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Saltcoats Old and New

The Kirk of the Burgers
Peggy Vicar's

Chapter 18

On turning into Countess Street in the olden time, the eye rested quickly upon the genteel house to the right, with its little genteel door and knocker, where lived the three Miss Wilsons. The house maintained its pleasant odour of gentility until removed to be turned into other uses than a stately residence. Their place has become a depot of Italian refreshments. It belonged to William Thomson, skipper. South of it was the house of Captain William Service. A stretch of ground on the right was included in the territory of James How, the skipper. This became broken into many parts. Skipper How's own house, which had survived from 1714, re-built nearly a hundred years later and is now the possession of Leah Caplin.

The most interesting memorials of that side concern the site a little further on, for it was the scene of the early devotions of Burghers. The ground in 1791 belonged to John Lusk, shipmaster and innkeeper. There the Burghers built a small kirk only 52 feet long and 36 broad, with a stair at the side. The little meeting house, with its urailled stair, looked, in later days a very plain building indeed. The Reverend Mr Orr, of Fenwick, used to take pleasure in recalling the plight in which the congregation found themselves owing to an unfriendly proprietor who built a wall round the church, on which occasion minister and worshippers had to mount the wall to get to their service. The first ordination took place in a quarry and sometimes a park was rented for a tent. It was 1798 when the late Rev James Ellis was called, and under that remarkable man, the church rose from its earlier depression. His humour was as broad as his learning. He gave young preachers "dogs' wages", as they had "to bark for their meat". Sometimes, in a fit of learned abstraction, he would seize old John Brown, the church officer, by the hair of the head; and to a restless child, would say, "Tam Baillie, if ye dinna sit still L'll name ye". Here the "Associate Burgher Congregation or Society in Saltcoats" remained until its name became shorter and its principles more modernised. The successors of that congregation now worship on the Chapel Brae. The railway came and swamped in its operations the Burghers' house which went to make way for a large business establishment. Outside of the one time Burgher Church there lay the angle of the tattered delta round which the old "Goat Vennel" from the village ran towards Kyleshill. The square open space formed the little "loan" and straggling eastward between the lane and the street continued by the Earl of Eglinton, there lay the strange collection of houses, back-houses and gardens which it is difficult to realise with proper definiteness today. At the very angle was the little refreshment shop of Sarah Ramsay. How often, through those crooked pends and alleys, ran old Bob Reid, the drummer, proclaiming the savoury excellencies of Sarah's tripe. In the recessed space or loan stood a famous old well. In continuation, past Sarah's, were several houses terminating in Mc Allister's bakery establishment. In the triangular space itself lay the houses, yards and gardens of the Wilsons, the successors in the carrying trade of Saltcoats in pre-railway times. Near the top of the lane, beyond the kirk, stood a two-storey house with a weaver's shop below the school of which Mrs Aitken was the preceptress. Onwards, the lane took the traveller to the gates of the railway. To restore the way which has become erased from modern Saltcoats, one has to indulge in much mental picturing. There were two crossings, one from the main thoroughfare at the foot of Raise Street and another nearer Kyleshill, known as "Tam McWhirter's Gates".

The space within the angled territory of the Goat Vennel still bore the old name of "the Flush". To the west of Daniel McAlister's and latterly Jean McAlister's, was the wall separating William Wilson's ground. This and the surrounding territory had all at one time appertained to Thomas Bradshaw, as one of the historic inn yards, with right to a ninth part of the Bowbidge lands.

On the far side of the church the ground that had belonged in 1773 to Samuel Mitchell, innkeeper in Saltcoats, represented the commencement of the historic territory known as "Orr's Nine Yard". A quarter of a century later it passed to his daughter, who married John Lusk, the granter of the lands of the Burgher Church. There stood a two-storey slate house, barn and stable of Robert Lusk, merchant in Saltcoats, adjoining the ground belonging to Robert How, son of the famous Grisel. To the south lay Captain Brown's house and to the north that of Agnes Hutcheson, Robert How's wife. In 1730 this whole ground came to Mary Jack. Mary conferred it on John Watt, shoemaker, in 1737. The possessions came to Thomas Vicar, in Bury, his heir, in 1830, then to Margaret Vicar's; and this is why they obtained the name of "Peggy Vicar's". The houses were so far sunk below the line of the road (each with its little green and dip well) that coming over the Kyles Bridge, the feet of the pedestrian were as high as the ridge tiles of Peggy Vicar's roofs.

Part of the property had been derived from Robert Stevenson in 1855; and when the railway came his trustees conveyed it to the Company, who, under an Act of 1821, formed a new road alongside, to the east of the Goat Lane. Here Harris had his refreshment house and his building line on the east of the lane; but as the space between his property and the new road would have caused the Company to build a retaining wall, the line was brought forward and everything levelled as it is now. Upon this cluster of the Vicars', so thoroughly illustrative of the old village life, there were erected the handsome mansion and offices of the Royal Bank of Scotland, surrounded by beautiful trees and as these fell under the railway operations, a new site had to be found.

We have now emerged upon the old street up the hill from the Harbour and formerly known as Kyle Street, before falling under the designation of Kyleshill. Between this and the eastern Bay there lies a palatial stretch of buildings ranging from Finlay's Brae to the outermost point of the Bay. This is the stately Mission Coast Home, erected under a scheme of philanthropy unexcelled in the West and conferring upon the convalescent throughout Scotland the benefit of a comfortable home under able and considerate management. The promoters purchased, in May, 1869, priorities with gardens facing the sea. Before then there were only twostorey cots forming ten apartments on elevated ground and one a few feet higher. To the most elevated a verandah was added, with stairs leading downwards to beautiful walks and gardens. The home was opened in May 1866, when there existed only a room and kitchen containing five old women from the Calton district of Glasgow. By 1874 a new hall was opened, capable of accommodating 200 people and additions have been gradually made since. Now, looked at from the East Promenade at night, with light hushed down and a sense of twilight glory resting upon the building, one might be pardoned for imagining it to be like a little palace built in air.

The Institution was the foundation of Messrs Smith and Bryden, whose enterprise has formed the theme of many pens.