King Coel (sometimes referred to as King Cole, Coel or Coilus) is a familiar name throughout ancient Celtic Britain, with references to him throughout Wales, Southern Scotland and Northern England and of course is best remembered in the nursery rhyme 'Old King Cole'. King Coil probably lived between the 4th and 5th centuries and was a King of Northern Britain exercising his power over a massive part of the country, probably with his headquarters in York. The Romans had just withdrawn from Britain at this time and it is possible that Coil was the last of their native governors or 'Duces Brittanniarum'. It is thought that his last campaign was in south west Scotland and that he met his death near Tarbolton in Ayrshire.
The Britons, under Coil, (who had an organised government
and were probably structured on a
Roman model) held the south west of Scotland with the
area north of them held by the wilder and less 'civilized' Picts,
the original inhabitants of Northern Scotland (although it was not
called Scotland until much later). Also the Irish tribe 'the
Scots', led by Fergus, son of Ferchard, had started settling in
some western areas around Argyle. Coil fearing that the two peoples
would unite and create a state powerful enough to threaten his own,
launched an offensive. Initial attacks failed and probably were the
catalyst for the Scots and the Picts, (who had been enemies until
Coil's intervention), combining their forces and attacking Coil's
British Kingdom of Strathclyde.
Coil now launched a full scale campaign against the Northern tribes pushing them back winning at least one full scale battle on the banks of the Doon (many sites have been suggested for this battle with many researchers arguing that it was around the vicinity of Darlymple). The area where the village of Coylton, in Ayrshire, now sits is the supposed site of his military headquarters.
After months of defeat at the hands of the Britons, the starving Scots and Picts are said to have mounted a desperate advance on Coil's position taking him by surprise and overrunning his army causing great slaughter. The fleeing Coil is said in local legend to have been driven into a bog at Coilsfield, near the village of Tarbolton where he drowned.
A burial mound just south of Coilsfield House is rumoured to be the last resting place of King Coil. The mound was excavated in the mid 19th century and it is reported that it contained several urns containing burnt bones alongside other small piles of bones surrounded by yellow clay. Although no personal artefacts were found it was assumed that it had been the burial place of someone of importance.
Around the same time it was reported that a tenant on the Coilsfield estate had unearthed fragments of bones and armour whilst ploughing an area of the estate which had been known since antiquity as 'Dead-Men's Holm'. Daniel Defoe in his 'A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain',wrote that "a trumpet resembling a crooked horn" was dug up in this area. This artefact, known as the Caprington Horn, still survives and is the oldest dated musical instrument ever found in Scotland. It is in good condition and although it is still in private hands, there is a replica of it in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Although most of what we know of King Coil is conjecture, he was a real person and will always be immortalised by the children's nursery rhyme:
Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe,
And he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers, three.
(Although we don't know if King Coil was in fact merry, or just how many fiddlers he had, we do know that he didn't smoke a pipe as Sir Walter Raleigh did not bring tobacco to Britain until the 16th century!
Robert Burns refers to Coylton with a nod to the ancient King in his poem 'Twa Dogs':
Twas in that place o'Scotland's isle
That bears the name o' auld King Coil,
Upon a bonie day in June,
When wearin' thro' the Afternoon,
Twa dogs, that were na thrang at hame,
Forgather'd ance upon a time.