Exploring the Medieval World of Robert the Bruce on Scotland Vacations

People & Culture

Statue of King Robert I (Robert The Bruce), with National Wallace Monument in background, Stirling, Scotland

Recently, Netflix released Outlaw King, a medieval epic starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, the King of Scots who threw off English rule and successfully re-established the Scottish monarchy following William Wallace’s defeat at the hands of the English. If the film proves to be half as popular as 1995’s Braveheart, we might see a flood of travellers heading on Scotland vacations to explore its medieval castles and the beguiling landscape that defines it. If nothing else, it gives us an excuse to look at the many medieval sites that you can see on a Scottish vacation.

A Rousing, If Conventional, Medieval Epic

In many ways, Outlaw King works as a sequel to Braveheart. It finds Robert the Bruce and his fellow Scottish nobles contemplating rebellion against King Edward I of England (played by Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones), but worried that the mighty English army might put them down as it did William Wallace. Robert marries Edward’s god-daughter, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), to try to ensure peace, but soon enough, he cuts down his chief rival to the Scottish throne, crowns himself at Scone, and starts attacking the English-held castles in Scotland, using his rag-tag group of Scots and the rugged geography of Scotland to defeat the larger, better-armed English army.

Robert Bruce statue at entrance to Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
Robert Bruce statue at entrance to Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh

Unlike in Braveheart, Scottish director David Mackenzie (who is best-known for directing the Oscar-nominated western Hell or High Water from a few years ago, also starring Chris Pine) doesn’t fill Outlaw King with the usual signifiers of Scotland. He’s more faithful to history than most directors are in Hollywood. For instance, you won’t find any kilts here, as the kilt didn’t become standard regalia in Scotland until the 16th century, and Outlaw King takes place at the turn of the 14th century. You also don’t see any tartans on flags or tunics, as like with kilts, the tartan didn’t become commonplace until centuries after Robert the Bruce was dead. There isn’t any face-painting like in Braveheart and the broad-strokes of the story are true to the historical record, which is again unlikely in a Hollywood historical epic.

This is both good and bad for the film itself. History buffs will love the attention to medieval detail, but the film lacks some of the mythic grandeur of Braveheart and less-accurate Hollywood epics. The story is pretty perfunctory, moving from battle to battle, and you don’t get much of a character portrait of Robert, nor an investigation of his legendary status within Scottish history—for all of Braveheart’s faults, it does a great job of conjuring a mythic tale about its central hero.

At least the action is good. The battles are exciting, especially the finale, where Robert and his small band of warriors use the muddy glens to force the English cavalry to dismount. If you’re looking for a stirring action film set in the Middle Ages, Outlaw King is worth a watch. It just might not be the definitive film about Robert the Bruce that we were hoping for.

The Life and Death of Robert the Bruce

If you’re taken with Outlaw King, are a history buff, or even if you only have a passing interest in history, there are some great sites connected to Robert the Bruce’s life and times that you can see while travelling across Scotland. He may have lived 700 years ago, but Scotland is an ancient land and has a long memory. It’s not hard to find the past here in its medieval castles or on the glens that define its landscape.

According to tradition, Robert the Bruce was born in 1274 at Turnberry Castle, which is now merely ruins next to a popular golf course to the northwest of Galloway Forest Park. The castle was the traditional home of the Earls of Carrick, a position that Robert held prior to his taking the crown. As well, it’s clear that he spent his childhood here, so even if he wasn’t born here, it’s a significant biographical location.

More significant is Dunfermline Abbey and Palace, just to the northeast of Edinburgh, which is the resting place of Robert the Bruce. After he died in 1329, he was buried in the abbey, while his heart was embalmed and placed in Melrose Abbey, to the southeast of Edinburgh. Dunfermline consists of a new church built around the remains of a Benedictine Monastery, which fell into disrepair after being sacked in the 16th century. Today, the church is still an active parish in the Church of Scotland. You can visit the church and see the massive brass monument on the floor indicating Robert’s tomb beneath.

Dunfermline Palace and Abbey ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland
Dunfermline Palace and Abbey ruins near Edinburgh, Scotland

In the Footsteps of Kings

Scone Palace in Perth is arguably the most important medieval site in all of Scotland. Traditionally the home of the Earls of Mansfield, Scone has been the crowning site of ancient kings for millennia. In the 9th century, the first King of Scots, Kenneth MacAlpin, brought the Stone of Scone to the palace and founded the state of Scotland. Although King Edward I of England stole the Stone of Scone and brought it to London, where it stayed in Westminster Abbey until 1997 when it was moved to Edinburgh Castle, Scottish kings continued to be crowned in Scone for centuries. Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots at Scone in 1306. The current palace was built in 1580 and rebuilt in the early 19th century. As such, it’s a gorgeous example of Georgian architecture and one of the finest stately homes in the United Kingdom that you’ll visit on Scotland vacations.

Edinburgh has more sites linked to Robert the Bruce and Scottish kings. Aside from the Stone of Scone that lies in Edinburgh Castle, it also has the National Museum of Scotland, which recounts the nation’s history and the tales of Robert the Bruce and the War of Scottish Independence, among many other subjects. It even has Robert’s Bute Mazer or Feasting Vessel, which was used at royal functions and feasts. Your curiosity might also lead you to the mansion of Broomhall House, just to the south of Dunfermline, which is the seat of Clan Bruce and carries on family traditions that date back to the times of Robert the Bruce. (However, it’s worth noting that the actual house was built centuries after Robert’s death.)

Scone Palace and garden on a sunny day. Perthshire, Scotland
Scone Palace and garden on a sunny day. Perthshire

Explore the Battles of the War of Scottish Independence

If you want to see the actual battlefields where Robert the Bruce fought against the English, you should head to Stirling. Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact location of most battles during the time period, so even if there are monuments to the past battles, they’re almost never on the exact spot of the historical battle.

The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre, located to the south of Stirling, is one of the best spots to learn about Robert the Bruce and his War of Scottish Independence. It has several exhibits on the past and the circumstances of the battle, and uses 3D technology to bring to life the historical characters and elements of the battle. It’s a nifty museum that does a lot to enliven the material and is a good spot to visit with kids as it makes the history more accessible for them. That being said, it’s unlikely that the Visitor Centre is located on the actual spot where the Battle of Bannockburn was held. Regardless, it’ll help you learn about the decisive Scottish victory that defeated King Edward II of England in 1314 (which happens to serve as the climactic battle of Outlaw King).

The Visitor Centre is right outside Stirling, which was the setting for the Battle of Stirling Bridge, William Wallace’s key victory earlier in the war. The battle centred on a small bridge that was the safest river crossing in the area. You can see the 15th-century Old Stirling Bridge still intact today, on Scotland vacations, but it’s not the same as the bridge the Scottish and English battled over.

Aerial view of Stirling with the William Wallace Monument in the distance, Scotland
Aerial view of Stirling with the William Wallace Monument in the distance

You’ll come across medieval sites all across Scotland having to do with Robert the Bruce and other heroes of Scottish lore. Movies like Outlaw King give us a gateway to the history of this ancient land and the fascinating tales of heroism, betrayal, and triumph that lie within its historical monuments.