The dawn of Ayrshire history is, if the metaphor may, be allowed, amid the war-clouds. You require to go back, not to the days of Bruce and Wallace, not to the thousand years ago when Alpin fell in conflict with the men of the shire, not to the era made memorable by the struggles of Pict and Scot with Briton, but back to the days of the Romans with their early military civilization, their care fully fortified camps, their roads constructed with true engineering capacities, and their villas by the shores of the Clyde. And if you could get beyond the Romans, the story would still be the same, till it melted away in some primal struggle whose echoes, died out thousands of years ago. All down the ages the landmarks are the scars of war, of man fighting with his fellow-man. They are found in tumuli, in sculptured urn, in rude cairn, in bone and flint-headed spears, in primitive battle-axes, and in the remains of the chieftain buried amid his followers. The grass of many centuries has grown rank over the relics of the warriors, and save in the case of a very few, their name and their memory have perished as completely as if they never had been ; but, nevertheless, all over the country tradition and investigation point out the scenes of their struggles, and fancy can still call into being, the fierce fights which they waged. There are many spots now silent enough and deserted enough that one day were instinct with life and valour; where charging host gave answering shout to charging host; where flew the deadly showers of arrows; where sharp swords were wielded by strong arms; where armies were locked in deadly tussle, arid where-helmets splintered, armour broken, life ebbing-the red blood ran like water.
Arid one of these scenes is hard by the wild glen of Dunaskin, in upland Dalmellington. The Romans were there. They left their traces in the road over which their legions marched from the coast. Their eyes rested on the same wild mass of hills, the same deep glens, the same valleys, the same loch, and the same rushing river, that still charm the heart of the wanderer in these mountainous solitudes. They passed away and for ever forsook the shores of Caledonia, but Nature remains as they left her, with a thousand years and more added to her tale. She recognizes not the puny strifes of the changing races who desecrate the soil with their warrings, but removes the traces of their desecration tenderly, yet remorselessly, with the flight of the years.
Alpin was the king of the Scots. Like other warrior monarchs of all time, his soul was inspired with the love of conquest, and from his strongholds in Kintyre he looked across the intervening waters to where, outlined in the distance, he could descry the broad plains of Ayrshire, and longed to call them his own. His fiery warriors of the hills shared his ambition. The land which was theirs was wild and comparatively inhospitable, but across the gleaming Firth of Clyde were fresh fields and pastures new, and worth the possessing. It was with a large armament that he embarked on his war of conquest. Rounding the southern end of Arran he directed his course to the mouth of the river Doon, and there he landed with his army. He did not deem it wise to launch his attack against the town of Ayr, with its walls and its fortified castle, but, leaving the coast behind him, he followed the course of the river Doon until he struck the Roman road leading from Ayr across the country into Galloway. Along this highway he marched, to the consternation of the surrounding, country. The news of his coming was spread abroad through all the kingdom of Alcluyd. Messengers in hot haste journeyed by the highways and along the mountain paths; and from hamlet and cot, from field and fell, they called their men to the battle. There was no tarrying. From all quarters the warrior peasants trooped in, with their spears and their shields, with their bows, and quivers full of arrows, with their short swords by their side, all ready for battle. The alarm of war was no new sound in their cars. Love of country was their inheritance. They willed not that the kingdom of Alcluyd should be broken up, by the devastating hordes of Alpin. and high in courage, and fired in determination they gathered with one accord to drive out the rude invader from the lands that were their birthright. Strong in his army and their devotion, the king of the Scots took tip his position and waited the battle. He chose his ground warily and well. In front of him was the wild glen of Dunaskin through which the lowlanders of Ayrshire must emerge ere they could give him battle; the centre of his army rested on the plain, and the right and left wings on rising ground on either hand. It was thus he awaited the issue!
More than a thousand years have rolled away since the fight, and the pall of distance and of oblivion has blotted out the very name of the hero who led the Alcluydensians to the combat. Some chieftain he of high renown, his deeds live, but his memory has perished. This much we know of him and can testify, that he was worthy of his race. He made himself familiar with the site of battle chosen by the Scots. He saw its difficulties with the eye of a soldier, and he canvassed his chances with the acumen of the strategist. Beyond the glen of Dunaskin, rugged and narrow, he could see the long lines of the Scots extending across the moor and resting on the hill-sides. There was no passage by which he could reach them save the one, and that was Dunaskin glen. It was a hazardous enterprise, but this nameless hero was the man for a desperate deed. He had faith in himself, and in the followers who had rallied to his call ; and he resolved that through that glen he would go when the morning lighted up its darkness. The rival armies lay that night on the ground. The cold clear stars looked out of the deep blue vault upon them as they slumbered, and the cold crisp winds of the mountains chilled them. But these were, but trifles to the warriors of the ninth century. Ere the sun had rolled his huge round disc above the horizon there was the sound of preparation for war, in the camp. Alpin passed along his ranks and the fair-haired Scots gave him greeting. They had no need for encouragement to the fray. They were in the hart of the enemy’s country, among hills that were not theirs, amid passes where death would await them if they should ingloriously retreat. All round, as far as they could see, the land was a hostile camp. They must therefore either win the fight or perish. The incitement to the Alcluydensians was not less telling. Before them lay a daring foe, come to claim their lands, their homes, their kingdom, and their liberties; theirs was the proud honour of meeting the enemy and driving him hence, back to his ships, or overwhelming him in desperate fight. What more could they have to influence their courage?.
All was in order. On the ground beyond the glen the Scots were quietly waiting the attack, their lines extended in order of battle. They had the best of the position. The Alcluyd chief did not hesitate. If the fight was to be fought, the glen must be faced. His army was soon on the way, and Dunaskin with its copsewood and its rocks was speedily a mass of moving men. Their wild horns awoke the echoes. The eagle was startled in his eyrie and the raven on heavy wing took his flight from the scene. On they poured, a mass closely wedged. Still the Scots waited ; for the men of Alcluyd must emerge from the defile ere they could offer them battle. The vanguard broke from the narrow pass, and behind them poured like a flood the main column of the foe. There was to be no fighting at long ranges. These were the days of the hand-to-hand conflict, when man looked man in the face, and when warrior's sword crossed warrior's sword. The sun was reddening the morning glories of the sky. He had risen clear of the horizon, and the bright-lit mountain tops were sharing their heaven-gift of light with the valleys.
The glen of dark Dunaskin was passed, and then the armies came to closer quarters. Alpin ordered the charge ; and from front of the Alcluydensians and from the two wings came with yell and shout, with waving sword and keen bright battle axe., the warriors from beyond the Firth.
There was no pausing mid-way to gather breath or to gain courage. Resolution was fired to daring, and deed must speak for deed. Rushed on the shock of battle; and the armies came together on the field of slaughter. The din was indescribable, the clashing of the swords, the blows of the heavy battle-axes, the encouraging cheers of the leaders, the hoarse roar of thousands of combatants all locked in deadly fray, the cries of the wounded, the groans of the dying. The mossy soil drank in the blood. The tide ebbed and flowed. Now the warriors of the country side with rallying cry drove back the tenacious Scots; and again the gathering Scots retaliated on the persistent Alcluydensians. But back the Alcluydensians could not go, dared not go. To co back was death. To go back was to lock themselves in the narrow embrace of Dunaskin and to be hurled into dire confusion. They must go on or fall where they stood. And so they pressed on, though the ground was slippery and their path over the dying and the dead. Leader fought as man and man as leader.
Alpin saw there was danger, saw the dauntless heroism of the lowlanders of Ayrshire, and the hillsmen who had joined them for the encounter. The danger he must encounter and avert. He led the fighting, and behind him pressed the Scots emulating their dauntless leader. There were no flights of arrows to distract the warriors in the battle; all was stern, close, hard fighting. The combatants were locked in one another's arms, nor was the grasp relieved until death relaxed the tensioned muscles and eased for ever the drawn sinews. Alpin faced death wherever the conqueror rode ; for win who might, death was the inevitable conqueror. He paid the price of his daring. Foremost he advanced to measure sword and axe with the men of Alcluyd. He cut his way into their ranks, and then, surrounded, and pierced with many wounds, he fell. His followers rushed to his rescue. But too late. They could not save him, they could only avenge his slaughter. The fight grew the more awful with the thinning of the ranks; but now that Alpin was gone, the Scots began to waver. It was he to whom they had looked; and now, gory with wounds and covered with the slain he lay with upturned face to the bright heavens which he was no more to see. His fall gave fresh courage and animation to the Alcluydensians. Ever onwards and upwards they pressed, nor ceased until the line of the foe was broken and eventual victory was foreshadowed. But not yet. There were conflicts on either hand. Grimly, fiercely, the Scots contested the ground. So long as hope lasted they wielded their swords, and plied their battle axes, and caught the opposing strokes and blows upon their round shields. Leaderless, they had to give way at last, and the tide of battle that had rolled up from the very mouth of Dunaskin Glen poured over the rising grounds and broke in fury and in storm all over the position held by the Scots. Beaten where they stood, they scattered, sundered and riven.
Away they sped over hill and moorland. Those who could, turned their faces to the friendly sea and sped by the pathway made for them by the Romans, back by the route over which they had come filled high with hope and expectation. Others fled to the open country, and more, seeing all was lost, struck one parting blow for life, and then yielded it up.
The Alcluydensians found King Alpin where he fell. No more for him the storm and the shock of the battle. Gone his ambitions and his dreams. No move the craggy peaks of the Western Highland hills; no more the long sweep of the Atlantic Wave on the shores of his kingdom. There he lay in the land of the stranger. Hither he had come to conquer; there he remained to die. Hither he had led his forces strong for war; they were lying around him on the moss, or headlong fleeing the fatal field. But he was yet a king, even in death. And the conquering Alcluydensians sought him where he lay, and reverently lifted him from the ground. They gave him a soldier's grave, and loudly they chanted his death-song. Laicht Alpin, the grave of Alpin, it remains to this day.
There is something indescribably pathetic in the memory of these far-away conflicts. All down the centuries resounds the wail of their pathos. They reveal in those who shared in them the same, passions which dominate man to this present hour. Humanity has been humanity from the beginning. To-day the world is more politic, but the strong arm is yet the strong. The patriotism which burns in the breast of the Scottish Highlander of the, nineteenth century, and in the breasts of all men who dwell upon the face of all the earth, is that which influenced the hosts of Alcluyd on that memorable morn by the Glen of Dunaskin. They fought for home and for country. It was for the domestic altar and the hills and plains of their motherland that they offered themselves for the fray. The age they lived in was dark, and wild, and gloomy, but it is lit up by the record of their gallantry. And yet, over all the countryside, by all the murmuring streams of Ayrshire, what a cry of grief must have risen to the heavens when the patriot warriors who had fallen on the field returned no more to their home! Rejoicing there must have been, for the land was free from the invader, but rejoicing chastened with melancholy, the jubilate of its strains bending away into the dirge of the coronach.
To the superficial observer of to-day it may seem to be a matter of little or no consequence that the Scots were beaten, and that it would have been all the same to-day had Alpin swept the Alcluydensians before him into the glen, and out of existence. Perhaps it would, but in all probability it would not. The individuality of Ayrshire might have been entirely changed; and therefore it is of moment to remember that the result of the battle may have affected, and still may affect, the people dwelling in these parts.
Up to within a, comparatively recent period there stood, in the inner angle of the Glen of Dunaskin, the remains of the Castle of Laicht. Tradition had it that Alpin slept within its walls the night before the battle but there is no solid reason for believing that such was the case, or even that the castle existed so far back as the ninth century, That was not the age of castle-building, save where there were towns to be defended. The position of Laicht rendered it absolutely impregnable. On three sides the glen, with its steeps and its rocks, afforded a natural barrier against attack. In front there was a deep fosse. What the history of the stronghold, it would be idle to speculate. It has gone, and has carried its story with it into oblivion.