In Ayrshire, some 10 miles from Kilmarnock, near the village of Darvel, stands a lonely but imposing outcrop of rock, a remnant of Scotland's volcanic pre-history - Loudoun Hill. It was here on May 10th, 1307 that Robert the Bruce scored his first decisive victory over the forces of Edward I, the Plantagenet King of England, and began his delivery of Scotland's independence. Some would argue that in winning the war, Bruce not only freed his land from the occupying Southern forces, but unified the fractured country into the Scotland that we recognise today.
A year before, Bruce's campaign looked lost
after his defeat at the Battle of Methven near Perth. His army had
been shattered by the superior numbers of the English and the
experienced tactics of their leader, Aymer de Valence - the 2nd
Earl of Pembroke and the English commander in Scotland - and
one of King Edward's best and most trusted soldiers. After many of
his most powerful supporters were slain or captured and his small
ill-equipped army had all but been dispersed, Bruce again fell foul
of his enemies. This time they were Scots - the Macdougalls of
Lorn, allies of his rivals the Comyns who bested Bruce's remaining
forces near Tyndrum. Bruce's Royal army, for a time anyway, ceased
to exist, and although he escaped with a few key supporters, he
fled into the heather a broken and hunted man.
What happened to him in the next few months is shrouded in myth and rumour; what is certain is that he left the mainland for a time, hiding in the islands and caves off the west coast, where, instead of giving up as most would have done and despite lack of support, he regrouped the few men who remained loyal to him and hatched new plans, showing incredible tenacity and readying himself for a second attempt.
Bruce reappeared in February 1307, a changed man. Methven had taught him that he could not meet his adversaries in traditional pitched battles or he would suffer the same fate as before. He was now going to fight a different kind of war, one that the English had no experience of and no answer to. He was going to fight a hit-and-run guerrilla war using the hills, rivers and forests of Scotland as his closest ally relying on the experience of commanders like Robert Boyd who had fought using similar tactics alongside William Wallacea few years previously.
He landed from the island of Arran in his own lands of Carrick where he could count on local support, while two of his brothers, Thomas and Alexander, landed in Galloway. At first this new campaign was met with renewed bad luck, as the army of Irishmen and Islanders, led by his brothers, was defeated by Dungal MacDouall, one of John Balliol's supporters. His brothers themselves were captured and executed. Bruce, though, held out and as his reputation grew as a guerrilla leader in Carrick so did his support. He also knew that the English only mounted large campaigns in the summer months and if he survived the remaining weeks until that time he could take on the relatively small English garrisons in the locality and establish himself as the power in the area. He prepared his men for the challenge to come.
Not simply content to wait out the time evading his enemy, Bruce decided to take the fight to them. He struck an English force led by John Mowbray at Glentrool in Dumfrieshire, routing them completely, before slipping across the Dalmellington moors and appearing in Ayrshire with a strengthened force. Tracking him all the way, though, was his old adversary, Aymer de Valence. Bruce knew that he could not hope to keep outmanoeuvring this experienced campaigner and looked for the best ground on which to meet him. Bruce decided on using the same ground that Sir William Wallace had used only ten years previously to win a victory over the English in the hope that history would repeat itself. He took up position in the soft ground under Loudoun Hill.
The best original source for what happened comes from Bruce's chronicler, John Barbour, written just a few years after the event (although heavy with pro-Bruce propaganda). In Barbour's account he writes that Valence and Bruce agreed on the meeting place which would have been at the time regarded as the honourable and chivalrous thing to do. However, warfare is rarely like that and it is more probable that Bruce knew that the heavy English horses needed to pass that way and planned to spring a trap. Centuries earlier, the Romanshad built their main fort in the area on the slopes of Loudoun Hill (they too had recognized its strategic potential). It is possible that a Roman road still existed there. It was these roads which were commonly used by the English to move troops; it was along a Roman road that the English marched to reach Bannockburn. Barbour does allude to a road being present in his script:
"The Highway took its course, he found,
Upon a meadow, smooth and dry.
But close on either side thereby
A bog extended, deep and broad,
That from the highway, where men rode,
Was full a bowshot either side.
The bog meant that the English horses were next to useless. Bruce also cut a series of ditches to neutralise English numbers by herding them into manageable portions (Barbour puts the English numbers at 3000 and the Scots at just 600 - this is likely exaggerated, but it is probable that the Scots were seriously outnumbered and less well equipped, for a pitched battle at least).
Hemmed in, with no room for movement and with Scottish spearmen bearing down on them, the front ranks of the English were pressed into a wholesale carnage. On seeing this and recognising inevitable disaster their rear ranks started to flee. Valence escaped but had been left utterly humiliated with many of his men slaughtered. Bruce, however, was triumphant and went on to compound his success, defeating the Earl of Gloucester and his troops just three days later. From this position Bruce and his army took Scotland back from English hands town by town, castle by castle.
Three months later Edward I of England died with the news of Bruce's victories still ringing in his ears. Edward, the most adept, ruthless and successful military leader England had ever known, who had commanded the most powerful and most professional army in all of Christendom, who had defeated the French, the Welsh, lorded over Ireland, put down several uprisings of his own powerful Barons and who had led Crusades; had failed to break the resolve of the people of his closest neighbour and the strategic prowess of their leader, who had remained a constant thorn in his side and who would in a few years time defeat his militarily inept son at Bannockburn and drive the English forces out of Scotland forever. It could be said that the fires for Scottish independence were sparked by the Scottish commanders - among them William Wallace, who resisted English rule several years earlier - but the campaign which delivered the country back into Scottish hands was led by Robert the Bruce and began with his first major victory on the 10th of May 1307, in Ayrshire, under Loudoun Hill.
Loudoun Hill - Early History
Long before the 14th century Loudoun Hills strategic importance was recognised by the people of the area. Evidence of this lies in the remains of an iron age settlement located at the foot of the south east slope. Later the hill was on the very outskirts of the Roman Empire and the Romans too used its potential by building their main fort in the area, large enough for 500 men, at closeby Allanton Beg. From their base there the Romans were able, for a time at least, to control the entire region. All the Roman roads built within the region connect to their highway there and it is beleived that the A71 Edinburgh to Kilmarnock road which passes the base of the hill follows the original Roman one which linked the Clyde Valley to the Ayrshire coast allowing rapid troop movement through an otherwise boggy moorland and ease of supply to the forts garrison. It was probably this very road that Aymer de Valence and his army were using when they met Robert the Bruce and his men.
Many of the soldiers based at the tough frontier garrison were probably locally recruited auxilliaries. The local tribe in the Northern part of Ayrshire were the Damononii who were on better terms with the Romans than their neighbors. Archaeologists discovered Roman armour and equipment at a Damononii fort near Dalry leading to speculation that these were the people that the Romans integrated into their ranks in the area. The hostile Novantae tribes from the Southern part of Ayrshire were a common enemy to the Romans and Damononii alike and Loudoun Hill would have been a strategic base from which to launch attacks directed against them or a strong defensive position if the garrison was caught on the back foot.
The First Battle of Loudoun Hill
Eleven years before Bruce's victory at Loudoun Hill, Sir William Wallace fought a smaller but important skirmish in the same location. Wallace using the same guerrilla tactics which Bruce would later adopt ambushed and routed an English baggage train at Loudoun Hill in 1296. It is believed that the site of this battle was on the ground below the southern side of the hill near the site of the Roman fort, where the geography narrows into a gully which negated the superior numbers of the forces loyal to Edward I. The English force was led by a commander called Fenwick, who, in local folklore, had killed Wallace's father in the same spot some months earlier. According to the 15th century minstrel Blind Harry, the English numbered 200 mounted men and the Scots a mere 50. This fact, as well as the Victorian fancy about the supposed murder of Wallace's father, is of course not based on any concrete evidence. What is known is that the English were defeated and Fenwick killed and the supplies carried in his baggage train were left to equip and feed Wallace's fledgling rebellion. It was following this ambush that Wallace was formally declared an outlaw.
It is testament to the enduring reputation held by the local people of Wallace as a patriot and champion that a monument celebrating this less significant battle exists and one for Bruce's victory does not. The sculpture called 'Spirit of Scotland' was created by local artist Richard Price and was erected in 2004.
The Battle of Drumclog
In the summer of 1679 a large conventicle was held at Loudoun Hill. Conventicles were illegal religious gatherings where the Covenanters could meet to hold their outlawed services. The well attended conventicle reached the ears of John Graham of Caverhouse, who had been recently appointed by the King to supress all covenanting activity in the South West of Scotland. Quickly gathering his men Claverhouse rushed to Loudoun Hill with his heavily armed dragoons. Upon his arrival at the scene the covenanting rebels fought back and Claverhouse and his men were soundly defeated in a battle which was both bloody and humiliating for Claverhouse who was forced to flee. The battle site lies about half a mile or so from the eastern slopes of the hill and is remembered as the Battle of Drumclog.
The Geology of Loudoun Hill
In geological terms, Loudoun Hill owes its distinctive shape to
the action of glaciers that carved out the Irvine Valley during the
last Ice Age. As these giant ice-sheets gouged away the softer
rocks around it, the relatively harder rocks of what became Loudoun
Hill were left more intact as they were more resistant.
These harder rocks are of a type known as 'trachyte', formed within a 300-million-year-old volcano. Although volcanic activity in this area is long-gone, the characteristic landforms of Loudoun Hill, Dundonald Hill, Craigie Hill and Ailsa Craig are all evidence of quite intense volcanic activity during the Carboniferous Period in south-west Scotland.
The glaciers also dumped large deposits of sand and gravel around Loudoun Hill, which are quarried today.