Saltcoats Old and New
Footprints of the Monastics: Through the cloister and Orchard
The original church of the parish stood on Ardrossan Hill, occupying the site of a still more ancient establishment. Enthusiastic searchers have measured its depth and breadth and pictured its four feet of descent beneath the churchyard level, the few steps that went down to the clay floor, the old pulpit of fir and the holes and tatters of its quaint "thek"; but few have been able to picture its "two altars and valued pictures", its "holy water font" and belfry, from which there tinkled merry music far down the estuary of the Clyde. Obscure also is the record of its dedication; some describe it as being to St Peter, others to the Virgin, but there is everything to justify the belief that, as it had altars to both, it was under the patronage of both, which means that it would bear the composite title (as in the old grants of the Earls of Eglinton) to "the Blessed Virgin Mother and Saint Peter in bonds". There is no doubt as to St Peter's altar for it is mentioned in a charter by John Lockart, Lord of Barr, providing for an annual rent to the chaplain to celebrate three Masses yearly for the repose of his soul. This is dated March 12 1438.
The patronage of the church was under the Archbishop of Glasgow; but the presentation of a vicar was within the Royal prerogative. It existed as far back as the early years of the Thirteenth Century, as is shown by a document in the Glasgow Chartulary, dated 1226, being an agreement between Walter, Bishop of Glasgow and John, Abbot of Kilwinning, whereby the bishop granted to the abbot sixteen shillings in name of pension payable from the church of Ardrossan. The authorities bear that the kirk had "two dependent chapels within the Barony, one at Saltcoats, one at Busbie" and that, as Saltcoats was a town when Ardrossan was still without population, the so-styled "Ardrossan Church" lived by and for Saltcoats. The superabundant flow of fervour which could sustain a church on Ardrossan Hill and a Chapel within Saltcoats presents its own compliment to the early piety of the good people of Saltcoats. From the fact that the church of later years was transferred from Ardrossan Hill to Saltcoats, many have been led to surmise that the church of those early days referred to in the monastic vellum may have been the church of the parish of Ardrossan at Saltcoats. It may be no reflection on the dignity of Ardrossan to say that such a view is not ill grounded. What is important is that Saltcoats has from the very earliest times had its own chapel, of which the Chapelhill, the Priest Dyke, the Chapelbrae and the Chapelwell, form sufficiently intelligible evidence. The little eminence upon which the early chapel stood is still fragrant with memories of its beautiful past. Any endeavour to resurrect the exact location of this early religious house is regarded as vain and the lapse of time and the alteration and obliteration of landmarks and, it must be added, the neglect of early antiquarians, have made the task impossible. That it stood on the brae which still bears its name is an obvious conclusion. That it rested at the extremety of the Chapelhill Gardens is equally so and as the "Priest croft" and the "Priest dyke" can be readily defined by any one familiar with the site, the tract of investigation becomes narrowed down to a small area indeed. Not a vestige of any ruin remains today and no distinct oral or other evidence has floated down the stream of tradition.
A lady, who lived threequarters of a century ago in one of the old houses on the Chapel Brae, says that there lay at the back of her garden the remains of an old ruin, grown over with wild green and docken, which an ancient forbear had assured her was the original chapel of Saltcoats. It stood twenty or thirty feet from the wall at the top of the brae and as far as two gable lengths from the front of the house. It has disappeared underneath the new Erskine Church, now built on the brae; but as it fits with singular exactness into the scope of enquiry and seems to have commanded a considerable degree of authenticity and the support of long tradition amongst the older residents of the neighbourhood, the belief that it was the veritable ruin of the Chapel merits a greater degree of approval than all the written or merely speculative material which has appeared. Hardly any doubt has been expressed as to the old and crumbling fabric of the "Priest dyke", which even today is regarded by the most disinterested amongst the older settlers as having enclosed the priest's house and garden or croft. It was a dry dyke of the ancient pattern and was in the last stages of dilapidation when taken down by John Vennart a good many years ago. With the location of the old Chapel of Saltcoats all but accurately realised and the "priest's dyke" not long removed from human vision, it is less difficult to call up the gardens of the Chapelhill. Along the descending ground through which the railway now runs and up which narrow streets and lanes came to be drawn steeply, were the fair gardens owned by the monks of Kilwinning and tilled with their own hands. To them a sensible tradition has assigned a little monastery, for the frocked community must needs have had wherewith to dwell and eat and sleep and intone the Latin Psalms. At the Chapelhill foot lay the Chapel Well, which is still called "the Monks' Well", as indeed it rightly was, since it filled alike the chalice and wallet. The long four-sided space to which have been given the names of four streets, was then a cloister, with its fair smooth sward of grass, set about with flowers, with here and there a tree and divers carols or nooks where a monk might read his office alone. From the well the monastic enclosure ran eastward to the village green. Beside the well, in a cool recess at the foot of the brae, sat long ago a little ruin which the townspeople had come to regard as the last relic of that early monastic establishment which has vanished as if it had never been. A great gaswork sits on part of the site of the pleasant orchards, the last of which were growing their fruit until only a few years ago; and the commercial life and interest of the town have encircled the onetime realm of sanctuary and retirement. Happy must these poor Benedictines have been as they lived by the waterside deep in the arts of farming and gardening, carrying out the spirit of the Tyronesian order to whom they belonged, "Ora it labora". The present church on the brae, with its fine spire rising eightyfive feet from the base, presents a landmark of newer "Crofthead" to which the most artistic taste could not take exception; and it comes into view with restful harmonious effect amongst many survivors of a far older past. It is the home of the United Presbyterians, and the story of its quaint rise and development has been most interestingly dealt with in a volume published on the occasion of its Centenary Memorial in 1892. It was opened on 8 July 1866, by Dr Robson, of Glasgow, during the pastorate of Rev George Fairgrieve, who had been a colleague with Mr Ronald in the old church in Countess Street, of which something remains to be said in another chapter.