There is a street in Larbert called Robert Bruce Court and it’s a fair bet that many people believe that it is a salute to the great King of Scots who triumphed at Bannockburn in 1314.
The truth is very different and takes us back to another turbulent period in Scotland’s history when the battle for religious power was at its height following the Reformation of 1560.
Robert Bruce of Kinnaird was born in Airth Castle to aristocratic family with ties back to ‘the Bruce’, and was destined for a career in the law. While studying at St Andrews University he came under the influence of John Knox himself and after years of wrestling with his conscience turned his mind to the church.
He discovered in himself a great power as a preacher and was soon attracting attention in the court of King James V1.
Bruce’s high family connections and legal training made him a powerful ally for the young King and he was soon one of the inner circle that shaped religious and political events. He was appointed to Knox’s old pulpit of St Giles and was more or less in charge of Scotland while James was in Denmark to collect his new wife.
But all was not well between the two. Bruce was suspicious of the King’s changing theology and James for his part thought his former friend might become a rival: “Master Robert Bruce I am sure intends to be King and declare himself heir to Robert the Bruce”. The big fall out came in 1600 when the King ordered all Ministers in Edinburgh to condemn the Gowrie brothers as traitors from their pulpits. Without proof Bruce refused and as a punishment he was banned from preaching and then exiled from Scotland. He was allowed to return home though banished to Inverness.
Finally he was confined to his home at Kinnaird and not allowed to travel more that two miles from there.
At this time the old church at Larbert Cross was in ruins with services in the parish taking place at Dunipace which was then joined to Larbert. Robert Bruce tells us that he and others decided to restore both church and services: “Captain William Bruce and Master Livingstone began it and I came the third restoring the walls and pulpit”.
From then on every Sunday he preached with great power against the changes to religious practice ordered from London by James and his son Charles 1. Thousands came to the village to hear him and he soon became one of the key figures in the evolving Scottish covenanting tradition.
He died at Kinnaird House in July 1631 and 4000 people came to his funeral, an astonishing number given the size of the population at the time.
His gravestone is inscribed CHRISTUS IN VITA ET IN MORTE LUCRUM or ‘Christ is my advantage in life and death’. It now stands inside the church and his grave in the churchyard has a later inscription which says that he was buried below the pulpit of the old church.
The Kinnaird House of Bruce’s time was replaced in the 1700s and that building was itself demolished and a new house built in the late 19th century.
The intensity of Robert Bruce’s religious conviction may be a bit strong for our modern taste but there can be no doubt that he was a man of high principle who lost everything to defend what he believed in. He was also one of the most famous men in Scotland once described by the King as “worth half the kingdom”.