Year of Stories Chapter 5 Part 2: A Kingdom at War


By Gwen Sinclair

In Part two of Chapter 5 of the Chronicles of Castle Hill,  referencing the 1archaeological studies of 80s and 90s in the period between 1241-1300,  just a few years into his role as 5th High Steward of Scotland, James (1283-1309) faced a dire and unexpected series of events which threatened the very fabric of the kingdom. James went on to play a major role in shaping this next part of the story of Scotland, where the future of his great castle at Dundonald became increasingly uncertain..  

On 19th March 1286, tragedy struck the kingdom of Scotland, when King Alexander III (1249-86) fell from his horse and died. The parliament appointed James 5th High Steward of Scotland (1283-1309) as one of its six trusted Guardians of the Realm to look after the interests of the kingdom. Tragedy, however, struck yet again, when the only heir to the throne, princess Margaret of Norway (1283-90), granddaughter of the late king, at only 7 years of age, died en route to take up her throne in September 1290.  

Now, 13 claimants sprung forth to profess their right to rule Scotland, and to assist in untangling these assertions, James sent genealogical records to be examined by impartial attorneys in Europe, who concluded that Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale (c1215-95) should inherit the throne of Scotland, as closest male relative to the now deceased king. There is little doubt that James agreed, since he and his brother John had already sworn allegiance to Robert de Brus in a bond signed at Turnberry Castle on September 20th 1286.

The remains of Turnberry Castle

Meanwhile, although this had been agreed externally,  the internal battle continued to rage as to who should be king.  Fearing it would lead to bloodshed, another of Scotland’s Guardians, Bishop William Fraser of St Andrews (1280-97) invited king Edward I of England (1272-1307) to arbitrate on the decision. Edward set the terms that whomsoever became Scotland’s king, would do so under the suzerainty of the English monarch, effectively making Scotland a vassal state to the English crown. It seems that the Scottish nobles by and large agreed these terms, and so one claimant, John Balliol (c1249-1314) was chosen, and inaugurated at Scone in November 1292.

Edward I soon called command and requested the Scots assist in his battle with the French. The Scots refused citing The Auld Alliance mutual defence treaty they had already agreed between Scotland and France in 1295.  In response, March 1296 found an enraged Edward sacking the then Scottish town of Berwick on Tweed, the most economic port in Scotland, second only to London at this time.

 “When the town had been taken in this way and its citizens had submitted, Edward spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred…So that mills could be turned round by the flow of their blood.”
Account of the Massacre of Berwick, from Scotichronicon by Walter Bower (c1385-1449) 

What followed was a Scottish defeat in battle at Dunbar, and in July 1296, Edward captured king John in a churchyard at Stracathro, stripped him of his crown and tabard, and took him to England in chains. John was essentially the last Scottish king to be crowned on the Stone of Destiny because Edward removed this ancient crowning stone, destroyed many of Scotland’s records, and set his nobles up in its strongholds, as a symbol of his total domination.

However, in April 1292, a local Ayrshire legend began not far from Castle Hill, where the Kilmarnock Water and the River Irvine meet, on lands once belonging to the Barony of Riccarton, where their uncle Sir Richard Wallace held Riccarton Castle, William Wallace (c1272-1305) and his brother were enjoying a spot of fishing. Perhaps giving us an idea that the area had already begun to be occupied by Edward’s rule, 5 of his soldiers approached, demanding that they hand over their day’s catch. The story goes that William agreed, but to only half of the fish in their basket. This suggestion was met by the point of a sword, and using his fishing rod, William killed one soldier, took his sword, killed another, with the skirmish ending when the rest ran for their lives. The bodies were hidden under a thicket of nearby thorn bushes, with William supposedly saying  “I trow that was a bicker!” And so, it became known as The Battle of the Bickering Bush with this event rumoured to have forced William Wallace into hiding in various locations around Ayrshire including Craigie Castle, Leglan Wood near Auchincruive, and Barr Castle at Galston. 

“Syne to the Leglan Wood, when it was late

To make a silent and a safe retreat.”  

Extract from Wallace by Blind Harry quoted in a letter by Robert Burns

By 1296, Loudoun Hill, which can be seen rising east from the summit of Castle Hill, was the location of William Wallace’s legendary ambush of Edward’s baggage train said to contain plunder from Scottish lands. Essentially overpowering an English convoy of 200 horse and foot soldiers, William’s 50 men were said to have hidden out in the remains of Allanton Roman fort after having re-constructed stone walls to make the route through the Winny Wizzen pass even narrower, and essentially making the English procession more vulnerable to attack.  We might wonder if the thunder of hooves, the clanging of metal swords, and the cries of the dying drifted westwardly towards the residents of Castle Hill, whose days of living there, were, it seems, soon to be numbered.

In Ayr the following year, Edward I invited safe passage to Scots nobles who opposed his claim of domination to attend peace talks at a Court of Assize on 11th July 1297. According to local lore, William Wallace stayed away since he had had a vision from St Andrew imploring him not to go to Ayr, and instead spent the night in Prestwick within the grounds of an old church – possibly that of Prestwick Old Parish Church which had been established by Walter Fitz Alan 1st High Steward of Scotland, under the Monastery of Paisley between 1165-1172.  And, thanks to St Andrew, or just that he had to stay away due to his, by now outlaw status, it was just as well William didn’t attend. For these ‘peace talks’ became known as The Black Parliament when around 120 Lairds and nobles, by the end of that day, hung dead from the rafters at Edward’s behest.

With William’s uncle, Reginald de Crauford, the Sheriff of Ayr, said to be amongst the dead, his response was swift. By nightfall Edward’s entire English garrison was burned out or killed as they attempted to bolt from a barricaded barn once located where between Mill Street and Kyle Street in Ayr are today.

James, Sir William Douglas, Robert Bruce – later king Robert I (1306-29), and Bishop Robert Wishart of Glasgow, another of the Guardians of the Realm, all prominent figures acting as leaders of the rebellion in the South, were also missing from the list of unfortunate nobles that day. For a few days earlier, they’d been mustered at Knadgerhill in Irvine, 10 miles north west of Dundonald, engaged in negotiation with Edward’s commanders across the banks of a loch.  As messages of negotiation were sent back and forth, ostensibly discussing ways to avoid battle, some accounts suggest that this was a time-wasting tactic to stall Edward whilst William Wallace gathered his forces. But by the 9th July 1297, two days before Edward’s Court of Assize in Ayr, all four together with James’  brother, John of Bonkyl and brother-in-law, Alexander Lindsay of Barnweil, Crawford and the Byres had agreed oaths of allegiance to Edward I, signed at nearby Seagate Castle in Irvine.

Front of Seagate Castle, Irvine

Twice widower, James had submitted to Edward in May 1286, and which appears to have resulted in an arranged third marriage to Gelis de Burgh of Ulster, the sister of Richard de Burgh, 2nd earl of Ulster (c1259-1326), who was one of Edward’s strongest allies. The terms of his capitulation at Irvine were made on the basis that James would give up their infant son,  Andrew (b 1297) as hostage, with Bruce and Douglas agreeing also to bestow their eldest children to Edward as guarantors of their peace.  However, baby Andrew Stewart was given to Edward,  placed into the care of Bishop Lamberton of St Andrews,  who then delivered Andrew into the custody of Robert Bruce.   Bruce hid his own baby daughter, Marjorie (c1296-1316), and James Douglas (1286-1330) – the son of Sir William Douglas and James the High Steward’s sister Elizabeth Stewart (c1250-c1288), was hastily sent to France. Within weeks, James, Bruce and the Bishop had rejoined the fight,  but James’ brother-in-law, Sir William Douglas, was later taken prisoner and died in captivity.

By early September 1297, Edward’s army arrived in Stirling intent on quelling the uprising against him. 

William Wallace, together with Andrew de Moray (c1270-97) and James the 5th High Steward, were said to have stood on the high ground of Abbey Craig observing the gathering English forces across the River Forth on the other side of the Auld Stirling Brig.  James and Maol Choluim I Earl of Lennox (1250-1303), appear to have been hesitant to risk their army’s devastation, and James requested parlay with the English. In response to offers of lands and titles should they but yield, William is said to have replied:  

Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle to defend ourselves, and liberate our kingdom. Let them come and we shall prove this in their very beards.” 

And so it was, as dawn rose on the 11th September, after roughly half of the English cavalry had moved across the narrow auld bridge, the main force of the Scots began to attack, with English armoured knights and horses, cut down in the boggy terrain by the water’s edge. The bridge timbers were cut, effectively stranding the rest of Edward’s army on the other side of the River Forth. James and the Earl of Lennox pursued the fleeing English army, and yet by 1298, Edward invaded again. At Falkirk on 22nd July, Sir William Wallace was defeated, and sadly for James, his brother, Sir John of Bonkyl (1245-22 July 1298) was killed in the battle. Due to his support for Sir William Wallace, James seems to have been forced to forfeit his vast lands and estates on 31 August 1298, including those at Dundonald which had been in Steward hands for over 160 years.

The Tomb of Sir John Stewart at Falkirk

However, records show that Scotland was not entirely alone in these dark times.  For these were the days when the Pope was the final arbitrator in disputes between nations.  On 27th June 1299, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) issued a papal Bull in Scotland’s favour. Possibly made due to a personal appeal by Sir William Wallace, the pope ordered Edward I to relinquish his assertions over Scotland saying:  “that from ancient times the Realm of Scotland was not, and is not, feudally subject to your predecessors, the kings of the realm of England, nor to you.” 

Edward’s troops however continued to lay waste to southern Scotland, and as part two of this chapter concludes, a great, grey mantel now hung over the entire kingdom.  As for the Castle at Dundonald, thought perhaps to have been one of the finest in the land, evidence suggests, it too now lay in ruins. Possibly as the result of a siege, or a deliberate act of destruction to avoid its occupation, and so both Castle Hill, and the kingdom itself, had reached the juncture of a most uncertain future. 

Find out what happened next in chapter 6 of the Chronicles of Castle Hill.

#TalesOfScotland #YearofStories2022 #DCYearofStories #YS2022


1Dundonald Castle Excavations 1986—93
Author(s): Gordon Ewart, Denys Pringle, David Caldwell, Ewan Campbell, Stephen Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Dennis Gallagher, Tim Holden, Fraser Hunter, David Sanderson and Jennifer Thoms
Source: Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1/2, DUNDONALD CASTLE EXCAVATIONS 1986—93 (2004), pp. i-x, 1-166
Published by: Edinburgh University Press
Stable URL:

Hume Brown, P. A Shorter History of Scotland. Oliver & Boyds Education Series. Edinburgh 1907

Loudoun, C, In Pursuit of Sir William Wallace. Walker and Connell Ltd. 1999

Prebble, J. The Lion in the North- 1000 years of Scotland’s History. Book Club Associates. Secker and Warburg.

Neville, C J., Native Lordship in Medieval Scotland: The Earldoms of Strathearn and Lennox, c. 1140-1365, Portland & Dublin, 2005

Stuart, A. Genealogical History of The Stewarts: 1798. The Strand, London

MacEwen, A. The Wives of Sir James the Steward. Foundations 3. 2011.


Cover by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Timeline by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

The remains of Turnberry Castle by Walter Baxter, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The site of the battle of the Bickering Bush, site of Riccarton Castle and Riccarton Bridge by Gwen Sinclair

Knadgerhill memorial stone by Gwen Sinclair 

Seagate Castle images by Gwen Sinclair

Sir John Stewart’s gravestone at The Old Parish Church in Falkirk by Stansboats – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Loudoun Hill by Gwen Sinclair

Image of Loudoun Hill Spirit of Scotland Sculpture By Iain Thompson, CC BY-SA 2.0,