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Saltcoats Old and New

The King's Highway and the Town's Ancient Vault

Chapter 03

In some of its thoroughfares Saltcoats appears to be much older than it is, for many of its Eighteenth Century dwellings have disappeared in sweeping "improvements" and others have been altered out of recognition. Above the cornice line of what seems to be a new building, a curious crow-step, or a bulging chimney, show that only the front is new and that an old, old house lies behind.

Along the old King's Highway, or what is now Quay Street, no such pretension exists. It is at once old and interesting, full of the artistic suggestiveness of the salty days and odorous of the old fishing and seafaring life which moved through and around it. Often do the townsmen and strangers ruminate over its story, to most of us nowadays an unintelligible jumble of cross legend and crack, laughter raising reminisces and rude raillery.

Lets us trace it to its beginning. In the early years of the reign of Queen Anne, there was a smith in Stevenston known as William Miller, who made remarkable change upon the structural appearance of this old highway. The ground which lay nearest to the harbour baisin was except for an old brewery, then an unbuilt-on track, which the hill-dweller viewed unobstructedly the shimmering expanse of water it belonged at the time to the Laird of Gargunnock who gave it to the Stevenston smith and there the latter in 1703, erected his dwelling house on the base of what had been the brewhouse, there also he had his stable.

It is now a big three-storey house, but the early history of the western side of the highway lies under it. In George Third's time William Miller's grandson held the post of tide office in Saltcoats. For a long time nothing stood between Miller's house and the possession of John Wyllie, a wright, nearer the north end of the street. Rapidly, however, as the trade of the harbour proceeded, the intervening spaces filled up and became a packed colony of life, by closes giving admission to the braes at the rear.

Between the house of Wyllie, the wright and the yard of William Miller, there came to be erected the house of John Johnstone, merchant, afterwards the house of John Goudie, innkeeper and beyond Wyllie's, going towards the cross-roads, was the house of John Galtry, grieve to the Craigie Saltpans at Ayr, who came to exercise his skill in the Saltpans of Saltcoats. The still old-fashioned house that became built on the site of William Miller's yard was long the Arran Hotel, the favoured resort of the island visitors. The personality of Tam Graham lingers in local memory beside it; and the first Temperance Hotel in Saltcoats (opened in the year that ushered in the Volunteer movement) is still recognisable beside it. The interest of this side of the old street lies in relation to its strange vennels and must be reserved for a later chapter. On the opposite or eastern side of the King's highway stood the salt Girnals of the Cuninghames. They were ancient of the ancient and held the stores of salt as they came from the adjacent Pans. Down to a very recent date, their appearance was recognisable in the close that bears their name, the Girnal pronounce locally "Garnel" Close. They lay to the left, past the gable of the corner house; and in the words of a native, "looked just like the stalls"

The Close is full of memory, although its appearance is greatly altered since the days when Betty McKinnon's change-house lay back in the upper left hand corner, giving a cosy welcome on a cauld nicht and a shelter from the searching winds that moaned through the unprotected highway. Many a glass clinked merrily as the storm raged without and masses of spray drenched the low roofs of the curious jumble of dwellings which stretch from the Garnel Close to the now tottering angle nearest to the sea. The topmost house was built crosswise over what had been an outlet to the sea. Few to-day dream that behind what is known as "Betty McKinnon's Corner", there lies a lost link with the old administrative life of Saltcoats in the form of the "Rackle" of stones that composed the house of one of the town's oldest wrights, James Dickie, built over an institution perfectly forgotten, because hardly known to the world today the ancient vault or tollbooth of Saltcoats. The very name conjures back the memory of old days of serfdom when might was right and the conditions of vassalage were maintained with an iron hand. Perhaps this vault was intended for malefactors only, but its existence so near to the salt girnals has a creepy suggestiveness.

"Dungeon Vile", it must have been down in the very bowels of the rock and made more dismal by the continual howling of the sea, which - before the settlers built their sea-wall - assailed the gardens and crept close to the cottages. By l7l4 the Tollbooth beside the Girnal had fallen into disuse and the Laird of Auchenharvie gave to James Dickie the privilege of building over the Vault. His widow, the ancestress of one of our best known burghers, occupied the house for many a day.

Time and storm beat remorselessly upon it and it fell into ruins. For some years an old thatch - which a dweller of the Garnel Close says was built by Angus Shaw, a sailor - clung to its gable. The thatch has disappeared in successive alterations and later generations have lost sight of its historical forerunner - if they ever knew of it. They remember only "the house of the widow Dickie at the back of the Garnel Close ". Today nothing remains but the cairn of sea boulders and the most important and certainly the most interesting of the early institution of Saltcoats has passed out of ken as completely as if it had never been.

"Findlay Breaden's yard" stood near by and here in the first years of George Second, a sailor, named Robert Cunningham, built a house. It now stands upon the northern corner of the Garnel Close and Quay Street. Near the "town end" corner of Quay Street stood a celebrated Inn the Cross Keys, kept in the early days of last century by Andrew Gibson, who was the first to attempt the improvement of the old turnpike road at the foot of the hill which at high tide was swept by the sea. Andrew's philanthropic scheme of laying big boulders along that inaccessible route was not so much as to repel the force of the sea, but that his customers would have stepping stones to his door.

From the end of the street backwards a range of old houses bore the name of "Miss Miller's Land". They were part of the Mail Rooms of a far-off time. On one of these, in the last days of the first George's reign (now denoted "Lodgings"), was built a house by George Gillies, master of the sloop, "Betty", of Londonderry. It was afterwards owned by Sarah Porter, who become the spouse of Captain Campbell. An old resident tells how her father, Willie Porter, kept boats at the braes about half a century ago.

The quaint but neat looking house adjoined to it is sacred to the memory of the famous Betsy Miller, who was the daughter of William Miller, long shipowner and wood merchant in Saltcoats. Captain Miller owned the "Clitus", a large brig in the timber trade, which was made out of the material of an old man o' war. The Captain fell into difficulties; and with a heroism and commercial foresight that has positively no parallel in the annals of female enterprise, Betsy (her brother having been drowned) took command with the full assurance of paying off the mortgage of seven hundred pounds.

She became thus, perhaps, the only woman the world has ever known who was a registered owner and master of a sailing ship. During her twenty-two years of seamanship, her name was familiar "from sea to sea and land to land". She was honourably mentioned in parliament by the Earl of Eglinton when the Merchant Shipping act of 1834 was under discussion.

Scotland's oldest postman sailed as a boy under her royal command and testifies that "she was a hardy yin a reg'lar brick".A story is told of how a stranger having come aboard at night, sought to convey his gratitude of the captain in the morning. Stretching his legs on the deck at sunrise, great was his wonder when a women's head, crowned with a "mutch" of spotless white, looked out of the cabin hatch. Sometimes, there were two women in charge; her sister Hannah acting as auxiliary captain. Betsy died in Quay Street forty-five years ago in the house that had been one of the Mail Rooms" of history.

A large part of the eastern side of this old highway was known as Boyd's Yard and that introduces the interesting personality of a leader amongst the townfolks. Willie and his son were noteworthy figures in the staple trade. The house of the Boyds lay at the head of what is still a queer little street (known as Harbour Street) rising from the main thoroughfare to take the wayfarer on his way to the sea and the old turnpike road to Glasgow. At the foot long lay a ruinous house, which became the Harbour Bar; and behind lies an ancient courtyard, public access to which the people say cannot be denied by a prescriptive right that goes back beyond the days of the old railway to the harbour. A dwelling-house, near the corner of Harbour Street and Quay Street, which belonged, in the early years of the reign of George First, to William Galt, a skipper, was, along with an adjacent brewhouse and stable, converted into a flesher's stall and yard and became part of the Star Inn, a hostelry which has passed out of recognition, although the building still obtrudes itself on the thoroughfare.

The curious today, may look in vain for the place, at the back of the "Star", where John Barclay made candles. Of course the townspeople made their own tinder and carefully preserved their steel and flint. That was in the early days of last century. "The year after the first Reform Act" brought in. As an ancient ciceronean tells us, the flaming "Lucifer", with its name so suggestive of the Evil One. To light her cruisie filled with whale oil the guidwife had to draw the Lucifer through an emery cloth. Many a horse lantern, shedding the welcome rays of Johnnie Barclay's candles, lit the wayfarer over the ill bottomed streets, the moving lights twinkling like stars in the crofts above the town, or relieving the inky darkness of the Puddock Loan.

Variety of quaint form is lent to old Quay Street by the two houses at the sea end, with the outside stairs and box like balconies so reminiscent of the fishing towns. A veteran of the ancient port assures us, from authentic domestic information, that the outer one was built in the days of the American War by one Robert Paterson, a merchant. It was long occupied by Gilbert Walker, who was prominent in the fish merchandise of Saltcoats and was the first to bring the savoury codfish from Ballantrae. That is a very long time since, yet the vision of the worthy Gilbert as, wearing his night-cap in the vogue of an unconsciously picturesque past, he stood on his old box like look-out, with his eyes intently fixed on the waters, comes back as an agreeable glimpse of days that are gone.

For many a day, and until only a few years ago indeed, Quay Street did honour to the burgh;s baronial charter as the scene of the annual Fair, founded on a long and respectable antiquity. Booths occupied both sides of the street. At the sea end were the coopers and tinsmiths. The concourse of visitors from the Arran shore along with the townspeople, human and live stock in inextricable confusion, pigs, hens and goats; showmen and somersaulters, tricksters and thimble-riggers; sailors in an ecstasy of wild exhilaration; penny trumpets, glittering tricksters and tin cans made a glorious din and hubbub which nothing since has been able to equal. The sailors radiant in fluttering ribbons, sewn by admiring "Nancy Lees" - floated along the cobbled cause ways. There was a devouring consumption of curds and cream and "mashlum scones"; and the Fair, which lasted for the better part of a week, left upon native and visitor an impression that took long to fade. The Fair of today is mild compared with the frantic whirl of enjoyments that can never again be so exquisitely realised.