History of the parish of New Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland

© Robert Guthrie



'The Early Years c.1274-1296

'The Wallace Years'

Wallace's dwelling at
New Cumnock

The Early Years c.1274-1296  

William Wallace 'The Early Years'

Birthplace of William Wallace

The Renfrewshire vs. Ayrshire debate over the location of William Wallace's birthplace continues to rage on. Not unexpectedly many local history enthusiasts 'fight and defend their own corner' with a determination that would have been worthy of Wallace himself. Hopefully, however this healthy competition will also serve to unearth new ideas, views and information on our national hero, for all to share.








Traditional accounts, fueled it must be said by Blind Harry's 'Wallace', identify William Wallace's parents as Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, Renfrewshire and Margaret Craufurd, a daughter of the Craufurds of Loudon, the hereditary sheriffs of Ayr. From this acorn, grew the Wallace oak at Elderslie and to this day the town with its magnificent Wallace Monument is hailed as the birthplace of William Wallace.

Throughout the years Ayrshire claim based on Wallace's descent from the Wallaces of Riccarton near Kilmarnock and more recently the promotion of Ellerslie near Riccarton as Wallace's birthplace, have continually failed to rock the Renfrewshire foundation. The Ellerslie argument is greatly weakened over doubts that such a place ever existed in Ayrshire at the time of Wallace. Other Ayrshire offers include Craigie and Kilmaurs.

However, following the re-discovery of William Wallace's seal in 1999, the Ayrshire case has began to gather momentum. The seal identifies Wallace as the son of Alan Wallace and not of Malcolm and an Alan Wallace appears in the Ragman Roll of 1296 as a 'crown tenant in Ayrshire'. Dr. Fiona Watson carries out a detailed reassessment of William Wallace's early years and concludes 'Sir William Wallace was a younger son of Alan Wallace, a crown tenant in Ayrshire'. An observation that prompted  the renowned Wallace historian, Andrew Fisher, to suggest 'If the Alan of the Ragman Roll was indeed the patriot's father, then the current argument in favour of an Ayrshire rather than a Renfrewshire origin for Wallace can be settled' , qualifying his remarks thus 'This view does not settle the question of Wallace's birthplace but places him in an Ayrshire 'context''.

But where are what Dr. Watson calls the Wallace 'unidentified Ayrshire lands' ?

John Strawhorn in his classic 'Ayrshire, The Story of a County' provides a concise overview of the origins of the sheriffdom of Ayr and the feudal infrastructure. 'The advance of royal authority into south west Scotland can be traced step by step. First Cunninghame, north of Irvine, was incorporated; then Kyle between Irvine and Doon; then Carrick south of the Doon; finally they were grouped together to form the shire of Ayr'. Of specific interest is the baillie of Kyle, which was sub-divided into the two districts Kyle Stewart and Kyle Regis or King's Kyle.

Ayrshire :Kyle Stewart

David I, King of Scots (1124-1153) , granted lands in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire to Walter Fitzalan, a Shropshire knight. Fitzalan attained the office of High Steward of Scotland and the 'family name' became Stewart. His lands in Ayrshire became known as Kyle Stewart, where he established a great castle at Dundonald. Strawhorn lists 15 vassals of the High Stewards in Kyle Stewart, including Richard Wallace who according to Fisher held lands in Tarbolton, Mauchline, Auchincruive and possibly, Riccarton. During the Wars of Independence the Stewart lands in Renfrewshire and Kyle Stewart were held by James the Steward, one time Guardian of Scotland. As well as Alan Wallace, four other Wallace names appear in the Ragman Roll, including Adam le Waleys, del counte de Are and Nichol le Waleys, del counte de Are. (N.B. the other two Wallaces are from Berwick and Fife). These two are most certainly vassals of James the Steward and consequently probably held lands in Kyle stewart. Adam Wallace had a son John Wallace. Blind Harry identifies Adam Wallace as a son of Sir Richard Wallace of Riccarton, and a cousin to William Wallace. Adam and William are found together in a passage on Blind Harry's account of the burning of the barns of Ayr.





Crawford too is a cousin of Wallace, on his mother's side whilst Auchinleck is said to be an uncle of Wallace, although this relationship is ill-defined. James Mackay in 'William Wallace Braveheart' identifies Auchinleck as Patrik Auchinleck of Gilbank (near Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire) as Wallace's uncle on his mother's side. Whereas Dane Love in 'The History of Auchinleck - Village & Parish', identifies Auchinleck as Nicol de Achethlec ( listed in the Ragman Roll as del counte de Are) and considers him to be the first of Auchinleck of that Ilk and a 'blood relation of Wallace, being his uncle'. Could the Ragman roll entries of Nicol de Achethlec and Nichol le Waleys be references to the same person, i.e. a double entry ? (cf. Earl of Dunbar who is also found in the roll as Comenagh, Patrik de Comenagh, del counte de Are and Patrik de Comenok,del counte de Lanark). If so, then we can move the Wallace lands further south and east from the Riccarton heartland to Auchinleck, seven miles from New Cumnock, but still in Kyle Stewart. But Alan Wallace was a tenant of the crown and not a vassal of James the Steward and therefore it is reasonable to look beyond Kyle Stewart for the home of Alan Wallace and his son William.

Ayrshire : King's Kyle
Whilst the crown granted the lands of Kyle Stewart to the High Stewards of Scotland, it retained the lands of King Kyle. This southern part of Kyle, including the lands of New Cumnock, sat on the uneasy border with the semi-independent state of Galloway. Strawhorn explains 'On this south west frontier William the Lion (1165-1214) built a royal castle at Ayr sometime before 1197. The lands of King's Kyle were distributed for safety to men who owed direct responsibility to the crown'. Much of King's Kyle marched with Carrick in the sheriffdom of Ayr, whilst only the lands of what are now the parishes of Dalmellington and New Cumnock marched with Galloway. During the Wars of Independence the Castle of Cumnock was held by Patrick, Earl of Dunbar. Descended from the natural daughter of William the Lion, he may also have been baron of Cumnock at that time, and he appears in the Ragman Roll as 'Patrick de Comenagh, del counte de Are'.. The exact extent of the barony of Cumnock at that time is not known. However, it is known that the Crawfords, kinsmen of Wallace, including Roger de Craufurd del counte de Are, also listed in the Ragman Roll, held the lands of Dalleagles in New Cumnock. Interestingly, John Crawford was another crown tenant in Ayrshire appearing in the Ragman Roll (note: I have also seen a reference to John de Cromenoc in the roll).Could the Wallaces also have held lands in New Cumnock, not as vassals to the Earl of Dunbar but as tenants of the crown? Inevitably we return to Blind Harry's words,








Ayrshire : King's Kyle - Blackcraig, New Cumnock

The most obvious location of the Black Crag or Blak Rok is Blackcraig hill at the head of Glen Afton on that notorious boundary with Galloway, where stands a rocky outcrop by the name of Castle William. (Other possibilities for Black Crag are discussed in the section on 'Wallace's Home'). Hugh Lorimer, writing in 1951, before the discovery of the Wallace seal, considers that Blind Harry's words 'Upon that sted a rayal hous held he' , indicate Wallace's 'followers accorded him royal honours at Black Craig'.







However, this extract can now be reassessed in the light of Dr. Watson's report . Blind Harry is not conferring royal status on Wallace but gives a clear statement that Wallace's dwelling or household was a royal house, on crown lands at Black Craig in King's Kyle . Wallace, like his father was a tenant of the crown. Surprisingly, there is no reference to 'Black Crag in Cumno'
in Dr. Watson's report. However, this oversight is made good through the presentation of extracts from the work of Alexander Brunton published in the 1880s. Dr. Watson explains that Brunton 'details the story of Wallace in a vein similar to Blind Hary, but with some rather different details'. The extracts of particular interest from a New Cumnock perspective are,




The first extract refers to Wallace's return to his dwelling in Cumnock, after the murder of his wife by the Sheriff of Lanark. Brunton appears to suggest that Wallace was born at this dwelling. However, 'his owen contrie, wheir he was borne' is probably a general reference to the contrie of Kyle. The second extract reinforces Dr. Watson's observations that Brunton's story is similar to that of Blind Harry, with Wallace and his bodyguard returning to Wallace's crown lands at Cumnock, i.e. to Harry's Black Crag.When and how William Wallace came to have his home at the Blackcraig, New Cumnock is unknown. If Blackcraig is the crown property of his father's tenancy then the possibility of Wallace being born there cannot be dismissed, despite the list of assumptions growing, i.e. Alan was William's father; Alan was a crown tenant at Black Crag, Cumnock; Black Crag is Blackcraig; Blackcraig was crown land and not part of Earl of Dunbar's barony of Cumnock in the late 13th century. The last assumption suffers a 16th century setback. For at this time the four-merk land of Blackcraig along with a host of other properties in Glen Afton, was in the barony of Cumnock, and was held by the Dunbars of Cumnock and Mochrum, descendants of Patrick, Earl of Dunbar.












Little is known of William Wallace's mother. She was a Craufurd of Loudon, possibly called Margaret and a sister of Sir Reginald Craufurd, the sheriff of Ayr. Margaret Craufurd did not fall heir to the Loudon lands, but instead set up home with her new husband Alan Wallace in crown lands elsewhere in Ayrshire. It is not unreasonable to consider that Sir Reginald, as the leading royal administrator in the sheriffdom had some control over selecting crown tenants for crown lands. Were these crown-lands at Blackcraig, a royal stronghold from the days of William the Lion, in the hills of New Cumnock adjacent to the developing Craufurd territory centred at Dalleagles? Was it here that their son William Wallace was born, a place that he would return to time and again throughout Scotland's struggle for independence?










Like his birthplace, Wallace's birth-date continues to invite study and speculation. His victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in September, 1297 is often taken as a reference point from which to regress and to arrive at dates for yeat of his birth in the range 1270-1276. Then ca. 1274, the same year as the birth of Robert the Bruce at Turnberry in Ayrshire, cannot be too far off the mark. Sadly there are few other reference points from 1297 back to 1274, for Wallace only enters into documented history in May 1297, when he slays the English sheriff of Lanark. This should come as no surprise for he was only the second son of a crown tenant, leading an uneventful life making a living from the land. And where do we find him soon after this first reference point ? At his dwelling at Cumnok in his owen countrie, at his household at Black Crag. His father Alan was still alive at this time, he had attended the Berwick parliament the year before and Wallace was still only in his early twenties. Wallace may well have been returning to the paternal home, in the crown lands of Blackcraig.


So what of Wallace's life before the uprising of 1297?

His father's seal on the Ragman Roll displayed 'A curlew foliage behind'. Perhaps this was indicative of the environment in which he and his family lived. The moorlands of Kyle continue to provide a valuable habitat for the curlew, or whaup. However, it was the sign of the archer that appeared on William Wallace's seal.n his letter to Lubeck and Hamburg in 1297. Some commentators consider the archer sign indicates that Wallace may already have served time in an army, whilst others, suggest that it points to Wallace being a huntsman in his youth.

The hills, moorlands, woods, meadows and rivers of 13th century New Cumnock would certainly have been abound with game as reflected in some of the hill names in the parish such as Knockshinnoch (hill of the fox) and Alwhat hill (height of the wild-cat). A huntsman such as William Wallace would make his living killing game, some for pelts, some for the family pot and some for selling on to pay the tolls for the hunting rights and crown rents. His Crawford kinsmen in New Cumnock may too have made their living from the forests, but from a position of authority. For in 1358, David I appointed Sir John Crawford of Cumnock, forester or keeper of the forest of Glenkens.  Indeed an ancestor of this Crawford may well have had adminstered the Dunbar's baronial forest or park.  (See Web-pages on Deil's Dyke). 

It would have been in such an environment that Wallace honed his hunting skills and developed an intimate knowledge of the landscape of south-west Scotland. These attributes along with his renowned physical stature would serve him well in his impending role as a leader in guerilla warfare. It may also have been as a huntsman that Wallace first felt the direct impact of the occupying English, as Edward I began to anglicise the Scots law in 1296. At that time he may already have been living outside the law, killing game in forests that were now under the control of the self-imposed feudal overlord of Scotland. As an outlaw Wallace would certainly not comply with Edward I's demand to attend the Berwick parliament of 1296 - a case often put forward for William Wallace's name not appearing on the Ragman Roll. However, it is unlikely that Wallace, as the lowly son of a crown-tenant, was required to swear fealty to Edward I, in the first place. His father having sworn-fealty, was still a crown-tenant and to William Wallace the crown was that of John Balliol.

Of course too little is known of William Wallace's early life to say with any degree of certainty that he was born at Blackcraig in New Cumnock. His father's home may have been elsewhere in King's Kyle, or in some pocket of unknown crown-lands in the Stewart lands of Kyle Stewart, but not the invented Ayrshire 'Ellerslie' . The promotion of Elderslie in Renfrewshire as Wallace's birthplace is on shaky grounds.  No need however, to pull down the magnificent monument or stop the annual celebrations on Wallace-day. The monument does more than celebrate Wallace's supposed birthplace, it celebrates his life and death as a patriot, not a saint, but the son of lowly Ayrshireman that would not yield to English yoke. The more Wallace Monuments the better!









'Wallace and Boid, and Crawf u rd of renoun,
And Adam als th a n lord of Ricardtoun __ ,
His fader than wes wesyed with seknes;
God had him tayne in till his lestand
The fyft Auchinleck, in wer a nobill man

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.'

'Bot efter he made his dwelling in Comnok in his owen contrie, wheir he was borne, altho the Englishmen as yitt was masteris thaire.'

'Then William Wallace keiping a royall howse in Comnok withe a garisone of michtie men.'

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Right. Arrmstrong Map of Ayrshire (1775)
Above.  Castle William

At Striueling ,
27 Jul [1535]
'Ane Letter maid to



Castle William
Parish of New Cumnock
Parish of Old Cumnock
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These undated maps demonstrate the ever-changing nature of land-ownership in medieval Scotlamd. In one Blackcraig and nearby Castle William is in Dunbar hands and in the other form part of of the Cathcart  Crawford domain.
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If not New Cumnock born, then William Wallace was at the very least, in the words of Hugh Lorimer 'one of our former citizens'. One thing is for certain William Wallace rightly deserves his place on the New Cumnock Mural,

'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.'

Click for full size image
Click for full size image
Click for full size image


Wallace's Dwelling