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Saltcoats Old and New

Revolutions that the Railway Made.
The Historic "Goat House".

Chapter 20

Headquarter of "The Jolly Beggars". But for the successive invasions of the railway, Saltcoats might have worn until today some considerable part of its garment of picturesque antiquity, particularly within that which has formed for a century and a half the centrifugal orbit of its life.

Just as the forces of civilisation broke through the croft of Grisel How to make an inclined road to Dalry, so the iron way crossed the northern boundary of another croft beside it to connect the town with the iron industries of Ardeer and the transplanted shipping activity of Ardrossan. The first station, which lay near the rocks of the East end, was removed to the Drakemyre on 1 July 1858, the operations begun in 1857 by Black, the first contractor, having been continued by Edward Miller. When the railway came through the town, gates were put on the crossings at Raise Street, Jack's Road and Ardrossan Road, with a man at each, the company by the Act of 1840 being bound for these. There was some difficulty in dissociating from the minds of children that these little men with the little red and green flags and the little watchhouses, were got up for their amusement. Jack Good had such a sentry box at "Jack's Road", which the bairns very naturally thought was his own particular road; and they would come to see him making little wooden spoons with his knife out of apple-tree wood. These were indeed very simple days, for remember we are speaking over sixty years ago and children were children then.

The planting of a station and goods sidings opposite the end of Green Street did not make any appreciable alteration on the appearance of the Drakemyre. Indeed, the presence of a railway system brought its swarm of industrial limpets to cling to its loading banks and dull platforms and structure that had ever been thrown up to tantalise the artistic sense of the inhabitants. Railway Companies are ever obdurate to public opinion or feeling and so, although driving a line through the centre of the town had not entirely the effect of closing the gates of its northern and southern divisions, that was the very thing which was destined to happen. Accordingly in 1882, when the station was to be thrown further back towards Kyleshill and Raise Street was to be closed, the proposal was met with sturdy opposition. The population of Saltcoats at that time was nearly 5100. Of this number 904 had their habitation in the higher land of Raise Street. The proposed operation of the Company were distinctly unfavourable to the highlanders; but, after much wrangling and the offer of two new streets, the public were advised to give way and a great transformation took place. The Drakemyre was swept of its ancient glories and a long red wall drawn over the former perspective of "thatcher". The old and interesting triangle that had once lain at the foot of the Flush was cleared away, turning Countess Street into a large open square. This ground that had been two little "nine-yards" in the days of old and alongside which the stream had flowed to the village green, disappeared as if it had never existed. Away went Mrs Reid's possession and the possession of the McAlisters, famed bakers of their time. The surroundings were cleared and a new road connected with Kyleshill. The first Bank in Saltcoats (when the late W B Orr became agent for the Ayrshire Bank) was abandoned and its portico and windows have since remained boarded up. The old line of the Yard, which had belonged to an Irvine Sailor, "Orr's Nine Yard", going back to Bradshaw Roading, was framed and shaped to suit the official rules of uniformity and Dan McAlister's house was submerged beneath the Station buildings.

The Ardrossan Parish commenced at the old Countess Street Well, which stood at the foot of the lane. With the houses between the well and the railway taken down, there was no longer need for such an ornament and it disappeared. Across the railway other wonderful alterations took place. Near the foot of Raise Street had stood the house long occupied by the Victualling Society, the forerunner of the Co-operative Stores. This house was built by David Craig, a flesher and his shop was kept by "Peggy Mackie", who was famed for making oat-cakes. It disappeared to make way for the other new street. "Tam McWhirter's gates" vanished; and today, thanks to an unstudied effort of the authorities, one can trace, in the shape of the causeway stones, the exact line along which was "the goat" or ditch that ran through the town, dividing the parishes of Stevenston and Ardrossan. Workmen tore down the property of William Wilson, the carrier, a large building erected by John Cunningham in earlier days and which, with its capacious stables and houses, manifested the extent of the old pre-railway carrying industry. Into these sheds went all the merchandise, for there were no goods depots and no parcel offices. Wilson's byre stood at the corner of Raise Street and the Goat Lane; the garden entered from the lane, being stocked with fruit trees and bushes. William Wilson's house of course touched part of the ground through which the Earl of Eglinton had carried his original scheme of continuation long before. The original possessor seems to have been a salt officer of old Saltcoats named James Miller.

The widening of the line cleared away the old paths so close to the railway that in walking along one could have touched the passing trains. On the opposite side was curious old ground, dating from 1788, sold to the Railway Company in 1867. It lay to the northwest of James Barber's yard, where there was the back wall of an old malt kiln connected with an ancient brewery, of the beginning of which there is no definite trace. Beside it, almost under the shadow of the Western Bank, lay a house which sometimes went under the name of the "Goat House", but was not that celebrated institution. It was the house of Francie Wood, a contractor in the busier days before the railway.

Behind the house of the Woods, at the end of the narrow pathway leading from kyleshill to Raise Street, stood the distinguished Goat House, its gable touching the lane called the Roading, close beside Janet McAlister's rig. While some confusion has arisen as to both claimants for the honourable identity, the memory of those who lived there and the letters and figures on the door-lintel "D M B" 1700, sufficiently indicate the precedence of the house nearer the school. It stood exactly at the point where the lane to the school joined the continuation of the Goat Lane, after it had come across the railway. Strange were the stories told of the Goat House in days gone by when it was a model lodginghouse and the meeting place of "the Jolly Beggars" of Saltcoats (as McKillop sings) :

"Parboilt bacchanalian wretches,
We' haggart looks an' tatter't breeches
Held hard and fast in Clootie's clutches".

These were the mendicants and prowlers who subsisted on the proceeds of their gatherings, filling their sacks with oatmeal and enabling the poor to fill their larder at a cheap rate. Many a merry night was spent under its old roof. Latterly it was used as a house and room and byre all succeeding each other. The days of the pedlars and " pedlars' meal" came to be forgotten and the house for a time fell upon better days. One resident speaks in tones of affectionate remembrance of the old tree upon which the bairns slung their swing, their feet being able to touch the opposing gable of the house of the Woods. That tree still stands in the midst of its abandonment and the tough old gable of the Goat House is a cairn of stones behind an advertising hoarding stretched along the last remnant of the Goat Lane.

The site of the present Kyleshill School was a field until 1884. Within its low-lying expanse had rested the historic Bog Cottages, the last of the which a mere little toy of a dwelling, near what is the eastern gate of the school was occupied long since by Frank Thomson, a vendor of delectable candy, which sweetened the mouths of a past generation, Further back had lain the Flush and moorland rigs often overrun with water in such a way as to form a lake. Dwellers by Kyleshill came to draw water from "the lake" in preference to pursuing the long descent to the town. Each of the principal dwellers in the town had there as much of the Flush rigs as would grow three pecks of lint seed. The lint shaws were gathered there for many a day and used by the early village dames in the industrious distaff. An elderly lady describes them as haveing something like the appearance of "Wheat Shells".

Before the very old school on the crown of Kyleshill was built, the rocky piece of waste ground bore so much of the appearance of more ancient days and protruded its jagged brow with such impressive prominence that children spoke of the Kyleshill Rock In hushed and awe stricken tones. There was a great gloomy cavity which was said to "gang through to the ither side o' the Toonhead and naebody o' this side o' time had been able to fathom it". It was, in fact the "forbidden cave" of Saltcoats youth and none were so daring as to venture more than a foot or two within and fill the cavernous depths with brain-splitting shrikes. The Slaughter Houses sit upon the old house and steading possessed by Skipper Rob Brown in 1718 and were acquired by the Commissioners in 1897.