Sometime in early August 1513 a fleet of around a dozen vessels arrived off Ayr. Most of them were probably too big to enter the harbour, and would have anchored out in the bay. The townspeople must have gazed in awe at the flagship. She was the Great Michael, the largest and most heavily-armed warship in northern Europe, built for James IV King of Scots at Newhaven near Leith with French assistance.
James’s fleet, having sailed from the Firth of Forth around the north of Scotland, had just attacked Carrickfergus, the main English stronghold in the north of Ireland – the castle held out, but the town was plundered. The fleet had then headed for Ayr, the principal seaport in the west of Scotland, to replenish its supplies before continuing south to reinforce the French navy. There had been peace between Scotland and England since the marriage of James and Margaret Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII, but now Henry had invaded France – this was part of a wider European conflict − and the Scottish king had taken the fateful decision to come to the aid of his country’s old ally.
Many men from Ayrshire had already set off in obedience to the summons sent out by their king for the national host to assemble at Ellem in Berwickshire. A move into northern England would, it was hoped, divert English troops away from the French campaign. King James had travelled extensively through his realm during the course of his reign, and was no stranger to Ayrshire. He had passed through Ayr in 1491 during a pilgrimage to Whithorn, and given drinksilver to the masons working on the bridge. In May 1512 he had spent eleven days in the town with excursions to Ailsa Craig and Lady Isle, apparently to shoot seafowl. James had given shelter to Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne, and when Perkin left Scotland in 1497 in a doomed attempt to claim that throne, it was from Ayr that he sailed.
At Ellem, the assembled Scottish host received hasty training from French military advisers in formation manoeuvres while wielding pikes 18 feet long – the ancient phalanx tactics of Alexander the Great which had been revived with devastating effect by the Swiss. James was determined to make Scotland a force to be reckoned with in the arena of European power-politics, and was striving to keep up with the latest developments in naval and military technology and practice.
To weather the storm of arrows which could be expected from the English longbows, the pike columns would be headed by the armour-clad Scottish nobility and gentry. These included David Kennedy, chief of the name and 1st Earl of Cassillis – a title granted soon after his marriage in 1509 to the king’s cousin Margaret Boyd. This was not his only royal connection – his half sister Janet Kennedy was for a number of years the king’s mistress.
As he prepared to launch his land campaign against England, James grew increasingly exasperated by reports that his fleet, instead of being well on its way to France after a quick turn-around, was still lying idly at Ayr. Its commanders and officers were probably making sure that their share of the plunder from Carrickfergus had been conveyed safely to their residences. Eventually the ships set sail again, but stormy weather caused further delay, and with the campaigning season almost over, they saw no action in the English Channel.
In the end, his creation of a strong navy may have proved fatal for James. When the confrontation with the Earl of Suffolk’s English army came on 9 September 1513 at Flodden in Northumberland, the Scots had the advantage of position on high ground. However, many of their best gunners and most of their lighter artillery had gone with the fleet. The cumbersome Scottish siege guns had done good service in reducing English border strongholds, but they were of limited use in a pitched battle. They were soon silenced by the lighter but better-handled and quicker-firing English guns, which then shifted their aim to the massed ranks of Scottish pikemen. Unwilling to risk confusion and disorder by trying to pull his army back into cover, James took the only other course of action open to him and led it in a downhill advance. On a previous occasion when the wisdom of his forwardness in combat had been questioned, he is said to have replied that he could not ask his subjects to risk death for him, and not share their danger.
The Swiss tactics which the Scots were using relied on well-ordered, close-packed infantry units charging home to overwhelm the enemy with the simultaneous impact of their levelled pikes. A marshy stream swollen by recent rains ran along most of the English front, and as the Scots floundered through it their momentum was lost and their formation was broken. The battle soon became a slaughter − the English used their handy, halberd-like bills to lop off the heads of the unwieldy Scottish pikes. They then proceeded to cut down the Scots as they threw away the useless pike shafts and tried to fight on with their swords. By nightfall King James and many thousands of his subjects lay dead on the field.
David Earl of Cassillis was the principal Ayrshire fatality – one of nine earls to fall – and many of his kinsmen and retainers would have died with him. Several senior churchmen perished including William Bunch, abbot of Kilwinning. Members of the Ayrshire gentry known to have fallen include John Blair, either of Adamton or of Middle Auchendrane (now Blairston), Thomas Boswell of Auchinleck, George Campbell of Cessnock, Robert Cathcart of Killochan, Sir Robert Colville of Ochiltree, John Craufurd of Craufurdland, Robert Craufurd of Auchnames, John Hunter of Hunterston, John Mure of Rowallan, (John?) Wallace of Craigie and William Wallace of Carnell.
Of the many Ayrshire fallen who were not of the land-owning class, only a few names are known. The Obit Book of Ayr’s parish church of St John the Baptist, recording those for whose souls requiem masses were to be regularly celebrated, has survived. Included is John Dixon, burgess of Ayr, who died under the king’s standard (i.e. in the royal army) at Flodden. By the time his widow Margaret Mason passed away fourteen years later, she had arranged for a bequest of eight shillings to be given annually to the choristers for the celebration of a mass, on each anniversary of her death, for herself and her husband. A further four shillings was to be distributed to the poor on that day.
There was no English counter-invasion following the battle, and the dead king’s infant son succeeded him as James V, but the loss of such a dynamic and charismatic monarch in the prime of life, along with so many of the kingdom’s leading men, amounted to an unmitigated national disaster for Scotland. Noble factions vied for power, and this encouraged the resumption of the many simmering blood-feuds between rival kin groups. David’s son and heir Gilbert Kennedy, 2nd Earl of Cassillis, would fall victim to one of these conflicts in 1527. The Great Michael never returned to Scotland – she was sold to the French. The haunting lament ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ is often to be heard played by a lone piper at commemorative events. It is a lasting reminder of the terrible impact of Flodden, ‘where shivered was fair Scotland’s sword, and broken was her spear’.