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
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.