Scotland's Lost Braveheart
What Happened to Majorie Comyn?
For a very long time, two questions have haunted me: what happened to Marjorie Comyn, 8th Countess of Dunbar, 4th Countess of March after 1296? When did she die?
Actually, the two became one in my mind, because I was convinced she died in April of 1296. I could find no proof of this. But in my heart, I knew it. So the question really distilled into one?what happened to Marjorie Comyn, wife of Cospatrick, 8th Earl of Dunbar in April of 1296. It was a very long hunt. I finally answered the question, though it will leave me haunted, likely to my dying day.
First a little backstory on whom the woman was, why she interested me. No, she was not an ancestor of mine. I came across her story when I was researching my family history, with an eye to putting the tale into fictional form. There were points where my ‘fictional’ heroine identifies with the real Marjorie. Only, I could not find information on what happened to her after the Battle of Dunbar.
Marjorie Comyn was born of the powerful Clan Comyn. Their lineage was royal, her father Alexander Comyn, 2nd Earl of Buchan was the leader of the Scottish forces that would ride out to face Edward the Longshanks’ host. But oddly enough, her husband Cospatrick, Earl of Dunbar and March, rode at Edward’s side. Before Cospatrick kissed his wife and bade her farewell to join the English King, he put into her keeping Castle Dunbar. Obviously, their marriage was such that her Scottish husband felt comfortable leaving the castle in his wife’s capable hands. Cospatrick expected her to hold it against the Scots?led by her father and brother, while he went off to war to aid Edward.
Much to Cospatrick’s dismay, that is not how it went! Her father and brother, with 40,000 Scots, took the land before Castle Dunbar and chose to do battle on the foothills of the Lammermoors with Edward’s force under Earl Warenne. I am sure it came as quite a shock?and likely a very big embarrassment? for Cospatrick to learn his wife held the castle?not as he ordered her to do, but for the Scots. The battle was a rout and English forces took the day. The Ragman Roll would soon be there for every landowner, every noble to sign and swear fealty and homage to Edward the Longshanks instead of a Scottish King. Yet, imagine Cospatrick, earning ‘brownie points’ by siding against his countrymen and with the English, and he’s embarrassed when his lady-wife won’t let him into his own castle! Edward ordered the castle taken. It was. He later paid Cospatrick the sum of £500 to refurbish and restock Castle Dunbar. We know Marjorie was alive and well before Edward ordered the castle seized. Many historians give Marjorie the footnote of having held the castle against the English. But NONE of them tell you what happened afterward. Did Marjorie die in the assault on the castle? Did she surrender and hubby pat her on the head and say you naughty lady wife? Did she somehow slip out through the escape tunnels many castles of this period had? There was not one word to her fate.
I found it frustrating that a woman would be so daring to hold her husband’s castle against him, thus embarrassing him before one of the most ruthless kings to ever sit on the English throne. Black Agnes, another Dunbar Countess and niece to Robert the Bruce, did the same thing a few years later and there are tons of stories written about her, poems and songs. But nothing for Marjorie. Often, Marjorie’s daring-do I even attributed to Black Agnes, with many writing as if they are the same person!
Marjorie’s fate became a thorn festering in my finger. Before PCs came along, I spent hours, weeks?likely months tracking down every reference, every lead I could find. I wrote the head of Clan Dunbar (he never bothered to reply). When Nigel Tranter, the late great Scottish Historical writer began his Dunbar trilogy before his death, I hoped he might have the answer. He died before I could learn what he knew about Marjorie, if anything. Years passed and I was still asking what happened to Marjorie. Some told me she escaped and went to live in Scotland, dying at 58-years-old. But when I looked at the dates, they didn’t jive. The Marjorie Bridget Comyn that died at 58-years-old could not have held Castle Dunbar. She would have been nearly a child then. Anytime my professors or lecturers wanted to remind me they were the teacher and I the student, I hit them between the eyes?answer my question and I’ll believe you have the right to tell me you know more about Scottish history. None ever could. One finally contacted me years later with a scanned record showing Marjorie died in 1286. WRONG! How could she have died ten years before the Battle of Dunbar? History clearly shows her alive in 1296.
I have always felt Marjorie died at Dunbar, that historians didn’t write about her after that point because she was dead. The movie Braveheart opens with the words "history is written by those who have hanged heroes". Marjorie certainly was a hero?to the Scots. So why nothing about her and her fate? Because her death was hushed up? The victors didn’t want it known why and how Marjorie died, because it would make a martyr of her, a rallying point for all of Scotland. Had the Scots been aware of Marjorie’s death immediately following the taking of the castle, do you not think they would’ve shouted the news from all four corners of the country? You might ask how could this be hushed up and the Scots not wonder about it? After the battle of Dunbar, nearly all of Scottish Nobility was made prisoner to the English. It was months before they were able to return to Scotland. The fact her death is not mention by historians tells me Longshanks and Dunbar covered it up. Marjorie’s life was forfeited in fighting for Scotland. Who knows maybe had history done right by Marjorie she would have been the true Braveheart of Scotland!
Sometimes in research you cannot see the forest for the trees. A cliché but one that is quite true. Recently, when I was giving information how Scottish women kept their maiden names their whole lives, and taking their husband’s name only came into fashion in the 19th century. A detail I had known my whole life. All the women in my family did this. I do it. Blame it on the fact this Scot went to school part of the year in the United States. Yank ways corrupted me, don’t you ken! I forgot to check for information on Marjorie, not as Marjorie, Countess Dunbar, but as Marjorie Comyn. When I did, the pieces quickly fell into place. Marjorie did not die at 58-years-old in the Highlands. She did not die in 1286. If you write 8 and 9 and stop to look at them, a 9 could very easily be taken as an 8 if the quill leaked or the person writing had poor penmanship. If someone goofed and wrote 8 when it should have been a 9, then Marjorie died in 1296.
With the magic of the internet, I discovered the answer I knew I would find:
Marjorie Comyn was born in Of Altyre, Morayshire, Scotland.
The Battle of Dunbar was 27th April 1296. Marjorie Comyn, wife of the powerful 8th Earl of Dunbar, 4th Earl of March, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Buchan, died at some point two days later.
So my question was answered and it was I always feared: this very brave woman gave her life for her country. However, part of my query has not been unriddled. How did she die?
It’s a shame historians do not afford the same right to immortality as they do to other Scottish patriots, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and James Douglas. Very often, it’s the ones who die, such as Andrew de Moray and Marjorie Comyn, also true patriots, true heroes that are forgotten.
Marjorie, I am sorry, I could not conjure the magic to know how your life was taken. At least, I was finally able to know when.
© DeborahAnne MacGillivray
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