The ancestors of both William Wallace and Robert Bruce came to Britain from France with William the Conqueror in 1066. After some time and service to the King in England, they were granted lands in Scotland.
East Ayrshire played a formative part in William Wallace's early life, and saw many of his activities. In the medieval period, the Wallaces held the Barony of Riccarton - an area encompassed by the modern Kilmarnock suburbs of Riccarton, Caprington, Shortlees and Bellfield, along with the surrounding countryside and the village of Hurlford. A host of modern farm names can be traced back to names found in the Barony of Riccarton.
Intriguing evidence for Ayrshire as Wallace's home comes from the seal on the Lubeck Letter sent by Wallace and the dying Sir Andrew Murray to the traders of Lubeck and Hamburg following their victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Wallace's seal describes him as "William, son of Alan Wallace". An Alan Wallace is among those Crown tenants of Ayrshire who made their humiliating submission to King Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, through the infamous Ragman's Roll of 1296.
There is a local legend that William Wallace was born at a place called Ellerslie near Kilmarnock. An early reference to an Elderslie near Kilmarnock supposedly appeared in the notebooks written by the map maker Timothy Pont in the 1590s. Although the maps have now been lost, a 19th century collection of notes allegedly contains a copy of Pont's notes, which describes lands on either side of the River Irvine. On the south side of the river near Riccarton is Caprington, the notes say. Riccarton and Caprington exist to this day. Due south of there, between Caprington and Craigie Castle (whose ruins can still be seen), the notes refer to a place called Elderslie. Both Elderslie and Caprington are described as lying within the Barony of Riccarton. If this Elderslie existed, it is now lost.
East Ayrshire has many place names and sites associated with Wallace and Bruce - not surprisingly, since Ayrshire was a focal point for the fierce skirmishes, bloody battles and other depredations of the Wars of Independence, which broke out in 1296. This was in no small part due to its strategic importance. The main east-west route from Edinburgh to the Clyde Coast came past Loudoun Hill and along the Irvine Valley, while the main north-south route ran through Cumnock and New Cumnock. These strategic routes crossed at Kilmarnock.
Wallace's rebellion against Edward I's rule is understood to have begun when he killed the Sheriff of Lanark in May 1297. From Lanark, he ranged throughout Scotland in a campaign of guerrilla warfare. By the very nature of such activity, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where he was and when - but a lot points to him having been active in East Ayrshire. He led a successful ambush of the King's baggage train at Loudoun Hill in 1297.
Kilmarnock's Dean Castle has strong Wallace connections. This was the ancestral home of the Boyds, one of whom was with Wallace at the ambush at Loudoun Hill and also at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Hunted as an outlaw from 1300 onwards, Wallace continued to resist until his betrayal, capture and execution in 1305.
In 1307, a decade after Wallace's success at Loudoun Hill, Robert Bruce also defeated the King's forces there in 1307.
It was not until 1312, seven years after Wallace's death and two years before Bruce's triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn, that the Scots were able to hold a Parliament. The estates of many of the struggling nation's prominent noblemen lay in Ayrshire - including not only the Bruces and the Stewards of Scotland, but the Lockharts, Boyds and Crawfords.
There are many local legends about Wallace, their veracity difficult to determine after the passage of so much time. However, myth does have its place in history and many folk tales, the common memory of a people, are based on facts.
One of the earliest legends relates to an incident involving the young William Wallace in the spring of 1292 or thereabouts, at a site known as the Bickering Bush, by the confluence of the Kilmarnock Water with the River Irvine, near Riccarton and Caprington. This is reputed to have been the site of one of his earliest altercations with the King's men, when he killed two members of a five-strong patrol who had demanded his catch of fish. The bush where he hid the bodies is reputed to have survived into the 19th century.
Several sites in the Riccarton/Caprington area have been suggested for the location of Riccarton Castle, owned by the Wallaces. One possible site is where Riccarton Parish Church now stands, another is in the vicinity of the fire station in Campbell street and a third is about a quarter of a mile west of the present Caprington housing estate.
It is said that Wallace mustered his support at Mauchline, before the ambush at Loudoun Hill.
The former Blackcraig Castle at New Cumnock is said to be where Wallace spent part of the winter of 1297, after agreeing a temporary truce with the enemy.
Pursued by troops, Wallace is said to have made it to Galston and Lockhart's Tower (rebuilt later in the middle ages and subsequently referred to as Barr Castle - a structure which still stands). He later made his escape from the Tower by leaping from a window on to a nearby tree.
Another legend associated with that location concerns a particular type of handball game played against one of the walls of the Tower, which Wallace ordered his men to play, in order to keep fit during a break in their action against the King's forces. The game continued to be played by local people up until World War II.
Two ideas relate to the birthplace of William Wallace's mother whose name, confusingly, appears as either Jean, Joan or Margaret Crawford, Craufurd, de Craufuird or Crawfoord. Some sources suggest that she may have come from Crosshouse, while others think that she was Margaret de Craufuird, who was born at the former Arclowdon Castle, near the later Loudoun Castle, Galston.
No heroic tale would be complete without a legendary cave associated with the hero's exploits, as witnessed by the number of Bruce's Caves and Bonnie Prince Charlie's Caves. So, legend has it that Wallace hid in Wallace's Cave, near the present site of Auchinleck House, which was the family home of the writer James Boswell.
Sir William Keith of Galston brought the heart of Robert Bruce back to Scotland from Spain, after an unsuccessful crusade. To this day, the Galston coat of arms incorporates an armoured gauntlet clutching Bruce's heart.