AYRSHIRE ROOTS

 

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THE DEATH OF OLD KING COIL

 

There is incontestable evidence to show that Ayrshire was a well populated district when the dawn of reliable history broke upon it; indeed, long before the dawn there was a hardy race in these parts able to extract a living from the cold soil, to resist attack, to gather together for the onslaught, and to combine against the stranger who threatened defiance at the gates. The Romans found their work cut out for them when, under Maximus, one of their Prefects, in the year 360 A.D., they, with the Picts for allies, attacked the Scots " at the Water of Doon in Carrick." Like many another struggles of these shadowy times, that in which King Eugenius engaged, and in which he lost his life as he rallied his forces to the combat, and hurled his long-bearded, badly armed warriors against the disciplined cohorts of Rome, had no Homer to sing it. We can only imagine the bloody combat, the rush of the Britons, the long spears of the mail-clad legions, the shock of battle, the fierce struggle for life and liberty and home, against the invader, the stern determination of the Romans, the ground covered with the dead and dying, the cheering on to the fray of his troops by Eugenius, the long combat, the inevitable defeat, the day, the Romans Authorities are at one regarding the battle; and that it took place between the rivers Ayr and Doon has been fairly proven by the relies which, even in comparatively recent years, have been reclaimed from the soil, Roman and British places of sepulture, Roman swords, lances, daggers, pieces of mail and brazen camp vessels, intermixed with British urns of rudely-baked clay, hatchet and arrow heads, and other primitive implements of warfare used by the Caledonians. Urns, too, have been found, of curious make and workmanship; and antiquaries have disputed and debated over them as it becomes antiquaries to do.

But the conquering Romans were not the only invaders who came upon the scene when history and tradition were intermingled for historians, Hollingshed, Boethius, and Buchanan, are at one in affirming that in the same locality the Scots and Picts encountered the Britons and defeated them with great slaughter.

And this brings us to King Coil. Everybody knows this much about King Coil,

Old Kim, Cole was a merry old soul

And a merry old soul was he;

He called for his pipe, and he called for his glass,

And he called for his fiddlers three.

But everybody does not know that this King Coil, whatever may be said for his claims to having soothed himself with his pipe long centuries before the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, or to his fondness for concerted fiddling was a real and not a mythical personage. Indeed the only difficulty is to say which of the King Coils he was, whether the Coilu who lived three hundred and thirty years before Christ ; or Coel, King of the Roman districts, who must have lived in the third century of our Lord, and who, according to Wynton  left a doughter a wyrgyne

That excedyt of bewte

All the ladys of that cuntré

That nane in Brettayne was sa fayre;

or Coelus, King of Norway, who was " eirded in Kyle after he stroke. ane field against the Scots and (was) vanquished be them." The probability is that the one who was associated with the district of Kyle, which competent authorities admit may have been called after him, was the second named. For there does not seem to be much foundation for the existence of Collus who is affirmed to have reigned three hundred years and more "before Christ, and inasmuch as the Coelus of Norway was a Christian and left orders that he was to be interred in Icolmkill, there is no reason to believe that his followers adopted the heathen custom, of burning his remains after death. And this simple fact, that his body was honoured by being consigned to a funeral pyre, has every thing to do with the identification of the individual, inasmuch as the only real, existing evidence of his personality and of the fight which he fought in Ayrshire, consists in the discovery of relics of the fatal field, at Coilsfield in the parish of Tarbolton. Of course it is quite possible that the relics referred to may be those of some other warrior king of the shadowy epoch ; but we prefer to believe that they are indeed those of " old King Coil " himself, the redoubtable king of the Britons.

The Picts and Scots were old enemies. Speaking generally, the Picts, who, according. to Bede, were a colony of Seythians, inhabited the eastern shores, contiguous to the German sea, while the Scots, who came across from Ireland, dwelt in the Western Highlands and Islands, and had colonies in the mountainous parts of the north. The Britons held the south and south-west of Scotland, and were further on the way of civilization than their rivals in other parts of the country. They had a regularly organized government and a king round whom they centred. The Picts hated the Scots, the Scots hated the Picts, and both hated and distrusted the Britons. Wiser in their generation than either Pict or Scot, the Britons advanced themselves of the jealousies which they knew to exist, to set them one against the other, and, having accomplished their end, they offered aid to the Picts, even before they desired it, against the Scots; " which," says Buchanan, " when the latter perceived, they applied elsewhere for assistance and procured a foreign king to assist them against the threatened danger.

The commanders of the islanders being almost all of equal authority, and disdaining to elect a chief from among themselves, Fergus, the son of Ferchard, was sent for with forces out of Ireland, is the most eminent person among the Scots, both for advice and. action. By the public consent of the people he was chosen king; but while preparations were being made for a battle, if need required it, a rumour was dispersed abroad which came to the ears both of the Scots and Picts, that the Britons were acting a treacherous part, Laying plots and counter-plots equally pernicious to both nations, and that in the event of a battle they would turn their arms upon the conquerors and conquered alike, in order to destroy both or drive them out of the island, that they might themselves enjoy the whole. This report made both armies doubtful what course to take, and for a time kept them within their respective trenches. A truce was secured, and the secret fraud of the Britons being made manifest, peace was concluded, and the three different armies returned home.

The Britons, failing in their first project, had resort to another stratagem. They sent in robbers secretly among the Picts to drive away their cattle, and when the injured party demanded restitution, they were told to seek it from the Scots, who were accustomed to thieving and plundering, and not from them. Thus their messengers were sent away without satisfaction, and the affair was treated as a matter of derision. The fraud of the Britons being thus fully discovered, the late reproach incensed the hearts of both nations against them more than the remaining grudges and resentments for their former conduct, and, therefore levying as great all army as they could, the two kings invaded the coasts in different directions, and, after ravaging the country with fire and sword, returned home with a great booty."

Coilus seems to have retaliated in kind, with the result that, after a good deal of skirmishing and manoeuvring the rival armies found themselves face to face on the banks of the Doon. Where they met it is impossible to say, but the probability is that it may not have been far front the mouth of the river ; in the plain, maybe, that stretches from the estuary of the Doon to that of the Ayr. To-day it is dotted with houses or laid out in well cultivated fields or gardens, with a little woodland interspersed here and there ; but in these far away times it was either open country, unfenced, undrained, swampy, with the sea making an occasional incursion across its lower portion, or else covered with forest. An attempt has been made to show that the scene of the conflict was near Dalrymple, which is about four miles from the mouth of the river Doon, and the discovery of relies of a very ancient date has been cited in proof ; but it is more than likely that, if any serious affray in connection with this war did take place in that parish, it was what would now be known as an affair of outposts. There does, indeed, seem to have been much marching and counter-marching and much changing of the relative positions of armies. Fergus knew that in Coilus he had a foeman the worthy of his steel. He knew that he had to contend with a foe nowise inferior in valour to the savage hordes which rallied to his banner, and that they were better disciplined than were his forces. Realizing the desperate nature of the undertaking, he sent away the wives and children who followed the fortunes of the field, under a strong escort into the mountains and other places of security," and then awaited Coilus to give him battle. This the British king was in no hurry to do; and the Picts and Scots, growing weary of waiting resolved to effect a diversion, and, by sending men to ravage the territory of the Britons, to force their hand. Coilus learned their intent, and despatched five thousand men to lie in ambush and entrap the troops thus sent out to pillage. This, in turn, was discovered by the Picts and Scots ; and Fergus at once made up his mind to risk an assault on the camp of the Britons by night.

It was a stern conflict; and well it merited some one to sing it. The Britons lay slumbering on the ground, their campfires smouldering and, in all probability, the moon walking in her brightness across the sky. The Briton needed not the luxury of a tent, and therefore his canopy was the vault. And underneath it he lay and watched the stars shining faintly, far off in the blue, until sleep overcame him and he sank into the arms of Morpheus. The country around to all appearance was still, there was no indication of danger at hand, and little thought the warrior as he stretched himself upon the grass that the sun which he had seen set, would in all probability rise no more upon him. Sound of life there was none, save, it may be, the distant bark of the fox or the melancholy howl of the wolf, which then roamed over the greater part of Scotland, or the hooting of the owl as he sat blinking out into the night.

But danger unforeseen or unthought of is, unfortunately, not always danger far removed. And there, sheltering themselves by copse and woodland grey, and creeping along tinder the shadows of the trees, came from the one side the Scots, and from the other the Picts; unclothed, save the skins which they wore upon their shoulders and which girded them as with a girdle, their targe in the one hand, their short sword in the other, fury in their hearts, determination on their brows.

Not more stealthily creeps the tiger on his prey than did those rude sons of the coast and of the sail. They were strong in numbers and strong in resolution; and while they crept quietly they crept quickly. At length the Scots are within rushing distance of the camp of the weary Britons. Mayhap the watchman looked out upon the night and kept sleepless vigil; mayhap he even thought he heard a noise and bent earthwards to bear what portended ; but ere he could give the alarm, there is a wild shout from the, Scots, the rush of hurrying feet, the moon telling the weapons which they brandished on high, the dense moving mass onward bound, as relentless as a Nemesis, onslaught upon onslaught. The startled Britons bound to their feet. Their arms are beside, them. They grasp targe and battle axe and strike at the advancing horde. All is confusion. There is a rushing to a common centre and a line is formed for defence. Man to man, foot to foot, front to front, they hack and they hew, and the red blood runs down like water. The shouts of the combatants, the groans of the dying make night hideous. Ah, how stubbornly they fight, inch by inch. Now the Scots bear in upon the Britons' throng, and now they are hurled back into the moonlight, and bows are drawn till the strings sing, and arrows fly through the air whizzing on to their billet. But hark! there is a yell, a cry from the rear and thence come on, bounding as they come, the red-haired Picts. The Britons are confused. They cannot turn their backs on the Picts, for that would be death. They cannot face the Picts and leave their rear exposed, for that, too, would be death. They lounge out wildly here and there. But there is one man who is unmoved and steadfast of purpose and of resolve. It is the British King, Coilus himself. He sees the desperate strait. He knows that only grim pertinacity and sheer determination can stave off the destroyer. He is no parlour warrior, but strong of arm and staunch in heart. His chiefs rally round him, their men follow, and there is a ring of warriors, Coilus in the centre, as strong and steady a phalanx as that which encircled James on the hapless, fateful field of Flodden. All the while the moon sails aloft in the sky and the carnage rages on the earth. The ground shakes beneath the tramp of the contending forces, the noise of the captains and the shouting. But ever onward, upward, press the Scots and the Picts resolute on slaughter, and the circle of the Britons grows smaller and smaller, and away to the realms of the, blest stream the spirits of the warriors slain in battle. Coilus is urged to fly; his chiefs tell him that they can cut a line of retreat for him. He refuses, he rallies them anew to the fight, and his war cry is heard afresh. Desperate are the exertions to overcome the pack of human wolves which surge up on all sides, desperate on annihilation. But they are all in vain. Heads are cleft and targes fall from lifeless arms, and the red "blood pours on the ground from a thousand living streams. Still narrower and narrower grows the circle, untill with one wild rush it is broken in upon on all sides, and the British King and his warriors die as a British King and his warriors should die, with their faces to the foe. The eastern sun is lighting up the horizon ere the last blow is struck for life, for conquest, and ere the plain is full flooded with daylight, the combat is o'er and the Picts and Scots are rifling the slain.

It is matter for regret that the scene of the conflict cannot be more accurately localized. In all probability there was, as has been said, a good deal of marching and counter-marching of the rival armies, and therefore it is quite possible that King Coilus may have taken up his position some miles inland from either the Doon or the Ayr. There is nothing inconsistent with this in that he had encamped by the Doon. Or it may be that after the battle his body was carried off the field as far as Coilsfield, either by his friends or his admiring foes, and given the rites and the honours of a funeral pyre. And this brings us to Coilsfield and its relies.

Coilsfield is in the parish of Tarbolton, where also are the ruins of the monastery of Fail, whose, friars

Drank berry-brown ale

The best that ere was tasted

Just as the monks of Melrose

Made gude Kail,

On Fridays, when they fasted.

Here, too, is the " Castle of Montgomerie" Coilsfield House, where " Summer first unfaulds her robes," and where "they langest tarry;" and here Burns, when he dwelt at Lochlea, was wont to meet his Highland Mary, Mary Campbell, one of the domestic servants at Coilsfield. We have nothing to do at present with friar or with poet, however; these in their proper place; it is ours to see what can be said for the tomb of King Coil. Local names often convey meanings which even the natives never dream of; indeed much of the nomenclature of Scotland, as of elsewhere, is both significant and suggestive. When therefore, we find, tumbling into the water of Fail a " Bloody Burn; " and we find opposite the month of the Bloody Burn a "Dead-men’s-holm," we are inclined to think that these names are not entirely the result of chance-work. Neither is pretty ; both on the contrary, are rather gruesome. Nobody would be likely to affix such cognomens to stream or to haugh without some reason; and even if some morbid-

The mound which stands to the, south of Coilsfield House, is circular, and is planted with trees: and thither, in May of 1837 repaired a competent band of excavators bent on searching after truth. A narrative of the search was communicated to the New Statistical Account by the then minister of the parish, the Rev. David Ritchie, a man of scholarly and level mind, and who, for many years until, indeed, he became one of the veritable fathers of the Church of Scotland, continued to direct the ecclesiastical affairs of the parish. Mr. Ritchie was a thorough Scot, hard-headed and matter of fact, humorous withal, a man of thorough business capacity, and one of the most trusted members of the Presbytery of Ayr. And thus he writes :-

" The centre of the mound was found to be occupied by boulder-stones, some of them of considerable size. When the excavators had reached the, depth of about four feet they came on a flagstone of a circular form, about three feet in diameter. Under the circular stone, was first a quantity of dry, yellow-coloured, sandy clay, then a small flagstone laid horizontally, covering the mouth of an urn filled with white-coloured burnt bones. In removing the dry clay by which this urn was surrounded, under flat stones, several small heaps of bones were observed, not contained in urns, but carefully surrounded by the yellow coloured clay mentioned above. The urns in shape resemble flower-pots; they are composed of clay and have 'been hardened 'by fire. The principal urn is 7 7/8 inches in height, 7 7/8 inches in diameter, of an inch in thickness. It has none of those markings, supposed to have been made by the thumb nail, so often to be observed on sepulchral urns, and it has nothing of ornament except an edging or projecting part about half-an-inch from the top. No coins, or armour, or implements of any description could be found. The discovery of these urns renders evident that, at a very remote, period, and while the practice of burning the dead still prevailed-that is to say, before the introduction of Christianity, some person or person, of distinction had been deposited there. The fact of sepulchral urns having been found in the very spot where, according to an uninterrupted tradition, and the statements of several historians, King Coil had been laid, appears to give to the traditionary evidence, and to the statements of the early Scottish historians, in regard to Coil, a degree of probability higher than they formerly possessed. Other urns were found less indurated, and so frail as to fall to pieces when touched. An old man remembers that his father, then a tenant on the Coilsfield estate, turned up pieces of ancient armour and fragments of bones when ploughing, the ' Dead-Men's Holm.'

In his " Tour through Britain," Defoe mentions that " a trumpet resembling a crooked horn was dug up in the field of battle, and is still kept in the Laird of Caprington's house, called Coilsfield, and made use of to call his servants and workmen together." "This horn," says Mr. Ritchie, "is carefully preserved at Caprington Castle. It corresponds exactly with the description given of it, and it retains its shrill sound." It is true he adds that "there is no tradition in the family as to when or where the trumpet was found;" and therefore it would be rash to make any serious deductions from its discovery.

As an indication how continuous the tradition concerning the fate, of the King of the Britons and the scene of his last fight, at all events of his cremation, has been, it may be noted that John Bonar, schoolmaster, Ayr, writing about, the year 1631 gives a metrical description of the conflict which. we have been endeavouring to elucidate, in which these lines occur:-

Coylus he fled unto the river Donne,

Quher drownet were many yt thair did runn

And northward held, quhil they came to a muir

And thair was slayet be Scots that on him fuir

Fergus he followet, and came right haestillie,

Quhair Coyle was killet and all his hole armie:

The country people frae thenseforthe does it call

Coylsfield in Kyll, as ever more it sall.

The bulk of evidence favours the conclusion to which we come, that Coil was a real and not a mythical personage, and that he met his death in battle at the hands of the Picts and Scots in this locality. Doubters may call for tangible proof; but the age in which the combat was fought was one which boasted of no contemporary literature, which had no historian waiting to reproduce in black and white the chronicles of the camp; and if all these sceptred shades and their ongoings are to be reduced in the crucible of destructive criticism farewell to the one half of ancient history. Without then trusting overmuch to the authenticity of detail, we believe in the deeds and in the death of the King of the Britons, and in his sepulchre in Kyle.

 

Source:- HISTORICAL TALES AND LEGENDS OF AYRSHIRE BY WILLIAM ROBERTSON - LONDON: HAMILTON, ADAMS, & CO - GLASGOW: THOMAS D. MORISON 1889

 

 
 

 

 
 

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