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Saltcoats Old and New

A historic house : The Venerable Saracen's and the Stage Coach.

Chapter 04

While the King's highway was still a highway, there lived on the brow of Coathill on its eastern side Willie Boyd, mariner, whose possession bore the forgotten name of "Boyd's Yard". The traveller between the highway and the sea road, the then only royal - and of course rocky - road to Irvine, went round Boyd's house end. That path became "the way from the harbour" and a later civilisation has raised it to the dignity of "Harbour Street"; whilst the comforts of man have, from a very early time, been offered at the "Coatruffie" Inn" at the foot. At the top is a quaint little square, out of which leads a cobbled slip to the sea. bearing the name of the Erskines, who have been associated with the neighbourhood for nearly a couple of centuries. Something less than two hundred years ago, Willie Boyd conferred a bit of his yard upon John Erskine and Marion Baillie for the lifetime of that worthy couple and - with an accommodating liberality reminiscent of the Arabian Nights - for 3000 years thereafter. What a vision of sempiternal domestic peace was here foreshadowed. Alas! for the spell-breaking power of progress. The Arcadian dream of the simple villagers has long since been dissipated. The slip of roadway and the cobbled court became the hub of village activity. Today the pathway that went by "Willie's" door, with its curving ascent terminating in the last but one of the old thatched houses of Saltcoats, still looks like an old thoroughfare in Spalatro or Bruges.

Beside the "Harbour Bar" is the house that belonged to Peter Mc Fee, one of the old harbourmasters of Saltcoats and near it the house of Hugh Baillie, who was harbourmaster in the days of William the Fourth. "Paddy's Castle", the house next the thatch, earned its title when, in the early days of the Irish settlement, emigrants from the Green Isle found it a welcome home. Willie Boyd's biggin' , at the top left-hand corner of the street, has long since vanished, but a house still stands in its place. The view from Willie's door in those days represented only a small triangular patch of ground resting on the rocks. From a very early time there had cast its shadow on the spot an ancient Hallhouse. Upon this historic building of old Saltcoats there became engrafted another, which has long eclipsed in fame the glory of its predecessor, the Saracen's Head Inn.

The Saracen's that was is now no more and a new Saracen's rests on the site. In the very far back days, Robert Montgomery of Broadhirst owned a large part of the ground on the verge of the sea. After him came Sir Thomas Wallace, the bearer of a proud name, who gave place to the Reids of Adamton. It was from one of last- named family that the site of the celebrated inn was acquired by Robert Campbell. Through this worthy townsman the social condition of Saltcoats became, to a large extent, remodelled. When it lay in its state of isolated serenity neither post-chaise nor coach joined it to the outer world. The proprietor of the Inn brought the mail coach and the poetic silence of the one-time village became broken. Under his genial sway the Inn assumed such a dignified tone and respectability as would have disarmed the petulance of Baillie Nicol Jarvie, because it did "cairry the comforts o' the Saut Market" and would have made Robert Burns say, as he said of another lodging "were I at ease in my mind the body is here well cared for". It has often been a matter of speculation as to whether Ayrshire's Bard ever passed beneath its venerable rooftree. Why could he not, for the sake of a fond posterity, have touched with the golden wand of immortality this most charming of changehouses.

If, as is said, he delivered in person the manuscript of "The Caft" to Dr Steven of the Old Church at Saltcoats, is it so very unlikely that he would have failed to "weet" his harmonious "whistle" at a house of call he was obliged to pass going and returning. The old house might have been standing yet but for a calamitous fire one Sunday morning, in March, 1894, during the raging of which the rag-tag of the town made sad havoc with the stores, some being caught making off with the bottles and other attempting to drain the rivers of liquid as it flowed from the casks. Although the house has earned its best fame from a modern novelist and the ecstasy of his French heroine, it has a more direct title to public veneration through the work of its landlords. Robert Campbell, the first landlord, was a man of gentle bearing, possessing, as is recorded, superior conversation-al powers, in short, a model Bonifiace, impressed with all the urbanity of a host of the period.. His son, who succeeded him, Alexander Campbell, has been described as the most prominent local figure of his day and a man of great zeal for the welfare of Saltcoats. He held many public offices and was wise counsellor to the affluent and friend to the poor. He was Postmaster and until the introduction of railways, conducted the coach business Saltcoats and Glasgow and Saltcoats and Kilmarnock, a public service which must alone give him a conspicuous niche in records of Ayrshire's carrying traffic. "Many a time", says and old residenter, "have I seen the 'Fair Trader', a weel equipped fower-horse coach, sweep round the gable on its long journey. See" and he points to the shore corner of the house-end, "there's where they cut a bit off to let the coach through". Here came the old-fashioned caravan which conveyed people from Paisley to Saltcoats for be it observed, the "Buddies were always fond of the "Wee coast toon". It was also, after the Burns Tavern and some other places in the town, a post office, letters being shuffled out and in of the outshot wing of the Hotel which rested upon part of the Hallhouse.

The most picturesque memories of the Saracen's are associated with the Stage Coach, which, with its redcoated men in white hats entered the town with old-time magnificence and pomp. Rob Muir drove the Glasgow Coach and John Tyre the Kilmarnock Coach, the most outstanding feature in all the ancient pageantry of that time being Davie Morrison, the guard, whose broad rubicund face, made broader still by a hat of enormous brim, lightened the long journey and whose sunny pleasantries beguiled the most melancholy traveller. "These were times to mak' the heart loup", says a narrator of these early glories, "and mind ye I hae seen them halving the bank notes before they gied awa' in case anything should come ower the coach on the road; aye and sometimes it did, wi' a' the best precautions in the world". It was said that a pair of rusty horse pistols would sometimes be carried, they were neither ornamental nor useful amongst the inexpert medley of its occupants - ministers, merchants, mariners, weavers' agents and commercial adventurers.

The old Stair up to the Coach Office and the Stamp Office of olden days is now the way to a hall, the scene of Masonic functions. Here the passengers tendered their "three half Croons" for the journey to the city. The hayloft extending far to the rear and the "French" courtyard which so caught the fancy of William Black, the novelist, can still be realised; and a side wall going seawards contains the boarded-up windows and built-up doorways off the one time luggage rooms associated with the mail coach traffic. The coaching times brought all character into the whirling vortex of daily life at the Saracen's, from those of the "pint o'yale and a owre wi't" order to the revellers in the progressive joys of "het toddy and a lang rest", while there was a select circle familiar with the private "benroom" who dipped the rosy tips of well coloured noses into unmeasured tumblers of "cauld barley bree wi' a guid strong bead in't" The projecting houses, which was used as the Post Office and up the little flight of stairs to which climbed the feet of anxious pilgrims to the land of letters, has been preserved with just reverence. Until quite recently the corner of the gable held a century old lamp the last probably of the ancient "lanthorns" of Scotland. Even this link has disappeared. "Auld's Vennel", at the angle of the Saracen's yard, which is also a thing of past, gave access to the oldest of the burgh's market places. Saltcoats had its first regular grain market established in 1840 and for many years the annual dinner at the Saracen's was a function of importance. By and by vehicles dropped off coming and farmers no longer barter at its ancient doorway. Today there is neither an echo of the clatter of horses nor the sound of stage coach trumpet. The little square holds itself aloof from the world in its retreat behind the thoroughfare through which the town's life now glides and even at noonday lives in a spirit of dreamy quiet.