It was an age of the nom de guerre. The Scotsman Sir William Douglas was called “the Bold” or “the Hardy,” and his son, Sir James, “the Good” or (due to his swarthy complexion) “the Black.” Their great enemy, King Edward I of England, was earning his own moniker, “The Hammer of the Scots,” when the twenty-year-old James appeared on the scene, returning from exile in France after his father’s imprisonment and death.
King Edward had confiscated the Douglas lands and given them to Sir Robert Clifford, an Englishman whose title Lord Warden of the Marches gave him the authority to treat all Scots with impunity. Therefore, despite the best efforts of William Lamberton, the Bishop of St. Andrews—who accompanied young Douglas to meet with the king during the siege of Stirling—it should come as no surprise that Edward gave a “nothing doing” reply. He kept the lands for Clifford, that is sure, but he earned for himself a formidable enemy, as will be seen anon.
Bishop Lamberton played a fine game, keeping lines of communication open with the English but giving his true allegiance to Robert the Bruce. Once the Bruce was accepted as the King of Scotland, Lamberton read out to his congregation a letter from the king, calling on all Scots to re-dedicate themselves to their homeland, and young James, hearing the plea, responded. Laden with money and supplies from the bishop, James set out for Annandale to meet up with the new king and his train, as they headed to Scone for his coronation, which took place on March 27, 1306. From that time on, Douglas remained in Bruce’s service in all of his wanderings in Scotland and Ireland, subduing English sympathizers and bringing them round to Bruce’s side. The tide began to turn, and various English invasions ended in defeat.
Then, in 1307, Douglas began to earn a singular reputation as a stalwart and crafty leader. The English commander Sir John Mowbray had passed into Scotland and was making his way northward on the west coast of Ayrshire with 1,000 soldiers, mounted and armed. Greatly outnumbered with only 60 men, Douglas devised a clever stratagem by which he might succeed. Knowing that the English would have to pass sooner or later through the area around Kilmarnock, he chose to hide in ambush around a narrow pass, both sides of which were lined with marshy bogs that were pure treachery for men on horseback.
As the fourteenth-century Scottish poet John Barbour told it in his epic poem The Brus:
Thai baid in buschement all the nycht,
And quhen the sone was schynand brycht
Thai saw in bataillyng cum arayit
The vaward with baner displayit . . . .
They waited in ambush all the night
And when the sun was shining bright
They saw in battlements come arrayed
The vanward with banner displayed . . . .
Remaining quiet and allowing Mowbray and some of his men to pass through as if nothing was afoot, they suddenly attacked, soon filling the narrow passageway with dead Englishmen and their horses. This effectively obstructed any retreat on Mowbray’s part and forced the flight of those who had been separated from him. In the melee, Mowbray managed to escape and make his way northwest to Inverkip:
Richt till the castell that ves then
Stuffit all with yngliſh men.
Right to the castle that was then
Stuffed all with English men.
No doubt he was glad to reach safety, but that was small comfort to a leader of 1,000 who had just been routed by a band of 60. Barbour immortalized this rout of the English, thus:
Syne till a strait place gan he ga
That is in Makyrnokis way,
The Edirford it hat perfay,
It lyis betwix marrais twa
Quhar that na hors on lyve may ga.
On the south halff quhar James was
Is ane upgang, a narow pas,And on the north halff is the way
Sa ill as it apperis today.
Then to a narrow place did he go
That is in Makernokis way,
The Ederford it is called indeed
It lies between morasses two
Where that no horse alive may go
On the south half where James was
Is a slope, a narrow pass,
And on the north half is the way
So evil as it appears today.
Though fun to read, the lines are a bit frustrating as they do not tell exactly where this confrontation occurred. I have been unable to turn up any map of Scotland that shows the location of Edirford (spelled variously as Edyrford and Ederford ). George Eyre Todd, one of Barbour’s “translators,” speculated that Makynokis Way could refer to the “Maich and Garnock Way,” a reference to two streams that flow into Kilbirnie Loch. Apparently, there was an old ford, he said, across “Maich Water among the marshes at the loch” [see illustration].
It is a pity some enterprising Douglas, like a Schliemann looking for Troy, does not follow the clues and raise a statue in Ayrshire to his doughty ancestor, Sir James—the Good, the Black.
Barbour, John. The Brus. Ed. A. A. M. Duncan. Online.
Accessed 17 Feb 2013.
“The Exploits of the Good Sir James.” Electric Scotland. Online.
Accessed 17 Feb 2013.
Fraser, William, Sir. The Douglas Book. (1885) p. 160. Online.
Accessed 17 Feb 2013.
Old Roads of Scotland. Online.Accessed 17 Feb 2013.