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Saltcoats Old and New

Up "The Hedges": The House of Miss Stevenson of Dykes .
The Chapel Well.

Chapter 13

Long, long ago there stood at the end of the Manse Lane of Saltcoats the houses occupied by Margaret Stevenston of Dykes and her cottars. At the southeast of her yard was the possession, in 1793, of Hugh Smyllie, wright, marked out by an old thorn which stood there until the railway broke through precipitating the rustic boundary into its yawning gullet. A private lane led into her grounds, giving communication to the other yards and the appearance of the site, as it dipped backwards to the rigs of Springvale, remained until half a century ago such as was most fittingly described by the townspeople as "up the hedges", for the hawthorn blossomed there year by year and sent its fragrant odour into the pathways. Beyond, to the northeast, lay the yards of Earl of Eglinton, beauty and attractiveness covered the flowering expanse.

The old house of Miss Stevenson, in Dykes, with its neat thatch into which the top windows disappeared, looking like a storey and a half, was remarkable amongst the picturesque surroundings. Her occupancy, given for her lifetime, was of shorter tenure than perhaps she expected, for at Christmas time of 1795 it had passed to the widow of Saltcoats shipbuilder, Peter Pattieson. Then many years had sped the house came to the widow of Captain Ritchie and quarter of a century ago it fell into the possession of Owen Rush. Owen Rush has left long since and another wright's operations have come into the once pretty garden of Miss Stevenson of Dykes. The house is down and it is long since dependency cots were ruins. Nothing is left but the tree, under the shadow of which the lady of gentle Dykes passed her declining days. To what uses may even such a survivor of one time rustic beauty become. There is still adhering to it the chain which held the beam and scales used by the worthy Owen in his Merchandise. The tree lay behind the house; now it stands out stark in that little wilderness along the border of which the railway engine whistles noisily.

Two little cots at the head of the Chapel Brae rested upon the rising ground towards the rear in such a way that children could touch the back of their thatched roofs. Between these and the slips of back garden and the churchyard dyke lay the grass-grown ruin to which a fond tradition gave the honour of being the last of the ancient Chapel of Saltcoats. One curious memory of the cots is that of the existence of queer vaults beneath their bare floors, attributed and rightly so, to the times of smuggling - the smuggling of salt, when the material could not be made without Royal imposition. Nearly every house in Saltcoats in those days had thus its hiding place. first of all for the private distillation to which the fine spring of the district gave especial flavour; and secondly, for that one great necessary of life-salt. Little wonder that in the Seventeen Forties the ladies near the Crofthead sang, with very particular adaptability to their own condition:

"And to oor kail we can't get saut,
For Geordie says we're in the fau't.
Then welcome Royal Charlie."

Before and after the Erskine Church came, the house of the Hills stood at the top of the Brae. Hill was a horse dealer and many of the best "bloods" of the Green Isle were galloped by Jamie Spence before admiring "coupers" and buyers. The wee shop of Archie Kelso, founded nearly a century ago, also stood by. Round the corner came the sheds of the Willocks, famous carriers of their day, before and after the advent of the railway, the successors of the Cunninghams, whose family had been carriers from the earliest days of last century. A row of wee "thacks" straddled down the descent, one being the dwelling of Rabbie Boll, a famous townsman.

At the brae foot was Dan Smith's old-fashioned inn, which, fortfive years ago, provided refreshment under homely conditions. A few yards from its door stood the Chapelwell pump, representing the last form in which the waters of the ancient well were dispensed to the townsfolk. The foot road leading to William Stewart's yard is now obliterated in the lodge of the church, so prettily perched on the brae and beside it there has risen the tall fourstorey "house of letters" which today exemplifies the remarkable development of Post Office life in Saltcoats. Only a few years ago Chapel well looked its ancient self. It was a thing of quaint gables and thatches. The clack of Willie Bolton's loom might have been heard in what is now the house of the worthy Tuscan. The junction of Kirkgate and the street formed a gusset thatch, behind which the glowing forge of Burns' Smithy has long sustained the antiquated interest of what will for all time be known as "Burns' Close". The elder Burns came to Saltcoats when the century was very young and acquired an unrivalled reputation as a horse shoer, but he was also a farrier; eighty years ago and later, his services were in constant demand. His son and grandson worthily preserve the ideal of continuous representation of the horseshoeing industry through to the third generation.