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Saltcoats Old and New

In the Haunts of the "Closs Mailing":
Through the Hole in the Wa':
"The House with the Painted Room"

Chapter 09

Deep hidden behind the newer buildings near the smiddy lies much of the history of Quay Street, with its quaint identities with the ancient mansion of the Millers, its long banished forestair, garden and "closs dyke". What a world of social exclusiveness is represented in its old village renown as the "house with the painted room", in the words of the ancient documents (kindly made available to the author James Dillon), "the large boxed room, commonly called the painted room, with the bedchamber therto", . . . . and various other curious apartments, all portentiously set forth as pertaining to that house, the first built in the highway, described as "the big slate house in Saltcoats from the forestair thereof to Robert Miller's house and a part of the yard following it from the closs stone dyke downwards and the vacuum between it and the dyke".

There is still visible the yard used in the days of the "Cross Keys" and of Tam Gramham, ho was the carrier to the Arran boats, his carts coming in at the gate that is still open as it was then. A close ran through here from the Pan Brae. In its time it was Miller's Close, but in the days of Sandy Ramsay it was "Sawnie Ramasy's Close"; but now it has suffered as complete an annihilation as the personality of its owner, who was known by the complimentary soubriquent of "Sandy Naething". Under one of the old buildings in front was the saddlery of John Banks, whose kindly efforts to teach young Saltcoats, across his counter, the rudiments of learning in those faroff days when schools were few, merits the gratitude of posterity. Very few could recognize today the close which led down to Neil Shaw's School and was in later years known as Bannatynes's Close; so narrow that, in its lower half, one has to squeeze sideways between the walls. There still exists, although little known today, the "Hole in the Wa'", the singular orifice through which fugitives from justice or the press-gang used to dive to freedom, not a uniformed man daring to follow as they made their way through to the bewildering mazes of the Well Close. The press-gang came here very often. A boat-load of men would land on the beach and make a rush upon the closes, sometimes taking men from their beds. There is a familiar story of the gang having been on one occasion grandly outwitted by the workers in Porter's shipyard, when they were having a dance. The men stole through the waiting officers wrapping in the cloaks and hoods of their partners. But they were not always so successful. In a hose in the Well Close an aged crone was so irritatingly obtuse during search, that the officer in charge having kicked the cutty stool on which she sat, her shawl fell off, revealing the hardy and weather-beaten countenance of a jolly jack tar. He was of course carried off. Hereabouts, many years ago, lived a curious character, who, under the name of "Baldie Jerg", moved through the streets selling fish from his hand barrow a strange figure in itself of the fishing life in which Baldie moved. It was ornamented with the rigs of boats, a big red-backed "cruiben" adorning the mast-head and from each corner of this quaint travelling handcart there came forth the sound of little bells. Baldie's grotesque turn out attracted a great crowd of street urchins, over whose heads he usually flourished a gully. The Well Close, still the main artery between the onetime highway and the Braes, is the survivor of the "Close Mailing" of pristine days of the village. Narrow, crooked, confined and impenetrable was the "Closewell" of half a century ago; with half its width made to bear the course of an unsavoury burn called "the Goat". The benighted native who had stayed too long in the little thatched change-house at the foot ran a narrow risk of being waylaid by shore prowlers. The antiquity of the close is still traceable, but the "goat" has disappeared. The close takes its name from the venerable ell, now also gone, known as the "Back Yett Well". It was the people's well and gave the ships their neccessary supplies, the treasured water for a long journey being rolled in barrels down the strand to boats and transported to the vessels. A coat pit was in use near the well in 1760. It preceded on behind the Saracen's begun in 1780. The quaint old access occupying the northmost corner of the Braes leads through the garden and "closs" of Miss Montgomerie, a genteel residence in the days of Quay Street gentility, known in olden times as "Jenny Mann's Close". Hardly a memory of Jenny Mann remains, but the one time elegance of the place forces itself into its present abandonment. Miss Montgomerie's door was never open; now it is never closed.

All around here speaks of the romantic life of old Saltcoats. As the land of the mariners, the pulse of the little populace on the Braes beat responsively in joy or sorrow as the murmur of the sea brought its message of loved ones on the main. Sometimes there were lidings of disaster other than the foundering of ships. With what aching hearts must the families ashore have heard of the capture of their friends as prisoners of war. During the conflict with France many Saltcoats men were in French prisons. There is a man living on the Braes today whose father was brought up under the care of a French nurse, who came over to this country at that time. A pretty story is that of the two brothers taken prisoners by the French, who were released through the cleverness of their captor's daughter. One of the brothers married his deliverer and brought her home to Saltcoats, where she learned to lisp with unfaltering accent the not too fluent patois of Saltland.

Her gallant husband died and she became the wife of his brother, thus completing the romantic interest of one of the most singular incidents of a stirring time. Saltcoats had its day of naval warfare. There was living in the sixties, James McDonald, who had served with the "Powerful" and was the only survivor of the battle of Camperdown. Even in his advanced years he was able to handle a gun with the best and was entrusted with the duty of firing the cannon at Seabank on occasions of local rejoicing.

Time has not dealt too rudely with the landmarks; but sooner or later the victorious march of improvement must overwhelm them. Most of the houses of entertainment, giving back all the imagined echo of older merriment, are gone this many a year. Impossible is it in these changed days to trace, in the surroundings of old water gates of the ancient town - black with age some of them and with the barnacles of many a score years - the whole wynds, lanes, port, "lands" and courts, of which some battered balcony and projecting turret stairs are the only with which the Braes abounded; the now dingy and dusty tenements where the best days of the skippers of old were spent on the fringe of the sea they loved.