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Saltcoats Old and New

Romantic "Elensport" and a Vanished Railway

Chapter 06

Immediately adjacent to the home of such interesting memories Seaview House sits proudly today, restoring the lost ties with an older gentility, a modern mansion, built on the most attractive part of that picturesque slope, with a gate leading almost directly to the sea. Here under its windows we have the "Elensport" of long ago, full of romantic interest and suggestiveness, a spot in which to trace under the glamour of night, with the sea beating its mournful refrain at the feet, the battered ridge upon which the town's older aristocracy rested. The old loft of the Saracen's - bridging what was once the line of railway that sped to the harbour - focuses today a prospect upon which to muse. Under the shadow of the old sea wall the spirit of the past breathes. At almost any hour one sees a group of urchins, representative of the squalor of Quay Street, in all the excitement of marbles, oblivious alike of the vanished glory of the surroundings or the pathos of its dilapidation. The inner wall, next Seaview Road, was at first the only sea wall, built by the Road Trustees in 1811, for protection from the sea which washed the backs of the houses and garden walls and sometimes covered the road and street.

Few would imagine to day that along that boulder strewn sea front there had stretched a long beach of carpety green. This was the line of the railway constructed by Robert Reid Cuninghame of Auchenharvie and intended to form a connection between his coal work and the harbour along the rocks and shore. Previously the coals were brought to the end of the town by canal, from which they were taken in carts to the harbour. In 1716 there were only some 60 or 70 houses in the town and no road behind Harbour Street and the Inn. The railway brought the transformation. In the year of the battle of Trafalgar, a toll was placed outside the town, at a spot known as McLachlan's Lane, for the purpose of intercepting the Auchenharvie coal. Six years later, in 1811, Auchenharvie tried to free himself of these impositions. The tax was upon carts. He would make a railway line and use waggons, to be drawn by horses. The first part, as far as the Saracen's, was finished in 1812. This served for nineteen years, until 1831, when it was extended to the very extremity of the quay. The railway fell into disuse in 1852, after the starting of the Ardeer Ironwarks. More than once the wall was broken down by the sea and the railway partly torn away. Great was the patience of the courageous towns-folks. Trees were torn down from the seabank to form wooden sleepers, over which the waggons trundled merrily, tons of material being carried over this platform and the sea washing underneath The railway, in the light of advancement, seems to have been of primitive construction. Over the "wee fish rails", which rested on stone sleepers, rolled two-ton waggons - hardly bigger than hutches carrying along that eastern front coals for shipment to Ireland. The railway had its laborious but also pleasant side, the cool breezes from the sea on a summer day fanning the exertions of horse and men. "It was grand", says an old worker, "when we came back with our empties, tired and wearied after the labour of the day, to hear the horses' feet clattering along the path. Then we set them adrift to graze on the long grass of the embankment, while we regaled ourselves at the little Inn that sat near the terminus". This Inn was called "The Sun" and the broad face of the genial solar, which appeared on its front, was often as welcome as the sunshine it implied. Of late years a beautiful promenade has arisen between the old turnpike road and the sea. The prospect at this point has an infinitude of charms, the old homes of, Mountfads, the Kirkwoods, the Baillies and other ancient stacks, rising towards the brow of Kyleshill, their gardens divided by old walls, patched with sea boulder and clay; at the foot the Free Church, which, seen from the sea, looms up like the centre figure of a Turner canvas, with its bulk of sad grey and its spire serving as a landmark. The Brae upon which the Free Church rests has ceased to bear the It is no longer "Findlay's Brae". In the days long gone by, a wright's premises stood on the spot. perched on the same hill was the family home of the Dows, to which belonged to famous minister of the old Parish Church at Saltcoats. At the time of the Disruption, the celebrated Dr Landborough headed the congregation which found an "ark" on "Findlay's brae". He left, as has been written, the Church in which he took so much pride, the Manse where his children had learned to prattle and to pray. The house of the Dows was generously given to the newly formed body by Dr Dow, for, as he said, "the sake of the good old kirk and the good old man, my father, who was long its minister". An Edinburgh man, the famous David Cousin, designed the church, which was opened in 1844. Its first cost was £700, but it was greatly improved 1869, when, under the architectural guidance of Mr Baldie, of Glasgow, a new and handsome spire rose 100 feet in air, giving renewed dignity to its fine Gothic outline. The reopening was conducted by the famous ministerial baronet, Sir Henry Wellwood Moncrieff and the celebration was marked by a waving flag and the ringing of bells. The Dows, whose house became merged in the church, have an interest in themselves. Dr Dow married a daughter of the first British settler on the Mississippi. While at New Orleans he made the acquaintance of a Frenchman. Monsieur Comyns, "teacher of Mathematics", who turned out to be the French King in exile. It was this same Robert Dow who dressed the wounds of the Earl of Eglinton when he was shot on Ardrossan sands by Mungo Campbell, At the corner of Bradshaw Street, on 2nd August, 1858, in a building across the way from the church, there was opened under its auspices the school which since blossomed into the town's proud Academy. The founders were the Rev John Davidson; Miss McLeish, sister of Dr Landsborough and John Brisbane of Lylestone, Mr Grierson being its first master. Mr E S Wilson, who still holds his place of honour at the head of the Public School of Saltcoats, succeeded Mr Grierson in 1869 In the days long gone by, John Cunningham, of Windyhall, had his house and garden resting on the slope of the hill leading down to the King's highway. Upon this ground, at a very early time, came to be erected a brewhouse and stable. A lane passed it, taking the villager to Hugh Paterson's smithy, near the cross roads, at the foot of the slope. Close at hand was the residence of Thomas Morial, a connection of the Eglinton coal grieve. That lane was afterwards called "Braidshaw Roading" and at its head, on the corner of the hill path leading to the house of the smugglers, was a lonely alehouse. One may well understand the popularity of the alehouse at a period when it conferred on its customers many a private distillation that had "never paid a halfpenny to the King's exchequer, or passed under the inquisitive attentions o' a bottle-nosed gauger". The Windyhall Tavern, which, for many a day, bore the quite unnecessary legend, "YE OLDE INN", and was the resort of the characters of the town, presented its thatched gable and queer wee windows to the street until almost recently, when a modern place of refreshment rose upon the site. The Tavern had its commencement so far back as 1733. Of the droll characters who formed its habitues seventy or more years ago there remain many amusing reminiscences and there once rang in the mouths of young folks in the village, now grown grey, a quaint rhyme touching the members of a drouthy band |-

"Crowley and Showley, Billy & Co,
And little John Templeton, all in a row".

"Showley" Lee was the leader of the bibulous partnership and made many a stouching detour to the Inn from his shoemaking bench in Gibb's Close in the Green Street. The original proprietor of the hostelry long, long ago was Sandy Gorden, who combined the professions of publican and precentor, being, as was waggishly said, as handy wi' the cork screw as the tuning fork. The way to Hugh Paterson's smiddy" has not entirely lost its ancient character, although the time has passed when the "roading" humped in the middle, was inclined to send an unsteady frequenter of the tavern rolling down into the old-fashioned windows of the thatched house that toppled down into the wee braes. More than half way down, in 1717, was the house of the smith; "a mighty man" indeed was this leader of the hammermen, of whom the only trace today is a half-obliterated stone in Ardrossan Churchyard. Upon part of the open space, at the foot of the roading came to be built the King's Arms(Sam Mitchell's in the olden time), a hostelry which did good service to the traveller in the days when it was the landmark of the cross roads. Through an old-fashioned entry one can still search for the building that was a schoolhouse of an older Saltcoats, built into the very walls of the ancient brewhouse. It had two floors, a school above, a stable below. The teacher was Mr Wakelin, whose scholars went forth to do honour to Saltcoats in various parts of the world. He was a grand reader and taught the art of elocution with success. Bob Hunter, who joined the dramatic profession and who wedded a lady of the stage, was one of his pupils.

In a hall near the King's Arms, the first Catholic services were held under Father Thomas and then Father Hallinan. It was in this hall that two of the Chartist leaders were entertained on their visit to the town in the early thirties. The hall was long the meeting place of the St John's Masonic Lodge, now of Ardrossan. The name of the Auld's clings to the once irregular cluster near the crossways at the foot of old Bradshaw, which was built out of recognition only a few years since. Skipper Sandy Auld lived near the site of the Saracen's in 1709. The old brewhouse, which lay back from the Quay Street corner, with a space in front, fell to one John Ducon, whose spouse, Jean Allison, conferred the property in 1754 on her grandson, Robert Auld, the father of Alexander Auld, commander of the "Stewart" of Glasgow. The commander's mother, one of the Fairries of Saltcoats, bequeathed the ground to two sisters Fairrie in the last days of the century and it came to Robert Weir of Kirkhall in the early years of the next. Mrs Young of Kirkhall possessed the site in 1831, but by that time almost every trace of the venerable brewhouse buildings had vanished. The residence of Captain Hamilton Auld of Bradshaw reminds us of the interesting associations gathered around that name in the old roading. Towards the rear of the spot now occupied by the offices of Mr Kirkland, Solicitor, few will realise that here was the queer old wright's shop where the swish of Willie Auld's plane was heard from morn till night turning out the boxes for the Magnesia Work. Many a day John Cornelius backed his cart into the old-fashioned recess to load it with these models of boxmaking art. The two step up shop near by recalls the quaint old clockmaking house of John Gibson,

Founded in the days of George Third. Matthew Auld's weaving shop lies beneath the writer's office. Something of the ancient character of the "Braidshaws Roading" remains in the still open "close" at the corner of Laird Auld's, up which was a perfect little colony of the early villagers. There lived John Scott, the Kilbride postman, the only bearer of letters for that distant shore. The square is now untenanted and derelict, no longer echoing to the merry laughter of the urchins coming from Wakelin's school, no longer serving its old purpose as a place "for weans to play in". A touch of real old history dignifies the dwelling at the foot, its old crowstep accentuating its age, for it is the house which once belonged to William Thomson, shipmaster and afterwards to that most interesting of local celebrities - Thomas Bradshaw. Here we have a link with old times indeed, because Thomas Bradshaw gave his name to the roading which, despite the attentions of the improvers, flings back the fragrance of days that are gone.