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Saltcoats Old and New

The Rock of Romance:
Castleweerock and the Windmill
The Ancient Craigwell

Chapter 10

The northwest horn of the harbour bay forms a rocky promontory accessible at low water, but at some times completely surrounded by the sea. Tradition has assigned to it the place of an old Pictish castle. For time out of count it has been known as "Castleweerock". There is no trace of the castle, which stood there in all its solitariness centuries ago. One is left to fancy the time when the Pict wandered here, listening to the wild wash of the sea and the piercing notes of the seagulls. It has been the rock of romance for young Saltcoats. Mothers who, as children, had played on the penninsula or dabbled their hands in the surrounding pools, revelled in the wild legends bequeathed to them; and children who grew old became equally enthusiastic over the memories of that wonderful fairyland - sweeter and more poetic than the scene of any of Grimm's enchanting tales. To the native abroad no word of greeting strikes the key-note of home with such singular sympathetic force as the word "Castle-Weerock". There is little difficulty in realising the unkempt glories of the site even half a century ago, the old tumbledown thatch houses, thrown here and there without plan, some crossing the pathway, or dipping their gable-ends into the puddles of the seashore; others sitting on rocky headlands with steps down to the shingle and looking, when lit at night, like the dreamland pictures of the story book. One of the two outermost houses blocked, for years the access of the wayfarer. The pathway between the houses and the land was so narrow as to afford little footing and the ends of the houses, dipping into the seafront, left no way round them at all. In fact, the houses on the rocks became, at times, complete little "Castle-Weerock" in themselves and the reidents acquired so distinct a feeling of moral as well as geographical independence that to this hour one who has hailed from the "Weerock" regards himself as a superior being. On the wild stretch of bent and furze that lay behind the rocks stood, long ago, the old Windmill, a quaint old hasbeen. Some said that the bars were the relics of its former use as a prison. Modern improvement has made short work of the historic landmark. The green fields by which it was surrounded have become covered up and the grassy slopes turned into more prosaic uses than playplaces for the village. The last relic of the Windmill, its rotund base, lies at the back of tall tenements. It has been displace from its throne of distinction in older Saltcoats and only its name is given to the onetime rocky pathway, now turned into Windmill Street. In the days of the American War, the site near the Windmill was unbuilt on. The lands of the Misk park extended down to the water edge and the roadside wound itself towards the Salt Pans. Perhaps the most interesting house in the vicinity of the Windmill was that which belonged to William Fairrie and which became, in 1804, the residence of the famous Captain John Dunlop. Near there also was the house of the McPhees, well-known in the seafaring life of Saltcoats; and beyond that, almost at the Windmill foot, the house of Charles Little, whose experiences on the Spanish Main formed a never ending source of recollection. He was full of the days of Lord Nelson and had had the experience of being taken away by the press-gangs in the midst of a courtship. After along absence abroad, he completed the most romantic of stories by coming home to find his intended bride still ready to receive him. Murphy, the famous carpenter and boatbuilder of the Braes, lived near by until his transference to Greenock.

Before 1780 little of the Windmill land was built on. In that year the stretch of rocky beach was enclosed; but for many years a space was kept vacant to allow of the indewillers drawing water from an old well in a cool, recessed square. This was the ancient and entirely forgotten "Craigwell". Here, in days gone by, Adam Kelso had his house and weaving shop. His grandson was one of the notable captains of Saltcoats. The shuttle was long plied in this strange old house by the rocks and after many vicissitudes the house was burned down. Now a three storey building sits upon the venerable Craigwell and the quaint old thatched cots, with the upturned boats that lay upon the rocky bulwark at their doors, have been eliminated from this picturesque corner under and unpoetic hammer of modern improvement. That part of the old Windmill territory verging on the Dockhead and now covered by the curing houses, was built on for the first time in 1814. Alexander Ritchie had boats hereabouts a good many years ago. Tom Bolton, whose name figures prominently in the older annals of the town, had his garden ground on what is now a range of old buildings. The passage across the road behind the weaver's shop down to the sea, known as Bolton's Lane, has gone out of remembrance. There was always possible a circular walk round the shore to the back of Hill's Park, part of the ground resting on a rocky eminence (now Eglinton Street) afterwards blasted to make a street through to the sea. It is long since a way was made round the beach to join the noble seafront. What was there previously was a quagmire. Economical ideas of the time led to the application of the loose fabric of the Windmill to the improvement of the roadway. Further along the sea track and resting within another peninsular cluster of rock, is the "Lady's Pool" the circular enclosure of water being less elegantly described as the "Buckie Pat". This the people have surrounded with all the fascination of mystery and romance. Beside it, however, was the unromantic chemical work of the North Pans and it was used for steeping the lime required for making carbonate of soda. Upon the very rim of the "pat" there still rests the gable of the North Pans, against which was built the Bathing House, now forming so artistic a feature of the water crescent viewed from any point. At the foot, in all its alluring immensity, lies the largest bathing basin in Scotland. Between Castleweerock and the Bathing Pond, on a stretch of level ground now washed away, stood an old sawmill, with logs lying in the adjacent creeks. The sturdy old gable at the corner of the now fashionable street - Eglinton Street - arrests attention by reason of its rampart-like wall slanting obliquely from the thoroughfare. This house, which marked the commencement of the lane to the "cow pasture", dates from 1828 and stood next to the place of a famous currier, which has disappeared. No part of the town has worn its garb of antiquity so threadbare as the street of the Windmill, yet the strong arm of improvement has brushed aside many of its ancient charms.

With visitors passing and reposing from early morn till dewy eve, while the happy summer lasts, Eglinton Street - the transformed Carter's Lane of long ago - seems as if its great width were all too narrow for the swarming crowds from Glasgow who pour through it. The Holly House Temperance Hotel, which is at the corner of Windmill Street touching the main thoroughfare, is a relic of bright and interesting days. Until 1877, when Dr Ritchie Brown lived there, the house, with its fine garden and commanding stretch of frontage, was occupied by Miss Ellis, the daughter of the late Rev Mr Ellis, the famous Burgher minister, who was a familiar figure in the Saltcoats of the stagecoach days. The reverend gentleman was well known in the streets, carrying his stick, which he used alike in the interests of peace and war, either to clinch an argument or to terrify some fighting urchin. It was called "the Bishop's Crosier". Taking off his coat once in the heat of a spirited argument he said, "Taking off divinity' here's Jamie Ellis". No one can pass that fine old house without having in mind the little upstairs snuggery in the minister's study at the corner where he and his henchman, the Rev Mr Ronald, bent themselves to the loved task of kishing probationers. "Go to Banff" was laconic instruction addressed to a timorous young clergyman, who was left in considerable doubt as to the exact geographical destination intended. What is now a fashionable way to the front (made in 1859) was at one time a stretch of rocky ground, known as the "Cow roading", no wider than about a dozen feet, with water splashes here and there, "reel-rall" plots of ground and ditches and bogs, that were a source of danger to the wayfarer. This narrow strip was assigned to the carters of Saltcoats and their machines and horses were housed here. Overgrown as it was with patches of reeds and coarse grasses and chequered with pools and brackish water, it was then as unattractive a place as one might wish for. Mrs Graham's park, which became Melbourne Park, was at first intended to be "the Victoria Park". No one would imagine the old condition of the site from its pretentious residences leading directly to the public park and bandstand, giving access in summer to the golden sands. Windmill Street originally adjoined Chapelwell Street in one continuous line. A lane passed through the run-rigs leading to the townend. This in 1812 was opened out as "the New Road", now Hamilton Street, for a long time there were few houses and only a hedge on the right hand. The ambition was to break through the ancient environment and develop a new and fashionable thoroughfare. This expectation has not been yet realised, the people still clinging to the to the joys of shopping in Dockhead Street and at most times Sabbatic quiet reigns in this ninetyseven years old "New Road". Barclay's represents the manse of the Anti-Burgher minister, the Rev Mr Ronald. Further out was the West School, kept by Alexander Smith, the father of Captain John Smith. The house was in 1836 the second outmost in the street; but a stretch of build-ing was rapidly thrown up beyond it. Here first reading or literary parties were held. Here, in 1837, the Mechanics' Institute, under the presidency of the notable chemist, William Burns, had its beginning. A dairy now marks what was a piece of vacant ground beside the manse of the famous Dr Landsborough. The manse was acquired in 1849. There the respected doctor fell a victim to cholera and died. At the same time his sister-in-law and a servant both succumbed to the plague.