The Battle of Loudoun Hill was fought in May 1307 between a Scots force led by Robert Bruce and the English commanded by Aymer de Valence. It took place beneath Loudoun Hill, in Ayrshire, and ended in a victory for Bruce. It was Bruce’s first major military victory. The battlefield is currently under research to be included in the Inventory of Historic Battlefields in Scotland and protected by Historic Scotland under the Scottish Historical Environment Policy of 2009.
Bruce and Valence had first met in combat the previous year at the Battle of Methven just outside Perth, where Bruce’s lack of preparedness, and his somewhat conventional military tactics, had brought him to the edge of disaster and beyond. His army virtually disintegrated under Valence’s rapid onslaught, with many of Bruce’s leading supporters falling captive. What was left of his force was mauled for a second time soon after this by the Macdougalls of Lorn, allies of the English, at the Battle of Dalrigh. As an organised military force the army of Scotland ceased to exist, and the king took to the heather as a fugitive. For a time he took refuge in Dunaverty Castle near the Mull of Kintyre, but with his enemies closing in once more, he sailed out of the light of history into the mist of legend, seeking refuge on Rathlin Island near the coast of Ulster, according to some, and the Orkney Isles, according to others: into a cave inhabited by a spider. Supposedly, Bruce watched the small spider try to spin a line across a seemingly impossibly wide gap. As Bruce watched, the spider tried and tried and tried. “Foolish spider” thought Bruce, but continued to watch. Suddenly, the spider succeeded in leaping across the gap with its thread. Bruce considered this, and took it as an encouragement that he, too, should continue to persevere regardless of seemingly hopeless circumstances, and he later came out of hiding. It is doubtful if the story is true, however.
When he reappeared in February 1307 he was set to take his greatest gamble. From the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde he crossed to his own earldom of Carrick, in Ayrshire, landing near Turnberry, where he knew the local people would be sympathetic, but where all the strongholds were held by the English. A similar landing by his brothers Thomas and Alexander in Galloway met with disaster on the shores of Loch Ryan at the hands of Dungal MacDougal, the principal Balliol adherent in the region. Thomas and Alexander’s little army of Irish and Islemen was destroyed, and they were sent as captives to Carlisle, where they were later executed on the orders of Edward I. But against all the odds Robert survived and with remarkable tenacity soon established himself in the hill country of Carrick and Galloway. From the feudal warlord who had been overthrown at Methven, Bruce was in the process of transforming into one of history’s great guerilla captains.
Bruce had learned well the sharp lesson delivered at Methven: never again would he allow himself to be trapped by a stronger enemy. His greatest weapon was his intimate knowledge of the Scottish countryside, which he used to his advantage time and again. Even at the future battle of Bannockburn, where he temporarily abandoned his guerilla war, he chose his ground with genius, allowing his small army to operate at maximum advantage. As well as making good use of the country’s natural defences, he made sure that his force was as mobile as possible. Bruce was now fully aware that he could rarely expect to get the better of the English in open battle. His army was often weak in numbers and ill-equipped. It would be best used in small hit-and-run raids, allowing the best use of limited resources. He would keep the initiative and prevent the enemy from bringing his superior strength to bear. Whenever possible crops would be destroyed and livestock removed from the path of the enemy’s advance, denying him fresh supplies and fodder for the heavy war horses. Most important of all, Bruce recognised the seasonal nature of English invasions, which swept over the country like summer tides, only to withdraw before the onset of winter.
Bruce had enemies in all directions but managed to evade them, winning his first small success at Glen Trool, where he ambushed an English cavalry force led by John Mowbray, sweeping down from the steep hillsides and driving them off with heavy losses. He then slipped through the gap in the enemy ring, passing through the moors by Dalmellington to Muirkirk, appearing in the north of Ayrshire in early May, where his army was strengthened by fresh recruits. Here he soon encountered his old enemy, Aymer de Valence, commanding the main English force in the area. In preparing to meet him he took up a position on 10 May at Loudoun Hill, some 10 miles east of Kilmarnock and about 3 miles east of Darvel, both in Ayrshire. With all care Bruce scouted the ground and made the necessary preparations. John Barbour describes his actions in his rhyming chronicle:
Valence’s only approach was over the highway through the bog, where the parallel ditches Bruce’s men dug outwards from the marsh restricted his room for deployment still further, effectively neutralising his advantage in numbers. He was forced at attack along a narrowly constricted front upwards towards the waiting enemy spears. It was a battle reminiscent in some ways of Stirling Bridge, with the same ‘filtering’ effect at work.
As Bruce’s spearmen pressed downhill on the disorganised English knights they fought with such vigour that the rear ranks began to flee in panic. A hundred or more were killed in the battle. Amyer de Valence managed to escape the carnage and fled to the safety of Bothwell Castle.
Three days after the Battle of Loudoun Hill Bruce defeated another English force under the Earl of Gloucester. But the greatest boost to his cause came two months later. At Burgh-on-Sands, just short of the Scottish border, Edward I died.