Friday, December 18, 2009

Sailing Over Land

One of the lesser known but more interesting stories from the time of Robert the Bruce is the sea battle against Sir John of Lorne-- more colorfully known as Lame John of Lorne or Ian Bacach.

Readers of the Blue Bells Trilogy will be familiar with the MacDougalls. Lame John was the son of Alexander MacDougall. Alexander MacDougall, uncle to John Comyn who was murdered by Bruce, died a few years before Bannockburn, according to most sources. Nigel Tranter does put an Alexander MacDougall at the August 1314 council, as one of many who sided with the English but quickly came back into the peace of Robert the Bruce afterward. On the part of Bruce, his famed mercy was not merely mercy, but the hope of a practical man who believed his country would be stronger if he could finally bring his people together, rather than having them fight against one another. To this end, he offered mercy for the price of allegiance.

Lame John did not accept this offer of peace, but continued to serve Edward II of England, as admiral in the western Isles. Having decreed that Scotland must stand united, Bruce did not care overly much for having Edward II's ships in his Sound of Jura. Dates are uncertain: some sources indicate as early as June 1315, a year to the day after Bannockburn, while others suggest it took place in 1316 or even 1317. Many writings I've found are written such that it's difficult to tell what date they're really saying, or whether they're giving one at all.

Regardless of which year it took place, it's a fascinating battle and a fascinating look at Bruce, who once again showed his ingenuity and ability to use everything he had, even history and superstition.

This is one of many battles in which the colorful Angus Og, Lord of the Isles, worked side by side as one of Bruce's most loyal supporters. It was his fleet that transported his own Islemen and Bruce's warriors. Half the fleet, under Angus Og, sailed around and up the western shore of Kintyre, into the southern Sound of Jura where Lame John's fleet lay.  At the same time, Bruce's men sailed up the eastern shore of the peninsula, where there is no outlet.

Toward the north of Kintyre, however, is East Loch Tarbert. Bruce's men sailed into East Loch Tarbert, and from there, constructed either a gangway of planks, or a series of logs, which acted as rollers. When this was done, the men hauled the galleys, with ropes, up onto the rollers, and between pulling and opening the sails to catch the wind, Bruce sailed a mile overland, into West Loch Tarbert. From there, presumably with men exhausted from days of rowing, chopping, and hauling ships, Bruce sailed into the north of the Sound of Jura.

Part of the genius of Bruce's plan, even apart from the element of surprise-- there was no waterway to allow ships to surprise John from the north-- was that it played on an old superstition. In 1098, Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, had done the same thing. Among the Islemen, it was believed that when their enemy once again sailed overland like Magnus Barefoot, they would be conquered. It had much the same effect as re-enacting an Arthurian legend to beat down the enemy's morale. It also would most likely have boosted the morale of his own men, who must have been exhausted by this point.

In the words of John Barbour, medieval author of The Brus: "For they knew by an old prophecy that whoever should have ships go between those seas with sails would so win the Isles for himself that no one could withstand him by force. Therefore, they all came to the King and none withstood his commands apart from John of Lornalone." (Of course, he said it in medieval Englys.)

Lame John's fleet was now caught between Angus Og coming up from the south and Robert Bruce coming down from the north. Between the clear military problem and the superstitions of his men, John of Lorn had little chance. Nigel Tranter paints a colorful picture of the event, describing it as taking place in the few hours of near dark at Midsummer's Night, with torches lighting up close to the water, along the lines of Bruce's and Angus Og's galleys to signal one another, and John driving his fleet hard to the west, trying futilely to escape the trap.

The battle in the Sound of Jura was over swiftly, the isles completely under the power of Robert Bruce and Angus Og, and John of Lorn not to live many months beyond that event.


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