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Saltcoats Old and New

In the Heart of Old "saltland"
The School : The Earl's Girnal and the Quaint House
that became the Headquarters of a Quaint Burgh

Chapter 16

Between the bay and the northern stretch of pastoral upland forming the High and Laigh Raise Parks, was the Village Green, a long quadrangle upon which the landward part of the ancient village rested. It has been already shown that the Kings highway from the shore went by the rocks. There was no road through the village proper, except across the wild stretch of beach that has become Dockhead Street, or by a confined lane at its eastern extremity pursuing the long and tortuous line of a rude water course from the higher lands known as the Flush. The way or approach more than a recess from the cross roads, it might almost have been termed a cul-de-sac. The march boundary between the lands of Cunninghame and the Earl of Eglinton formed a sinuous line of dyke across the central parks of the village, in which were involved the territory of one James How, a merchant, regarding which something very important in the history of the town emerged. Westward from the spot where James and his guid wife Grisel had their home lay the village smithy, in what one may term the very heart of old Saltland. In the Earls of Eglinton and the stable for the horses employed in bringing the salt and carrying away to the Earl's storehouses at Irvine, the meal brought as rent by the tenants. Prior to 1700 few dwellings had their place in the vicinity of the Girnal House. Up the irregular line of the burn which flowed into the Green there ran the long and straggled vennel, used by those who dwelt in the centre of the village to enable them to reach Kyleshill. This was the line of the Flush, the way, in short, to the Flush Rigs. At its foot lay James How's house. On the banks of the now vanished stream, in the heart of the village, were several cothouses, in which dwelt one Alexander Kennier and they were reached by an entrance so narrow that it would not permit two people to pass abreast. Further towards the centre of the green expense was the house of Robert Morial, the coal grieve to the Earl of Eglinton. To the northwest of How's house lay the croft of Alexander Ritchie.

Thus roughly may the surroundings of the site be pictured in 1714. Before another half-century passed, great were the changes that came into this little colony at the foot of the Flush rigs.

"In a green lane that from the village street
Diverges, stands the schoolhouse, long and low
The Frame and blackened with the hues of time

From ancient records in the possession of Mr William Service, the Session Clerk, we learn that the old Parish School was in the Seventeenth Century controlled by the kirk authorities at Stanley and now came the Parish Church to Saltcoats and with it the rustic school. One can readily imagine the scholars under the shadow of the old church on the brae, weary of pot-hooks and Latin classics, playing hide-and-seek amongst the gravestones, their only play-ground. Then came their removal, as their numbers grew larger, to the Green, Rob Morial, the coal grieve, giving up his house to make room for them and the gardens on the Earl of Eglinton's land for a capacious playground. The exact date when this transference took place cannot be definitely determined. In 1751 the School was at the Old kirk. Within the next twenty years or so it was down at the Green. It had many masters, whose names are "Written in gold" on a tablet in the old kirk wall. In 1803 William M'Pherson had the school at a salary of 350 merks. He resigned 1814. Edward Fibb, from whom the School Close obtained its name, died on 27 March 1831. Under his regime the school had been enlarged (in 1822) and later (September 1825) exchanged for part of that on which the Town House now stands. In January1832, the inhabitants, realising that the once open space of the village green had become unhealthy by the over building upon it, petitioned for a new school and plans were actually considered in the summer of 1837. After a single year the school was found once more to be panting for outlet. In 1850 the heritors appointed Dr Charles Marshall, of St Martin's, in Perthshire and six years later a supplementary addition to the schoolhouse left it still more impoverished of playground and by and by the teacher's dwelling house had to be taken in to accommodate scholars until it elbowed itself itself out of space. Then came the new legislature of 1872 and the best days of the school were over. Over its portals there was carved a Latin legend, the translation of which - "Learning advances innate power and suffers not the manners of the rude" - seems to have had more influence upon its pupils than the admonitory texts of a later day. It was a sound school, well disciplined and well taught. A devastating fire placed in peril the Doctor's very valuable classical library, the existence of which bore testimony to his liberal reading resource. He could write as well as teach and nothing could have been more biting than his answer to the authorities in the school's last days, "The categorical statement of requirements cannot be predicated of the dismal cooperage in which both departments of the school have been immured". The "dismal cooperage" lingered on until two years ago, when it disappeared to make way for the new County Police Buildings, which have been not unfittingly described as Saltcoats' little Scotland Yard. The venerable Girnal House stood second in the street to which it gave a name, long after its purpose ad come to an end and the meal rents became commuted to money sterling. It was fitted with stalls for the reception of the meal and for storing the salt to be given in exchange. The house still standing, with the broken outline of an old stairway facing the straggled vacuity into which so much of the municipal stonework has recently been imposed, represents the ancient and historic reception house of the rents of the Earls of Eglinton.

It was alienated from the Earl's possession only in 1841. An old stable stood at the rear. This, with its curious clay floor and still more curious stalls, was the place wherein the Earl's draw horses were housed. It was adjoined tot he gable of the Girnal House and had become ruinous in the Eighteenth Century. It is believed to have been covered by the printing house of Archibald Wallace, which rests upon ground given by the Earl of Eglinton to William Stevenson, cooper in Saltcoats, in 1764 and formed part of the possession of Dr Robert Wallace, the successor of Dr Alexander Hamilton, whose house was 4 Dockhead Street. The front part of Herdman's rests upon part of the possession of a famous man of Saltcoats in his day, Patrick Mc Alla, whose tenement went as far as the "Shopends".

Immediately northward from the Girnal House was the dwelling of Miss Lusk, dating from 1824 and raised at a time when the surroundings were still unfreed from their early rural character, a surviving feature of which is the ancient pear tree of her garden, still standing in rustic loneliness on the spot where once so much homely comfort was enclosed and which still grows its fruit in abundance. Upon "the northwest quenzy" of Hugh Paterson's smith, with its adjoining house and kiln, there came to be erected the bakehouse of John Brown, of "sailor biscuit" fame. George Jameson followed Brown in 1823 and the old smithy has long since become enveloped in the bakehouses and granaries of Herdman's. Where the corner shop of Countess Street stands today there was an open close up which a cart could go to the bakehouse. Beyond that lay another most important landmark of old Saltcoats, the almost forgotten hostelry known as the "Black Bull", the nearest approach to the site of which, today, is a confectioner's shop. It was a pretentious little hostelry, truly reminiscent of Saltcoats' better days and offering those quaint and restful charms which few of the inns of today can do. It was sometimes called the "Eden Inn", not on account of the attractions alluded to, which might have justified the designation, but because the Eden Lodge of Free Gardeners met there.

Within the square, behind the Dockhead thoroughfare, lay the "offices and closes" belonging to the family of Auchenharvie, purchased by the Earl of Eglingon in 1795 to enable him to make straight the ancient paths and highways which that territory adjoined. But long before that year he had been maturing a scheme destined to be of the upmost importance to the welfare of the town. This was the making of a way northward to Knockcrievock and Dalry. And therby hangs an interesting tale. When James How, "up the Flush", built his house in 1714, he was taken bound to leave out nine feet of space for the roadway between him and his opposite neighbours. Little did James How dream that his possession and that road space were to become the centre of the town's most important buildings and the site in front of his door the most thronged of the coming town. Many years passed and it became necessary about 1777 to continue the road northward by breaking through a part of How's territory. The old shipmaster was dead and the Earl, through his factor, had to bargain with the widow. A part of her ground was taken in exchange for a part further back and the the old stopgap at the foot of the Flush broken through to continue the direct line of the street from the Quay. Grisel, like most women, was not enamored of her bargain, declaring that she had got "jimp measure". The territory of the Hows came to Robert Stevenson of Coalhill. Today the house and ground that were Grisel How's lie buried beneath the spacious expanse of the Town Hall, which also sweeps out of sight the scene of the town's early collegiate life, for there also are covered the onetime public school, the master's schoolhouse which lay to the west of the cooperage, his offices and garden.

The ground to the left of the plot of the How's with the house built in 1715 by John Paton, weaver, "up the Flush", became the possession of Captain Thomson and long afterwards and for nearly sixty years, a part was occupied by Miss Fleckman a well-known "lady body" of her time, whose fine presence and black ringlets give back a pleasant impression of the elegant manners of those old days. Still more memorable in its suggestion of the simple appearance of the early village, is the fact that the house she occupied so long was the historic Quay head House of Saltcoats, bearing a title full of interesting and picturesque significance.

The roadway in front of How's patch then bore the fine old Scotch appellation of the "Brochan" (sometimes rendered "Broughton"). When it first began assume the appearance of a thoroughfare it was called "the Way or Street". Then, with due respect to the Earl's good intention to bread through the fields, it was called "Eglinton" Street; after it was opened, "New" or "Raise" street and finally, by the most remarkable of variations in nomenclature, "Countess" Street, under which name it remains. Early in last century the surroundings of the plot had become partially covered with ruins, for here had lived the oldest villagers and many of the cots had served their day. The public spirit of the town was beginning to manifest itself and now took the form of a subscription for a Town House and Steeple, the primary object being to secure a public clock. This movement developed into " the Town House Society", on 3 October 1823, at a public meeting, presided over by Edward Gibb, schoolmaster, at the Green and a constitution was drawn up. The original subscription sheet, beginning in 1823 and ending in 1831, contained 202 names. When sufficient funds had been obtained the Society acquired the ground at "number one Raise Street" for 999 years, from Martinmas 1823 and the Town House was built in 1826, from designs submitted by Peter King. The Eglinton Trustees gave the stones from Ardrossan Quarry free of servitude. The bell was hung for the first time in 1829. The society did not pay the bellringer, but he was to "take his chance of the goodwill of the inhabitants of the town for his trouble". When the foundation stone of the Town House and Steeple was laid on the 15 September, 1825, by Alexander Hamilton, of Grange, with Masonic honours, all the local lodges walked in procession from Stevenston, where they assembled. Upwards of 300 Masons walked. The Grand Master's speech on that occasion was an oration that an aged townsman says "rang like Juluis Caesar's".