The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.
As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.
Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.
None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.
All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.
With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.
Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.
(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)
Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.
We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.
In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.
19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.
In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.
Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after imbruing his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.
One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.
But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.
* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.
** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”
† A “False Margaret” posing as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.
‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.