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Saltcoats Old and New

From the Town End to the Old kirk style and Manse.
The Chapel on the Chapel Brae.

Chapter 11

For many years there stood in lonesome isolation at the Town-end, at the path leading to the Salt Pans, the genteel old mansion of the Curries, now a public office. The pleasant retreat beside the Catholic Church dates from 1861. St Mary's "Star of the Sea" was already in existence, this community having been gathering for ten years over from the little school hall in Bradshaw Roading to their church and presbytery, which, with a fine tree shaded approach, have long formed an attractive feature of the Ardrossan Road. The internal embellishments and decorated sanctuary make the church one of the prettiest in the West. A vanished beauty spot of the road was the Burnside Cottage, afterwards burned down. It stood where the garden is now, on the banks of the Galloway Burn, which ran across the way towards the sea, sparkling in and out amongst the rough scrub and whins. The picturesque sight of the women laying out their clean white washings on the heath and youth "guddling" for minnows in the burn (which often overflowed across the roadway) is a thing of the long past. The burn has disappeared, the only memorial of its existence being a slab of stone projecting from the base the parapet at Dr Campbell's, which was part of the Stonework of the rustic bridge. The building of the railway embankment brought into existence the "King's Bridge", which takes its name from no more royal source than Peter King, its builder. The little cots sheltering under the shadow of the embankment had their chimneytops appearing above the parapet line. The diverting sight of smoke issuing from the dyke, like some goblin picture in the fairy tale book, was not lost upon the youths of Saltcoats, who were wont take great delight in placing their caps on the heads of the chimneys and precipitating volumes of smoke upon the dwellers beneath. In those outer boundaries of old Saltland touching the border line of Ardrossan, the magicians of the mason-craft have been busy. The "little planting" has gone under. It would be hard to find the "Beechcroft" of the past and the little "but and ben" on the roadside; the mill house of Mrs Logan, better known to history as "Jean Neil's". The corner shop at Stanley Place now stands almost upon the spot. There have been countless changes in the Ardrossan Road. Many sigh over the past skating pleasures of the marshy hollow now buried under Bay View Cottage garden; the child-like glories of the once beautiful Planting, with its climbing tree, its rustic bridge, wimpling stream and little mineral water house, now under the benign directorate of the Mineral Well Syndi-cate, through whom the waters of the old "physic well" are disposed of at a penny per glass. The three cornered patch of ground, the recently abandoned Police Station standing upon it, brings back the very quaint methods of incarceration of sixtyfive years ago. At that time it was only one house and prisoners were kept as in a regular jail, being permitted the pleasure of "hard labour in the garden". At night, when all was still, they were allowed into the dark recesses of the moorland and exercised as far as Ardrossan. They never ran away except in fun, giving occasional irritation to Jamie Davidson, who accompanied them with his big retriever dog. When sometimes they would hide behind the whins Jamie would say, "If you dinna come this meenit you'll never git oot again".

Almost under the shadow of the North Parish Church, at the angle of the old public green. the populace came, in the summer of 1835, to hail with acclamations the famous Irish Liberator, Dan O'Connell. This had been for years the meeting place of the weavers to discuss the affairs of State and hear the newspapers read. The church further down has reached its record of half a century. In the autumn of the same year they formed themselves into a church and the building with the Gothic door and pointed windows arose in the beginning of 1863 from the architectural designs of Lewis Fullarton.

The history of the Crofthead is full of subtle pathos and romantic mystery that make the work of a storyteller at the one moment delightful and difficult, intricate and congenial. From the Braefoot to the town-end undulations to the sea front. The Boltons had been possessors in the demise in 1665 of Grisel Bolton, "spouse to John Brown, younger in Crofthead". That they assumed of a chevron between three fleurs-de-lys. Prior to 1780 there were few houses and even half a century ago the croft looked the very model of the an Ayrshire clachan of the olden time. In that field, held the ground that has long since lost its interesting name of Bartlemore's Garden. On the main ridge of the ancient croft was what is known still as "Crofthead House", dating from 1782. It pertained in the old days to a famous weaver, John Smyllie and in 1849 belonged to James Miller, shipmaster, in the Crofthead. An old dry dyke builder, named Vennart, built out of his earnings the little centre of life known as Vennart Place, Up to Sandringhanm Park, into the heart of a place of rural simplicity and peace, came the railway, the engines shunting and puffing all day long, to take away the coal thrown down on what had been the Sandy Park of an older time. It was in September, 1860, that the founders of the Bowling Club secured for a nominal fee a part of the ground of the Crofthead plots, bounded by the garden wall of the manse and having an entrance from the Gasworks Bridge., The green was opened in the summer of 1861. William Brown, of Parkend, the president, made the address. The first Eglinton Gold Medal was won by a shoemaker, Thomas Shaw. What a world of fascination lies behind the grand old days recalled by the heavy timbered rafters and low browed doorways still visible in the old Crofthead. Some have been outwardly remodelled, but within there are the queer old presses, stairways gliding behind mysterious doors, capacious fireplaces suggestive of the hook and swivel and ben-rooms with a step down equally reminiscent of the old clay floors. Such a model is James Beattie's, which was Grier's in the days gone by. Once inside the passageway one sees the old trap up which the materials for the loom were hoisted. At the back door are quaint faces carved in wood modelling, the bonneted heads of the weavers of long ago. At the foot of the long garden rests something of historic interest, for it is the DEER PARK of the Earls of Eglinton, bringing back, in one interesting flood of association, the time when that whole stretch was an uninvaded territory, bearing from here to the sea the serenity of the still earlier time when the sandaled feet of monks threaded the green mazes of the park and the Chaplain of Saltcoats lived in his rectory close by, little dreaming of the whirlwind of chance and change which was to overwhelm this place of onetime sanctity and sequestered beauty.

Deep in the recesses of the past are the reflections called up by the Kirk Stile, which stood at the gap leading into the old church, that Kirk Stile, which a well-known local bard sings so touchingly:

"Tho' my darg is sair an' heavy, for I toil frae dawn
To dark, still the thocht that Mary loes me is solace
In my wark; an' it mak's the lang day shorter, an'
It brighter semms the while, when I think upon the
Gloamin' an' the auld Kirk Stile".

Now the stile is replace by an ancient but unromantic gate. A little pathway led from the Crofthead to the Kirk Stile, to the southeast of which was a square plot. Around this lay the kirkyard and the yard dyke of a sailor. Here came to live and die one whose name will go down to posterity, Hugh Higgin, the occupant of the curious large building known as the "HERO-HOUSE". The name is a vexation to the antiquarians, but its origin is simple, the word "Hero" representing the name of the ship in which the daughter of one of its former occupants shared. It dates from 1783 and looks today much the same as it did when Hugh had his weaving shop and beaming loft here. Hugh lies in the churchyard almost in a straight line from its gable. One of the figures of the neighbourhood was Peter Kelly, the collier poet, born in the Eighteenth Century, who was living up to 1832 in an old building a stone's-throw from the manse. He thought himself equal to Burns, and preserved his dignity as Saltcoats Poet Laureate by his costume, consisting of Kneebreeches and white belt. On Sundays he was conspicuous in his red vest and blue coat. Of a later time was Robert Irvine, the great Freemason, one of the founders of St John's of Ardrossan, who died in 1859.

Two other well-known worthies of the Crofthead were the brothers Ralph and Tom Bolton, who, in their free-and-easy moments, contributed to the local humour, maintaining at most times the old regulation dress chimney-top hat and cutaway coat. One moved in rear of the other, Ralph's favourite saying being:

"Ralph tills the ground;
Tom melts the money".

"Ladysmith" sits on the site of their dwelling place. The Manse, resting far back in its elegant enclosure, with its pretentious lodge and gateway, brigg approach and shady trees, is the most interesting feature of the Crofthead, to which it has given the newer name of "Manse Street". The ancient Parish Manse with its but and ben, little study and thatched roof, stood on the right bank of the Stanley Burn; but as it was too far off for the then minister, Mr Dow, he never inhabited it. He lived in a hired house at Saltcoats until 1746. Here he resided until his death in 1787. The present manse was built a little further back on the glebe in that year.

The first house of the ministers has been described as of one storey in height with a flower plot in front, a fence separating it from the street, the front receiving adornment from its green painted gate and rosetipped garden plot. At the end of 1860 a lodge had to be provided at the entrance, in view of the exposed state of the gateway and approach. In front of this stood the Manse Well, which has disappeared. It was Alexander, the tenth Earl of Eglinton, who first conferred the glebe. As the manse and glebe nearer Ardrossan were in his way, his lordship agreed to give a new glebe at Saltcoats adjoining the church and the old manse was turned into a stable. The churchyard was of earlier foundation. It was not until 1760 that the public ceased to bury in the old churchyard on Ardrossan Hill, although the Earl had then given ground for the purpose around the church. Included in this grant was the Deer Park of Earls of Eglinton, now the south-west end of the Manse Street gardens. Additions to the churchyard were made at later dates, the last to be thrown in being taken from what had been Mrs Barr's garden. There are many living who remember the advent of the hearse in 1860 when the little kirkyard pathways had to be widened to let it in. Robert Craig, of the Queen's Arms, had the first funeral carriage "to hold four inside the hearse underneath."

Respecting the church yard, with its piles of crumbling grave-stones half hidden in the neglected grass, a resident near by recalls with horror the time of the cholera visitation, when the patients were taken to wooden building erected within the place of interment. Gruesome as the thought is, the poor sufferer must have experienced a shudder as he realised the character of his surroundings. Many used to pass with melancholy state over the solemn heaps which the kirkyard encloses, but few of late years troubled themselves about this Necropolis of Saltland's illustrious dead. The story of old Saltcoats is traceable on every head-stone and all around, the pathos of its maritime life is made apparent by memorials to those who have found a watery grave. The memory of the ministers of the church is conspicuously perpetuated.

The churchyard has its own weird contributions to the thrilling legends of the resurrectionist days, when men sat through the night guarding the dead against the despoilers and with a singular admixture of veneration and callousness, playing cards for "three-bawbee stakes", or tendering the "double six" ower a strong "quairt"; putting "speerits doon to keep the speerits up". The parish church of Ardrossan at Saltcoats was built in 1744. Its life was a romantic one and its vicissitudes many. The Church's story ended on 29th November 1908, when it was closed for ever; when the echo of the Psalms of David no longer resounded over the deep-bottomed balcony, filled with the spirits of the skippers and mariners of long ago; when the great gaunt, square pews in which the lairds of Cadell and Montefode, of Boydston and Knockwart and Dykes and Kirkhall worshipped, were occupied for the last time. No longer are the good folks of the town called to devotion by the sounding of the old bell, which followed the fortunes of the church from a rowan tree on the Cannon Hill, down to Saltcoats. Its tongue has ceased to vibrate and the old chain, already rusty and weather worn, which unites the rope to its movement, dangles idley in the breeze.

The church has had a distinguished ministry and is full of interesting tradition, which have been elsewhere recently dealt with, in connection with its transference to the handsome new Parish Church in the Westend. It was the Rev James Steven (afterwards Dr Steven, of Kilwinning), who obtained the poem of "The Calf", written by Burns. The mystery surrounding its delivery has never been solved. The story goes that a knock came to the minister's door, then in the south wall next to the pulpit, now built up. A packet, with black seals, was delivered to the bellman by a man muffled in a horseman's coat. The suspicion has been long entertained that the mysterious horseman was Burns himself.

A singular ornament of the old church, transferred to the new, is the model frigate suspended from the roof. It represents a vessel of fifty guns, a miniature of the "Sans Josef", captured from the Spanish in 1797, on which Lord Nelson received the swords of the officers of the vanquished squadron. It was the work of one Willie Dunlop, "gunner's mate", a Canal Street youth, who had a narrow escape from death by a shot which passed over him while he was lying in his hammock. The model has been in the church for fully a hundred years.

The Parish Church and churchyard has had its quaint officers. In 1806, John Reid was keeper of the mortcloth. It is long since a mortcloth was used. The ravages of cholera in 1834 led to the abandonment of what had become a serious danger. William Sharp was sexton in 1864. Latterly the offices of gravedigger and bellman were combined. There is still a lively memory of Jack "Ardrossan", who was a foundling and was so called because, being filius nullus, "the pairish had nane ither to gie 'im".