Crowning of Ireland’s Last, Scottish High King

22 September 2015

By Seán Duffy, Professor of Medieval History

The Irish and the Scots may be deadly enemies at present as Scotland vies with the Republic in a life-and-death struggle for that vital third qualifying spot, behind Germany and Poland, for Euro 2016. But it was all so very different exactly 700 years ago this year. The year was 1315 and, yes, there was a life-and-death struggle underway involving the Scots and Irish but, in this earlier, real-life struggle, not only were they the very best of friends ― and their common enemy? Surprise, surprise, the English ― but the Irish had just set up a Scotsman as their high-king.

The Scot in question ― who would be Ireland’s last high-king ― was the younger brother of Robert the Bruce, fresh from his great victory over the English at Bannockburn. It may seem strange to us now that the Irish should choose a man from Scotland to follow in the footsteps of Brian Boru, but it only goes to show how closely entwined the Irish and the Scots were in medieval times. The very name ‘Scotland’ ― from Scotia, the ‘land of the Scotiis an ever-present reminder of that connection, because, in the Latin of the early Middle Ages, a Scotus was an Irishman, a Gael, and the homeland of the Scoti was Ireland. It was only when an Irish dynasty ― Dál Riata of Antrim ― gained ascendency in northern Britain, that it gradually became known as the land of the Scoti and therefore ‘Scotland’ was born.

But the idea that the Scots and Irish were a single people lasted long after Scotland began to emerge as a separate kingdom. Back in the year 1005, shortly after he became high-king of Ireland, Brian Boru adopted the title Imperator Scotorum, ‘Emperor of the Scoti’ and there is evidence to suggest that he saw himself, not just as overlord of all Ireland, but of all the Gaels, including those who lived in a kind of permanent exile across the North Channel in Scotland.

That is why, when Robert Bruce seized the throne of Scotland in defiance of the English in 1306, but was forced into exile on Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast, he wrote a letter to “his friends”, the Irish, in which he reminded them that they and the Scots “stem from one seed of birth”, share “a common language and common customs”, and offered a permanent alliance against the English, their would-be conquerors, “so that our nation (nostra natio)” ― one nation, the Scots and Irish ― “may recover her ancient freedom”.

It was that alliance that culminated in the inauguration of his brother Edward as high-king of Ireland in the summer of 1315. And although the Bruce family was, on the surface, thoroughly Anglo-Norman, Edward and Robert Bruce were of Gaelic extraction on their mother’s side, and had close connections with the Gaelic world of Western Scotland and the Hebrides ― it was even said that the young Edward had been fostered in Ireland with his leading Irish ally, Domhnall O’Neill, king of Ulster.

And there may have been ties of blood between Robert the Bruce and the O’Neills. During Edward Bruce’s brief reign as king of Ireland, O’Neill wrote to the Pope to try to win papal backing for this most audacious attempt to end English rule in Ireland. This extraordinary letter (usually called the 1317 Remonstrance) is one of the earliest and most potent statements of Irish national identity and of opposition to the English who, O’Neill says, “have striven with all their might and with every treacherous trick in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely”. In it, he refers to Scotland in Latin as Scotia Minor and to Ireland as Scotia Major, and talks about Edward and Robert Bruce as being “sprung from our noblest ancestors”. So here we see Edward and Robert Bruce being depicted as, in effect, Irish.

Edward Bruce’s reign as high-king of Ireland did not last long. In October 1318, as he marched south from his powerbase in Ulster to try to overrun the lands of the English colonists in the hinterland of Dublin (what would later be known as the Pale), he risked an open battle with an English army just north of Dundalk at Faughart, lost his life, and with it his Irish kingdom. He was an unlucky general. His invasion coincided with the Great European Famine (1315-17) and, as appalling weather and three consecutive harvest failures brought widespread hardship, disillusionment set in among his Irish supporters, the annals ruefully commenting that during his reign “falsehood and famine and homicide filled the country, and undoubtedly men ate each other in Ireland.”

But his inauguration as Ireland’s last ever high-king, exactly 700 years ago this year, was living proof of a legacy of Irish links with Scotland which deserves to be remembered and cherished. Those links will be explored at a two-day conference entitled The Irish-Scottish World in the Middle Ages, free and open to the public, to take place in Trinity College Dublin on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th September

This article originally appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday, September 19th

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