Auld Ayr wham ne’er a town surpasses
For honest men and bonny lasses.
THIS ancient royal burgh, the county town of Ayrshire, is situated on a sandy plain on the coast of the frith of the Clyde, at the mouth of the water of Ayr, about 19 miles below Saltcoats, and 12 from Irvine. It is 71 miles distant from Glasgow by the coast road, but only 33 by Kilmarnock. The town has obviously received its name from the river, and has in turn given the name to the county. The origin of the name is not, however, so obvious, but it is of course to be looked for in some of the dialects of the ancient Celtic. Air in the British signifies brightness, lucidity, and Aer, violence, tumult. Arw in the ancient Gaulish signified rapid; in the Irish Ahre means thin or shallow. Whether any of these be the origin of the name we shall not pretend to determine.
A village undoubtedly existed here previous to the year 1197, for in that year a new town and a castle were erected by William the Lyon. The Chronicle of Melrose under that year says, “Factum est novum oppidum inter Don et Ar;” which certainly implies that a town or village had formerly stood there. A few years afterwards the same sovereign granted a charter to the inhabitants erecting the town into a royal burgh. The charter is dated at Lanark the 21st May, without a year, but from the witnesses it would appear to have been granted between 1202 and 1207. The ancient church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the tower of which only now remains, was in all probability erected about this period. The castle was built by the king as a barrier against the Galloway men, with whom he had been repeatedly at war; and he erected the burgh as a frontier garrison, giving the burgesses a grant of land for maintaining it. Under the protection of the castle, the burgh of Ayr gradually arose until, by the progress of civilization, such a safeguard was no longer necessary.
It is rather curious that notwithstanding the tenure by which they held their lands, the burgesses, on the occasion of the Norwegian expedition against Scotland in 1263, which ended in the battle of Largs, refused to garrison the castle, when required by the Sheriff of the county to do so. This is proved by the account of Walter, Earl of Monteith, Sheriff of Ayr, in the Chamberlain rolls,1 which contains the following claim of credit. “Et similiter petit sibi locari expensas vi×× (120) servientium quos tenuit in castro de Air per iii. septimanos, pro defectu burgensium, qui debuerunt intrasse castrum as tuicionem ejusdem, secundum mandatum Domini regis. Et dictus comes dicit quod noluerunt. Et si hoc probari poterit, dicti burgenses solvent predicto Comiti expensas dictorum servientium; alioquin dictus comes solvet easdem expensas.”
During the competition wars, and the invasion by Edward I. of England, after the death of Alexander III., Ayr seems to have been considered a place of considerable importance by the English; and here many of the early exploits of Wallace were performed. The localities of Ayr are every where associated with his name and with his deeds. In 1298, Bruce on hearing of the loss of the battle of Falkirk, burnt the castle of Ayr, in which we have an early instance of his favourite maxim, that Scotland was neither to be gained or retained by Castles. It appears, however, that the Castle had been shortly after repaired, and in possession of the English; for after Bruce had crossed the frith from Arran, and taken Turnberry, (1307) he sat down before this castle, but was shortly afterwards obliged to retire in consequence of the arrival of succour to the English. After Scotland had been completely recovered from the English in consequence of the battle of Bannockburn, a parliament was held at Ayr, on Sunday the 26th of April 1315, in the church of St. John, at which fealty was sworn to the king, and in case of his dying without male issue, his brother Edward Bruce an approved warrior was declared his successor. Marjery Bruce, the king’s daughter, gave her consent to this as necessary from the exigency of the time. Edward Bruce, however, it is known did not live to enjoy this destination of the crown; for within a few days thereafter, he embarked at Ayr on his unfortunate Irish expedition in which he was killed.
In 1230, Alexander II. founded a Monastery of Dominican or Black Friars, building for them both the monastery and a church.2 From the various grants which they subsequently received from the crown, as well as from subjects, this monastery had become very opulent before the reformation. After its dissolution Queen Mary, in 1567, granted to the Magistrates and community of Ayr, the whole property of these friars, with the ground whereon the monastery and gardens stood. No vestige of their buildings now remains, but they are said to have been situated in a lane called the Friar’s Vennal. The parish of Ayr, the church of which, as we have already mentioned, was in all probability erected at the time the town was created a royal burgh, originally formed a rectory or parsonage; but in the fourteenth century it was erected into a prebend of the Cathedral church of Glasgow; and the rectory was afterwards served by a vicar, assisted by a chaplain till 1449, when a curate was established in place of the vicar.
From the obituary of the church, still preserved among the records of the burgh, it appears that this church besides the high altar, possessed several others which were served by distinct chaplains. Mention is made of the “Haly bluid altar,” the altar of the “Holy Trinity,” the “Holy Cross,” “St. Mary, St. Nicholas, St. Michael, St. Ninian, and St. Peter.” In 1472, the burgesses founded a Monastery of Franciscan or Grey Friars, who obtained many donations from James IV.; but they never acquired the opulence of the Black Friars. They possessed, however, a statue of the virgin Mary, which is said to have performed many miracles, and which no doubt, in these superstitious ages, proved a source of wealth and of honour to them. There are now no remains of this monastery, but it stood in the neighbourhood of the other, and the present parish church was afterwards built on its site. A chapel dedicated to St. Leonard stood about half a mile to the south east of the town.
It appears that during the fourteenth century, both the church and town were in danger of being destroyed from the blowing of the sand. Their situation near the sea, and the looseness of the surrounding soil was the cause of this. The bodies of the dead, in the cemetery which surrounded the church, are said to have been disinterred by it. In order to remedy this, a charter was granted by Robert II. in 1378, offering as a reward for protecting the town, church, and cemetery from the sand, such part of the waste lands within the burgh, as they by their labour or expence should render habitable, to be held by them and their heirs in free burgage for ever, for payment of a penny for each paccata they should possess. The term paccata is not intelligible, and it has been suggested, by a local antiquary, with every appearance of propriety, that it is a mistake, and should be read particata, a perch.
The church stood between the town and the sea near the shore. Its situation is ascertained from the tower which still stands within the fort erected by Oliver Cromwell. This church was used by the inhabitants of Ayr as a presbyterian place of worship for nearly a century after the reformation. In 1652, however, Oliver Cromwell finding the ground around the church a proper situation for a fort, took possession of it, and turned the church into an armoury. He remunerated the town only in part for the loss, and the money they received was applied towards building a new church. That they did receive some money from Cromwell, appears from a minute of the town council of date 3d July 1652, “anent the situation of building the kirk,” in which “all condescend tall possible meanes be used for building the same, either upon Sewaltons ground or the Grey Friars; and that the same be bought, and that the town be stented for als much as to utfit the same, what is deficient of the money to be had frae the English.” The new church was erected in 1654.
Some estimate may be formed of the comparative extent of this burgh as a seaport during the fourteenth century from the following statement. In the accounts of the king’s Chamberlain for the year 1329-30, we find the following entry. “Idem onerat se de L8 receipt de custumariis de Are.”3 For the same year the customs received from Aberdeen are L55 10s. 7d. from Dundee, L76 13s. 4d. and from Berwick, L82 0s. 10d. Ayr, it would thus appear, like other towns on the west coast, had enjoyed but little trade compared with those on the east. In the sixteenth century, however, Ayr appears to have paid more taxes to government than the city of Glasgow; for in the year 1556-7 we find the payments of these two towns to be: Ayr L322 7s. 1d. Glasgow L276 15s. Irvine for the same year paid L184 10s. During the seventeenth century, Ayr had made but little progress as a seaport. In 1656 it possessed only five barques amounting to 177 tons; and in 1692 it possessed none, all the ships having been “lost during late times to the value of L2611.”4
Indeed it was not till after the union had opened the trade of the British colonies to Scotland, that the inhabitants of Ayr like those of other towns on the Clyde, began to put forth their energies. In 1792 Ayr had acquired 34 vessels amounting to 2167 tons. Since the commencement of the present century, however, its progress has been much more rapid. In 1800 it possessed 46 vessels measuring 3,104 tons, and before 1818 these were increased to 57 vessels measuring 5842 tons. In this port there arrived and cleared in 1818, 188 sail of shipping; in 1821, 411 sail. In 1818 the coals exported amounted to 2761 tons; in 1821 to 9640 tons. At present about 40,000 tons are shipped annually. The harbour which is at the mouth of the water of Ayr contains about 15 feet of water at spring tides, 13 feet at neap tides, and from 5 to 7 feet at low water. It jas the disadvantage of being what is called a bar harbour, in consequence of which it can only be entered at certain states of the tide. It has, however, been greatly improved within; quays have been erected on both sides of the river, the principal one of which extends along the left bank 1185 feet, and is 40 feet in breadth. Here vessels of 240 tons can load and discharge; besides this there is a continuation up the river of about 435 feet, where smaller vessels can lie in safety. The quay on the right bank extends about 780 feet, and on it the greater part of the coals shipped at this port are loaded.
The chief imports at present are different kinds of wood; the various produce of the British colonies; hemp, tar, mats, &c. from Russia; wheat from Canada; bacon, beef, brick, slates, corn, butter, linen, flax, horses and other produce of Ireland. Of the exports the most important article is coals to Ireland, Isle of Man, and British colonies. In 1825, several cargoes were shipped for Gibraltar, the Ionian Isles, and Leghorn, to which places there seemed a prospect of a trade opening in that article, for the use of steam vessels plying on those seas. Since that time several cargoes have been shipped. Wool is exported to Ireland in considerable quantities; and Woolens, Cottons, Haberdashery, Hardware, Cordage, Leather, &c. to Ireland and British Colonies. The coast trade inwards is in Corn, Iron, Bark, Salt, Slates, Wool, Groceries, Sugar, Spirits, Wine, Lead, and Colours; and the same trade outwards, in Coal, Freestone, Salt and Wool.
The manufactures of Ayr, are not extensive. About 1500 tons of Salt are made yearly; there are three Tan Works, three Iron Founderies, three Soap Works,a Rope work, and a work in which Chain Cables are made. Somewhere about 600 hands are employed in weaving cotton goods for Glasgow and Paisley houses, about 150 in making shoes for the West India market, and 50 in the woolen manufacture. The fields of coal throughout the district are very extensive, and those in the immediate neighbourhood of the town are of great value.
Ayr is a handsome town, and its busy and crowded streets present every appearance of commercial enterprise and industry. The houses in the older part of the town are lofty and picturesque looking; while in the newer streets they are elegant, and most of them on the plan of self-contained lodgings. Many of the shops rival those of Edinburgh or Glasgow. The public buildings, though not numerous, are splendid, and do honour to the taste of the town. The county buildings in which the courts of justice sit, and in which the various public officers have apartments, situated at the extremity of a fine square, present a splendid specimen of Grecian Architecture; and the jail which is immediately behind is admirably planned for the division of prisoners into classes, and well aired. The new town-house is also a handsome building, surmounted by a lofty well proportioned spire, which in part removes the greatest defect in the distant prospect of the town – the want of spires. The academy is also worthy of notice as a neat structure, but more particularly from the fame it has long maintained as a place of education. Of the new bridge which forms a principal entrance to the town, it is only necessary to say, that it was erected from a design of the great Adam. Ayr also possesses a bank, a branch bank, a private bank, and a provident one; a custom house, excise, post, herring fishery, stamp, and linen stamp offices; a dispensary, poor’s house, and various charitable societies; a theatre, race course, barracks, public market, and a reading room.
The charter of William the Lyon was confirmed in 1223 by Alexander II, and again by David II in 1367. The various immunities and privileges conferred upon the burgh by these charters, received an ample confirmation by an act of Charles I, and the estates of parliament, 20th June, 1632. The municipal government of the town is vested in a Provost, two Bailies, a Dean of Guild, Treasurer, ten Merchant, and two Trades councilors. In 1821, the population of the town amounted to 7,455, but it has since increased, and at present, including the suburbs of Wallacetown and Newton upon Ayr, must considerably exceed 10,000.
Situated in a level plain, and surrounded by a flat, uninteresting, though well cultivated country, Ayr and its environs present few points of attraction to the lover of the picturesque, or the mere hunter for fine scenery. But notwithstanding the homeliness of its natural features, it possesses with almost every visitor, a more exciting interest than even the finest scenery could create. It is “the land of Burns,” as it has been truly and emphatically called; and the various interesting associations connected with his loved name, and his poetry, are here powerfully awakened. The poet was born, and lived to manhood in the immediate vicinity of the town; and the cottage still stands in which he first saw the light. Here the Genius of poetry found him at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over him. Numerous localities within the town and in its neighbourhood, have received a deathless name, from the power of his genius. it is indeed the land of Burns, and all who visit it, even the dullest mortals, feel themselves raised above their ordinary nature, and receive for a time, as it were, a portion of his inspiration.
Amidst the scenery thus so thickly sown with thought-stirring associations, a splendid monument has been erected to the poet’s memory. It stands on the side of the road from Ayr to Maybole, about two miles from the former town, and near the river Doon whose “banks and braes” he so passionately sang. The cottage where he was born, is within a quarter of a mile of it; “Alloway’s auld haunted Kirk,” stands on the opposite side of the road; and the old “Brig of Doon,” where Tam O’ Shanter‘s mare
“Brought aff her maister hail,
But left behind her ain grey tail,”
is within a few yards. The surrounding country seems thus a great temple in honour of the bard, of which the monument forms the shrine to which pilgrims from all lands repair to pay their tribute of love and gratitude to his memory.
A self-taught sculptor, Mr. Thom, has lately made his appearance here, who has already gained great fame by his excellent illustrations of the most humourous of Burns’s characters. He has already executed in stone, figures of Tam O’ Shanter, and Souter Johnie, the Landlord, and the Landlady, all equally happy and characteristic. These latter have been sent to the Earl of Cassillis’ seat near London, where his Lordship intends to have them placed in a building representing an old Scotch ale house, to be erected on his grounds. The public are indebted for the introduction of Mr. Thom to their notice, to Mr. David Auld of Ayr, a gentleman whose love for every thing connected with Burns, was in this instance at least only equaled by his judgment and discrimination.