John Balliol was one of Scotland's more controversial kings, reigning from 1202 to 1296, in the years before Scotland's wars of independence, when figures like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce would come to the fore. He is often seen as little more than a puppet of the English king Edward I, and is known as "Toom Tabard" (empty surcoat), because his royal coat of arms was stripped from his tabard (heraldic surcoat).

The Balliol family came to England from France in the 11th century. They settled in Scotland in 1200. The first John Balliol, father of the later king, married Dervorguilla of Galloway in 1233. He is also known for founding Balliol College, part of Oxford University, in 1263. Dervorguilla was a wealthy heiress whose mother was daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, the son of David I. This royal connection became vitally important in 1286 with the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland. His death left Margaret, Maid of Norway as the only heir apparent to the Scottish throne, but she died in 1290 before being crowned.

Three claimants emerged as being the strongest "competitors" for the throne: Robert Bruce "the Competitor", John Hastings, lord of Abergavenny, and John Balliol, lord of Galloway. The rules of succession were complicated, and it was eventually decided that Edward I of England would adjudicate between the claims. Edward judged in favour of John Balliol, and he was formally inaugurated at Scone on 30 November 1292. Balliol maintained strong links with the powerful Comyn family, especially John Comyn of Badenoch. He also had links with his family estates in Picardy, and offered preferential terms to French merchants in Scotland. As king, Balliol's reign was notable for little else except the creation of three new sheriffdoms in Skye, Lorn, and Kintyre.

His reign lost much of its authority through appeals from Scottish courts to those of Edward I of England. Edward demanded Scottish towns and castles as sureties for his answering appeals. War broke out between the two countries, and at the battle of Dunbar in 1296, the English forces were victorious under the command of John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, and Balliol's father-in-law. The Scottish king surrendered in July and was publicly humiliated, leading to the nickname 'Toom Tabard' as noted above.

Balliol was imprisoned in England until 1299, and then given into the custody of the Pope. By 1301, the French king had him installed at a castle in Picardy. Scottish leaders in the wars of independence had continued to support Balliol, and rumours of support from Philippe IV made it seem as if he might yet be restored to the throne. The French army were defeated at Courtrai in 1302, however, ending this possibility

John Balliol died in January, 1315, shortly after he would have learned of the victory of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Oxford University Press, 2001