Isabella MacDuff: The Badass Countess of Buchan

Scotland is a country steeped in incredible history and mystical stories, although it’s perhaps most famous for its centuries-long struggle against England in its fight for independence.

Hollywood has touched on the stories of our heroes and kings (see; Mel Gibson’s borderline offensive accent and face paint, Chris Pine looking like a frozen snotter in a boat), however the women who fought for freedom alongside them are too often forgotten.

Take for example, the Countess of Buchan – a woman who rebelled against her sympathetic husband and in-laws, turned her back on her own family by taking a stand for Scottish Independence and single-handedly legitimized the crowning of King Robert the Bruce, before facing a nightmarish fate at the hands of the English. This is her story.

Isabella MacDuff, the Countess of Buchan, was born some time around 1270-1285 to the Earl of Fife, Donnchadh MacDuff, and Johanna de Clare – the daughter of a prominent nobleman. She was also a cousin of Robert the Bruce, that Robert the Bruce. Her father was murdered in 1299 by a classman, and Isabella’s mother and younger brother fled to England.

Her family were welcomed warmly to England, thanks to her maternal grandfather and his recent marriage to the king’s sister. They spent time in the company of the English royals, and his supporters, while Isabella remained in Scotland. During this time, they became loyal to the English king, Edward I.

She married John Comyn, the 3rd Earl of Buchan in the 1290’s, and despite being almost 40 years her senior it seemed like a decent match – and Isabella became a Countess thanks to her new husband’s title. However, familial ties proved a difficult subject at their dinner table.

The Comyn’s were claimants to the Scottish Throne, stating their family line stemmed from King Donald III of Scotland, and famously struggled against Isabella’s cousin, Robert the Bruce, and his own fight for the throne.

10th February 1306, Robert Bruce (1274 – 1329) murders Scottish baron John Comyn, also known as Comyn the Red, his rival for the Scottish throne, at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

These struggles came to boiling point in February 1306, when John “Red” Comyn – the cousin of Isabella’s husband – was fataly stabbed by Bruce at the altar of Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. Nobody is sure if his death was accidental or murder, but it was sacrilege at the altar of a church, and Robert knew he had to hurry to ensure he was crowned before the church could object, a church that the Comyns were pretty tight with. Someone who has been excommunicated could never be King.

He rode almost immediately to Scone, the traditional coronation spot for Scotland’s Kings. The English had looted the Abbey some time before, taking with them the Stone of Destiny – the traditional seat of Scottish Kings – but that wasn’t going to stop Bruce.

Tradition dictated that a representative of Clan MacDuff crowns the new King, however it wasn’t exactly easy to get a hold of the young MacDuff, Isabella’s brother. He was loyal to the English King, or was outwardly at least, and it would be suicidal to make the journey from England to crown Bruce – even if he wanted to. It must be emphasized that without following this tradition, any coronation and claim over the throne as King of Scotland would have been improper, and somewhat illegitimate.

News quickly reached the Countess of Buchan. Conveniently, her husband was also in England at the time, and understanding the urgency of the situation, she freed some of his horses and raced to Scone. The Comyn’s were sympathizers to the English cause, as well as being known for their public spats with the Bruce family, and so Isabella’s departure was pretty controversial in the eyes of their friends and neighbors.

She arrived a day late, as Robert was hurriedly crowned in the wake of John “Red” Comyn’s death. They held a second coronation after Isabella arrived, where she placed the crown of Scotland on her cousin’s head and proclaimed to Scotland – and to England, where her mother and brother waited with baited breath – where her loyalties lay. She could never go home again.

King Edward I sent troops to Scotland, where they hunted the newly crowned Robert. In a bid to protect his family he sent them north. Isabella, alongside his wife, daughters and sisters were sent to Kildrummy Castle in the company of a friend, the Earl of Atholl, and her other cousin – Robert’s brother, Neil the Bruce. However, it was seized by the English shortly after their arrival, and the women were captured by Earl William de Ross, who turned them in.

Neil the Bruce was also caught by the English, and sentenced to die a traitor. He was hung, drawn and quartered.

Robert’s wife was the daughter of a friend and supporter of Edward I, and she was simply sent to house arrest south of the border. His sister, Christina, was the wife of a powerful nobleman, and she was sent to a nunnery. The daughter, little Marjorie – just 9 years old – was threatened to be hung in a cage outside the Tower of London, however Edward I was talked out of the idea due to her age and she was also sent to a nunnery. The younger sister, Mary, faced a similar fate as Isabella.

Not only was Isabella seen as a rebellious wife, but she was more importantly seen as the woman who legitamized the crowning of Robert the Bruce, and so house arrest or the nunnery were simply a daydream for her.

Isabella was suspended in a cage outside of Berwick castle, where she was supposedly exposed to the elements and everyone could see her. As a Scottish person, I can confirm that we have all four seasons in one day sometimes, and to be exposed all year round is another type of hell. She was not allowed to speak to anyone who stopped by to see her in her cage, made of lattice wood and hinged with iron, however there was a small privy which gave a degree of privacy to dress and relieve herself. Still, what a horrible existence.

It’s unknown what happened to Isabella; some sources claim she was released in 1310 into the custody of her niece, by marriage, Alice Comyn. Other sources suggest she died in prison, but I hope this wasn’t true and she was reunited with her family after the victory of Bannockburn in 1314.

Her role, no small part, in the Wars of Scottish Independence have been whispered of in recent films like Outlaw King, but Isabella MacDuff deserves one all of her own! The woman who rocked up to Scone Abbey on her husband’s horse to ordain the coronation of King Robert the Bruce, and in doing so turned her back on her family; who fearlessly declared her allegiance with the people of Scotland and gave a middle finger to her husband and in-laws to do what she believed was right. She deserves more than a minute of screen-time, Netflix! Make. It. Happen.

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A twenty-something preschool teacher / professional hokey pokey dancer, collecting stories about women's history, historical fashion and beauty, and self care of the past.

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