Sir James Douglas

Early Years

The Coat of Arms of Sir James Douglas

Sir James Douglas was also known as the Black Douglas and was a knight of some renown and a trusted ally of Robert the Bruce. His father, Sir William Douglas the Hardy, had been a supporter of William Wallace and was the defender of Berwick castle when it was successfully sieged by Edward I in 1296. He ended his days as a prisoner in the Tower of London.

James was educated in Paris and returned to Scotland in 1306 to find his lands had been seized by the English King Edward I and awarded to another. When James went to the English court to try and get his lands back Edward became angry upon realising whose son he was and James had to flee.

Douglas pledged his services to Robert the Bruce shortly afterwards and the two embarked on an exciting journey which would take Bruce to the throne and win Douglas back his lost ancestral lands. However their start was less than auspicious as they were routed by a surprise attack at Methven and had to flee from the English. The following year they went on the offensive, attacking the area around Turnberry castle before escaping into the hills.

The Black Douglas

The remains of Douglas Castle

He got the name Black Douglas from the English who feared him greatly because of a number of violent episodes. One such episode was the Douglas Larder, where he returned to Douglas castle and waited for the majority of the English troops garrisoned there to attend church then killed the remainder, saving a few prisoners whom he led into the cellar and beheaded. He poisoned the wells with salt and horse carcasses and then he built a pyre of all the supplies he could not take amongst the bodies in the cellar and set the whole lot aflame.

A while later with the castle back in English hands Douglas attacked again. This time he drew the troops out with a small force, keeping his main body of men hidden. Once some of the English troops were close he ambushed them and cut them down, but he was not yet ready to take the castle. He returned once more drawing out the English with another ruse as he and his men disguised themselves as a baggage train and this time he captured the castle and burnt it to the ground as Bruce had commanded. According to Barbour he found a letter on one of the English troops from a lady who promised to marry the Englishman if he held the castle for a year and in an act of chivalry he allowed the English prisoners to return home unharmed.

Battles of Sir James Douglas

In 1308 at the Battle of the Pass of Brander Douglas led a small force of Highlanders to flank the English allied MacDougall's and attack from behind. The enemy were routed and their leader John Bacach fled to England.

Douglas also took part in a number of castle assaults. In 1314 he captured Roxburgh Castle with a handful of men. They approached covered by their cloaks on hands and knees and the soldiers mistook them for cattle. They then scaled the walls with hooks and rope ladders and caught the English completely by surprise. Once captured the castle was destroyed in accordance with Bruce's policy at the time.

Douglas was knighted by Bruce on the morning of the Battle of Bannockburn and took charge of the third schiltrom on the left flank, fighting on foot. Once the victory had been won he was sent to pursue the fleeing English king and he chased him for fifty miles before Edward escaped. In the years following this great victory Douglas made his presence known along the English border with a relentless series of raids.

He helped Bruce to capture Berwick in 1318 and as Edward came north with an English army he was sent south on a diversionary raid into Yorkshire. The English queen who had taken up residence in York was forced to flee and the Battle of Myton was an easy victory for Douglas as the force he faced was made up largely of priests, friars and clerics. The victory was enough to disrupt the English and prevent them from attempting to take back Berwick and Edward was forced to enter into a truce.

A few years later Bruce and Douglas won the Battle of Old Byland by flanking the English army and ended up forcing Edward and his queen to flee yet again. When Edward III seized power in 1327 he was determined to make gains against the Scots and wipe out the humiliation of his father but Bruce and Douglas had other ideas. At the Battle of Stanhope Park Douglas took 200 men and flanked the English, attacking at midnight with his customary war cry of "Douglas! Douglas!" and he got as far as cutting the English king's tent down but Edward escaped. The English army was disbanded after this embarrassment and the Bruce monarchy was finally recognised by the English with the Treaty of Northampton.

The tomb of Sir James Douglas

When Bruce died he made known his wish that his heart should be taken on crusade and Douglas was chosen for the task, a choice with which the king was said to be "well pleased". He took part in a crusade against the Moors in Spain in 1330 and died in battle. His heart and bones were preserved and brought back to Scotland along with the heart of his master. While the king was buried at Melrose the remains of Douglas went to the family burial vault in St Bride's Church, Douglas in Lanarkshire.

Douglas was truly one of Scotland's greatest knights and perhaps Bruce's most loyal supporter. His fame was spread throughout Europe and he was greatly feared. Apparently when he went on crusade with Bruce's heart the knights gathered to get a glimpse of him and displayed disbelief because his face was unscarred, Douglas simply remarked "I have always had strong hands to protect my face".