Saltcoats Old and New
How the Town's Charter came through the Earl of Eglinton.
Leaders of Public Life:
Saltcoats Distinguished Roll of Honour.
The associations of Saltcoats with the Eglinton family - which have owned its broad acres from the centre of the town to the shores of Ardrossan - lie deeper than concerns mere tenure. Let us not forget that its was through the friendship of the first Earl with His Sovereign Majesty, James the Fifth, that Saltcoats secured its royal title as a burgh of barony. The Baronial Charter is addressed by the King to our Very Reverend Father and Pope and beloved cousin, Gavin, Archbishop of Glasgow". It is dated at Edinburgh 1 February 1528 and immediately before subscription runs : To you we command our Charter under our Great Seal'in form of a goat', recalling a quaint symbol of Royal command. The said "Gavin" (Gavin Dunbar) through whom the inestimable privilege thus came to be transferred (one of the family of Cumnock), had, as Prior of Whithorn, been the tutor of the young King. From the days of Kilwinning Abbey to the time of the tutor of the young King. From the days of Kilwinning Abbey to the time of the tutors of "Ardrossan Old Kirk" Saltcoats has maintained an educational prestige which - whether due to the influence of Christian monk or pagan poet - nothing can dim.
The days of primitive educational systems are well recalled in the number of its little private schools and shool-mistresses of such a type as Mrs Hamilton, who wore a high-crowned cap with a black silk handkerchief tied like a band round her head. She sat in the bow of her attic beside her spinning wheel, her pupils climbing by the aid of rope-rail the steep wooden stair that led to her seat of learning. At other more public schools the pennies were collected in a wee box which went round the first thing in the morning. When the master's head was turned the youths would drop in a button instead of a penny; and some came late to escape the collection and so preserve the nimble penny for "pardies". The stately Academy, equi-distant between Ardrossan and Saltcoats, although bearing the name of the former town, had its genesis in Saltcoats, being really the development of the Free Church Academy, the teacher of which, Mr Charles Duguid, M. A, and 238 pupils were transported to its elegant enclosure on the other side of the Stanley Burn, on 2 October 1882. The excellent public school at Jack's Road (side by side with the new Parish Church of the town) was opened in August 1876 and under the guidance of Mr Wilson, has more than fulfilled the promise contained in his well expressed deliverance at its opening on that far away summer thirty-three years ago.
The church life Saltcoats has been the ,most active centre in the West. We have long since lost the vision of grand dames and ladies of less elderly degree in their grey cloaks and mutches, or the black silk shawls of many generations' wear, leading by the hand boys and girls carrying little stools upon which to settle during the sermon. Well has it been said that the "Auld Kirk has a list o' heroes that might out rival the great ones in the eleventh chapter o Hebrews". The figure of Rab Dow valiantly protecting the last of the witches from being soused in the Stanley Burn is in contrast with the sorcery hunting shortly before his day and the treatment meted out to Margaret Couper and a Montgomerie, who in 1650 were apprehended, tried and put to death for alleged intercourse with the devil. They were convicted on "common bruit evidence". "Plain speaking", says an elder of today, "requires to be a little mair sand-paper't than it used to be". There was a minister of Saltcoats so troubled with antagonism of a committee of arrogant members - "they were seven" - that he took his revenge by preaching on the seven devils. "Talk about devils", he said with ever increasing indignation at this unhappy septenate, "there are seven devils I would like to see cast out of this congregation".
We have ceased to hear the sounds of Gaelic Psalmody breathed from the stentorian throats of red-capped fishermen on peaceful Sunday evenings, the same throats on week-days bolting eggs and herrings without bread. Herring were cheap then - "ninepence and lang hundert".
Police life in the old town has gone forward with a remarkable bound, presenting, in its stately bureaucratic headquarters, a striking contrast to the days when the single "bobby" was known as "hunt the beggars" and when the unruly were driven across the border to the solemn tuck of drum. Most of the real old street characters have departed, leaving behind some "bauchled" female of the back courts, bare of limb and looking like an animated scare-crow, to disclose the picturesque identities with a quainter age.
There are only a few memories that can recall Tam Spence, who carried provisions in his hat; "Deaf Tom", who, thirty years ago, wandered through the streets, the recipient of unexpected egg-splashes; John Wood, better known as "Red Hot"; Rab Divine (Rab "ivans";) Francis Kennedy, styled "Guiley Gooley", whose pet aversion to the Pontiff was manifested in a whirlwind of popular anathemas; Peter Hughes, whom the lads intoned a dainty anthem, beginning
"Oh how they sweetly sing
Silly is oor Peter".
Then there were Robin Jack, otherwise "Smootie", "Cockle Jock" and a weaver, call "Scud"' into whose den boys would push one another with such dire results as the nickname quite suggests; for many a one felt upon his head the avenging violence of a heavy "wab" or the stinging smart of well-directed shuttle. Nor is it possible to forget Bob McLaren, the bellman and beadle of the Free Church. "Johnnie", the bellman of our own day, well sustains the Burgh's reputation in town-criers. In what chronicle shall we find Hughie Gilmour, who fiddled at the shipyard dances in the beginning of last century; how many will remember Mcnab, the baron officer, who, with his big staff, haunted the public greens; or Peter Lynch and Willie Ferguson of later days, whose occupation as thatchers has all but departed.
The social and recreative interests of the town deserve more exhaustive treatment than is possible within the covers of this volume.
Music has always been a strong point of the Burghers,and let us yield the honour due to the composer of the tune "Saltcoats" of which no man was so proud as Poe, the precentor in the old Burgher church . The musical productiveness was not all confined to the psalter. Many a hearty "loup" was indulged in to the tune of "The Lads of Saltcoats", a famous country dance as far back as 1760, and which , it is said, had a broader fame in Ayrshire than even enthusiasts have troubled to assert.Then there is the still existent Choral Union , the embodiment of thelocal genius of song . The first to introduce the sol-fa notation into the town was William Mc Innes , Leader of Psalmody in the East U.P Church. The musical efforts of the Saltcoats Glee Club and Turner's Psalmody Improvement Class of 1856 are worthy of record. A joiner in the town has no less than four of his family in the Union; two sons, two daughters, one for each of the four parts-a unique record.
The Saltcoats Solomon Lodge of Free Gardeners, instituted 4th January, 1828, is the oldest of the town's Friendly institutions. It was opened in "William King's Hall", its first Grand Master being James Willock. Old John Barclay's Smiddy was afterwards bought and repaired for a meeting place. The largest and wealthiest society in the district is the Crook and Plaid Lodge of Shepherds, which has also a long career. Until 10th October, 1870, the Good Templars met in an old hall in Green Street. On that date they marched to the Old Session Church with, at their head and ardent convert who had solemnly declared his intention to sign the pledge "as sure as ma shakin' haun is able to scart ma name and suppose it rain whiskey." The Saltcoats Burns Club, instituted in 1824, which celebrated the great Centenary in the Town Hall, with Tom Miller in the Chair, is practically continued.
The careers of the literary coteries have shown the saving merit of variation. There was a reading room in the Town Hall in the early days of Saltcoats prosperity. An attempt to resuscitate it about the end of 1858 led to the Public Library of 1860, which was sold eight years later to the Trustees of the Free Congregational Library. In May, 1859, the young Trades lads formed a kind of Artisans' Association, which afterwards dropped away.
The Literary Society has had a remarkable career, and has done much to influence and develop the mind od young Saltcoats. The Rev. Alexander Banks was present at its institution early in last century. He gives the credit of foundation to Captain Wilson, and after him, to James McKie, ("Book Jamie"). It is still guided with through enthusiasm.
James McKie was publisher of the "Ayrshire Wreath" in 1843, and annually for three years subsequently. In 1867 he published a remarkably accurate 'fac-simile' reprint of the famous Kilmarnock edition of Burns.
Saltcoats has had its share of literary enshrinement and association, the picturesque presentment of the "Daughter of Heth" having fallen upon the vision of the novelist, William Black, during his stay at the Saracen's Head. Long afterwards the opportunity of comparing the identities of scene and character must have given pleasure to Black's schoolmaster, Buchan, in his quiet retreat near the "Whaups Shelter" at Castleweerock. Although Black's "Coquette" is not recognisable in the ranks of real life, Archie Bryce, the son of the Rev. Mr Bryce of the Old Church, was the undoubted prototype of the "Whaup". The Whaup's Nest was, of course, the old Saltpans.
The town claims another literary interest in connection w"Jeems Kaye", the humorist, whose name, outside his casquet of unrivalled and spacious humour, was Archie McMillan, agent; and he lived for a number of years in Eglinton Street and Montgomerie Crescent.
William Burns, writer, a son of the Chemist, founded the "Glasgow St. Andrew's Society", and was author of various works, including the "History of the Scottish War of Independence". Lord Shand was a step-son.
WiIIiam Brown Smith, bookseller and news-agent, author of "Life Scenes and other Poems ", Saltcoats Quay-End", and after his death there was published "The World, Without and Within", with a preface by A.W. Buchan.
Andrew J. Symington was a writer of entertaining and reflective work.
Malcolm Kerr, poet and postman, the only rural officer of the district whose quaint uniform and hat bearing the letters "G.P.O." are well remembered, left behind him a book of poesy.
John Welsh, Scotland's oldest postman, retired laden with honours on 28th November after a service in letters of nearly forty seven years.
Matthew Bell, carrier between Saltcoats and Kilbride in the Fifties, has a remembered name.
John Stewart, latterly of the Glasgow Chronicle, wrote for the papers in the early Twenties, and so vigorously that Dr. Hamilton of Grange had him arrested and taken in a cart to the jail at Ayr. This was the Doctor who dressed the Earl of Eglinton's wounds when he was shot by the poacher.
Hamilton Street retains the memory of John Campbell Brisbane, who died there in 1868, and who, through his mother, was descended from an old Ayrshire family - the Cunninghams of Monkredding.
William Holmes, who emigrated to America in 1830, during office as Postmaster, wrote poetry, and was thus litterally " a man of letters".
A curiosity of local literature was the writing of the Bible in three manuscript volumes, accomplished by a boy, Robert Miller, in 1873.
Alexander Watt, now of Leeds, a generous contibutor to the local press, wrote, two years ago, a book of character sketches and reflections. He was previously the author of a Guide to Saltcoats, which contained an account of Ardrossan and Stevenston.
Mention must also be made of James Smith of Mission Coast Home renown, who in conjunction with Mr Bryden, issued a pamphlet "Napoleonia"; also a volume under the title of "The Sealed Book"; and of the late James Campbell, whose loyal interest in the town and its past took the form of more than one literary opuscule, and many piquant contributions to the press.
The name of the late Town Clerk, as a leader of public thought and progressive movement, will later be for all time a household word. Dr. Kinnier's portrait, in the Council Room, recalls his generous disposition to the community; and James Fullerton, banker in that little banking world of the Sixties which he once said a carpet bag might have contained, is a remembered name.
In the art world Saltcoats can proudly point to the Academician, John Lavery, as having spent his early days in the town. It is said that he received his first art lesson in the shop of Mr Campbell, Countess Street. Saltcoats claims Houston, a rising genius of the pencil. It is in the ranks of Maritime life, however, that the town has been able to place its distinguised sons highest. In 1887 five of the biggest ships afloat were under the command of Captains from the Raise Road, which reminds us that Smiths of the Sith Line hailed from "Weaverland", although Hamilton Street claims the Allans of the Allan Line. Captin Sandy Allan, the progenitor of the famous family, went down to Saltcoats to learn the trade of a ship carpenter. He sailed as mate with the late Captain John Wilson, the bookseller in Dockhead Street. He became master of several first-class ships, and married one of the Crawfords who occupied a little cottage in Castleweerock. The brig
"Jean" was named after his wife. The late James Allan, his eldest son, and Bryce Allan, a younger son, took up the North American trade. James, the eldest, and Alexander, the youngest, settled down in Glasgow as shipowners. Hugh, along with Andrew, went into business as merchants in Montreal, and ranked amongst the richest in Canada. The old man stood out strongly against the introduction of steam. His sons respected their father's views : it was only after his death that steam came to the Allan Line.
The last links with the days when the boats carried fish and cattle to Ireland, and brought home corn and butter and kegs of "potheen", have long been severed; and the blue stones of Newry and the red boulders of Dublin lie scattered over the deserted strands where the merry crews left them as abandoned ballast long years ago. Yet the echoes of a romantic past come with the boisterous gusts that sweep over the languorous quay and through the crooked lanes and alleys that abut thereon. Children lie dreaming at night over the weird stories bequeathed to them by grave elders, and see the ghostly visions of shipwrecks with sailors clinging to the shrouds and dropping into the angry sea.
They read the story of that older Saltcoats in the faces and figures of many who still walk through its antique little streets, giving visible continuity to the stirring traditions that are associated with their families and their names.
The Saltcoats of today - without its ancient port, and bereft of its weavers - lives mostly for the thousands who swoop down upon it in the summer to be roused by the salty flavour of its breezes, and to bathe in its glorious expanse of water. It lives also for the city magnate, for whom it has built stately abiding places wherein he buries his commercial worries, and escapes from the fogs of Sauchiehall Street.
There is the time when the long stretch of the Parade is crowded with promenaders, and the dulcet accent of the Briggate falls upon the ear; when children disport in the sunshine playing with the waves and sand, their laughter as inspiring as the music of wood linnets, the smoke of Ardrossan curling into air, and the horn of an inbound steamer piping its welcome lay. There is a time in winter when the grey surf beats against a deserted Esplanade, when the rocls are spangled to harmonise with the snowy crest of Goatfell, and the little town lies in a silver dream. At such a time there is a rapture and fascination in viewing Saltcoats from the Pier and under the witchery of evening : lights twinkle around the Bay; and, as in a dissolving view, the new town fades and the old town creeps back into the prospect as plainly as the magic of memory can restore and the power of fond illusion picture it.