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‘Black Douglas’ – the fearless Scottish scourge

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Scotland, War on Tuesday, 13 September 2011

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This edited article about Scotland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 812 published on 6 August 1977.

Black Douglas, picture, image, illustration

James Douglas attacking Roxburgh Castle by Angus McBride

It was Shrovetide. A misty February night had descended upon the hall of Roxburgh Castle and the merriment within was at its height. Only the sentries pacing the ramparts were not joining in the celebrations. The only thing to divert them from their disgruntled boredom was the sight of a few cattle, dimly outlined on the plain below. Obviously some local farmer had lost them.

Had they watched the ‘strays’ a little longer they would have raised the loudest alarm Roxburgh Castle had ever known. At the foot of the walls, the ‘cattle’ suddenly rose to their feet and took the shape of men – about sixty of them, who had approached the castle on all fours, with black cloaks slung over them.

Swiftly rope ladders were attached to grappling hooks and were thrown up on to the wall. The raiders then swarmed up them, and the sentries were quickly silenced.

In the hall of the castle, the Shrovetide celebrations still continued unabated. But then, suddenly, above all the mirth, there rose the most terrifying cry in Scotland.

“A Douglas! A Douglas!” The war cry roared and swelled as the raiders poured into the hall. The castle was taken and another exploit was added to the legend of James Douglas.

In the early 14th century, no name was more likely to strike terror into the hearts of Scotland’s enemies than that of Douglas.

During the Scottish struggle for independence, he played as big a part as his famous king, Robert Bruce, to whose cause he had sworn his support. Deprived of his rights and lands by the English, Douglas had declared himself their mortal enemy. And never was a threat more fully fulfilled. He is, of course, a firmly enshrined figure in Scottish history. But to the average Englishman, he is an unknown name, unlike that of his royal master.

To Scotsmen he was known as ‘Good Douglas’, but to his enemies he had become ‘Black Douglas.’ Women with the English garrisons even had to threaten their children that if they did not behave, the Black Douglas would come for them. He had become the bogey man of his day.

Nobody knew where he was or where he might attack next. All his enemies knew was that he would come when they least expected him and would be gone before they could do much about it.

For almost seven years, Douglas led the life of a guerilla, and in the process became the master of what we today would call commando tactics. Even the English leaders who hated him, paid grudging compliments to his ability.

But as Scotland’s fight came out more into the open, he proved equal to this kind of combat, too. In 1314, at the Battle of Bannockburn, during which he received his knighthood, Douglas was as formidable as ever. The night before the battle he made reconnaissances at great personal risk, and during the day he fought with tremendous courage on the left wing, where he played a vital part in putting the English to flight.

After Bannockburn, he led countless numbers of raids across the border. On one diversionary raid into Yorkshire, after Berwick had been taken by the English in 1317, he is said to have burned or destroyed between 80 and 90 towns and villages. A year later he was back, taking Berwick itself.

Soon after, in the renewed fight against the English who were determined to have their revenge for Bannockburn, he had only 50 men-at-arms and a body of archers with which to face an English army of 10,000 men. The English had come to cut down Jedburgh Forest because it afforded Douglas too much cover.

To any other man the odds would have seemed impossible. But not to Douglas. Setting one of his famous ambushes, this time in a narrow pass, he completely routed the English.

Another of Douglas’s more famous exploits occurred when he was being pursued by Edward III. Douglas led the English army through difficult terrain, deliberately baiting the enemy by appearing and then vanishing at various hours throughout each day. Although greatly outnumbered and always in great personal danger, he paused long enough in his seeming flight to lead a night attack with only a few men right into the heart of the enemy camp, almost managing to capture Edward in his tent. The young English king was saved only by several of his knights and wept bitterly at the humiliation as his Scottish tormentor escaped to fight again.

It was Robert Bruce’s dying wish that his heart should be taken on a crusade to the Holy Land, and Douglas, the most faithful of his knights, was entrusted with the mission. Taking charge of the heart, which he hung in a casket around his neck, he set forth for Spain, where the Saracens were fighting.

It was in Spain that Sir James Douglas met his end in battle. Legend has it that in his final battle he threw Bruce’s heart before him into the ranks of the heathens, crying. “Pass thou forward as thou wast wont in the field; and Douglas shall follow or die!” The legend would seem to sum up his spirit, but it also seems improbable that he would be so reckless with the precious relic of the man so dear to him.

What we do know for sure is that Douglas was still holding on to the casket after the Battle of Tebas de Ardales in 1330, where he perished. Although in no personal danger at the time, Douglas left his safe position to rush to the assistance of a friend who had been cut off from the main force. In the process, he fell into an ambush – an ironical end for Douglas, whose ambushes had been known to terrify whole armies.

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