Robert the Bruce’s defeat of Edward II of England at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314 was the most spectacular event in his colourful career, a career which had its origins in what is now South Ayrshire. Robert’s unrecorded birthplace was almost certainly Turnberry Castle, the ancestral home of his mother, Marjorie, countess of Carrick, and Robert in due course became earl of Carrick.
Having seized the Scottish kingship in 1306, Robert was defeated and forced to seek refuge for a time among the islands off the west coast. When he returned to the Scottish mainland in 1307 to launch his fightback against English garrisons and the many Scots who were hostile to him, he sailed from Arran to Ayrshire’s Carrick coast and landed near Turnberry. Here he could be sure of mustering men whose loyalty he could depend on, and who, along with the Islesmen accompanying him, would form the nucleus of his army. After a faltering start, Robert’s guerrilla campaign began to deliver the string of successes (including the repulse of an English force at Loudoun Hill) which ultimately led to the confrontation of the kings near Stirling in 1314. Edward was caught off guard when Robert suddenly abandoned his defensive tactics and seized the initiative with a dawn attack. Advancing in good order, the Scottish spearmen closed with the English knights before they were able to mount an effective charge. They kept pushing forward to bottle up the entire opposing army and then drive it into the steep-banked channel of the Bannock Burn.
Around 1375 John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, wrote The Bruce, an epic poem celebrating the deeds of King Robert (who had died in 1329) and his comrades in arms. While Barbour’s vivid description of Bannockburn differs on a number of points from other accounts of the time, it remains the principal source for the events of the battle. Barbour places the men of Carrick in Robert’s own division, along with the men of Argyll, Kintyre and the Isles. Other Ayrshire contingents probably served under Sir Walter Stewart in the division of Robert’s brother Edward Bruce.
Walter, head of his family, with his principal seat at Ayrshire’s Dundonald Castle, later married Robert’s daughter Marjorie Bruce and founded the line of the royal Stewarts. It is now thought that a Scottish division said by Barbour to have been jointly commanded by Walter Stewart and Sir James Douglas was an invention intended to please Walter’s son King Robert II – the third Scottish division at Bannockburn was led by Robert the Bruce’s nephew Sir Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray.
Many traditions of King Robert would be related in Ayrshire in later times. He was said that when he held a parliament in Ayr in 1315, he established the burgh of Newton-upon-Ayr and granted privileges in the new burgh to 48 men who had distinguished themselves at Bannockburn. These privileges were passed down to their descendants, the Freemen of Newton. Situated on the north bank of the River Ayr near its mouth, Newton was in the territory of the Stewarts, and it is likely to have been they who actually founded the burgh. However, this does appear to have taken place in the period soon after Bannockburn.
Towards the end of his life, Robert suffered from a painful and disfiguring skin disease, said by English chroniclers to be leprosy. In the later Middle Ages, the spittal of St Ninian at Kingcase, south of Prestwick, was dedicated to the care of lepers. It was understood to have been endowed for this purpose by King Robert the Bruce, who had drunk from its healing well. The king probably did visit the spittal at Kingcase during the last months of his life. He travelled down the Ayrshire coast during the course of a pilgrimage from his estate at Cardross near Dumbarton to the shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn. The well at Kingcase became known as Bruce’s Well. In 1912 Prestwick Town Council restored and rebuilt the well, replacing its rough old stonework and worn steps with fine masonry to create its present appearance.