The south-west of Scotland has many strong links to the struggle for Scottish Independence; not least, it is the birthplace of Robert the Bruce and probably of William Wallace. Other heroes too have their roots here - Sir Robert Boyd, who allegedly was William Wallace's second in command before joining Bruce and becoming one of his most trusted commanders at Bannockburn; and Sir James Douglas, Bruce's closest supporter and architect of many border raids deep into England. These raids struck so much terror into the hearts of those who witnessed them that Sir James would forever be remembered south of the border as the 'Black Douglas'.
Others are less fondly remembered, somewhat unfairly. The deposed King John Balliol and his supporters, the powerful Comyn family, also held extensive land in south-west Scotland. Bruce's rivals are often portrayed as schemers and political opportunists, unable to decide which side they were on and desperate to wear the Scottish crown at any price, or as being ready to betray fellow countrymen rather than fight. If this had been true then the same could be said of Robert the Bruce and his family. In fact John Balliol did rebel against the demands of Edward I, and did so before William Wallace burnt his first barn. King John, however, was defeated and sent into exile in Europe (in Papal custody) and it was in his name that William Wallace fought. Robert the Bruce was eventually able to fill the gap left by Balliol, although he had to diminish support for the exiled King to do it. He did this by murdering John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan, who was Balliol's closest kinsman and, along with Bruce himself, one of the two most powerful nobles in the country. To make this crime even more heinous, it was carried out in front of the Altar in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries; not only had he ruthlessly rid himself of his closest rival; Bruce had committed sacrilege (in an age of deep religious belief) to do it!
Comyn in fact had led along with another powerful noble - Sir John Soules - some of the earliest resistance to the English. At the turn of the 14th Century, shortly after Wallace's execution in London, they are reported to have been joint commanders of a large army which they amassed near Loudoun with which they carried out several crippling attacks on the English. Sir John de Soules had family ties to both the Comyns and the Balliols and had in 1301 been appointed sole guardian of Scotland. He was not only an active military commander against the English but was also responsible for sending strong representations to the Pope to argue for Scotland's right for independence. He visited France in person to attempt to stop the French making peace with England, which would leave Scotland isolated and allow England to turn its full military might towards its northern neighbour. These attempts failed and the Scots submitted to Edward I in 1304. Soules, however, chose exile rather than live in a Scotland under Edward and did not return until 1306 to join a new rebellion led by Robert the Bruce. Soules was a major figure in this ultimately successful uprising along with his nephew, William. Still, only four years after the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath, Bruce practically wiped the Soules family out. It was alleged that they were conspiring to replace Bruce on the throne with William Soules, but many suspect that it may have been a convenient way for Bruce to remove more of his closest rivals and consolidate his line. Wallace too, as mentioned earlier, was a supporter of John Balliol, and as a result his name and his rebellion are not even mentioned in Robert the Bruce's biography, written by John Barbour in the second half of the fourteenth century.
Many of the crucial events during these wars took place locally - Wallace's slaughter of the garrison at Ayr, his sacking of many castles in the area such as that at Ardrossan, Edward I's seige of Caerlaverock Castle, the battle of Glen Trool and both battles of Loudoun Hill, to list but a few. After his coronation at Scone, Bruce was officially sworn in as King at St. John's Tower in Ayr. As Bruce strengthened his position many great nobles who had supported Balliol or Edward I would never again hold high office, many being 'removed' like the Soules family and their estates and titles given to supporters of the Bruce. People like Sir Robert Boyd, who before the wars were minor nobles, now found themselves with extensive lands and power. Boyd gained lands such as Kilmarnock (previously belonging to the Balliol family) and Portincross (previously owned by the powerful de Ross family, another Balliol supporter). Bruce needed proven commanders and above all friends to protect his southern borders.
Nobody suffered as much in these wars, however, as the ordinary people of southern Scotland and northern England. Both Bruce's army and that of the English used what is now called a 'scorched earth' policy. Whenever an army retreated it would create a buffer zone by making the land it left behind a wasteland which could not support an advancing army. Strongholds were dismantled, crops burned and livestock slaughtered. If this devastation was supposed to be too inhospitable to support a few thousand soldiers, it is hard to imagine the hardships endured by the many thousands of people who lived there and whose existence depended on the very land which was now ruined. Add to this the decades of terrifying and brutal cross border raids that continued long after the main events of these wars, which were meant to deliver independance to Scotland, had ended, and it is easy to guess what price was paid by the ordinary people of the area for their country's freedom.