Saltcoats Old and New
Howf, haunts and Famous Dignitaries
and Dwelling of the Drakemyre
Upon the little path through the Green Mailling, worn by the feet of many tenants of the Earl of Eglinton as they came to pay their meal rents at "My Lord's Girnal House", was appropriately bestowed the name of Girnal Street. Until the end of the eighteenth century it remained a narrow and crooked way, broled by side-closes and ancient courts, with step-down doorways and quaint old lozenged windows, several of which remain.
Before 1803 Maillie Aumrie's, with its bowwindow and old-fashioned door-bearing the unfailing sign of good luck, a nailed horseshoe, was the principal business house in the town. It was a haberdashery depot and was the centre for securing the only paper that came into Saltcoats. It became the business house of Christina Hodge, a thrifty and managing woman - famous for making balls and pardies - whose predecessor, Lawrie King, kept lodgers. What is now the establishment of Mr Peter Reilly was a twostorey thatch standing almost opposite the school gate.
In a house not far from it there lived and traded Mrs McDonald, who drove a curious old Irish cart and donkey through the streets bearing its load of "cheena and delf". Danny Sutherland, who lived in the same building, was famed for the possession of a boar, which he led through the streets, the worthy attire in his tailcoat and wearing a big Kilmarnock bonnet. The little "public" is one of the oldest institutions of the Girnal Street and above it, on the face of a gable, the date 1832 and certain initials indicate the antiquity of the Albert and Good Templars' Hall. Here the Burns Club had its birth in 1824, under the genial chairmanship of Thomas Miller and with a membership which included William Good, Sandy McBride and Daniel Kerr. The breezy coterie met in McKillop's then tenanted by Orr and none added more distinction to the proceedings than the late John McKillop, who was "the bard of Warrenhill". The "Giggledales" and "Rattlerhymers" of that time made the rafters merry with "song and sentiment". Tom Miller was conspicuous in his literary efforts. He could quote all the poets with singular ease his extensive library in Raise Street still showing his range of reading. He was a veritable walking encyclopedia. His sons could both sing and speak on occasions of festivity.
What was Malcolms Land in 1870 lay at the end of the Girnal Street and adjoined to it was what became the home of the famous Kate McTaggart. Until her death in 1876, Kate was a great figure in the town. In 1863 her house and yard were almost at the very corner. Separated from this by an old thorn hedge stood the onetime dwelling of a noteworthy villager, Fergus Kennedy. Close by was the yard of Widow Russell, which became the property of James Neil, from whom the little recess round the corner into the adjacent street received its title of "Neils' Loan". In 1863 that corner looked no more modern than it had done a hundred years before. In 1780 the then very lonely loan leading from the corner to the crofts beyond was known under the name of the "Puddock Loan".
Kate McTaggart was the dispenser of attractive things for the school children, when all the academy the town held lay almost in front of her door. Even before Kate's time another had done similar service to a former generation. This was Jean Poe, crotchety old madam who was the terror to the youths of the district and who used to leave her perch behind the counter to fly after them with a broomstick. Stealing round the corner into the adjoining street the boys would hide in the little loan, where four cots zig zagged in the formation of an inverted V. In later years it received the designation of "Jimmie Whitley's Loan" from a well-known chimney sweep, whose name was a common terror with which weary mothers and nurses tried to send wakerife children to sleep. He was sometimes the only sicknurse who could be got to tend to fever cases when others were afraid to venture. Jamie was knocked down by a crowd and, thinking his last hour had come, murmured "Saltcoats 'ill miss me". His lamentations over his dog "Venus" are vividly remembered. Here was started, by Jamie Logan, the first pawnshop in Saltcoats. For many a day a younger Logan fiddled through the streets with a boxlike homemade violin, having a single string.
A great change was made on the Loan when it came to be owned by Thomas Borland, a very notable figure of the district, who, as a contractor, had his carts on the road late and early. He brought the building line forward and the Loan, so full of memories of better days disappeared. He took leading part in the agitation over the name of this street, which was then called the Drakemyre. The correct name will be found in Ainslie's plan of 1789 as Chapel Street and in the earliest titles it is rightly so called, since it was the street which opened out in front of the Chapel. The proprietors solemnly met in the Town Hall, in March 1878, to decide what was the proper name of the street. It was then proved that in 1813 the street was still Chapel Street. It was urged that as Drakemyre was only a nickname and that as no such name appeared in the Eglinton rental books, it should be taken away and a new name adopted. Thomas Boraland was then the oldest resident in the district. The name was changed to Vernon Street in compliment to the Earl of Eglinton's Commissioner and the old term of Drakemyre thrown over. A dip into older history might have led to a greater appreciation of the old and despised name, so reminiscent of innumerable "Goosedubs" throughout the country, which were a feature of the religious establishments of a far off time.
Reilly's which lies to the northeast of what was John Barclay's smiddy (approached through Baillie's close), dates from 1824. Fergus Kennedy's house, once the pride of the old Drakemyre, disappeared under the Co-operative Buildings and the water runner from the Raise yards that ran across into the Green yards became indistinguishable. Many a time the little runner, swollen by rains, would gurgle along in an alarming current. Latterly it was enclosed under a grating, through which children peered with curiosity or with dismay as their peeries or bools curled away from the "wee loan" to be swallowed up in its depths. Latterly the runner was used for cleansing the Drakemyre, a pure spring of water being drawn from a mysterious source at the end of the street, the boys watching the operation with astonishment and delight. One day, as the story runs, men working at this magic fountain (now evidently "lost to view but not to memory dear") started back in fright as they saw a terrible abyss, the last of an ancient pit, the site of which was almost opposite the little thatched school wherein the future Premier of an Australian Colony taught the "three R's" to budding Saltcoats. Here was opened the first Ragged School under Ephraim Barbour. The place is also reminiscent of the late Arthur Guthrie and Peter Gorme, founders of the Literary Society. They were, said a writer in the local press, "the leaders to whom all the elder members were content to sit mute and listen". Other lights were John Ewing, the first Doctor Wallace, Finlay Mitchell, gas manager, William Davie and "Verdant Paddy". The "Rabbie Burns" public house of today was Peter Hill's stables and Docherty's occupies the place of the little thatch of Joseph Milne, mason, who invariably conducted operations from the house tops in his black tile, the badge of the master tradesman. Close by lived old Robert Service, who gave out the flowering for the lady workers of Saltcoats and whose son James is now one of the merchant princes of Melbourne and Premier of Victoria. The veteran agent was a most enthusiastic teetotaler, It was he who, at a great public temperance conventicle, laid about the ministers with such zealous fury that the Rev Mr Elles, who was present, said "Sir, I am almost tempted to thrash you to within an inch of your life for your impudence". This reminds us that the Temperance movement in 1837 was initiated by James Smith and that the first Temperance demonstration of its kind in Scotland was held in Saltcoats. James served his time as a tailor with the father of Mr Bryden of Dockhead Street.
Other almost forgotten links with the life of old Drakemyre are the house near the railway end occupied in 1878 by Mr Steve originally built by Holmes, a Baptist and used for a time as a Baptist chapel; the stables and hay-loft of Archie Robertson, the carrier, who, about 1851, was going back and forward to Irvine with a van; the Drakemyre pumpwell, opposite the old station of 1863; Donald McAlpine's coal-ree, which stood near the thatch school in 1862; the little shop where, in 1858, gutta-percha shoes were sold for the first time; the famous lodging of Peter McCulloch, sometimes going under the satirical designation of the "Drakemyre Hotel"; next it the house (dating, along with the lodging, from 1828) of the celebrated Elder Brodie, one of the stoups of the Auld Kirk, a great and worthy figure of the severe disciplinary methods of early church life, when nothing was more usual than a visitation from those ecclesiastical constables, looking "as grim as Hieland corbies", with the warning intimation, "Ten o'clock, an' a'body i' their ain hoose". Curfew did not strike more terror than the presence of an elder of the olden time in the Drakemyre "after lock-up 'hours". East of Brooders was the house of Meredith Keenan, carter. For many a day there stood opposite the "Banking Brae", a wee tottering hoose "looking like as if it had survived a thoosan' years". In the passage a little hole in the wa' did service as a bar and there many a surreptitious stirrup cup had been bottled by travellers before pursuing the long and lonely way northward. Immediately to the west of the loaning and so close as to form part of it, were the old-fashioned houses, threequarters of a century old, that became only a few years ago the handsome building of the Town Clerk's office.
The Y M C A has been in existence since long before 1859. The picturesque building which it occupies was at one time part of Mr Borland's property and was opened by the Association in 1890. Mention of Rob Miller's public house and grocery brings back the memory of Hughie "Benty" immortalised by John McKillop in his humorous versification, "The Folic" :-
"Next come the lads, a funny squad;
There was Pat Lancet, woman mad,
Tam Giggledale, a chield ne'er sad,
An' Hughie Benty
Douce Robin Weel-thegither-haud
An' Geordie Tenty".
Indeed the entire range of houses swept away when the railway station was brought to the Drakemyre enclosed most of the real character life of the town. Impossible is it to drag from the mists of local tradition the exact significance of name the "Lion's Den" and "Drakemyre" must remain inseparable. The corner house was Gilbert Gray's with little sideways and entrances to the station. Peter Hill, the horse dealer, who lived until 1849, had his habitation on the railway side. His tall figure, crowned with a tall tile, his swallowtail coat and Knee-breeches, would have singled him out in any community. He smoked a long pipe and flourished a long four-in-hand whip. His jokes were clever and keenly relished. He was well known to officers in search of good mounts and it was said that the laughter created by Peter's repartee found an echo in far-off India. Near the commencement of what is now along stretch of dead wall supporting the railway loading bank was once a lane of seclusion and rural interest, since the villager used it as a way to the higher lands, to Malcolms weavers' shop and at a later time to a now obliterated kirk which stood on the other side of the railway, the lane was approached through a gate which was never opened except on Sabbath. It came to bear the name of the "Meikle Yell", from this large wooden gate at the entrance.
What indescribable felling of humor and what playful quips and jocularities, are aroused by the remembrance of the ancient two storey house, the "Turf Inn", which sat at the foot of what was known as the "Banking Brae" and the funniest thing concerning which is that it was never an inn at all. At its gable the road went up to the Gasworks, This road up the brae in older days was further westward. One day in winter the road was frozen like glass; boys were tobogganing down the hill on an upturned fourlegged stool, when a lady and gentleman appeared at the top and looked ruefully at the dangerous descent. The boys made offer of their primitive conveyance, but the gentleman re-turned a rude answer. Hardly had he done so than, by an unexpected slip, he was precipitated to the foot amidst roars of laughter. The lady was wiser. She gallantly accepted the odd transport and buckling her skirts about her, she placed herself on the stool and was launched safely at the foot amidst the hurrahs of the onlookers. Alongside the Turf Inn was Lennart's Smiddy, a feature which have true auld' warld'ness and character to the site. No old Saltcoatian will forget the house of Rabbie Boll, satirically dubbed the "Port o' Ferry" Inn and dealt with in forgotten rhyme:
"There stands a wee thatch hoose at yonder gate
Sing hey for its people, ever merry
The name of the landlord's Rabbie Boll
And naebody passes the Port o' Ferry
The last thatch vanished in 1904 and the old life of the Drakemyre ended. Under its more fragrant title, it is rapidly assuming new airs and new aspirations, since, with a Railway Station and a new Post Office at its extremities, the current of traffic may be diverted and this Rue de Vernon be turned into the premier thoroughfare of Saltland.