travel 65 miles through the desert before arriving at Teawa. However dangerous the trip had been, it paled when compared to the treachery that awaited Bruce by the faithless Fidele. Fidele attempted to extort gold from Bruce, which Bruce said he did not have. When this blackmail failed, he made indications that he would kill Bruce, but Bruce was ready and backed Fidele down. Finally, Bruce got a messenger both to Sennar and to Ras el Fil so that help arrived to ensure that Bruce could move on. This he did on April 17, 1772.
But Sennar, though a great city for its time, was far from Eden. In fact, living was difficult at best and was maintained by a continuous stream of slaves coming in from the South. The people of Sennar hated strangers, especially white men. So, Bruce was once again on guard. It was now April 30, 1772, and Bruce had gone from the frying pan and into the fire.
It seems that intrigue was every bit a part of life in Sennar as it had been at Gondar, only Bruce had fewer allies and dwindling resources. As in Ethiopia, the titular head was not necessarily the power in the land and there were others waiting for the right time to stretch out for more power. Again, Bruce had to use his wits, diplomacy and an occasional show of his own personal might to survive. He escaped more than one attempt on his life. Finally, using a ruse of going to plead for the life of one of the king's men held by another strongman in the kingdom, Bruce was able to leave Sennar. It was now September 5, 1772.
The party accompanying Bruce had dwindled to four -- the three Greeks and the Turk, Hadji Ismael. It was a minute party to traverse some 800 miles along a scarcely known route. One of the Greeks was half-blind and Hadji Ismael was elderly. Four of the camels were fully loaded so, until they reached the desert, they took turns riding the camel. Once they reached the desert, they would all have to travel on foot.
The first portion of this leg was pleasant enough. The land was a green plain, water was plentiful, and no unwelcome surprises met them. After about three weeks, Bruce reached the White Nile. He realized that this was very deep and kept its flow much more constantly than the Blue Nile. Still, Bruce felt that the Blue Nile, which brought the floods from Ethiopia, must be the main stream.
By October 5, Bruce had reached the village of Shendi, just beyond the convergence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. When he arrived, the local populace believed that his arrival at the same time that Venus remained visible in the daylight was a bad omen. When Bruce brought out his instruments to view and record this phenomenon, they became more agitated. However, Bruce was able to convince them that this could be a good sign and the people were greatly relieved.
Here he waited for some time until he could locate a guide to take him to Aswan. Bruce had decided to take the most direct route although it requires a trek of 500 miles across the desert going from well to well, braving sandstorms, plundering nomads, and the deadly simoom. The simoom was like experiencing the blast furnace from Hell itself -- a searing wind that could burn one's lungs if not prepared. Even if one were ready, the simoom was one of the most deadly encounters Bruce was to endure.
The little caravan left Shendi and traveled along the Nile to the village of Berber, passing the ruins of Meroe, the ancient Nubian capital. Bruce apparently was the first Westerner to recognize this. Then, they were ferried across the last of the Nile's great tributaries, the Atbara river, which Bruce had known in Ethiopia as the Takazze. When the Nile began its northwesterly turn, Bruce and his party headed into the desert.
There were now nine travelers: Bruce, the three Greeks, Hadji Ismael, the guide Idris, a young relation of the guide who joined them at Berber, and two Nubians to take care of the camels. As they were preparing to leave, they were joined by a half dozen poor Negro pilgrims from Western Sudan, much to the dismay of Bruce. He was concerned that they were so ill-prepared that they would either die of thirst or tax his own resources to the breaking point. Nonetheless, on November 11, 1772, Bruce and his party left the Nile and headed into the desert.
They were far into the desert when they encountered their first sandstorm. The wind lifted great pillars of sand at different distances and they seemed to dance around, a deadly dance from which there was no escape. Most of Bruce's companions were horrified and depressed the next morning for they found themselves half-buried in the wind-blown sand as they slept. They were further terrified because one of the West Africans had opened a waterskin during the night and it had almost emptied itself. They thought that their greatest fear was of thirst and it was staring right at them now. They were mistaken. The simoom was approaching.
After another night of rest, the caravan had regained some of its spirits. They had passed a day without the sand-pillars and they knew that before long they could see the top of the hill of Shikrib, where they would find the next wells. But as they looked toward it, Idris the guide cried, "Fall down on your faces. Here is the simoom!"
A haze appeared from the southeast, "in color like the purple part of the rainbow, but not so compressed or thick." The heat struck them even before they could lie down and hide their faces. It was almost suffocating, even when the strange haze in the air had passed. "For my part," writes Bruce, "I found distinctly in my breast that I had imbibed part of it, nor was I free from an asthmatic sensation till I had been some tome in Italy, at the baths of Poretta, near two years afterwards."
Terror and despair gripped these pilgrims, but Bruce, showing his own personal courage, rallied his companions on toward Shikrib. Bruce's own condition shocked them into action. His face was so swollen that he could scarcely see, his neck was covered in blisters and his feet were inflamed and bleeding. Bruce's companions pleaded with him to take better care of himself, for they did not want to lose their leader. Still, Bruce refused to ride upon a camel; they were too important.
Late that evening, and moving very slowly, they came to the narrow rocky gorge where the ten wells of Shikrib lay. The water had to be filtered through cloth, but there was plenty of it. Yet, they were only about halfway between Berber and Aswan.
Two days from Shikrib, they found another well at Tarfawi. Bruce, his feet swollen "to monstrous size," stayed behind with the camels while the others went to fill the waterskins. Here he encountered, and frightened off, his first nomad tribesmen trying to steal his camels. The party quickly took up a defensive position for the rest of the night. To have come so far and endured so much, to be threatened by raiders . . . But, no attack came. Instead, Bruce, Ismael and the two Nubian camel drivers followed the footprints of the would-be thieves to confront them rather than be surprised later.
They found a family consisting of an emaciated man, two wives, and one infant. Though the others urged Bruce to kill them all before they could send for more of their tribesmen, Bruce had a different plan. The man would accompany Bruce and his party while the women and children would wait behind. Bruce left them with some food which, combined with the milk from their lame camels would be sufficient for a good while. The tribesman could be of use as a supplemental guide, especially if they ran into any of his tribe. Bruce promised him that if they reached Aswan safely, he would give the man some new clothes, some grain, and a camel to return to his family. This was not only humane; it was practical as well.
That day another simoom struck and one of Bruce's camels died. They cut the meat into strips and dried them to augment their food supply. Near the next well, they found the bodies of a man and two camels; shrunken by the heat, but untouched as nothing else alive was nearby to disturb them. Two mornings later, one of the West Africans went mad and he was left behind. That afternoon a second camel died. Real concern was weighing heavily on the dwindling caravan. Bruce began throwing away weighty items he felt he could spare.
One of the reasons Bruce had to wait in Berber for a guide was that a large caravan had left just two days before Bruce's arrival, taking the guides that were on hand. Bruce could now thank Providence that he had not joined that party for he came across the bodies of that ill-fated group, murdered by the tribesmen who had left Bruce's prisoner behind.
There was a wild duck at the next waterhole. Bruce frightened it so he could see if it would give him some idea of how far away from the Nile that they were. He lost sight of it as the duck rose to see where it needed to go, indicating that they, indeed, had far to go. Depression now became another obstacle to overcome.
Two days later, Bruce came upon another group of nomads, albeit friendly ones. Although they advised Bruce that they were but two days' ride from Aswan, they could not spare any camels regardless of what Bruce could pay for them. Two days' ride did not seem too bad, but they could hardly move at all much less ride. And their supplies were drawing dangerously low.
But after a night of bitter cold, the remaining camels could not be brought to their feet. There was nothing to be done but to abandon all of their possessions save their firearms. The camels were killed and some water was drained from their bodies. Then, they pushed on for Aswan.
Bruce was in despair. All of the fruits of his travels - his manuscripts and drawings, the records of his scientific observations - were to be left in the desert. The pride of his achievement which had buoyed him up for ten years was shattered. "I felt for my country," he writes, "that chance alone, in this age of discovery, had robbed her of the fairest garland of this kind she was ever to wear, which all her fleets full of heroes and men of science, in all the oceans they might be destined to explore, were incapable of replacing on her brow."
Two days later, Bruce though the landscape appeared similar to that around Aswan, but he did not see any confirmation that day. However, when he sat silently, he thought that he heard running water -- the famous First Cataract just above the town of Aswan. That night, they saw a flock of low flying birds obviously seeking food along the river banks. The end was in sight and their spirits soared above those birds.
At half-past ten the next morning, they stumbled into the outskirts of Aswan. Most of the party headed for the river to drink, but Bruce sank down under the shade of some palm trees and fell asleep. The impossible desert journey was over; from Berber to Aswan had taken just twenty days. It was now December 1, 1772.
After resting for a few days, Bruce borrowed some fast camels and recovered all of his baggage where he left it. It remained untouched. Then he kept his promise to the tribesman/prisoner and gave him clothes for his family, a load of millet and a camel. Now, it was off to Cairo by boat.
Physically, Bruce not only was recuperating from his ordeal in the desert, but he had contracted malaria and a rather nasty parasite, a guinea-worm, had taken residence in one of his legs. Still, he reached Cairo safely and, once there, was received by the Bey C the son-in-law of Ali Bey who had befriended Bruce at the beginning of his expedition.
Bruce, at an audience with the Bey in which the Bey felt he had to reward Bruce for some ill treatment, asked for and received some major trading concessions allowing direct trade of British ships from India to Suez. (Prior to this, all such trade had to be routed through Jidda with its accompanying high taxes.) This agreement was sealed on February 1, 1773. Although the agreement was nullified in April 1781, it had planted the seed as to what could be accomplished through the use of Suez rather than Jidda. In some ways this was carried forward to subsequent to the opening of the Suez Canal and its protection under the British Empire a hundred years later.
It has been a decade since James Bruce of Kinnaird said goodbye to his fiancé, Margaret Murray, and embarked upon this great adventure. Ten long years had gone by since he set forth to find fame and bring glory to king and country. He had reached his goal, brought back knowledge of far and foreign lands, and suffered greatly for his efforts. But the end was in sight; the prize had been won. It was time to reap his rewards. It was time to go home.
(The following is the fifth and final installment of an article describing the life and travels of James Bruce of Kinnaird. The primary source of reference is Traveller Extraordinary, The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird by J.M. Reid.)
It has been a decade since James Bruce of Kinnaird said goodbye to his fiancee,
Margaret Murray, and embarked upon this great adventure. Ten long years had gone by
since he set forth to find fame and bring glory to king and country. He had reached his goal, brought back knowledge of far and foreign lands, and suffered greatly for his efforts. But the end was in sight; the prize had been won.
It was time to reap its rewards and go . . .
Bruce headed for Alexandria where he found a French captain ready to sail. After
suffering through two serious storms in the Mediterranean, and suffering in pain from the worm in his leg, he finally reached Marseilles on March 25, 1773. However, he was now desperately sick. One attempt to remove the guinea-worm failed; the worm broke off and Bruce was in agony. The doctor in Marseilles recommended amputation, but under the
conditions of the day, that could also be a death sentence. So, Bruce decided upon
another radical treatment which, in the long run was successful, but left him weak and
limping for many months.
He had a plan. He would present himself as the faithful servant of King George
bringing both the glory of discovering the source of the Nile and countless gifts - his
manuscripts, his seeds of strange plants, his drawings of beasts, birds and fishes, his
account of exotic lands and peoples, and, for British traders, the privilege of direct access to Suez. He had already begun to record some of his experiences and historical conclusions during the time he was delayed in Sennar. This he would complete and publish.
Just as important to Bruce, he would rejoin his Peggy, the girl he left behind when
he began this great adventure, Margaret Murray had agreed to marry Bruce just before
he left and he was confident that she would be faithfully waiting for him. Though Bruce was cautious and pragmatic in his travels, occasionally his adventures seem to have had for him the quality of a long romance, reminding him of the fairy tales of armored warriors, strange kingdoms, bizarre beasts, wicked enchanters - the Naib, Abba Salama, and the faithless Fidele - and of places that lived under a malign spell like the deadly city of Sennar. Ten years earlier he had persuaded himself that it was for her sake that he was setting out to win fame in Africa. He felt sure of finding Margaret Murray again as he was that "the greatest King of the world" would recognize and reward the man who had been dismissed from his consul-generalship eight years before.
Among those who met Bruce upon his arrival at Marseilles was one of Bruce's
friends, the Comte de Buffon. Buffon had helped supply Bruce with scientific
instruments and was eagerly awaiting Bruce's reports. Bruce accompanied Buffon to Paris and gave him a full account. Buffon was so impressed that he wrote a glowing tribute to Bruce in his next volume of his Great History of Birds. This was a splendid endorsement of Bruce's achievements to Europe and particularly to Britain where Buffon's work was read and highly regarded.
Bruce was not yet ready to return home however. He was ill and in need of rest.
He was advised to go to the warm baths of Poretta in Italy where his worm-wounded leg
might be properly cured. Bruce spent two months here working on his uncompleted
drawings in the intervals of his medical treatments. The waters had done their job.
But, Bruce did not return home just yet. After delivering a letter from the French Foreign Minister to the French Ambassador to the Vatican, Bruce visited Horace Mann in
Florence. It was now November 1773, and it was here in Florence that Bruce learned that Margaret Murray was no longer waiting for him. Although he had sent a message to her from Cairo, she was not in Scotland to receive it.
It seems that some time after Bruce began his adventure, Margaret fell ill. Partly
to recover her health and partly to attempt to discover any information about Bruce, she was persuaded to go to Italy. While there, she heard a report that Bruce had been killed. After this, she met and eventually married an Italian nobleman, the Marchese Filippo Accoromboni.
One evening while at the theater in Florence, Bruce ran into Peggy - and her
husband. Margaret fainted, but Bruce was beside himself with feelings of hurt and
betrayal. He let his passions overrule his sensibility. The Marchese had no knowledge
of Bruce's "claim" and, in fact, Margaret thought him dead. Still, Bruce's pride was
wounded and it almost concluded in a duel. That was avoided, but the passionate
posturing by Bruce had given the local society a little something to chuckle about.
However, the laughter was generally friendly and Bruce remained a popular and
sought after guest. His stories of his African adventures were in great demand. A whole series of learned societies in Italy made him an honorary member. Pope Clement XIV received him and presented him with a number of gold medals struck during his
It was now time to return homeward. Yet, the story of his overly passionate quarrel
with the Marchese Accoromboni and some comic versions of his African stories traveled
before him to London. For some of those who would meet him, there was already a hint of violence and exaggeration in the name of James Bruce.
James Bruce finally returned to London on June 21, 1774, wondering not only
how he would be received, but how he would be compensated for his endeavors. Upon his
arrival, London was not indisposed to listen to him. Unfortunately, what was already viewed as a fantastic and perhaps exaggerated story was an easy target for further exaggerations which would lead into lampooning. His journey was a social sensation, but in the gossip of London society, it had also become a joke.
King George did receive him graciously enough. Bruce's drawings of classical architecture in North Africa were handed over to the royal collection. He reminded the King that all those who had arranged for this work - and had suggested proper rewards for it - were now dead. The King reassured Bruce, "I am alive and will not forget."
But, King George's world had moved on while Bruce traveled. It was not the King,
but the now deceased advisors, who had commended Bruce to discover the source of
the Nile. All that Bruce had discovered were now secondarily important to the monarch. A dozen years ago, the King's ministers were interested in creating an image of peaceful and glorious progress for George III's reign. Now, practical politics absorbed the King. Even when Bruce produced the agreement opening the Suez to British traders from India, the prime minister, Lord North, downplayed this accomplishment by saying he did not think the East India Company would find it particularly useful.
Altogether, Bruce's first weeks in London were disappointing. The self-confidence which, in a young man, had impressed people in power such as Chatham and Halifax, and had quelled or persuaded African rulers, was not so impressive in a burly Scots laird of forty-four, too obviously convinced that he knew more of the subjects he wanted to talk about than anyone else in Europe. Indeed, it could seem comic or simply rude. Bruce had gotten into the habit of dealing with men of authority as something more than an equal, in rank as well as in knowledge, but fashionable London not at all impressed by hints at his very distant descent from Scottish kings.
To further complicate Bruce's accounts was the fact that he was the only
witness to his own travels. What he had to say about feasts of raw meat, chieftains
draped in ox-guts, burning purple winds, the official king-killer of Sennar, and at least a dozen other things which no one in the rational eighteenth century had thought of imagining seemed, from the first, too much to be swallowed. Finally, when questioned, even by polite skepticism, Bruce was apt to withdraw into cold silence. As a darling of the dinner circuit, Bruce's career was to be short lived.
He still had to write his book and Bruce decided to return to Scotland before
this undertaking. While in Edinburgh on other business, Bruce reluctantly consented to
an interview with James Boswell, the biographer/devotee of Dr. Samuel Johnson
and also described as "an exceedingly distant cousin [of James Bruce] who was proud that the blood of Bruce flowed in his veins." By this time, the traveler had grown skeptical of journalists and tired of describing events to persons who had no understanding of the way of the world outside of Western Europe. The interview started with Bruce recounting the story of how a captain in Jidda refused to assist him - the captain's name was Boswell - and it went downhill from there. When you combine this with the fact that Dr. Johnson's previously written "authoritative work" about Abyssinia (written from third-hand accounts rather than his own travels)
was thoroughly rebutted by Bruce's first-hand descriptions, the resulting negative reports were almost inevitable. Boswell continued to write somewhat disparaging essays for the London magazines and, since Bruce had not published his own accounts as yet, the first impressions of Bruce to the general public were not favorable. In fact, his appearance and demeanor, as well as the wagging tongues of persons more concerned with appearing witty at the expense of truth, albeit fantastic in nature, created a public image of Bruce as nothing short of a liar. For all intents, Bruce retreated to his estate in Kinnaird and especially to a little spot near Loch Lubnaig called Ardwhillery (now called Ardchullarie) which reminded him of a place in Ethiopia.
On May 20, 1776, Bruce married Mary Dundas, the daughter of one of his neighbors
and a former rival for land in the area. These were happy times for Bruce and he spent most of his efforts about the business of his estate, especially its coal mining operations. But Mary Bruce died on February 10, 1785, and Bruce was alone again. He began to think again about the need to leave a great name behind him, to kill the idea that the story of his journey was no more than a romance. He engaged a secretary, William Logan, who was to remain with him for the remainder of his life, and set to work.
Working on this task with Bruce was no easy matter. Although he had journals and
other contemporaneous records of his years in Africa, Bruce chose to dictate for hours on end in an almost stream-of-consciousness style that interspersed aspects of
autobiography, geography, biology, botany, religion, history, scientific observations, and portraits of people. He tended to rely chiefly upon his prodigious memory which was vivid, but sometimes patchy. Finally, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile was published in five volumes in 1790.
Most of this edition was sold within thirty-two hours of its publication and was
translated into French and German. Cheap printed summaries were also published. But
all at once, the clouds which hovered over Bruce some fifteen years earlier appeared
once again. Bruce's stories seemed too strange to be true and became the butt for
professional humorists equating Bruce's Abyssinian travels with the adventures of
This was the end of ambition for James Bruce, or almost the end. Some learned
writers did praise and quote his book as the authoritative account of Ethiopia, the Sudan, and the Red Sea. His friends stood by him and pressed him for a new edition. He set about a revision, correcting points where his memory misled him, but this version was not published.
On April 26, 1794, while helping an elderly lady to her carriage at Kinnaird, Bruce
slipped and fell down six or seven steps to the floor. He had grown quite stout and his own weight knocked him senseless. He died the next morning.
James Bruce of Kinnaird was buried under a remarkably graceful obelisk (recently
restored by Lord Elgin, our Chief) beside the church at Larbert founded by one of his
ancestors. The inscription reads:
His life was spent in performing
useful and splendid actions;
He explored many distant regions,
He discovered the fountains of the Nile,
He traversed the deserts of Nubia.
He was an affectionate husband,
An indulgent parent,
An ardent lover of his country.
By the unanimous voice of mankind,
His name is enrolled with those
who were conspicuous
For genius, for valour and for virtue.
Bruce's son, James, thought the copyright to his father's Travels was a valuable piece of property. He reached and agreement with Archibald Constable to release a second edition and Alexander Murray was retained to edit the book. This second edition, published in 1813, has become the more definitive or authoritative of
Years later, subsequent incursions into the areas of Bruce's travels revealed that
much of his recollections were based in truth. Granted, there were some embellishments on his part, but time and time again aspects of his remarkable tales demonstrated more
substance than fantasy.
James Bruce of Kinnaird was a hero without his due recognition - a man who in
many ways was his own worst enemy. Most of all, Bruce was a man of abundant talent,
courage and ambition with the ego to support them all, including all of the foibles that such an ego brings. He accomplished more than his contemporaries gave him credit, but perhaps a bit less than in his own mind. Still, his deeds stand up under today's scrutiny. He truly was a Traveller Extraordinary.