Focus On #Ayrshire: Burns, Bruce and Battles

Turnberry Lighthouse
Turnberry Lighthouse

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Like much of the British Isles, evidence shows that there has been human activity in Ayrshire for many thousands of years. However it was not until the early part of the 12th century that the county of Ayrshire, with borders stretching from Inverclyde in the north to Galloway in the south, was established.

The ancient districts of Kyle, Carrick and Cunninghame were amalgamated at this time to form the county and Ayr became (as it still is today) the main county town. Prior to this Carrick belonged to Galloway while Kyle and Cunninghame were, surprisingly, part of Northumbria.

Going back even further to the 2nd century, southern Scotland was home to people known as the Damnonii, although there is very little historical record about them.

Largs, at the northern end of the Ayrshire coastline, played a momentous role in Scotland’s development when the Battle of Largs was fought on the outskirts of the town on the 2nd of October 1263. The encounter was crucial in bringing to an end the Scottish-Norwegian War and settling disputed lands along much of Scotland’s western seaboard, which had been in Norwegian possession since the 12th century.

Ayrshire also lays claim to being the birthplace of both Robert the Bruce (in 1274 at Turnberry) and William Wallace (in around 1272 at Ellerslie), although both Dumfriesshire and Renfrewshire (the Bruce and Wallace respectively) have always contested this.

What is definite is that much of the early lives of these two national heroes were played out in Ayrshire. The Bruce held the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament at the Church of St John in Ayr, the year after his famous 1314 victory over Edward II’s English army at Bannockburn. Wallace torched an English garrison at Ayr in 1297 in what has since become known as the ‘Burning of the Barns of Ayr’.

During the early 13th century much of the land along the Ayrshire coastline was owned by the Kennedy Clan, which had separate factions including the Bargany and the Cassillis Kennedys. The history of the clan is a hostile one, with much bloodshed over the centuries.

The 15th and 16th centuries saw Ayrshire under control of its churches and abbeys, but with the 1560 Reformation the ownership of land came under the control of local lairds, giving rise to the Covenanters and leading to more infighting and many deaths.

Agriculture, mining, fishing, steel-making, shipbuilding and the manufacturing of textiles, such as cotton and cloth, have all played an important part in the development of Ayrshire in recent times. Having said that, with the decline of heavy industry within the region (and more recently the closing of the Johnnie Walker whisky plant in Kilmarnock) it has relied somewhat on ‘20th century’ industries like computing and chemicals.

Fishing Trawler and Ailsa Craig
Fishing Trawler and Ailsa Craig

Another industry that  has come to play a major role in Ayrshire’s economy is tourism, one that is aided by a particular sport and one man.

The sport is golf. Ayrshire is the only county in Britain to contain three golf courses that have hosted The Open Championship, with Prestwick holding the very first in 1860 (it subsequently held another 15). It has since been taken out of the tournament’s rotation while Turnberry and Royal Troon both remain choices for the organisers.

And the one man who has created a cottage industry in his own right is Robert Burns. Born on the 25th of January 1759 in Alloway, near Ayr, our National Bard, and is incredible body of work, is renowned worldwide. He has become a cultural icon for Scots, both in Scotland and in the many expat communities around the world.