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Saltcoats Old and New

Through the Dockhead the Braes and Breezy Byways

Chapter 07

From the Shopends at the foot of the roading - that centre of town life from which all its local interests have ever diverged there stretches along the sea side of the Dockhead Street and irregular perspective, typical of the all absorbing desire of the burgher to break through the mest of old antiquity with which he is surrounded. One house leaps into the full blaze of modern pretentiousness, while its neighbour demurely retains it aspect of the long past. The corner of the Dockhead, which was John Montgomeries when houses were first rising on the brink of Saltcoats Bay, fast became divided into many pieces. Some are links, others are landmarks. The famous weaving agent, Hugh Baird, had his house here. Through his hands went to Glasgow much of that beautiful flower material that has gained for the women of Saltcoats a reputation that will not fade. Here they came on pay day to receive the reward of labour. Here also came the weavers in their sleeved waistcoats and tall hats, maintaining the dignity of toil in the full garb of their honourable calling. Baird had also for a time the Post Office. Craig's Land lay near; the Douglas Hotel, afterwards "the Albion", the quaint little surgery in days gone by of Dr Robert Miller, afterwards of Dr Brown; the establishment of Mrs Bolton, the lady barber of Saltcoats, now a drug depot, have all gone out of the picture. Robert Bryce, who died about twentyfive years ago and who commenced business next door to James McKie's ("Book Jamie"), was a wonderful memorist, a great man for dates and a great pedestrian. HIs father knew the poet Burns in his hackling days at Irvine. Book Jamie's was the Mecca of literary Saltcoats and the proprietor himself the first to guide the pilgrim through the classic realms of bookland. 

Beside the Old White Hart Inn of Saltcoats, sometime "The Swan", when held by Ferguson, father of the Ferguson of "F & F", Glasgow's premier restaurateurs (now devoted to the uses of a bakery shop), there tottered towards the rear a row of little dwellings in which gathered most of the "character" life of the wharf. The Inn guarded the entrance to the Dockhead and the shipbuilders knew all the back ways to its queer old tap-room, where the "cares o'life" were dissipated, under the potential influence of a drap o'rum or under an unlimited draught of brewery ale, "made" not "in Germany" but in Saltcoats. Even at that time there was an old-fashioned house up the Dockhead kept by Charlie Cood, which is characteristically described as having had "a weestep doon and a wee windy nae bigger than picter". The publican had two trades, He would come up off his bench with his awl in his hand to serve a dram and token of his combined professions appeared in the window in the form of a decanter side by side with a pair of tackety boots. He was fond of saying that he could "aye provide the soles and raise the speerits". The wee shop is covered over by a large refreshment house of today. Until 1809 a vacant space, with a wall fronting it, lay between the White Hart and the old thatcheds beside Porter's Shipbuilding Yard. Wooden booths and travelling shows and theatres perched upon the space. The Post Office and the house upon which it became engrafted rest upon that ancient vacuum. Immediately behind the Dockhead roadway lay the carpenter's yard of the Porters, with sawpits in front. 

The launching slip was near the centre of the bay and more central still, at the dividing points of the separate lands of the Laird of Auchenharvie and the Earl of Eglinton, were the channel up to the Boat Quay and the launching slip. Further south there burrowed into the Braes the "old Dock" (the bottle shaped configuration of which can hardly be understood in the waste of today); forming a square recess far out into the water, was the boat dock, the carpenter's shed lying between it and the Saltpans. The "Wee square dock" where the sloop came up and which had been there from a very early time, is still referrred to with pathetic veneration. The wooden saw pits, conducted by the Shearers and Barbours, were a quaint feature of this old time life, the men working the saws by hand in the dug out hollows of the beach, fed by a water channel, up which the logs were drawn towards the ever restless saws- wee men and big whell shankers drawing the logs to the Braes. A wooden erection, almost touching the water, formed the Laird of Auchenharvie's boathouse. It was one of the sights of youth to see the yacht borne on wheels as it made its way in from the direstion of the Pans. Beside the Pans there stook and old thatch house. When the laird's yacht grew bigger the house blocked the way and was thereupon demolished. By and by the old boathouse melted away and a new stone boathouse was raised further back on the Braes. One gusty day in January, 1867, the heavy door of this new house swung backwards on a boy playing near and killed him.

Original were the ways of men in those dear old primitive days at the harbour sixty years ago or more. To dredge its sludgy basin there was brought into use a form of barge known to all that little seagirt world as "the dirt boat". The barge was let down at low tide, the custodians labouring heroically at the bed of the harbour with shovels as long as the tide and their big waterproof boots would permit. When the tide came in the barge floated to the back of the sea wall and was emptied there. The ingenuity of those enterprising quixotes led to the adoption of a newer barge, with a flap at the bottom through which the silt of the harbour was dropped. Gradually, as its purpose came to an end, the barge faded away. It lay long at the mercy of tide and storm, enabling mischievous youths to avail themselves of a stolen cruise in the shore shallows. Boy, with that singular veneration for the things which give them delight, stole away pieces of this venerable cleansing cruiser until not a part was left behind. Other features vanished as well, The dock in front of the Braes, with its steps going down to the water, fell into ruin. Every storm completed the work of destruction. The whole structure at that part by which the townfolks had wandered, listening to the vendors of strange articles and watcheng the busy life on land and water, fell into accomplete state of decay and the picturesque beauty of the Dockhead of Saltcoats passed into oblivion.

The story of the industrial genesis of the Braes is not too well known. It is said that it was a Quay Street baker, named Robert Roxburgh, whose hobby of purchasing wrecks was the means of bringing the first shipbuilding to the Brae. It is known that Mr Murchie was busily building in the last days of William Fourth's reign. He left for Greenock and was latterly in Troon, but he came back to build the last schooner sent out of Saltcoats, the "Jane", of Irvine. An eyewitness of the launch describes the glory of the day, the volunteers in their grey tunics (led by Robert King Barbour, a famous local lawyer), firing a feu de joie. In early sixties, fine smacks were being sent out of Archie Boyd's shipbuilding yard (afterwards covered by Mr Dillon's stores at the waterside, now demolished). In 1865, the Braes were occupied for building purposes by Daniel Stewart. 

When the trade had dwindled, there were several attempts at revival, the last ship to be pulled through being the "Warner", which was repaired at the Pans' end and was one of the largest to be so treated in Saltcoats. In August, 1874, an attempt was made to resuscitate the trade of the shipbuilding yard by Peter Barclay & Son, who laid down a patent slip covering over two acres of ground. A couple of wooden piers, nearly 300 feet long, were run out, with a fine stone breast. The boatyard, when some time occupied by Hugh Barclay, covered nearly the whole of the ground from the vicinity of the boathouse to the Saltpans, bordered on the seaside by what at one time had been the parapet wall outside the old boat dock or harbour. Time, the miracle worker, has wrought many changes since and never again in all probability shall the Braes see the restoration of its lost industrial life. With what tender pangs must the native of Saltcoats gaze upon that heart-rending region of unemployed and uncultivated expanse. 

In going round the Braes the wanderer covers a semicircle flooded with the joys and sorrows of local recollection. At the foot of the Well Close, reached by an ol balcony (now taken away) was the house where Neil Shaw had his School - where, indeed, many important men "on sea and land" received their education. He was a wee man and walked lame. On a summer day, forty years ago, he lost his life at a boat race in the bay. The boat held two others, Boyd Miller and William Sharp, when all at once a squall arose and the boat was swept from beneath their feet. The others could struggle, but the wee lame man went underneath the waves. The smithy, near the corner of the quay, has been there from time immimorial. Perhaps the willage vulcan first fanned the red embers of his forges for the wants of the few fishermen who plied the nets in Saltcoats Bay. The people of today know the old house, with its nailed horseshoe on the door, as they would an intimate friend; and the roar of the bellows accompanies the crack of a crony or sends its murmur in upon the yarn of some veteran of the seas. We know it best as Arnott long handled the hammer under his genial superintendence. Sixty years ago the Millers plied their trade in this corner, which has in its day borne the glory of three Saltpans, the queer chimneys of which long peeped above the houses and were visible through the riggings of vessels. Purposeless would it be to describe in detail if one dared, the process of saltmaking within these historic pans. Yet a link with the later days of the industry enables us to gain a glimpse of the work during Robert Maxton's management. The sea water was conducted through a great iron pipe underneath the road. Formerly this was pumped up by a wheel wrough by hand, latterly by an engine. The water was boiled in great cauldrons, round which ran an unprotected platform or staging reached by steps. From this elevation the state of the processes could be viewed. The fires having been taken off and the water evaporated, the piles of salt accumulated at the bottom. The first boiling invariably produced a glutty, unattractive surface, which was carefully skimmed and thrown back to the sea. Gradually the liquid attained a purer consistency, a pipe from the Pans carrying to a barrel outside the drippings of the "pan oil", then in universal local use for rheumatism and forming an unrivalled liniment at sixpence per bottle. 

The work, as a rule, took a night and a day. Men constantly tended the salt fires, access to which was reached by a descending trench, the coals being brought in on a branch railway line and tumbled down near the furnace doors. As the result of much careful handling the salt became precipitated in beautiful white crystals, which one old salter of today describes as "like icicles". The thicker material adhered to the bottom of the pans and this had to be literally hacked out by chisels. The noise made in this process was always heard outside and sagacious townfolks would say "they're crusting the pans today". The producing of the precious cubes and old salter observes, "was no' a maitter for everybody's knowledge", a kind of Free Masonic sanctity preserving the Saltworks from the intrusion of the curious. Weary enough was the conduct of the intermediate processes and the final purification. Vigilant had the salter to be as he watched the burning embers redden under repeated shovelfuls of parret, the clouds of steam rolling abouve the boiling waters and the flakes of salt gradually settling. Again and again men would test the material in the making by plunging into the pliant mass the "luggie" or splucher whereby it was handled. During the long waits and night vigils they would sit around the fires telling weird tales of those of a Nihilist society. Woe to the man who obtruded upon this privacy, as the salters sat on a great corn chest with their backs up against hugh barrels of blood and lime to be used in the purification. Woe to him, indeed, unless he was able to pronounce the magic password that he had "broken parret" or "emptied dross". Many a houseless wanderer found a downy corner on the warm ashes of the pans. Gone, alas! are the vats, the corn chest, the high pans and the laigh pans, the blood and lime barrels and the great draining tanks into which drip, drip, drip, went the "pan oil" to which so many curative virtues were attributed. The coal-rea, to which the waggons trundled with fuel for the furnaces, is now covered, as indeed the whole site of the Pans, by large dwellings. The two sidings from the railway - one to the coal-rea, one to the Pans - have left nothing but their tracks upon the quay. 

A mass of undistinguishable rock represents the last of the Salt PPans, so deftly wedded to the rocky foundations that a course of blasting has failed to obliterate entirely the marks of an industry that gave Saltcoats its worldwide fame. When the new chemical, "carbonate of soda", was "discovered", a famous man about the Salt Pans used to take trips to Ireland and come back laden with coin, Paddy accepting the powdery gem as a domestic Godsend at a shilling the packet! Other vendors got a ready market for "dairy salt, three centuries old", on which unintended fiction rested a reputation that will never die. Many were the strange characters who got a living at the shorehead in these days. One notable quayside figure was "Labster Jenny", who once attempted suicide from fom the quay end. The folds of her ample clothing enabled her to make a graceful plunge and she floated like a buoy. The cold water having brought her to her senses, she called for help and was dragged out of danger. 

Salt and herring are concomitants and Saltcoats has had to earn its living from both. Threequarters of a century ago the fleets of fishing boats made the harbour lively. James Ritchie & Sons then had the place of shippers, as well as coopers and herring merchants, on a very large scale. The boatmen then sold all their fish direct to the dealers. There were few brisker sights than the fish wharf at early morn when the boats were moored alongside and the fish, overflowing the boxes, lay in silvery heaps on the quay stones. The Murrays have been long the leaders of the fish trade at the harbour, which, through their efforts, was repaired nearly twentyfive years ago from the Pans down to the mid breast. There was also built up a wall levelled by force of the sea some years before. The work in the curing house, were the pride of lochfyne, is salted and spitted on racks with astonishing dexterity, is one of the sights of modern Saltcoats. The herring is brought in their own boats and it is computed that a thousand boxes a week pass through the stores at the quay. Salmon are still sought for in the Eastern Bay as they were five centuries ago, the headquaters of the industry being the house at the quay which was once the office for ships' registry and dues and from the little upstairs room of which the harbourmaster controlled the spirited operations of the vanished shipping trade. Few changes, except those which time makes are apparent upon the old sea wall. The effect of many tempests is visible on every stone. The sea has furrowed it in a hundred places, although it still bears all the partriarchal dignity of decay. One opening, a great jagged orifice in that deep bulk of wall, admits a pleasing glimmer of the sea in its best moods amd enables it to lash, with its curdled front, the harbourhead at its worst. 

Shorewards another great opening once yawned, but this has a history less innocent than the dumping of ballast for which these holes were primarily made. The spot is known to only a few of the older salts as the "Ferryboat Gut", but in more ancient times it was called "The Smugglers' Creek", a natural miniature haven cutting its way in to the rocky foot of the sea wall. A world of mystery and fascination pervades the old Quay House, now hugging the sea wall. Built to endure, like the wall itself, its fabric nearly three feet deep, its harled front and ponderous rafters of Memel timber sufficiently tell its antique story. Its once massive doors, studded with heavy nails, suggest the neccessity of defence against the marauders of long ago. The original doors are still adhering to the battered lintels. A large part of the front compartment formed the bonded stores where lay the huge consigments from the gin stills of Rotterdam and plantations of Jamaica. Great must have been the ships' stores, for the earthen floor space is enormous. On the upper floor, looking today almost the same as it was left many years ago, is a quaint public room where the seafarer and his friends spent the last hours before a voyage in scampering revelry and reels. How the exuberant jolly jack came tumbling down these outside stairs without an overhead plunge into the harbour is a matter that none can understand. 

The view over the bay, focussed through the upper windows of the quay house, has an inexpressible charm. The old railway ran behind the quay house, but is now enclosed under its roof. On the level, formed into a stable, but unchanged since its years of usefulness, is the one time "Cleikum" Inn, which must have been the oldest place of refreshment in Saltcoats, when newcomers from abroad and oldcomers from Arran clinked their glasses under the same old roof; when the lingo of the foreigner mingled with the gibberish of the island Gael and when Jack squandered his earnings gleefully at its door and in the wild glory of his homecoming, dance along the quay singing sea songs. The projecting arm of the sea wall is bound up with the full interest of the old shipping days. The path leads over the outer rock boulders of the reef upon which the harbour end rests and the quay having yielded like a slowly-sinking vessel, water comes up almost to the foot. One can stand at the very brink of the breakwater and look down upon the process of crumbling decay. The sea has made violent rents in the garment of this old protecting wall and lashes through its gaping holes. At the end of the pier, on a raised parapet, was an iron support for suspending a beacon of coal fire, no trace of which remains except the scorched stone near where it blazed.

To guide the mariner into the haven, there stood at one time an old lighthouse - the seventh oldest in the country - with a fixed light which could be seen for six miles. It was placed there in 1810 and was the only lighthouse in the country that had a spire. It rose twentysix feet above highwater line. At the pierhead was the flight of stairs, with a score of steps, up which the master and his men climbed to obtain the last glimpse of a departing vessel, watched its progress from the shore until it had become only a speck on the horizon. Now the old staired front against which the "Semiramis" smashed long since has gone into the deep. The lighthouse and spire have gone also and the ragged edges of the fabric look as if meditating a final plunge.