Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Black Douglas and the Hobby Horse

The Black Douglas. The very name evokes images of dread. He is said to have had thick black hair and a thick, black beard, but to the English, the name referred strictly to his deeds. Starting immediately after Bannockburn, when Edward II refused to grant recognition to the Scots as an independent nation, James Douglas embarked on a series of border raids, plundering, pillaging, and burning much of the north of England. So dreaded was his name that a rhyme sprang up about him:

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,
Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,
The Black Douglas shall not get ye.

the black douglas, james douglas, the good sir james, medieval history, medieval scotland, scottish history, william wallace
One famous story tells of a mother consoling her child with the rhyme above. At the final words, a voice behind her said, “At least not tonight.” The Black Douglas had stood behind her in silence, listening to her sing. (To the best of my knowledge, Douglas did neither her nor her child any harm.)
It is hard to imagine that a child’s hobby horse could have any relation to medieval warfare, or a man of such fierce reputation. And yet, it is from the horses ridden by Robert Bruce and the Black Douglas and their men that we get the name hobby horse.

The Irish Hobby is the official name of the breed, developed before the 13th century, and now extinct, though it was used to develop many current breeds, including the Connemara and the Irish Draught. They were smaller horses, sometimes described as more like ponies, whose strength was in being light, agile, and swift. The name, in fact, is believed to come from the French hobin, which is said to come in turn from the Gaelic obann, meaning swift.

The hobbin’s speed came, in part, from being well suited to the bogs, forests, and hills of Ireland and Scotland. Being light and agile allowed it to move easily through such places, where the large English warhorse was at a disadvantage. Even in such rough conditions, hobelars–the men who rode the hobbins–could cover an astonishing 60 to 70 miles a day, allowing them to make the lightning strike-and-retreat raids across the English border for which James Douglas was especially famed.

Unlike the warhorse, trained for battle, the hobbin was essentially a mode of transport. The Scots typically rode in fast, dismounted to fight on foot, and rode out again. The humble hobbin, however, might claim some credit for the Scots frequent ability to outfight much larger armies. Imagine how it might have been:

Half a dozen Scots, leaning low over their hobbins’ necks, shot in and out among mist-laced trees. Dark hair streamed behind them, tartans flapped over their shoulders in the wild night ride. Sweat and horseflesh stung their noses; adrenaline drove them, hearts pounding. From behind came the shouts of a score of English knights, their large warhorses crashing through the dark woods. The hobbins bolted up a rocky hill like mountain goats, and scrambled, nimble-footed, down the other side .

 They skimmed the spongy bog at the bottom, into the cover of forest beyond. Although the hobbin has the reputation of being a Scottish horse, King Edward saw their many assets. England used them in its own share of attacks on the Scots, often with far uglier and blacker methods than Douglas used. At least one source reports the English crucifying priests on their own church doors. While the church burned.

Silhouetted by the moon, the first English charger stumbled at the top of the hill, struggling to keep its footing under a thousand pounds of knight, armor, and weapons. The Scots loosed a storm of arrows, felling knights as they picked their way down the slope.

One armor-covered stallion burst onto the moor. Mud sucked at its fetlocks, dragging it down. It lifted its nose, bared its teeth with an angry scream, yanking its leg. Two more knights reached the bog. The Scots loosed another volley; three mired horses and riders went down.

None of it is quite what we think of today when we see children skipping with their hobby horses to the jovial strains of the William Tell Overture.

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John Balliol

John Balliol is a name largely unknown to Americans, but he had the fortune–good or bad–to be briefly king of Scotland.

John Balliol’s kingship came via several avenues. The first was the luck of the draw: he just so happened to be born a great-great-great grandson of David I of Scotland. I’m guessing most of us don’t even know the names of our great-great-great grandfathers, but in his case, such a name was vitally important to an entire nation; in fact, to two, as we’ll see.
The second factor in John Balliol’s kingship was a series of unfortunate deaths. He would have lived part of his life under the rule of Alexander III of Scotland. Alexander had three children, all of whom preceded him in death: David, the younger son, in 1281, Margaret, Queen of Norway, in childbirth 1283; and the elder brother, Prince Alexander, in 1284. This left Alexander’s young granddaughter, Margaret, known as The Maid of Norway, as his sole heir. With Alexander’s wife and three children all dead, and a country in need of an heir, Alexander re-married. His race home to his new bride, despite adverse weather, ironically, led to his death when his horse fell over a cliff in the dark, and exactly the situation a new wife was supposed to prevent.

Alexander’s young granddaughter, three or four years of age when Alexander died, was sent from Norway, in 1290, to take the throne of Scotland. Not only did she become ill on the voyage, but a storm blew her ship off course. She died on September 26, 1290 on Orkney Island, at the age of 7.

This left a country that had, just a few short years before, had a monarch and four clear heirs, with no obvious successor to the throne.

Into this void stepped thirteen men, all claiming the right of succession. Maybe six of these had strong claims, with Robert Bruce, “the Competitor,” grandfather of the better known Robert the Bruce, Robert I of Scotland, and John Balliol having the strongest. John Balliol and his three older brothers–all of whom had predeceased him, leaving him as the possible heir–were descended from an elder daughter of the line of King David, while Bruce was descended from a second daughter, but a generation closer to David I.

Still, civil war threatened to break out. The Scots invited Edward I, Edward Longshanks, King of England, to settle the matter. Edward chose John Balliol, viewing him as the weaker and more easily controlled man. So on the 17th of November, 1292, Balliol became king of Scotland.

His reign was short-lived.

Fortunately for Scotland, perhaps unfortunately for John himself, neither he nor Scotland was quite as weak as Longshanks expected. At first, homage to Edward I, as the self-declared Lord Paramount of Scotland, was forced from the Scottish nobility. (Does anyone besides me sense a medieval Death Star hovering at the border? Actually, it was called a trebuchet in those times.) Edward did his best to undermine John’s authority and humiliate him, demanding and receiving legal authority, money, and troops.

In 1294, Edward demanded Scottish troops for his war against France, setting a deadline of September 1. Scotland’s response was to immediately enter their own negotiations both with France and Norway. In October of 1294, John Balliol openly defied Edward. By the summer of 1295, Edward became aware of Scotland’s negotiations with France, and, being a medieval king, did what medieval kings (usually) did best: he gathered his troops to wage war.

1296 saw the outbreak of hostilities, as Edward Longshanks, in a brief respite from his war against France, drove his army north to conquer the Scots.
John Balliol was known in his own lifetime by, and has come down through history with, the moniker Toom Tabard, meaning empty coat. It stems from the incident at his capture and forced abdication on July 10, 1296, in which Edward Longshanks, ever on the lookout for a good chance to humiliate a man, ripped the heraldic insignia from Balliol’s tabard, or tunic.
Balliol’s brief kingship ended with capture of himself and his son by Longshanks, and his forced abdication on July 10, 1296. He was imprisoned in England’s Tower of London, released in 1299 briefly into the custody of the Pope, and in 1301, allowed to go to his estates in France, where he lived out the rest of his life in exile.

Will the Real John Comyn Please Stand Up?

One of the difficulties of researching medieval times is that of repetitive names, and people with a multitude of names. In medieval Scotland, there are an abundance of Williams, Alexanders, and Roberts. Even adding last names doesn’t always help.

Take the name John Comyn. In the time of Robert Bruce, alone, there are several of them important enough to have come down in history. The best known is the John Comyn, Guardian of Scotland, slain by Bruce before the altar of Greyfriars Kirk. That John Comyn is also known as John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, and the Red Comyn.

His father, John II Comyn, also Lord of Badenoch, also a Guardian of Scotland at one stage, was the Black Comyn, and, like his son, fought for the crown of Scotland with a Robert Bruce–although with Robert Bruce’s grandfather,also Robert Bruce, known as “The Competitor,” in the late 1200’s, whereas John III, the Red Comyn, fought with the younger Robert Bruce, of Braveheart and Bannockburn fame.

Current with this John Comyn was his cousin, John Comyn, differentiated by the title Earl of Buchan. In an interesting, perhaps sad, twist, this John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, though a great supporter of John Baliol and enemy of Robert Bruce, was also the husband of the remarkable Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, who left her husband to ride north and claim the MacDuff family’s traditional role of crowning the Kings of Scotland, by placing the crown on Robert Bruce’s head, shortly after he murdered her husband’s cousin, John Comyn, at Greyfriars Kirk.

Confused yet?

Actually, writing it all out has made it all much clearer. Now for my second act… on to the Alexander Comyns and Alexander MacDougalls!

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What the Ides of March was to Caesar...

February 10 is the day Robert Bruce killed John Comyn in front of the altar of Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries, in 1306. The two families, Bruces and Comyns, had long been at odds over the throne of Scotland, and in the days after John Baliol’s failed kingship, the rivalry renewed. Bruce and John Comyn agreed to meet at Greyfriars to discuss matters.

Whether Bruce went with the intention of killing Comyn, or whether the crime was committed in the heat of an argument is unknown, but the end result is remembered 700 years later: Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s greatest king, killed a man in front of an altar on holy ground. The deed launched him on a more abrupt road to kingship and war with England than he most likely intended.

Killing was not an unusual matter in medieval life. Killing a man on holy ground, however, was a serious matter. Bruce knew that he would be ex-communicated for it, and, more importantly, that an ex-communicated man cannot be crowned king. His answer was the race to Scone, where he was crowned before the Pope could get the news and proceed with the ex-communication.

The killing at Greyfriars also cemented some of the great families of Scotland against Bruce as king, and leading them to side with England in the years leading up to Bannockburn. Who’s to say what would have happened, had tempers stayed cool at Greyfriars that day. Would Scotland have had an easier time, had the Comyns and their kin not turned against Bruce? Or would Scotland have had a harder time, with continued infighting amongst the clans? Regardless, the incident stands out as a major event in the life of Robert Bruce and the history of Scotland.

More on John Comyn tomorrow.

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Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle, one of Scotland’s largest medieval castles, standing on the shore of Loch Ness, was one of two main inspirations for Niall’s home, Castle Glenmirril. (Castle Tioram was the other.) It sits on a promontory jutting out into the loch, at the north end of the Great Glen.

Urquhart dates from medieval days, or earlier. Adomnan’s Life of Columba tells us that a structure of some sort stood on the same site as early as the 6th Century, most likely the home of an elderly Pict noble, Emchath, whom St. Columba converted, on his way to visit King Brude. As an interesting side note, other sources say it was on his trip to visit Brude that St. Columba became the first recorded observer of the Loch Ness monster. He saw a sea creature attacking a man, and drove it off by making the sign of the cross and ordering it to leave. As a second interesting sidenote, reports say that most Nessie sightings do occur near Urquhart. I guess it’s as popular among behemoth semi-mythical sea creatures as among humans!

Despite evidence of some structure on the site that early, there are no actual records of Urquhart Castle until the 1200’s. The land on which it is built was once the home of the Durward family, leading many to believe they built the castle. In 1250, Alan Durward, a powerful Scottish noble and brother-in-law of King Alexander III, held Urquhart. When Durward died in 1268, the castle went to the powerful Comyn family, Lords of Badenoch, who in later years became enemies of the Bruce family.

Through the years, however, Urquhart has gone through many hands. In 1296, Edward I (Longshanks) of England, threw the might of his trebuchet against Urquhart, tearing down its walls and taking it. 2 years later, the Scots regained it. In 1303, Longshanks took it again, only to have it re-captured in 1308 by Robert the Bruce, who gave it to his nephew, Sir Thomas Randolph, future Earl of Moray.

From the 1500’s until 1912, it remained mostly in the hands of the Grants, although it was frequently attacked, and on occasion captured by, the MacDonalds in the 1500’s, and by the Covenanters in 1644. 1689 saw the last government troops living in Urquhart, and in 1691 or ‘92, depending on the source, Williamite forces blew up the castle to prevent it being used as a Jacobite stronghold. For part of its history, in the 1700’s, it lived the ignominous life of a stone quarry, but today is the third busiest of Historic Scotland’s sites.

Creating Setting

Creating setting puts your reader right there, and makes the story real for them. In recent years, I think setting in fiction has become less elaborately described than in previous centuries when people did not have television, and words must create their vision and entertainment. Descriptions of setting in older novels might go on for paragraphs. Today, readers are less patient with such elaborate and lengthy description, but it remains important.

Choose your words wisely, pick words that say a lot in the shortest possible space. Think about what words really convey full, vivid meanings. Give a few details. For instance, does the house in your story merely have white walls? Or are they antiseptic white, off-white or cream? Are they freshly scrubbed, has someone put hand-down motifs across the top, or do they sport a host of fingerprints at waist level? More interesting yet, does your character glance up and see large footprints on the walls two feet above her head? Honing in on even a detail or two brings an added depth to your setting, in addition to telling something about your characters.

Use all 5 senses. If at all possible, experience your setting first hand, and if not, use the internet to find pictures and research. Use forums (nanowrimo is a great one) to ask questions of people who have experienced it. Travel forums, such as Travelpod are also great tools, where people blog about their travel experiences, in addition to posting pictures.

Writing about Shawn and Allene hiking the Highlands was one thing; being there myself and recording every detail was another altogether. After being there, I knew the sights of oak trees, sunlight glinting off veins of stones lying on the bottom of a stream, lichen-covered boulders, scrubby grass, shaggy Highland cattle with huge horns, and just how dark it is at night with no street or city lights; the sounds of sheep bleating nearby and the lowing of cattle carrying up the hill from a mile away; the smells of cow dung in the fields and coffee shops and fish and chips in the village below; and the metallic taste of the water from the streams and hot coffee and bridies after a long hike.

I learned what it was like to hike through heather and moorland, with my feet sometimes sinking down farther than I expected and clumps of heather at times reaching past my knees. It was not the flat and easy walk it appeared in pictures! I gained an appreciation for just how cold 60 degrees can be at the top of a Scottish monroe with a stiff wind blowing the whole time, what it’s like to climb in medieval boots, and just how much and for how long muscles ache when not accustomed to such activity!

When creating your own settings, list the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–and spend some time listing as many items in each category as you can, for each scene in your story. Don’t forget to write down what emotions the setting might provoke.

Research what you don’t know personally. Go there if at all possible!  You don’t necessarily need to use everything you list, but it will help bring the places to life in your own head, which will bring it to life on the page for your readers.

Happy writing!

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Creating Character

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The Medallion by Sunni Morris

One of the things I have enjoyed about my leap into writing has been meeting other new writers. I was recently privileged to meet Sunni Morris and read her latest novel, The Medallion. I try to stick to historical fiction, time travel, and Scotland: Sunni’s novel falls in the world of fantasy, but in a medieval style setting in Britain.

The Medallion has a fairytale quality, a story within a story in the style of Second Hand Lions, the Princess Bride, or Inkheart. Like The Princess Bride, it is set in a semi-fantasy, semi-Medieval world; this particular world is teeming with bandits, a mysterious medallion, a mischievous fairy trying hard to be less so, an enigmatic Lady, and wizards, moving in and out among the ordinary peasantry just trying to survive and make sense of the hardships of life. The story, as told by a mysterious old man, centers on two sisters torn apart by bandits in their youth. One sister finds a semblance of happiness and, eventually, a mysterious and great destiny waiting for her, while the other suffers greatly, but never gives up her dream of finding her sister.

The story opens with a narration in an almost fairy-tale style that promises something magical and mysterious to come, and sets the stage. The language is beautiful, with a rhythm and poetry that echoes the mysterious, dreamlike, fairy-tale beauty of the story itself. I found myself wanting to read slowly and savor every word and lush image, even as I wanted to race ahead and find out what happens.

What attracted me most to The Medallion was the lyric and poetic writing style. The book is worth reading for that alone, with descriptions as lush and beautiful as the Lady’s island. You can see the dew drops on each leaf, and feel the grass under your feet. But lovers of fantasy and medieval times will also love the setting, and the elements of adventure and romance, as Anwen and her sister Alana, separated years ago by an attack of bandits, spend years hoping to find one another even as their lives unwind.

The book ends with one mission accomplished, but the good feeling that there is plenty of story left in these characters, and plenty more adventures waiting for them and for their readers. I look forward to the sequel.

Find more about Sunni and her other books at Fairie Mound Books

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Consuelo Saah Baehr

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