Robert the Bruce and the Spider

Bruce statue at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle.

The story about Robert the Bruce, the cave and the spider is well known to all English or Scottish school pupils. However, outside the Isles it may not be this well known, so here is the story.

King Robert the Bruce I was born at Lochmaben Castle in 1274. He was Knight and Overlord of Annandale. In 1306 he was crowned King of Scotland and henceforth tried to free Scotland from the English enemy.

After being defeated at a battle, Bruce escaped and found a hideout in a cave. Hiding in a cave for three months, Bruce was at the lowest point of his life. He thought about leaving the country and never coming back.

While waiting, he watched a spider building a web in the cave's entrance. The spider fell down time after time, but finally he succeeded with his web. So Bruce decided also to retry his fight and told his men: "If at first you don't succeed, try try and try again".

Old legend.

However, it is just a legend, and many facts about the story are not very clear. It is not even sure, in which year this story happened. Most likely it was 1306, after having been defeated by the Lord of Lorn at the battle in Strath-Fillan. After this battle, three of his four brothers were executed by the English, his sister was captured. Some sources tell it happened after being defeated at the battles of Methven and Dalry in the winter of 1313. He came back and won the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, even though his men were outnumbered ten to one.

Also it is not clear, where this story happened! The place was a hideout, so it was not well known, and later the story was told without telling the place. And in the coming centuries, several towns claimed to be the place. Robert the Bruce left the battlefields to go to Dunvarty and then to Rathlin. Along this route are several caves to be found. And there are versions of the story which do not need a cave at all.

The Bruce family favours the cave on Rathlin Island, off the north Antrim coast, because in the 14th century it was owned by his Irish mother.

At the end the story is partly historic reality, partly legend, the border is vague and much stays unclear. In general it is interpreted as a story of keeping faith confronted with overwhelming odds and thus finally being rewarded by success. But one thing is absolutely sure about the whole story: to leave the cave, Bruce must have destroyed the web across the cave's entrance... So all the try, try and try again was futile in the end, for the spider as it was in Scottish history.


There was once a king of Scotland whose name was Robert Bruce. He had need to be both brave and wise, for the times in which he lived were wild and rude. The King of England was at war with him, and had led a great army into Scotland to drive him out of the land.

Battle after battle had been fought. Six times had Bruce led his brave little army against his foes; and six times had his men been beaten, and driven into flight. At last his army was scattered, and he was forced to hide himself in the woods and in lonely places among the mountains.

One rainy day, Bruce lay on the ground under a rude shed, listening to the patter of the drops on the roof above him. He was tired and sick at heart, and ready to give up all hope. It seemed to him that there was no use for him to try to do anything more.

As he lay thinking, he saw a spider over his head, making ready to weave her web. He watched her as she toiled slowly and with great care. Six times she tried to throw her frail thread from one beam to another, and six times it fell short.

“Poor thing!” said Bruce: “you, too, know what it is to fail.”

But the spider did not lose hope with the sixth failure. With still more care, she made ready to try for the seventh time. Bruce almost forgot his own troubles as he watched her swing herself out upon the slender line. Would she fail again? No! The thread was carried safely to the beam, and fastened there.

“I, too, will try a seventh time!” cried Bruce.

He arose and called his men together. He told them of his plans, and sent them out with messages of cheer to his disheartened people. Soon there was an army of brave Scotch-men around him. Another battle was fought, and the King of England was glad to go back into his own country.

I have heard it said, that, after that day, no one by the name of Bruce would ever hurt a spider. The lesson which the little creature had taught the king was never forgotten.

James Baldwin (1896): Fifty Famous Stories Retold. NY: American Book Company, 1896. Project Gutenberg EBook