Scottish Towns and Cities. Ayr.

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Ayr (/ɛər/; Scots: Ayr; Scottish Gaelic: Inbhir Àir, “Mouth of the River Ayr”) is a town situated on the southwest coast of Scotland.

It is the administrative centre of the South Ayrshire council area and the historic county town of Ayrshire. With a population of 46,780, Ayr is the 14th largest settlement in Scotland. The town is contiguous with the smaller town of Prestwick to the north.

Ayr was established as a Royal Burgh in 1205. It served as Ayrshire’s central marketplace and harbour throughout the Medieval Period and was a well-known port during the Early Modern Period.

On the southern bank of the River Ayr sits the ramparts of a citadel constructed by Oliver Cromwell’s men during the mid-17th century. Towards the south of the town is the birthplace of Scottish poet Robert Burns in the suburb of Alloway. Ayr has been a popular tourist resort since the expansion of the railway in 1840 owing to the town’s fine beach and its links to golfing and Robert Burns.

By Alan Reid, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107013466

Ayr is one of the largest retail centres in the south of Scotland and was recognised as the second healthiest town centre in the United Kingdom by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2014. Ayr has hosted the Scottish Grand National horse-racing steeplechase annually since 1965 and the Scottish International Airshow annually since 2014. The town also accommodates the headquarters of the Ayr Advertiser and Ayrshire Post newspapers.

Etymology

The name Ayr can be traced back to a pre-Celtic word meaning “watercourse” or “strong river”. This name was used before the establishment of the Julian calendar in reference to the River Ayr. The town was formerly known as ‘Inverair’ or ‘Inverayr’, meaning “mouth of the river Ayr”, yet this was later abbreviated to ‘Air’, and then to ‘Ayr’. Elements of the old name remain present within the Scottish Gaelic name for Ayr – Inbhir Air.

History

By Brythones – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45369605

Pre-establishment

The areas surrounding modern day Ayr were known to have been occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gathers more than 5,000 years ago. There is also a Neolithic standing stone at the end of Stonefield Park in Doonfoot, which is believed to have been upended as a place of sun worship by Stone Age people.

Establishment and early settlement (1197–1500)

New Bridge of Ayr, 1855

By John Faed. 1855. – Tam o’Shanter. Robert Burns. 1855., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98828488

In 1197, King William the Lion ordered that a new castle be built between the River Ayr and the River Doon. It is believed that the castle was a wooden structure built around Montgomerie Terrace. Ayr was later established as a royal burgh and market town on 21 May 1205 by King William the Lion.At its establishment, the burgh encompassed a single street (The Sandgate) and the Church of St John. By 1225 the town reached as far as Carrick Street and Mill Street along the south side of the River Ayr. The town grew quickly to become the main seaport, marketplace and administrative centre for Ayrshire.

The King gifted fishing rights to the burgh for the River Ayr and the River Doon in 1236. In the following year, a timber bridge was built across the River Ayr, linking the town to the north side of the River. Since 1261, annual fairs were held in the town. At this time the town had a recorded population of 1,500 and served as a major port on the west coast. The town was unsuccessfully attacked by Norwegian forces in 1263 and invaded and occupied by English forces from 1296 until 1312 as part of the Scottish Wars of Independence. In 1298 the original castle at Ayr was destroyed by Robert The Bruce’s forces. On 26 April 1315, a Parliament of Scotland was held in Ayr by Robert The Bruce at St. John’s Tower by the sea.

As a Royal Burgh, Ayr was afforded various privileges relating to trade, tolls and fishing rights, which allowed the town to out-compete the neighbouring free burgh of Newton which was established in the 14th century and situated on the north side of the River Ayr.

Early modern period (1500–1707)

St John’s Tower

By Rosser1954 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25606147

Ayr was continuously hit by a number of plagues from 1545 to 1647, resulting in the town’s port being quarantined and plague victims being removed from the town on pain of death. Mary, Queen of Scots visited the town in 1552 and 1563. Ayr remained a significant port throughout the 16th century, exporting goods such as fish, hide and wool and importing salt and wine.

Ayr played a pivotal role in the Plantation of Ulster throughout the 17th century, in which a significant number of British people settled in present-day Northern Ireland. The town provided the largest share of colonists from Great Britain, with many colonists from Ayr joining the Earl of Eglinton, Hugh Montgomery’s, plant in the Ards Peninsula (particularly around Newtownards), and others going on to settle around Belfast. In 1652, the town was used as a base and fortress for some of Oliver Cromwell’s men. They established a large fortress along the mouth of the River Ayr and erected walls around the area just south of the River’s mouth – most of these walls remain present to this day. St John’s Tower, which sat around the centre of the fortress, was originally part of a large church yet this was knocked down during the construction of the fort with the tower being used for military practice; it is now protected by “Friends Of Saint Johns Tower” (FROST) residents in the “Ayr Fort Area” which sits atop the former site of the citadel.

The lands occupied by the fort were granted to the Earl of Eglinton, Alexander Montgomerie, in 1663, who established the separate Burgh of Regality named Montgomerieston around the fort, which was eventually absorbed into the Burgh of Ayr. The separate village of Alloway to the south-east of Ayr was also annexed by the town in 1691, despite numerous petitions against this to Edinburgh from residents of the village. Although the importation of French wine continued to be Ayr’s most important trade during the 17th century, the port was one of the first in Scotland to establish regular trade links with the English colonies in the Americas. This commenced during the 1640s when the English Civil War disrupted established colonial trading arrangements, and during the Cromwellian occupation there was free trade between Scotland and the English colonies. Following the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy, the Navigation Acts excluded Scottish ships from this trade apart from a few exceptional cases. Several English merchants had settled in Ayr during the Cromwellian occupation, and they collaborated with local merchants in circumventing the Navigation Acts by disguising Ayr ships as English vessels. Tobacco, sugar and indigo were imported, and salted fish, meat, clothing and indentured servants were exported.

Deposits of coal were found and mined in Newton during the 17th century, resulting in the town becoming a base for the industry, with coal being exported abroad from its harbour. At this time, Ayr’s population is estimated to have been at around 2,000.

By the late 17th century and early 18th century, Ayr was widely regarded as a town in decline, with Daniel Defoe remarking in A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain:

The capital of this country is Air, a sea-port, and as they tell us, was formerly a large city, had a good harbour, and a great trade: I must acknowledge to you, that tho’ I believe it never was a city, yet it has certainly been a good town, and much bigger than it is now: At present like an old beauty, it shews the ruins of a good face; but is also apparently not only decay’d and declin’d, but decaying and declining every day, and from being the fifth town in Scotland, as the townsmen say, is now like a place so saken; the reason of its decay, is, the decay of its trade, so true is it, that commerce is the life of nations, of cities towns, harbours, and of the whole prosperity of a country: What the reason of the decay of trade here was, or when it first began to decay, is hard to determine; nor are the people free to tell, and, perhaps, do not know themselves. There is a good river here, and a handsome stone bridge of four arches.

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain

Acts of Union (1707–1914

Ayr Market Cross in 1810

By William Miller – engraving, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2096347

The formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Acts of Union 1707 was initially harmful to Ayr, due to the importance to its economy of the wine trade with France. The terms of the English Methuen Treaty of 1703, which favoured the importation of Portuguese and Spanish wines and was accompanied by punitive duties on French wines, were extended to Scotland. However, the Union provided Ayr with significant trading opportunities with Britain’s colonies around the world and resulted in improvements to the town’s infrastructure, with Ayr’s textile, wool, linen and shoemaking industries thriving as a result. A small lighthouse was constructed on the River Ayr in 1712, followed by a quay in 1713. Repairs to the town’s Harbour and High Tolbooth took place between 1724 and 1726, with funding provided by the Convention of Royal Burghs. Street lighting was installed around the town centre in 1747. A sugar refinery at the harbour was in operation during the 1770s.

The grounds of Alloway were sold in 1754 to help pay off Ayr burgh’s public debts, resulting in the establishment of the Belleisle and Rozelle estates to the south of the town, which are now public parks. Rozelle was acquired by Robert Hamilton, who named his estate after one of his plantations in Jamaica. In 1760, Wallacetown was formed to the east of Newton by the Wallaces of Craigie House. Ayr Racecourse was established in 1777. The “New Brig” of Ayr was constructed in 1785–88 and rebuilt in 1877 after severe flooding. In 1792 and 1817, Parliament passed acts to deepen and maintain Ayr’s Harbour. During this period Ayr’s population was estimated to be around 4,000.

Ayr in 1804 etching

74425932, 2/9/04, 2:34 pm, 8C, 4282×10660 (1536+0), 100%, bent 6 stops, 1/60 s, R105.3, G80.6, B96.8

A permanent military presence was established in the town with the completion of Ayr Barracks (later known as Churchill Barracks) on the citadel site in 1795. Ayr Town Hall was designed by Thomas Hamilton and completed in 1832.

Ayr Town Hall

By Steve Daniels – File:The Town Hall on New Bridge Street (geograph 6442696).jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101651006

In 1801, the parish of Ayr had a recorded population of just under 5,500, with the adjoining burgh of Newton to the north having a population of just under 1,700 people. By 1826 Ayr’s streets were lit by gas and by 1842 Ayr had a water supply, with sewers being dug soon after. Ayr was connected to Glasgow, and thus the rest of Great Britain, by rail in 1839, with the first service operating in August 1840 to a terminus on North Harbour Street. This led to a significant expansion in Ayr’s tourist industry due to its attractive, sandy beach and links to Robert Burns. In 1857 a line was built from Dalmellington to export iron from Waterside and a new station was built to replace the old station called “Ayr Townhead Station”. In 1877 a line was built between Newton and Mauchline for the export of coal. By 1851 Ayr’s population was 21,000 and by 1855 between 60,000 and 70,000 tonnes of coal were being exported to Ireland from Ayr’s Harbour each year, with imports of hide and tallow coming into the harbour from South America and beef, butter, barley, yarn and linen being imported into the harbour from Ireland. In 1854, 84,330 tonnes of goods were exported from the town and 36,760 tonnes were imported into the town. Other prominent industries in Ayr at this time included fishing, tanning and shoemaking, with several sawmills, woollen mills and carpet weavers located in the town as well. Timber and tobacco were also traded between Ayr’s Harbour and North America.

Wallace Tower located in Ayr town centre

By Tanya Dedyukhina, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59996767

The Burgh of Ayr Act 1873 resulted in Newton and Wallacetown being absorbed into the Burgh of Ayr. Newton’s more industrial character has left the town today divided into two distinct areas, with areas south of the River Ayr incorporating a mixture of affluent Victorian residential suburbs and modern suburban developments, in contrast to more deprived and industrial areas to the north of the river. The Carnegie Library was opened in Ayr on 2 September 1893. By the turn of the century, Ayr’s population was around 31,000 people. The Burns Statue Square drill hall was completed in 1901 and the Wellington Square drill hall was probably completed shortly after that.

On 26 September 1901, a tram service was opened between Prestwick Cross in Prestwick and St Leonards in Ayr. This was expanded south the following year to Alloway, and east in 1913 to the Racecourse at Whitletts. The tram service was eventually shut due to expensive repair costs, with the last tram running on New Year’s Eve in 1931.

Modern history (1914–present)

817 men from Ayr died during the First World War. A memorial was unveiled at Wellington Square in 1924 dedicated to those who died, with other memorials being put up at Alloway Village Hall and Whitletts Cross.

Ayr’s growing population following the war resulted in significant slum clearance and redevelopment around the town centre, with the development of new housing estates on the periphery of the town. The lands surrounding Woodfield House were acquired by the council in 1919 to build council housing on, with the first residents moving in 1921. In 1929 Ayr was designated as a large burgh and its boundaries were expanded to include Alloway, Castlehill, Doonfoot and Whitletts. In the 1930s, council estates were also developed at Lochside and Heathfield. The mining villages of Dalmilling and Whitletts were also cleared and developed into sizeable council estates.

Following the Second World War, more council housing was developed in Ayr at Kincaidston, with the Wallacetown and Whitletts estates being expanded. Suburban housing was also developed at Alloway, Doonfoot and Holmston, and many disused industrial buildings throughout the town were redeveloped into flats.

Archaeology.

In 2019, GUARD Archaeology team led by Iraia Arabaolaza uncovered a marching camp dating to the 1st century AD, used by Roman legions during the invasion of Roman General Agricola. According to Arabaolaza, the fire pits were split 30 meters apart into two parallel lines. The findings also included clay-domed ovens and 26 fire pits dated to between 77- 86 AD and 90 AD loaded with burn and charcoal contents. Archaeologists suggested that this site had been chosen as a strategic location for the Roman conquest of Ayrshire.

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