Saltcoats Old and New
Saltlands In Retrospect.
Behind the misty screen of the long past, much of the "Saltland" of romance lies securely veiled; it has traditions that link it with the twilight of time. Many centuries passed ere it emerged from the chrysalis of obscurity into fame and had its long slumber invaded by the clang of the shipyard hammer and the clamorous noise of pigtail seamen. In its day of uninterrupted peace, the hamlet sought its scanty livelihood in the production from the briny waters of that which invests it with an industrial title stretching back to the time of Robert the Bruce. It bears in its name "SALT-COATS" the trade-mark of its old-fashioned saline glory; and the word "salter, reminiscent of the original toilers, lingers pleasantly in it's records, albeit the fires of salt cauldrons have been long since extinguished and the telescope chimneys of its picturesque "Pans" have vanished into nothingness Tradition presents us with a picture of the primitive cot-dweller conjuring the salt by no more mystic spell than the boiling of water in old pots and pans and seeking fuel cropped to the surface at the very waterside. In the vaporous fumes of the settles' pans the figure of the primeval salter appears to us dimly, but imagination and the ancient chronicler have given to the cottar and his "saut meg" as sure an immortality as belongs of right to the benefactors of the human race and the progenitors of an interesting people. Quaint, in truth, even in more recent times, was the work of the salters as they called up from the waves the precious element; then watched the bubbling brew as it seethed within the vat and skimmed the frothy liquor of its evil contents, stirring and straining and brewing and re-brewing until the water evaporated and the salty particles dropped from the pans like snowflakes, the ever whitening product passing through the purifying crucible whilst the malodorous residuum was cast into the sea.
Dear must the material have been when it was hoarded up in the landlord's "girnals" to be meted out in quantities and that only on payment of the tribute of Loch Fyne herrings, whereby the humble villager acknowledged his dependence and gave tithe to the local ruler. Mystical as the process remained down to our own day, the villagers' spouse had early discovered a source of profit (scanty as it must have been) and a means of literally making "saut to her kail" by the simple domestic aid of a kitchen kettle. Ever re-sourceful woman! There have remained for us impressions out of the dim shadows of the long ago of the guidwife of the salter taking the salt in the ample folds of her coats for sale to the neighbouring villages and towns, trudge miles unless fortunate enough to possess a donkey, upon whose sometimes not too docile shoulders the salt packs were imposed. Local history loves to conjure the memory of the salters of Saltcoats taking their place under the blue blanket of their incorporation on the field of Flooden; and there is a legend, touching upon the stampede after the battle of Largs, which tells of the good people of the district running with their saltpans and kettles before the devouring flames of kirk and clachan fired by a band of pirates.
The always-glimmering beacon of church history illuminating the town's otherwise half-obscured story. We are enabled to see, although "As in a glass darkly," the village as it thrived under the benign influence of the monks of old Kilwinning. We know that it was a dependency of the Abbey and had its kirk and pastor long before the days of Alexander Third. A crumbling stone in a neighbouring churchyard is said to have borne the inscription, "Hew Fergus, curate of ye kirk at Chapel Brae, Sautcottes", and the date 1272. An entire history is writ within these simple words, for here we have indicated to us the site of the ancient chapel, the name of the worthy curate and a date that links the town's church history with a century before Bannockburn. No wonder that the aroma of ecclesiastical life pervades a place that can point to a record of at least six hundred years and which has one of its most ancient institutions founded in the devotion of its earlier inhabitants. Saltcoats Annual Fair, one of the oldest in Scotland was established in honour of "The Blessed Virgin Mother", as is contained in the charter which the town proudly preserves, granted to the Earl of Eglinton by the fifth James upon its erection into a burgh of barony. The first Fair, tradition acquaints us, was opened with great dignity by the Abbot of Kilwinning and his monks. To this hour the townspeople hold high festival in May according to the charter. Saltcoats was still attached to the Abbey of Kilwinning when its simple band of fishermen wooed the speckled salmon from the water by the eastern shore and, through Lord Montgomerie, sent the scaly provender to grace the Abbot's board. The salmon fishings of East Saltcoats were in existence when the third Stuart James still sat on his throne. In the days of Mary Queen of Scots a kindly noble reigned in romantic Kerelaw. This was the Earl of Glencairn. He it was who, taking the moorland of the town,, broke it into nine separate pieces, giving a part to each of nine fishermen, with pasture for a cow and follower, between Rough Castle and the Scor Loch. That was done upon certain conditions, amongst which were to transport twice a year the Earl's goods and chattels to his residence near Port Glasgow in the two best fishing boats in the village. The tenants were to pay "six and eightpence" at Pentecost and the Feast of St Martins, yielding also a barrel of herrings from Loch Fyne. The landlord was to give in return "four pecks of great salt", with an empty cask of that measure, "sometime betwixt the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Peter in bonds". The settlement of the nine yards commences the practical history of the town. Three hundred years ago, as the Burgh Records of the Clyde capital disclosed, the "nine yarders" were busy sending their boats up the river to the Broomielaw, Thus the contents of the salt girnals of Saltcoats, thrown in four-peck casks upon the quayside and trundled over the cobbles of the "Saut Market" Glesca", went to savour the banquets of city magnates and to enrich the brose of more humble dwellers of St Mungo. The Salty product, by and by, found a new and profitable application. A farmer's wife saw the Irish dairymaids making cheese and brought the secret of its production to Ayrshire. "Babbie Gilmour", while she conferred everlasting fame on Dunlop, also opened up a special opportunity for Saltcoats. Hitherto it had been best acquainted with "great salt". An ingenious salter discovered the refining elements in blood and lime; and the world ever afterwards, when it looked to Dunlop for its cheese, remembered that the palatable richness of the Kebbuck owed everything to the powdered dainty "wherewith it was salted". And so the salt processes of Saltcoats became, more than ever they did before, secret which no man dare divulge and upon which none but the authorised dare intrude
Just about the time Babbie Gilmour's discovery the Restoration had been accomplished. There lived at Auchenharvie, in the days of Charles the Second, a Robert Cunninghame, who held the honourable title of physician to the king and afterwards received the prefix "Sir". The royal physician became inspired with a generous regard for the prosperity of Saltcoats and initiated works of public benefit. Under his benevolence the town arose from its state of sleepy somnolence to a condition of throbbing activity.
Perhaps Sir Robert's generosity led him into difficulties, for his heirs were afterwards obliged to mortgage part of the town to the Earl of Eglinton, who ultimately, however, leased the lands we now know as "the Stevenston side of Saltcoats". From the old residence of Dovecoathall, on the heights above Ardeer, the laird of Auchenharvie came to stay on the border of Saltcoats at Seabank, where his successors have ever since remained.
The coal drifts that lay under the little town were, of course, its most valuable exports; and as exportation could not be accomplished without a harbour, the laird of Auchenharvie was right in bowing to the necessity. To build a harbour was a perilous as well as costly enterprise and the people of Saltcoats owe him a debt of gratitude. The story of the building of the harbour represents a sixteen years' long battle with the sea. No wonder the money spent on its preservation crippled the resources of the worthy laird. To-day its crumbling fabric suggests for the inhabitants the possible fate of Yarmouth, where long since the people had to sell their church ornaments and the steeple bells to raise money to keep the harbour good. How often do we hear dark fore-bodings of what may happen when the foundations totter; when the sea enfolds, as it has already partially done, the yielding Braes and the story of the flood is repeated. How many times have we been reminded that Saltcoats has borne share of great storms and big tides. With a fortitude which seems almost Dutch like in resignation to the capricious fortune that rules the waters the townspeople have, behind the sea wall which guards their home, watched the sea's attacks for at least two centuries. Often have they seen the tides come up into the heart of the streets, those unlooked for inundations imparting a Venetian touch to the Dockhead thoroughfare; men rowing up and down this unfortunate little street to take old people through the windows lest they should be drowned.
The Harbour, begun in 1684 and completed in 1700, was built upon a long reef which still bears the curious name of the Shott; and the elongated arm of the works built in later days and known as the New Quay, rest upon the "Shott End The quaint rocks or "perches" sentinel the outer harbour; they bear the name of the "Nebbocks",and the end of the "new" pier (now somewhat belying its name in its battered and seamy bulk) breasts upon the inner Nebbock. The rocky bed of the harbour is named The Hirst" and terminates in "the Rock of the Reid". From this backwards across to the front of the old pierhead, stretch a row of "Perches" still bearing the iron rings through which, when a ship was going to sea, she was warped out to a barrel anchored to the south-west to make sail there. These the native delights to call the "ring rock". The barrel had a ring, through which a hawser from the ship's bows was passed. There were no capstan. All was done blithely by hand; on shore going out and coming in was a ceremonial in which every "man jack" on shore felt he had a native-born right to participate. It was not until the closing days of the Eighteenth Century-practically a hundred years behind the making of the harbour proper that it was found necessary to form the outer arm of the sea-wall.
Many pens have tried to bring back to us the charms of these old shipping days, when the black diamonds that were the real riches of Saltland were drifted off at the Irish coast; when, within the town's own dockyards, ships were fitted out in the spring for the then long journey to America and vessels from every clime came to cast their stores upon the now neglected quay; when the wherries brought the noisy islander and his produce; when, in short, the harbour was a place of work from morn to dusk to the accompaniment of the musical song of the jolly Jack and the rattle of the shipbuilder's mallet as he deftly turned his lengths of stout oak into handsome brigs of such sturdy foundation as to resist what the old seafarers term "the bumping of the ground swell". It is sometimes difficult for us to realise that on those now lonely Braes there stood three busy yards, with a working colony of little less than two hundred men; That tall masts and masses of rigging obscured the expanse of water and rose high above the diminutive aggregation of thatched buildings on the quayside; yet within the last twenty-five years of the Eighteenth Century sixty-four vessels slid from the slip. At times the harbour was filled with shipping, giving to the bay the charming aspect of a lively fishing port on the coast of France, the wind whistling through the cross-trees, the hulls dipping from their moorings and the ocean breaking over the curious old stretch of rock outside the sea-wall known as Coalruffie. Close by the shore the fires of three saltpans burned brilliantly; the mines within the town gave forth from their prolific bosom hundreds of tons of coal; and five hundred disciples of the loom made music throughout the village as they turned out numberless ells of material, to be spirited away to the markets of the commercial metropolis. The closing year of the century saw a ropewalk outstretched along the eastern shore towards Stevenston. The town brewed its own beer and, for a time; a brief and not too prosperous time - distilled the more fiery spirit. Other distillations were in process. Someone discovered that what remained in the saltpans after evaporation contained elements more serviceable than deserved to be thrown back into the sea.
For the first time in the first time in the history of chemistry- for the first time, perhaps, anywhere - Epsom salts were drawn from what had hitherto been regarded as the useless sediment. Common soot as an ingredient came to have a value of its own. Sweeps brought their grimy collections and the uninitiated wondered as they saw the shore littered with burning soot-peats which reddened the sandy plain. The uncanny influence of black precipitate, touched by the wands of chemistry magicians, was a thing to create awe. Magnesia was also cleverly conjured from apparently unattractive deposits and so widespread a mark arose for these curative specialties - then the sole medical resource of the poor - that it was said, with truth, Epsom Salts made at Saltcoats provided for the impaired digestions of half Europe.
Not far advanced was the new century, which began so auspiciously for the town, when the prosperous clangor on shore and inland began to abate. Within the first decade one of the ship-building yards was closed; another ceased in five years and the third followed it in 1817. Mines were begun and then abandoned; a depression struck the weaving trade of the country. Other calamities followed in appalling succession. The shipyards saw the end of their days of big building. The appearance of a steamboat in the fourth decade of the century drove away the old wherry traffic between Saltcoats and the island of Arran.
The visiting ships grew colder in their attentions and began to pay their respects to other ports - ports which bristled with better machinery and better facilities - just like human nature all the world over. There was a more practical reason for the extinction of the shipping industry. The Ironworks came to the neighbourhood and as they required all the coal, none was left to ship.