Saltcoats Old and New
In the Days of Waterloo
"The Parliament of the Plain-Stones"
Much of the interest of old "Weaverland" concerns the individuality of Tom Miller, wright, who, in the Forties, was the life and soul of the Saltcoats Curling Club and other of its gay institutions. When, in 1781/82, his father came from West Kilbride and feued the ground upon which the old joinery was built in 1796, the Raise Road still retained the fragrance of the old-world uplands and hedgerows through which the Earl of Eglinton had driven it. An old Bible, bearing the name of "Margaret Boyd", on May 31 1788; and this is the famous leader of old Saltcoats society. "Tam Montgomery" apple and the "bitter sweet" and the old fruit-giver, the "crackit" tree, which bore its acrid dainties with a crack in them that seemed as natural an inheritance as the original sin that pertained to the apple of Eden. Kindly memories have drawn impressions of the spare figure and weather-beaten countenance of the industrious wright, whose book possessions were simply invaluable. They occupy an entire room, filling tier upon tier and embrace the first fruits of the masters. The oldest is dated 1646, a book of science or philosophy, 263 years old! The ancient joinery, where Tom Miller made the celebrated "peeries" for childhood's delectation-with its deep old walls round which the pear trees clung- stands yet to the fore. The peerie, with the metal head and tip, was like no other rotary toy ever made. Its musical hum produced an ecstasy in the hearts of its owner's which nothing can today supply.
There lies near the joinery a grand old garden which a onetime Countess of Eglinton drove up in her carriage to inspect. More than one Countess has come and gone since the tuber roses bloomed within this still unfaded adornment of the Raise Road quarter. after the death of "T M" in 1863 (or 1864) the joinery was carried on by his son, Boyd Miller, a man of great enterprise and is now continued by his grandson and namesake, completing an industrial existence in four successive generations, covering 128 years.
Quite a web of historic interest can be woven around Weaverland in association with the Chartist movement in which James McNeill, a shoemaker, took a chief part and during the turmoil of which two Chartist leaders, Williams and Jones, paid Saltcoats a visit. The rousing eloquence of the old journalism was meat and drink to those sturdy politicians. A leader-writer's diatribe was better than a diet. Both were very precious. The men clubbed for the newspaper which they read at meal hours on the plain stones, or at night under the oil lamp of the beaming room. Within the shadow of the "Raise Street House of Commons" has been located the scene of the nocturnal meeting of the old Radicals. There are many tales of the intrepid John Campbell who conducted the solemn swearing in of the men under dim candle light. One night, with dramatic suddenness, the door was burst open; candles were extinguished and Campbell rammed the paper containing the oath into his mouth. He was charged with treason and arrested. Fearing outbreak, the authorities took him from Glasgow to Edinburgh Castle where he was visited by Richmond, the spy and tempted with bank notes to betray his fellow, an old and familiar method of Governmental inquisition. Messages from outside reached him through the medium of loaves and tobacco. On the day of his trial his wife stepped into Court, having walked all the way from Saltcoats. No wonder that the Rev Ellis said of Campbell, he was "a little of David; a big lot o' Paul".Ellis himself himself was the most familiar figure of the Raise Road as he bustled about with his "pastoral staff. He listened to every sympathetic tale, but had an abhorrence of scandal or gossip. A talkative female was usually brought up with the sharp interruption, "Janet! pirns! pirns! dinnaye hear the weavers callin' ?". Elis was no mere preacher, he was "a doer also"; and during the distress handled his spade with such energy that it broke, to the great amusement of the "out of Works". At the moment when the news of the victory of Waterloo rang upon the ears of the people of Saltcoats, the weavers were in a state of commotion over the prevailing distress. Their mingled lamentation and joy took the form of a procession through the town with flags and shawls borrowed from wives and maidens. Not a rag which could cause a flutter was refused, the girls gallantly stripping their bonnets to make ribbons. Elis contributed to the demonstration by displaying on the window of his swelling-place an illustration of Bonaparte suspended on a gallows. The town drummer, Danny Geachy, with ribbons decking his quaint head-gear and streaming from his drum, beat the tocsin with great manifestation of dignity and at each little halting-place gave utterance, with oratorical pomposity, to the sentiment of the moment. At the head of the Raise Street bonfires crackled ominously; and for three whole days Weaverland could not have told which was the most soul-stirring of their emotions, the sounds of victory or the blank despair of their hungered families.
Similar effects of wild jubilation were manifested on the fall of the Wellington Ministry in 1829. Between the second and third readings of the Reform Bill the weavers, to the number of 1200, made a great and imposing procession. One of their number drew up an address to be presented to the King. The life of the weaver was a "hand to mouth" struggle. Before the days of the railway, delay meant starvation; and often after a heavy snow, the weavers had to go with shovels to dig out the carrier's cart while the men were waiting for money and webs. In out time only professional men wear "lum" hats daily. Fifty years ago the weaver wore it regularly. The daily "tile" would of course be the one that had done duty for Sundays and funerals. When it got shabby (after seeing out several stages of fashionable decomposition), it was taken for everyday wear and when too old for that, did duty as a pirn box.
The pride of the weaver of Saltcoats was something that no one can today rightly understand. He wore his "tile" if only he had occasion to go "ower the gate" or "doon the gate"; and wrapped in the silk plaid that was the glory of a poetic age, affected a stalking dignity which few dare challenge. Once a callant laughed at a weaver's head-dress and the punishment was dire. The weavers' agent was a severe Sabbatarian. A poor woman who had got out some floweing on a Saturday hastily returned with the completed work on the Monday. "Mistress", quoth the stern agent, "you have been breaking the Sabbath and no Sabbath-breaker will work for me. Get ye gone"! Sometimes the weaver needed it all. The pay was poor and he thought it no harm to work a "bit o' geich" by stretching the warp and saving the woof. The wary agent would throw the material on the scales to see whether it was lighter than when given out. Let the reader imagine the result. When a weaver's family blazed suddenly into the unaccustomed lustre of "new claes" there were strong suspicions that "geighing" had been prevalent. Penury mad the weaver a hard bargainer, whether in things affecting life or death. More than one, with an eye on both worlds, took the direction of his funeral affairs into his own hands and sent for the "taking under" man. "You'll bury me", he would say, "on the fourth day, for the third's no lucky. Mak' a kist just the same as ye did for the last three that have been carried ooto' this hoose, plain and substantial and nae extra mountin's. Try Mr A....... for the hearse and coaches. His turnoots are aye respectable; and his twa black cobs 'ill jist look as fine as Belgians". All funerals were semi-public and mourners attended in their braid cloth- of such delicate texture as outwore the use of numberless generations. The Broad-brimmed and very tall hats presented a sufficiently mournful spectacle to satisfy the most lugubrious taste. Up to the year 1850 or there abouts, all funerals about the Raise Street were called by a weaver (usually the one whose face could be turned into the proper "Murnin' aspect) who went the round of the street asking the good folks to attend by word of mouth. There are extant lists of names of the privileged mourners. One such is dated June 24 1846. The only hand-loom weaver today, the last survivor of the fraternity, is Willie Blair, an old "powder" man who has see stirring times and at an advanced age, still plies his shuttle. A tattered bill, announcing a high-class entertainment for 1 January, 1829 to take pace in "Mrs Lamb's large room gives us a peep into Weaverland from the recreative side four-score years ago. Where, alas! can we locate the "large room?" The entertainer is named as Alexander Miller, "Sauny", as he was kindly styled. How he managed to mingle poetic honey with twisting webs, which claimed every hour of his existence, seems a marvel. Yet he was the premier entertainer of his day.
Raise Street's bouldered way had much to answer for by bringing into unjustified disrepute all those whom it compelled to develop a slight stagger. It may have formed a useful blame-taker in the pre-teetotal days before the Burghers entered upon their glorious crusade against spirits. Saltcoats could never claim the Irish excuse of "mixing just to take the cruelty out of the water". It was well furnished with the wine of Adam. It has been called "the town of the eleven wells"; but the most cherished of these was at the head of Raise Street. Weaverland subscribed for it, washed it, cleaned it, wept over it and finally painted it a lively "red" as a protest against its removal. The voice of the Raise Road Demosthenes forefathers" is long since still; and the well has vanished under unsympathetic hammer of improvers.
The departed personality of Robert McKillop has removed from the Raise Road that type of unconscious genius which lightened the gloom of ill-requited labour. His power of epigrammatic expression was only equalled by his peculiar sensibility to injustice. When the improvers, after the manner of "Paddy's blanket", took the high parts of Wellpark Road to mend the foot, it had the effect of causing the doors of the onetime higher land dwellings to be, "like Mahomet's coffin", suspended in air. Robin's wonderment took the form of a brief protest written in indignant chalk upon the ruins. He dealt in supplies. "A step-ladder", he would say, "may no' cairry ye sae far as ambition, but it's aye safer to stand on". "Gie me what I want; I'll ply whit I get", was his favourite maxim. "A pinch to four hundred-weight o' a brick wall coups ower a' arguments". A Raise Road proprietor imposed such an erection upon his neighbour who, taking advantage of a howling storm, toppled over the bricks into the offender's yard. "It's no the damage that's botherin' me", said the wall-builder ruefully to his innocent looking neighbour next day, "but a'm winderin' hoo a nor'-nor'-east win' got roon' the corner o' your south so'-west gairden and threw these bricks into ma yaird".
Braehead House, lying snugly amongst its fruit trees and bushes, has maintained its dignified setting through all the effects of chance and change. No one of its occupants was more popular than Matthew Brown, who presided at the meetings of protest in 1873 against the proposal to close Raise Street. The aspect of the old mansion is sufficiently expressive of its romantic interest. "Its a gan' biggin", says a dweller within its shadow, "fine and spacious and nae scrimpin' o' masonry. Its lum taps would build a hoose in themselves".
Through parks a former generation could pursue a right-of-way, coming out at Rocky Knowe. Today, the route to the Loanhead Well, the scene of plighted troths and the rural glory of a once beautiful neighbourhood, is scarcely traceable.
To the right, going from Raise Street, was the Rarn, a single-storey structure which had seen better days and beside which the youths played rounders and ninepins. Macgregor's Park, at the head, has become built out of sight; and many a "boy", grown grey, sees in his waking dreams the old ashen tree known as the "Raw Ree" tree, around which there had been thrown a glamour that has long since lost its spell.
It is still a picture upon which to dream, that long sweep from the top of Raise Road to the far-off Quay-end, best viewed at twilight under the sheen of the stars. It needs little imagination to re-people the quaint old homes with their irregular outlines and old-fashioned stairs, some cork-screwing upwards through gloomy passages, others spreading their inviting width in a style of aggressive gentility. The glare of the oil lamps has gone, but in the dark of night the modern lights still seem to peep out of a very far distant past. The mysteries of the Jacquard are still more mysterious to a present generation, which regards the loom as an antiquarian relic and which has never known the shape of a shuttle nor heard its clattering dance along the "Race Road". The very sound of the treadles is a hushed melody, gone like the forgotten lilt of an old song with the sad human underharmonies to which it was indissolubly wedded:
The weary wab is lang since spun,
The twister's stretched his warp and woof;
The cariers' cairts nae langer run,
The hearth is could 'neath the auld turf roof.
The beaming lamp in the loft is shaded,
The weaver's voice on the plain stane's still;
The flooers on the muslin work have faded,
And silence reigns on the ancient hill.
The loom's click clack, with its old refrain,
Is a melody we'll ne'er hear again
"Three threids an' a thrum,
Three threids an' a thrum;
The auld cat sings i' the ingle neuf
Three threids an' a thrum".