The Douglas’ Last Journey

The Memorial containing Robert the Bruce’s heart at Melrose Abbey

Written by Gwen Sinclair

With this year being Royal Dundonald Castle’s 650th anniversary, we’ve been exploring it’s Hall of Fame, and today we’re looking at the life of Sir James Douglas (1286-1330) – whose story has been brought to life in many respects due to Robert II (1371-1390) who was thought to have commissioned ‘The Brus’ – by John Barbour – an epic poem, written in 1375 – ostensibly as an allegory to his grandfather, Robert I the Bruce (1306-1329), but which also regales exploits from the life of The Gud Sir James (aka The Black Douglas). 

This implies that Sir James could’ve been an influential figure in young Robert’s life, and his father, Walter the 6th High Steward (1309-1327), would’ve certainly known Sir James well since both were trusted members of Robert I’s inner circle, having fought together at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, and both put their seals to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.

“In all his deeds was Douglas true

For nothing would he have to do

With treachery, nor with a lie

His heart was set on honour high

All things did he so nobly do

That he was loved by all he knew.

But he was not so fair that we

Should praise his looks in high degree

In visage he was rather grey;

His hair was black, so I heard say.

His limbs were finely made and long

His bones were large, his shoulders strong

His body was well knit and slim

As those say that set eyes on him.

When happy, loveable was he

And meek and sweet in company

But those with him in battle saw

Another countenance he wore!

In speech a little lisp had he

That suited him right wondrously..”

As part of the translation from the epic poem

‘The Brus’ by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. 1375.

Sculpture of Sir James Douglas at The National Portrait Gallery

Robert the Bruce died on 7th June 1329, and said to have been his most trusted ally, it’s thought that Sir James attended him in his last hours – when the Bruce asked him to carry out one final quest:  that he should take his heart on crusade to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem –  perhaps as a way to fulfil a personal pledge the king himself had been unable to make in life.   Sir James set sail from either Montrose or Berwick in the spring of 1330, with brothers Sir William and John de St Clair of Rosslyn, Marischal Sir William de Keith of Galston, Sir Alan Cathcart, brothers Sir John and Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, and Sir Symon Loccard of Lee together with attendants, and a notice of safe conduct from Edward III of England (1327-1377).

They then sailed to Flanders before arriving at Cordoba to answer the call for military assistance by King Alfonso XI of Castille, León and Galicia (1311-1350) in his frontier war with Muhammad IV (1315-1333), who was the leader of the Moorish Emirate of Granada. On this day in 1330 Sir James Douglas led his knights into battle, where Barbour claims he was given command of the vanguard, and with him around his neck he carried the lead box containing the late king’s mummified heart.  During the course of the battle, it seems that the Scottish knights were surrounded and cut down, and yet, perhaps realising his chances of survival were slim, it’s said that Sir James threw the Bruce’s heart ahead of him, shouting:  “ A Bruce! A Bruce! Now go in front at your desired and I’ll follow you or die!”  Other accounts suggest that he shouted “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.”

Sir James Douglas at the Battle of Teba by Andrew Spratt

As the only survivor, who is thought to have broken his arm after a fall from his horse,  and so hadn’t gone to battle,  Sir William de Keith had the ominous task of returning Bruce’s heart, and the remains of his fellow knights to their families. Sir James’ tabard was wrapped around his bones and for which his son Archibald The Grim – 3rd earl of Douglas, modified the Kirk of St Bride at Douglas, some 12 miles south-west of Lanark, to accommodate an elaborate canopied tomb which has an effigy of Sir James drawing his sword, his head resting on a pillow, and an animal at his feet.  It’s one of the best examples of 14th century sculpture which has survived. In respect for James’ loyalty to the Bruce, the Douglas coat of arms began ever after to have the symbol of a central red heart placed below its 3 white stars. 

Sir James Douglas’ tomb at St Brides Kirk at Douglas

Furthermore, some 11 miles from Dundonald Castle, we find the town of Galston with one quarter of its Burgh shield depicting a mailed-fist holding a heart –  which represents the endeavours of Sir William de Keith.  Bruce’s heart was buried at Melrose Abbey – on holy ground, which probably served as a reasonable alternative to fulfil the late king’s last request.  The exact location of it wasn’t known until 1996, and during investigations of it archaeologists discovered a note inside the metal box indicating that it had been previously found in the grounds in 1921. It was reburied in 1998 with a memorial stone put in place within the Abbey grounds.

So how does this connect to Royal Dundonald Castle’s Hall of fame?

Sir James Douglas was the son of Sir William ‘le Hardi’ of Douglas (1256-1297) and Elizabeth (c 1250- c1288) the daughter of Alexander the 4th High Steward of Scotland (1246-1281) – said to have been responsible for building what’s been reputed to have been one of the finest castles in Europe of its day here at Dundonald.  It’s thought to have been an enormous structure which would have filled almost all of the flat land at the top of Castle Hill incorporating 2 great double D gatehouses, possibly connected by a heavily fortified wall, and 4 other towers. As we look at the lineage of King Robert the Bruce himself, whose mother, Marjorie (1240-1292),  was a daughter of Margaret Stewart – Alexander’s sister –  not only making James Douglas and Robert the Bruce cousins, but it means that Sir James’ lineage traces back here to Dundonald! 

This episode in Scotland’s history gives us a slightly wider view of the world in which Robert II inhabited, and we can only imagine that Robert, who would’ve been around 14 years of age at this time,  would’ve been greatly saddened by this turn of events which left these Scottish knights dead, whilst attempting to fulfil his grandfather’s last request. Each year in tribute to the battle, the town of Teba, in the region of Guadalhorce-Guadalteba of Spain, holds an annual Scottish Festival which celebrates the life of Sir James Douglas. This includes bagpipers and cultural activities – as a fitting reminder of Sir James’ loyalty to King Robert the Bruce.

Memorial Stone at Teba

Sources: The Kirk of St Brides Statement of Significance. Dundonald Castle Statement of Significance


Battle of Teba image by kind permission of artist Andrew Spratt

Monument to Sir James Douglas at Teba By Diana Beach – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Monument for Bruce’s Heart at Melrose Abbey by Otter at Dutch Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Family lineage chart by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Sword given to Sir James Douglas by Robert the Bruce: image by wiki commons. Source: The National Library of Scotland

Statue of Sir James Douglas at the National Portrait Gallery By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Tomb of Sir James Douglas By Otter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,