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Saltcoats Old and New


Chapter 22

In the days when the turnpike road of advancement lay far from the old town and scarcely a whisper from the outer world broke the stillness of its old-fashioned dingy street, there came to Saltcoats a poor weaver man carrying his loom and gear. He - so the legend runs - ascended the then new street which the Earl had made through Grisel How's ground. What with fatigue and long travel, his whole gear fell and smashed. Looking ruefully at the result of the disaster, he exclaimed, "Ma Guidness, I've broken the race road", for , you must understand, the "race road" is the long wooden trough or cradle through which the shuttle flies and the poor weaver started his trade and initiated that wonderful colony of loom bavour that became Saltcoats' Weaverland. The name of the colony became the "Race Road", although a more literal explanation is given by its gradual incline, corresponding to its more modern designation - the Raise Road. For many a day there stood at the foot, on the right hand beyond the railway, an odd-looking structure with steps projecting on the street line in such a way as to compel a climb up and a climb down. This was known as "Henry's Steps", taking the name from the old seafaring worthy who owned the property. Now, it occupied the site of the historic Bog House. Only a small piece of the ground remains, for the new street,, Glencairn Street, was broke through it by the railway; and a fence hems in the drowsy enclosure. Through this, the thoughtful today peer curiously, wondering at that mass of neglected vegetation, with an old sundial giving back a sense of its one-time country charm and restfulness.

There were two wells in Raise Street; one at the head, the other at the foot opposite the Steeple, the latter of old called "Cunningham's Well", because Cunningham, the carrier's house sat there, beside the Burgher Church. Latterly it was the Steeple Well.

Springvale, to the westward, received its poetic name when it came to the Jacks of Chapelhill. When the Glebe was still unbuilt on, the land went backwards with occasional rises forming "terraced" ground, the last surviving vestiges of monastic gardens. The locality bears the memory of James Mitchell, of Dykes. "Gentle" Dykes, now Laigh Dykes, was its name when identified with Dr Millar a figure of old Raise Street, familiar to a past generation as he took his rounds in his suit of spotless black. He was punctilious in dress and the nocturnal bang of his knocker never disturbed his equanimity.

The huge drums of the Gas Works remind us that the first buildings were erected and the main pipes laid during the summer and autumn of 1836. Andrew Aitken was the first gas manager. The watchful supervision and skill of Mr John Napier Myers have done much to maintain the later prestige of the Corporation. The more modern part of the Gas Works was acquired on 25 February 1865. A copy of the rules and regulations of the Saltcoats Gas Light Company, printed at Irvine, bears that these were adopted on February 26 1836.

The back way, leading past the Anti - Burgher Meeting - House of Meikleyett, remained free from the intrusion of the builder until 1824. It was called Raise Lane or the Meikleyett. Beyond was a continuous hedge, leading to the Raise park yards, now turned into Wellpark Road.

The uniting of Springvale and the Raise Street in 1883 is memorialised sufficiently in the name of the little cross street, "Union"Street. Now buried in the enclosures of the Gas Works and leaving not a trace behind, was the Anti Burgher's house of pray-er- "the Pea Doo Kirk" - a quaint little edifice, which derived its name from a dove with out-stretched wings on a sounding board above the pulpit.

The corner of Springvale encloses the Catholic Seminary, opened in October, 1868 and described in a contemporary record as a model of medieval domestic architecture. It was produced to the designs of Mr Ingram, Kilmarnock. The body of later days were fortunate in the erection of a fine hall, called the "League of the Cross" Hall.

In the ancient well-meadow, from which Wellpark derived its name, was a curious draw well, the only one in the town which could keep the leeches alive and the waters of which were there-fore much sought for by the local apothecaries.

Every step of the Raise Street is full of hallowed memories. The landmarks here need little resurrection and the informed vision can trace the vanished figures all the way up. On the right, at the foot, "Strange's Land", "Granny Orr's" and "Henry's Steps" have departed, but the rest tell the plain story of happier days.

At the corner of Factory Lane is still the house where Ronald the cleric lodged; below it the habitation of Hugh Young of psalmody fame; and the now unroofed cottage (with a thatch at the rear) in front of which the weavers held their "Parliament of the Plain-Stones". On the left hand, beginning at the foot, is the old Western Band, built by Mr Gilfillan, to which the Royal removed on 4 January, 1858 and reminiscent of King Barbour, whose stately figure gave the "callants" so striking an impression of his sover-eignty. Past a wee house which clung of the Bank came the house of the Ritchies, famous in the shipping and curing industries; next the Armours, equally noted in the biographical records of old Saltcoats; then the house of Millers, In one of the two unroofed houses, at the corner of Union Street, was the dwelling place of Danny Kerr. Further on was the house of the McKillops, with the hall "through the Back", the centre of social interest in the town's better days. Davie Howie's beaming room. "The Weavers' House O' Commons", has its windows much the same as they were in the older life. The house of Tom Miller lies above it, beside the house of Laird Stirrat. Half-way up Raise Street stood the house of Robert Workman, a staunch Anti-Burgher in Ronald's time. Opposite Ronald's lodging was the little Raise Street school; beyond it, the house of Mrs Stevenson of Coalhill, second last at the top, still approached by outside stairs, the place of Robert Brown who brought the letters from Kilmarnock to Saltcoats in his "Shandrum Dan". Latterly it was the house of Colin McGregor, who was so "Heelant" that when exhorted by the Sheriff to speak in plain English, "Ach ach", he guttered, remonstratively, and sure an' deet ma English is all dune"! But for the all-compelling restriction upon space, what stories one could tell of Neil Downie, ShoeMaker; what glowing legends and comicalities concerning the weaving shops of Ephraim Spiers and Tom Sharp; the "sixteen-loom shop of Jamie Gemmel and Willie Langlands; the home of the onetime industrious gardener and weaver, Willie Barclay; and the two-storey thatch and weaver's shop which was Archie Burns'; of the weaving place of Hugh Young (whose son became headmaster of the state School at Camperdown, Australia); of the house where he lived, until his death in 1863, Jack Ardrossan, the famous beadle of the old Church; of Willie Kane's at the head of the street; of tailor Bennet, the Liberal of the Raise Road, who took part in the Radical agitation of 1820; of John McBride, weaver, who took part in the Radical had served on board the Bellarophen when Napoleon as a "wee clean-shaven priestly-lookin' body we' a piercin' eye". Stories also are plentiful of Robert Irvine, the silk weaver, of John Hamilton, maker of heddles and of Robert Barclay who went to superintend the kiln department of the Magnesia Work, where he served for over a quarter of a century. He was a great droughts player and in 1849 was Champion of Scotland.

Daniel Kerr took a prominent part in the local agitation over the Reform Bill. In music he was a tower of strength, only equalled by Hugh Young, the "prince of precentors". Dauny was of real old Raise Street stock and took part in all the public concerts of the Fifties. He was so ardent a disciple of Orpheus that after a day's hard work, he once walked to Kilmarnock to hear Madame Malibran. He was precentor of the Burgher Kirk and was credited as the composer of "Saltcoats" and "Inkerman", two tunes that have escaped from the Psalter. A later psalm tune, name "Saltcoats" was composed by Mr Gillon, precentor of Landsborough United Free Church and the composer was greatly surprised to find that a tune of that name had had a venerable priority. Another Raise Road worthy was Alexander Grimwood, father of the Postmaster and Inspector of Poor, who was a leading member of the Raise Street "Political Trade Parliament". In the Sixties Alexander Armour and Henry Barclay, joiners, were active leaders of Raise Road life.

Impossible is it to give due expression to the fascination of the old Tan Yard, even in its state of pitiful dejection, with nothing left of its handlers and spenders, its lime-pits and water-holes, steam engine and bark mill, lime stores, drying sheds, currying shops and offices - all gone into the past, leaving only the shells of the old houses to tell its story. How often will the ponderer on the past call up the memory of that old engine which, before the days of steam, was moved by the docile "Denty-truly" a "one-horse" power. There existed in the midst of the tannery, unsullied by its surroundings, two very old draw-wells and from a well in the middle there gushed forth a fountain of the purest water. Additional water was taken in by drain pipes from the "Hedges". Situated about the centre of the street, on the left hand coming from the town, the industries were carried on from 1794 or so till 1894 a full centenary. A venerable man 0' hides tell us that in early days it took eighteen months to tan that did credit alike to the beast whose skin it was; to the tanner who splashed the skin; to the son of St Crispin who wrought the leather into sturdy boots and shoes; and to the weaver and their prancing boys, winsome girls, or older women who make the felt coverings last the proper time. The last craft of any size that came into Saltcoats harbour was a sloop with barks for the Tannery. John Anderson, whose land bordered Lady Montgomerie's at the end of the Eighteenth Century, was the forbear of the tanners Robert and Thomas, the first the tanner proper and the second the conductor of the currying. Both were staunch Anti-Burghers.