Saturday, July 31, 2010

Robert the Bruce and the Spider

According to legend, it was a spider, even more than Braveheart, who inspired Robert the Bruce to succeed in his battle for Scottish independence. As Sir Walter Scott tells the story in Tales of a Grandfather, pp. 27-28:

The news of the taking of Kildrummie, the captivity of his wife, and the execution of his brother, reached Bruce while he was residing in a miserable dwelling at Rachrin, and reduced him to the point of despair.

It was about this time [c. 1306-1307] that an incident took place, which, although it rests only on tradition in families of the name of Bruce, is rendered probable by the manners of the times. After receiving the last unpleasing intelligence from Scotland, Bruce was lying one morning on his wretched bed, and deliberating with himself whether he had not better resign all thoughts of again attempting to make good his right to the Scottish crown, and, dismissing his followers, transport himself and his brothers to the Holy Land, and spend the rest of his life fighting against the Saracens; by which he thought, perhaps, he might deserve the forgiveness of Heaven for the great sin of stabbing Comyn in the church in Dumfries. But then, on the other hand, he thought it would be both criminal and cowardly to give up his attempts to restore freedom to Scotland, while there yet remained the least chance of his being successful in an undertaking, which, rightly considered, was much more his duty than to drive the infidels out of Palestine, though the superstition of his age might think otherwise.

While he was divided betwixt these two reflections, and doubtful of what he should do, Bruce was looking upward to the roof of the cabin in which he lay; and his eye was attracted by a spider, which, hanging at the end of a long thread of its own spinning, was endeavouring, as is the fashion of that creature, to swing itself from one beam in the roof to another, for the purpose of fixing the line on which it meant to stretch its web. The insect made the attempt again and again without success; and at length Bruce counted that it had tried to carry its point six times, and been as often unable to do so. It came into his head that he himself fought just six battles against the English and their allies, and that the poor persevering spider was exactly in the same situation with himself, having made as many trials, and been as often disappointed in what it aimed at. “Now,” thought Bruce, “ as I have no means of knowing what is best to be done, I will be guided by the luck which shall attend this spider. If the insect shall make another effort to fix its thread, and shall be successful, I will venture a seventh time to try my fortune in Scotland; but if the spider shall fail I will go to the wars in Palestine, and never return to my native country more.”

While Bruce was forming this resolution, the spider made another exertion with all the force it could muster, and fairly succeeded in fastening its thread to the beam which it had so often in vain attempted to reach. Bruce, seeing the success of the spider, resolved to try his own fortune; and as he had never before gained a victory, so he never afterwards sustained any considerable check or defeat. I have often met with people of the name Bruce, so completely persuaded of the truth of this story, that they would not on any account kill a spider; because it was that insect which had shown the example of perseverance, and given a signal of good luck, to their great namesake.

Having determined to renew his efforts to obtain possession of Scotland, notwithstanding the smallness of the means which he had for accomplishing so great a purpose, the Bruce removed himself and his followers from Rachrin to the island of Arran, which lies in the mouth of the Clyde.

Of course, Bruce was crowned king of Scotland and went on to defeat King Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It is this story which is credited with giving rise to the saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, and try again." But there is more to be said about the story. Although it has been told and retold many times, before Sir Walter Scott's attribution of this account to Robert the Bruce in 1827, the spider story was not associated directly with him, but rather with his associate, Sir James “The Black” Douglas, based on a work written by David Hume of Godscroft (1558-1629) in his The History of the House of Douglas, which was published posthumously in 1643. Hume wrote of Douglas:

I spied a spider clymbing by his webb to the height of an trie and at 12 several times I perceived his web broke, and the spider fel to the ground. But the 13 tyme he attempted and clambe up the tree.

with Douglas then telling Bruce:

My advise is to follow the example of the spider, to poush forward your Majestie's fortune once more, and hazard yet our persones the 13 tyme.

This appears to be the earliest account of the spider story, and although it shows how a spider inspired Bruce to win independence for Scotland, it portrays Douglas rather than Bruce as the one who saw the spider.

Hume himself is an interesting character: a Scottish historian, poet, and theologian, he also served as a pastor to a Huguenot congregation in Duras, France, from 1604 to 1614. His writings remain an important window into the history and controversies of his age.

Little did he know that the spider story, altered by Sir Walter Scott, would become his most famous legacy.

Egbert Watson Smith, The Creed of Presbyterians, p. 160, provides the most important moral of the story:

The control of the greater must include the control of the less, for not only are great things made up of little things, but history shows how the veriest trifles are continually proving the pivots on which momentous events revolve. The persistence of a spider nerved a despairing man to fresh exertions which shaped a nation's future. The God Who predestinated the course of Scottish history must have planned and presided over the movements of the tiny insect that saved Robert Bruce from despair.


  1. That's some interesting history/ legend Andrew. I love these little bits of trivia. Thanks for posting them.

  2. That was really interesting! :)