Isabel was born around 1285 in Scotland to Duncan MacDuff, (7th or 9th Earl of Fife descended from the long line of mormaers of Fife) and Joan de Claire (daughter of Gilbert de Claire who later married the Joan, the sister of Edward I of England). She was the elder of the two children, her brother Duncan most historians believe that he was at least two years younger than her. Her father Duncan was a mean man and in 1288 when the children were mere toddlers he was murdered by his own clansman. Leaving her young brother Duncan now the new heir to the earldom of Fife. Because their mother was English young Duncan became award of the English court and that is where he was raised. It is not clear that Isabel was raised there because of her strong patriotic feelings for Scotland's independence.
In the late 1290’s or early 1300, Isabel married John Comyn, Earl of Buchan who was her senior by a good 30 to 40 years, not all that uncommon as marriages such as this were for political gain not girlish dreams of love. Unfortunately for Isabel though her 2nd cousin was the young Robert de Bruce (King Robert I), she was married into the wrong family. The Comyn’s were the heredity enemies of the Bruce family and add to this John Comyn was cousin to John Balliol, who was chosen to the kingship of Scotland over the Bruce claim. For Isabel, who some historians and authors believe may also have been one of Bruce’s lovers, things were made worse when Robert de Bruce stabbed to death John “Red” Comyn, her husband’s cousin, in the Kirk of Greyfrairs in Dumfries (February 1306). Bruce believed he was being betrayed by the Comyns and from here he quickly rode to Scone in Perth to capture the crown of Scotland.
Current Greyfriars in Dumfries, Galloway, Scotland
Now it is tradition that all Scottish kings be crowned at Moot hill at Scone the home of the Stone of Destiny. Unfortunately the Stone (or was it?) was removed by King Edward and taken back to England in the 1296. So it was important that some traditions of the crowning be observed. Usually the Kirk would anoint the king but Bruce’s actions at Greyfriars and the Comyn family’s connection with the current Pope made that unlikely. There was also the tradition of the MacDuff family to crown the Scottish kings but that wasn’t going to happen because young Duncan, Earl of Fife was a ward of the English court. So on March 26, 1306 Robert de Bruce was crowned at Scone.
Meanwhile our heroine of the day Isabel MacDuff, married unfortunately to a loyal supporter of Edward I, decides her loyality lies with Bruce and Scotland and will represent the MacDuff family to crown her cousin king of Scotland. As luck would have it her husband John was in England at the time so she took many of his horses and rode to Scone arriving a day late. However, because so many traditional elements of the crowning were absent from the first crowning, a second crowing with Isabel representing the MacDuff family tradition solidified Bruce’s right to the kingship of Scotland. Through this action Isabel cut off herself from her Comyn family, though her own mother did remarry a Scottish noble who came out for Bruce which would later cost her mother her lands from her father Gilbert de Claire that she received as her dowry. So Isabel’s only choice was to join the group of Bruce women who included his second wife Elizabeth de Burgh (whose father was a friend and supporter of Edward I- her saving grace later on), Marjory de Bruce (Robert’s daughter from his first marriage to Isabelle, countess of Mar) and his sisters Christina (or Christian) and Mary.
Head of Bruce at St Duthac Kirk
As the fighting became intense for the Bruce army, it was imperative his women were taken to safety. Some believe he had sent them to Kildrummy Castle which was being held by his brother Nigel (Neil) and other sources believe the women headed north to gain access to the Orkney’s as the Bruce’s sister Isabel was the queen consort of the Norwegian king Eric III and the Orkney’s were part of Norway in this period. I believe the women made it to the castle being held by Nigel Bruce, but the English quickly laid siege to it, and when it looked like the tide would turn in the English favor, the Earl of Atholl helped the women to escape and they may have sought sanctuary at Girth of Tain, a twelve mile square around the shrine of St Duthac protected by the Church. However, they were betrayed and captured by Earl William de Ross who violated the santucary, whose mother was a Comyn, so we know whose side he was on. The earl of Atholl was killed as were the troops and it is said that the earl of Ross later set up endowments at the shrine so that the priests would say daily prayers for those he slain that day. What a guy!!
What happened to the women? Well Queen Elizabeth was only 17 and because of her father’s connection to Edward she was placed under house arrest in England. Marjorie, Bruce’s daughter was only 9 and Edward threatened to place her in a cage that would hang from the Tower of London, but relented (what a chump!) and she was guarded at Watton Priory. Christina, 33 and married to her second husband a Seton was sent to the Sixhills nunnery. (a side note Christina was married for third time to Sir Andrew de Moray, the son of the Scottish hero of Stirling Bridge-see post 9/11). But for two of the women, Mary and our Isabel their punishment was cruel even for mean old Edward I. Both women were put on display in England and Scotland.
"Let her be closely confined in an abode of stone and iron made in the shape of a cross, and let her be hung up out of doors in the open air at Berwick, that both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travellers."
These were the words of King Edward of England in regards to our Isabel MacDuff. Both Mary and Isabel were hung from cages from the side Roxburgh Castle and Berwick Castle respectively. Why Mary[i] received such a fate is unknown, but for Isabel it is clear not only did she not respect the wishes of her husband who was loyal to Kind Edward, but also she legitimized Bruce’s kingship by crowning him at Scone. Edward was clearly going to make an example of her and could get away with it in large part because she had no family able to defend or revenge her treatment. These cages were made of lattice wood and iron hinges, they were completely open to the elements, however they were given a privy for privacy, (Edward was such a humanitarian!). In Isabel’s case she was given 4 pence a month for her needs and had two women to help her, but again she was in a cage by herself open to all sorts of elements through all the seasons of Scotland.
How long were they caged? Isabel probably was in the cage from late 1306/1307 for either 3 years or 7 years depending on sources. Some believe that in 1310 Edward released her sending her to a nunnery (as he released Mary), however there are no records to support this. In 1313 surviving records show Isabel was released into the care of Henry Beaumont whose wife was the niece of her husband (he died in 1308 in England having lost all of his lands in Scotland).
“ To Edmund Hastings, keeper of the town of Berwick-on-Tweed and constable of same Order to deliver Isabel, late wife of John, Earl of Boghan (Buchan) to Henri de BelloMont (Beaumont) or William de Felyng, his attorney, to be guarded by him as the King enjoined him.” [ii]
After the Scottish victory at Bannockburn 1314 when there was a trade of prisoners the Bruce women were all returned to Scotland. Mary who suffered a hardship like Isabel married twice and only had a son, Iain who survived her. Marjorie marries Walter Stewart and dies after an early childbirth induced by a fall from a horse. Christina marries a third time and in 1333 successfully held her husband’s (de Moray) Kildrummy Castle from the English until Scottish troops could relieve her. What happens to Isabel after this point is unknown. That she was not part of the women exchanged after Bannockburn leads historians to believe that she died before this date.
“I lie in this cage in full public gaze,
and I don't give a pin for all their scorn.
for I've crowned my lover king,
such glorious days I've seen.
give me the chance I'd do it all again.
“Isabel” by Steeleye Span (click to hear song)
Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan was a true Scottish patriot who suffered for the Scottish cause unlike many men of her ilk in that period.