Mary Bruce was supposed to be safe at Kildrommey, her brother’s only fortress. Her brother was the rebel king of the Scots who had seized the throne and dared to challenge England for his country’s independence. At first, his sisters and his wife stayed by his side as he made war on the English, but after two disastrous defeats, he knew it was too dangerous. He split off with a small band of his most loyal followers to muster support, while he installed his sisters, his wife, and his daughter in the sprawling stronghold of Kildrommey.
The castle stood over an acre of land on top of a rocky outcrop bordered by two steep ravines. It was impenetrable and had a massive supply of provisions to withstand a siege. Soon enough, the English army arrived and set up camp below the castle’s steep walls. Mary prayed in the small, Gothic chapel at the heart of the fortress, imploring God that she and her relatives would escape unscathed. But she knew something was wrong when she smelled the acrid smell of burning wheat. A traitor, who in all likelihood took a bribe from the English army, set fire to the provisions. The fortress could no longer hold its own.
The Earl of Atholl, their protector and their brother’s loyal friend, helped the women escape the castle under the cover of smoke and night. They ran away to St. Duthac’s Sanctuary to the north, imploring the earl of the territory for asylum. But William, Earl of Ross, had been loyal to a man that Robert the Bruce had defeated in the contest for the Scottish throne, and he bore a grudge against Robert. He turned the refugees over to the British.
The English king, Edward I, saw rebels as vermin that had to be eradicated. He was an old man, and age had only added studied cruelty to his temper. He had the Earl of Atholl hanged and his body beheaded and burned. The laws of Medieval chivalry dictated that Robert the Bruce’s female relatives should be treated humanely, but King Edward did not pay convention any mind. For Mary, he imagined the cruelest possible punishment. He sent her to Roxburgh, a castle on the border of Scotland and England. There he had his men build a wooden cage, confine her, and string her up over the walls of the castle. She felt every storm, every biting wind, and every searing ray of the summer sun. Throughout it all, her pain was on display to the English soldiers in the castle below. She lived nearly four years in these tortuous conditions before she was moved to more humane confinement in 1310 because her captors worried that their valuable hostage would die. Stubborn in her will to survive, she endured what would have killed most anyone.
Robert the Bruce never forgot Mary. After eight years of imprisonment, he traded her freedom for an English nobleman captured at battle. He awarded her and her husband with the lands of Cluny, which in Gaelic means “meadows interspersed with rising grounds.” In this lush valley protected by hills and interlaced with swelling rivulets, she finally found peace. She was the first matriarch of the Gordon family, and both her pain and her strength remain legends of the centuries-long fight for Scottish independence.