William Wallace's dwelling at New Cumnock
According to Blind Harry,William Wallace and his household of men were at Wallace's dwelling at the Black Rock or Black Craig in Cumnock soon after he killed the Sheriff of Lanark in May 1297 and then again immediately before Wallace's betrayal and capture at Robroyston in August 1305. Blackcraig hill and Blackcraig farm are situated in the south of the parish of New Cumnock in the picturesque setting of Glen Afton, about 4 miles from the centre of the present day village of New Cumnock. Unsurprisingly most commentators consider that Wallace's dwelling must then have been in this vicinity, a view made even more irresistible by the presence of a great rocky outcrop known as Castle William, across the Afton Water. However, the waters were muddied when the name Blackcraig Castle was applied by some as an alternative name for Cumnock Castle, which stood at the confluence of the Afton Water and River Nith, and around which grew up the village of New Cumnock. Where was Wallace's dwelling ?
© Robert Guthrie
'To the Black Crag in Cunno past agayne,
His houshauld set with men of mekill mayne,
Thre monethis thar he dwellyt in gud rest.'
'In Cunno syne till hys dwellyng went he'
'And Wallace past in Cumno with blith will,
At the Black Rok, quhar he was wont to be,
Apon that sted a ryall hous held he.'
Armstrong's Map of Ayrshire (1775)
Click on map for larger image
Cumnock Castle or Blackcraig Castle ?
The wrongful assigning of Blackcraig Castle as an alternative name for Cumnock Castle can ironically be traced back to the 18th century and William Hamilton's translation of Blind Harry's 'The Wallace'. Born at Ladyland in Ayrshire in the mid-17th century, Hamilton's translation of 1722 ' became the most commonly owned book in Scotland, next to the Bible'
Hamilton's translation of Blind Harry's Book VI, written in prose, makes no reference to either Black Crag or Cumnock. It is in Book XII where the damage is done. Although, Hamilton confers modern day spelling in Cumnock is given, Hamilton transfroms Harry's Black Rok to Black Bog. His motivation for doing so is simply to deliver the rhyme, Black Bog with merry cog. And so the name Black Bog castle was invented in the early 18th century. In 1776, almost 50 years after Hamiltons' publication, Cumnock Castle appears as 'The Black Castle Ruins' in the road maps of George Taylor and Andrew Skinner. By the close of the following century, the castle appears as 'Site of Black Bog Castle' in Ordnance Survey maps.
'And Wallace went to Cumnock with good will.
Then with his friends he met at the Black Bog,
And with them drank a blythe and merry cog.'
William Hamilton 'Blind Harry's Wallace', Book XII
Reverend Matthew Kirkland, writing his contribution for the New Statistical Account in 1838, appears to be the first local casualty of Hamilton's folly. However, not only does Kirkland name Wallace's residence as the Castle of Black Bog, he applies it to the site of Cumnock Castle, at heart of the village, some five miles from Blackcraig hill. Matthew Kirkland, would leave the established church five years later in 1843, to be the first minsister of the Free Church in New Cumnock, and his new church was built on the castle hill. By the early 20th century Free Church had become the United Free Church , and on Ordnance Survey maps of that time the UF Church is shown adjacent to the Site of Black Bog Castle.
1838 - Rev. Matthew Kirkland, New Statistical Account
'The few antiquities of the parish are the site of the Castle of Black Bog - on the summit of the knoll on which the castle village stands. The fosse of the castle is still very distinct; but all the stones were removed, about fifty years ago, and employed in the building of houses. This castle was the property of the Dunbars of Mochrum, and is said to have been frequented by the renowned Sir William Wallace'
1863 - James Paterson 'History of the Counties of Ayr'
The site of the Castle of Blackcraig, the seat of the Dunbars of Mochrum, was visible, especially the moate by which it was surrounded, until very recently. It occupied the summit of the knoll on which the castle village stands.
1895 - John Smith 'Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire'
'The remaining castle of the district was Black or Bog Craig Castle, situated on the summit of the rising ground, on which part of the village is now built. It belonged to the Dunbars of Mochrum, but has been completely rooted out.'
1898 - Thomas Kirkland 'New Cumnock School-fellows Annual Magazine'
' It is clear that the English foes of the West of Scotland came up the valley of the Nith, and the place of interest for them here was the home of theDunbars - " The Castle of the Black Bog" - not Black Crag - which stood near where the present Free Church Manse is erected. It appears that the castle was in prosperity when Sir William Wallace, in the winter of 1296, enjoyed three months "gud rest" wae the family of Dunbar* ( * quote from 'Wallace and His Times' by James Paterson.)
1899 - Helen J. Steven 'the Cumnocks Old and New'
1899 - Rev. John Warwick 'The History of Old Cumnock'
' Black Rock, where he was in the habit of staying, is clearly the castle of Black Craig in New Cumnock, the local name of the fortress, which in all the old records is called the castle of Cumnock. As long as this place continued to be his headquarters, Wallace would move about in different directions to make himself acquainted with the country and the people'
The Rev Warrick seems almost apologetic in offering the name Black Craig, for he concedes that 'in all the old records it is called the castle of Cumnock'. Throughout the period of the Wars of Independence the castle is referred to as the Castle of Cumnock, or some earlier form, e.g, Castle of Comenagh. In Pont's manuscript map of Nithsdale (ca. 1590) it appears as Cumnock Castle. Almost one hundred years later during the Covenanting period, 'Patrick Gemmill in the old castle of Cumnock' appears as an outlaw in a proclamation of 1684. It is no coincidence that the first references to Cumnock Castle as Black Bog Castle or Black Craig Castle appear after Hamilton's work, for I can find no such reference that pre-dates his work. This part of the village has never been called Black Bog or Black Craig, there is no craig or rock here, only a natural knoll that still goes by the name of castlehill. The castle is named after the confluence it overlooks, the meeting place of the River Nith and Afton Water, and is from the Gaelic comunn achadh 'place of the confluence'.
Many of our 19th century commentators associate the Castle of Cumnock (although they called it Black Bog or Black Craig) with the Dunbars of Mochrum. In fact it was Patrick, Earl of Dunbar and March, as baron of Cumnock that owned the Castle of Cumnock in the late 13th and early 14th century. A signatory of the Ragman Roll as Patrick of Comenogh in 1296, he remained Edward I's man throughout the wars until his death in 1308.Described as a 'rabid anglophile' he was certainly no ally or admirer of Wallace. His son, another Patrick, succeeded him as Earl of Dunbar and March and baron of Cumnock and acquired the barony of Mochrum and the lands of Glenkens in Wigtonshire, ca. 1342. Cumnock Castle would never have belonged to William Wallace as his 'royal residence'. He he may well have successfully defeated an English garrison there, securing it temporarily as one local tradition suggests. '
Was it true a small band of Wallace's men watched from Lowesmuir while he, in disguise, passed the English garrison, who were outside the fosse, enjoying a game. With the strength of four men he drew the drawbridge, then blew his horn, when his men came down and enacted the last chapter of the short struggle? [ Thomas Kirkland ]
Blackcraig and Castle William
According to Blind Harry, William Wallace held a royal house at the Black Crag or Black Rock in Cumnock, Where was the Black Crag ?
The most obvious candidate for Harry's Black Crag or Black Rock is Blackcraig Hill, the highest hill in New Cumnock. It sits at the at the head of Glen Afton in the Southern Uplands, five miles or so from the town of New Cumnock. The place-name elements crag and rock are interchangeable and have their origins in Gaelic creagg 'craig, rock' which in turned has spawned the Scots craig. Hugh Lorimer writing in the 1950's makes his case for Wallace having his stronghold in the vicinity of Blackcraig hill. ' Wallace may not have been "Kyng of Kyal"* but his followers accorded him royal honours at Black Craig, four or five miles distant from the English occupied Castle of Cumnock. Kyle's highest mountain is Black Craig. It is in fact Kyle's proudest mountain in that it sheltered Wallace, the Saviour of Scotland'
Craigbraneoch Hill neighbours Blackcraig Hill, the hills seperated by the valley of the Craig Burn as its confluence with the Afton Water. The hill is known locally as Stayamrie, but in fact that name specifically applies to one of the three rocky outcrops found on the hill, the other two being Garnel Craig and Corbie Craig. George McMichael writing c.1884 in his outstanding work 'Notes on the Way through Ayrshire' presents a detailed interpretation of Wallace's domain at the head of the Afton and suggests that Stayamrie is Harry's 'Black Crag'.
'For another mile and half below this the Afton descends rapidly among the boulders between rocky banks , mostly covered with bent and sprit, to Craigdarroch and the Craig's Shepherd's Houses, in the bottom of a vast glen, where it is joined by the Craigs Burn, also from the south. In the fork between it and the Craigs Burn is the Stey-Amoury Hill or Craig, rising (part of it sheer perpendicular) to a great height - its apparently overhanging, black frowning face looking down the glen, daring the stranger to go near. The name of this hill, we think shows plainly that it was here where Wallace had his Armoury. A mile farther down the Afton , at the mouth of this great cleft is the Shepherd's House of Black Craig supposed to occupy the site of Wallace's dwelling of "Black Craig". As Henry the Minstrel calls Wallace's place the "Black Rock" as well as the "Black Crag," the description applied exactly to the Armoury Craig and not to Black Craig Hill.'
McMichael's analysis of local place-names* is a valid approach. However, Black Crag or Black Rock is certainly not a reference to Stey-Amoury. As previously shown, the place-name elements crag and rock are interchangeable and refer to the same place, i.e. Blackcraig hill. Similarily, the name Stey-Amoury is not a corruption of Stey-Armoury . The name comprises the elements Scots stey 'steep' and Gaelic] amreidh 'rough, steep'. It is an example of tautology where both elements have the same meaning, and in this case it is a perfect, yet simple desription of the rock-face, known locally as Stayamrie . Although there may not have been an armoury on Craigbraneoch hill, perhaps some other use was made of its rocky crags for the 'royal household' . Garnel Craig, overlooking the Craig Burn may contain the element Gaelic gairneal Scots garnel 'chest for grain, granary', a store for Wallace's garrison. Long before the Glenafton Reservoir was created (in 1930's), McLure's Mill, sat on the banks of the Afton Water, upstream from Castle William.
Castle William, is a rocky outcrop situated on the opposite side of the Afton valley from Stayamrie. Both McMichael and Lorimer find the association with William Wallace and Harry's Black Crag irresistible. However, both concede to their uncertainty over the origin of the name.
McMichael 'Afton Water rises in the south, among the mountains at the march with Kirkcudbrightshire. Its upper course is gentle , through an open moorland valley, past Mounthraw Burn and Shepherd's House, to Castle William Falls, one mile and a half. Castle William is a protuberance of loose rocks, resembling the ruins of a castle, but not presenting anything in the shape of walls or mortar. How it got the name William no one really knows, there being no record; but oral tradition says it was a residence of Sir William Wallace or some of his guards when, during his Protectorate, the head-quarters of his Government was Black Craig.'
Lorimer 'the old site among the hills of New Cumnock up Afton Water, which is called Castle William, may have been connected with "The Lion", if it was not the castle of William Wallace, of which we can not in either case make a definite claim'
McMichael considers the possibility of some form of residences at Castle William and Black Craig co-existing. As an outpost, Castle William would certainly provide a good vantage point to monitor any movements along the Afton valley and through the pass at Stayamrie. Whereas, Lorimer offers William the Lion, King of Scots, as well as William Wallace as possible sources of the name, Castle William. William the Lion formed the sheriffdom of Ayr in the early 13th century from the baillieries of Cunningham, Carrick and Kyle. The latter territorty was divided into Kyle Stewart in the north and King's Kyle in the south, including the barony of Cumnock. William, from his royal castle at Ayr, maintained control of the lands of King's Kyle, which bordered with the semi-independent state of Galloway. Castle William would be an ideal location for one of the king's fortifications on this uneasy border. William Wallace may well have used the same location in later years.
Local historian Donald McIver writing in his invaluable 'A Stroll through the Historic Past of New Cumnock' (2000) also considers Castle William as possible meeting place for Wallace and his men. 'The name Castle William is to be seen on many maps of the Afton Valley area, and on the Armstrong maps of Ayrshire for the year 1775 a castle symbol is shown near a large rocky outcrop which is also known as Castle William. No foundations are to be found in the immediate area of the rock, but it could have been a turf and timber structure adjoining the large rock and, after being abandoned, would have rotted down into the surrounding grassland, leaving no trace. Blind Harry, the minstrel, mentioned in one of his ballads that William Wallace spent some time in this vicinity. It may be that the rock was a meeting place for Wallace and his men, or that they used the rock as a lookout tower as it has an all-round view of the valley.'
Armstrong's Castle William is the earliest reference I can find of this place. For example, the name does not appear on the Johan Blaeu's detailed map of Kyle, 'Coila Provincia' (1654), based on Timothy Pont's manuscripts of the late 16th century. Of course the castle, if named after William Wallace,like many other place-names associated with the patriot could have been spawned long after the time of Wallace. Many of them be have their origins in the late early 18th century, when Wallace-fever took hold of the nation, following the William Hamilton's publication of a translation of Blind Harry's work. It should also be noted that the vast majority of William Wallace place-names are Wallace-names, e.g Wallace's Cave in Auchinleck, as opposed to William-names.
The exact location of William Wallace's residence at the Black Crag may never be found. It may have rotted away; or its timbers or stones re-used for the herd's cottages at the top of the valley; or any trace of it may have been destroyed when the Afton valley was dammed in the 1930's to create the Glenafton Reservoir. Wallace's stronghold would have comprised a number dwellings protected by a timber stockade perhaps, or man-made earthworks, burns and marshes, and supported by lookout posts. Blackcraig hill, Craigbraneoch hill, Stayamrie and Castle William would all have been known to Wallace and his men, for there is little doubt that Blind Harry's 'Black Crag in Cumno' is found at the head of Glen Afton. Leaving the last word with George McMichael...
'This appears to be the only home which the national hero ever had on his own; and, of all the scenes in the Land of Wallace, this, his head-quarters, is far the most romantic'.
Arthur Memorial Church on site of Cumnock Castle
and ruins of Auld Kirk on the Castlehill
Craigbraneoch Hill with the
rock face Stayamrie on the right
Ruins of Castle William cottage in foreground
and Castle William in the background