An article from

'The Topographical, Statistical, and Historical Gazetteer of Scotland'

Published by A.Fullarton and Co. - 1848

Burgh of Kilmarnock

Kilmarnock, a parliamentary burgh, and the most important town in the west of Scotland south of Paisley, occupies a low site, amidst flat and tame though agriculturally rich scenery, on both sides of Kilmarnock water immediately above its point of confluence with the Irvine ; 9½ miles from Mauchline; 6½ from Irvine; 12 from Ayr; 21 from Maybole; 32 from Girvan; 28 from Largs; 21½ from Glasgow; and 63½ by way of Glasgow from Edinburgh. In the reign of James VI., it was a mere hamlet, dependent upon the neighbouring baronial mansion, Dean-castle; and when, through the wealth of the coal-mines in the vicinity and the enterprising pursuits which they suggested and facilitated, it rose to the stature of a town, it had all the ruggedness of aspect and the filthiedness of dress indicative of the vocation of a collier. At the close of last century it consisted solely of narrow and irregular streets, and was extensively edificed with mean thatched houses. But two events concurred with the influence of the improvement-spirit of the age, to effect a rapid and beautifying change on its appearance. In 1800, a desolating fire broke out in the lower part of the town called Nethertonholm, and, aided by drought and a stiff breeze, ran rapidly along both sides of the street, and made short and full work of demolishing a long array of thatched roofs; and it cleared the way and afforded occasion for a spirited effort, by subscription, both in the town and among patriotic persons at a distance, to replace the old roofs with improved ones of slate. About the same period, commissioners appointed by an act of parliament which had been obtained by the magistrates for improving the town, unsparingly removed nuisances, planned new streets, and speedily flung over the place a renovated, airy, and neat aspect. Yet the town is still remarkable for the utter disproportion of its breadth to its length, for the shortness, numerousness, and irregularity of the thoroughfares at its nucleus, and for the straggling and dispersed position of several of its outskirts. At the south end of the town, on the left bank of the river Irvine, communicating with Kilmarnock by a bridge which carries over the Ayr and Glasgow turnpike, stands the small suburb of RICCARTON: which see. From the north end of the bridge, 700 yards above the confluence of Kilmarnock water with the Irvine, a street, bearing the names successively of Glencairn-street and King-street, runs due north, and in a straight line over a distance of 1,500 yards, or more than ¾ of a mile, gradually approaching Kilmarnock water over 1,100 yards, running alongside of it for 320 yards, and then, as the river makes a sudden bend, passing over it, and opening into an open and irregular area, the cross, marketplace, or centre of the town. Nearly 400 yards from its southern end, this street expands into Glencairn-square, from the sides of which East Shaw-street and West Shaw-street, each about 200 yards in length, run off at right angles with Glencairn-street respectively to the rivers Irvine and Kilmarnock. Two hundred yards north of Glencairn-square, two very brief streets go off eastward and westward, the former sending off at a short distance unedificed thoroughfares to Richarland brewery, situated on the Irvine to Wellbeck-street, 320 yards eastward, and to the slaughter-house 120 yards to the north. Opposite the last of these objects, Glencairn-street sends off Douglas-street 120 yards to Kilmarnock water. A little more than 400 yards farther north, the same street, or rather the continuation of it now bearing the name of King-street, sends off a long zigzag but otherwise regular street-line 120 yards eastward, 120 southward, 320 south-eastward, and again 200 southward to Irvine water, bearing as it approaches the river the name of Wellbeck-street. All the section of the town which consists of these streets, with the exception of the north end of King-street, is quite modern, and has a neat appearance, its houses presenting fronts of polished ashler, and a building material of fine freestone; yet it is entirely destitute of the attribute of compactness which is generally associated with the idea of a town, and exhibits mainly an elongated and slightly intersected street-line running nakedly down the peninsula formed by the two rivers, and a subtending zigzag street-line drawn across the peninsula. Portland-street, 380 yards long, Wellington-street 280, and Dean-street 4oO, are continuations nearly due northward of the Glencairn-street and King-street line, and, with these streets, make the extreme length of the town about 2,610 yards, or very nearly l½ mile. The line, however, from King-street northward is but partially editiced, and, for some distance, is bending and rather narrow. Nowhere, too, is the town broader than 700 yards; and over a very considerable part of its length it has but a single street. From the north side of the central area, at a point eastward of the commencement of Portland street, and slightly radiating from that thoroughfare, High-street runs along 600 yards, till it is pent up by a small bend of the river. A brief street intersects it 150 yards from its south end, and sends off northward a thoroughfare parallel with Portland-street and High-street, and running between them. From the south side of the central area go off two brief thoroughfares respectively north-eastward and south-eastward, the latter leading down to the academy situated within a curve of the river. From the north side of the area also two streets debouch. The more southerly of these runs past the Laigh kirk 220 yards, to a point near Kilmarnock house, and the depot of the Kilmarnock and Troon railway, and forms the longest side of a nearly pentagonal district of buildings which has five exterior streets, and two intersecting ones, all brief and more or less irregular, and on whose outskirts are the cattle-market and the gas-works.

The town, as a whole, has a pleasing and airy aspect, abounds in good and even elegant shops, and exhibits a fair display of public buildings. At the north end of King-street is a very broad bridge over Kilmarnock water, which not only carries across a spacious roadway, but also bears aloft on its east side the town-house and the butcher-market. The town-house, built in 1805, is a neat structure of two stories, surmounted by a belfry; and contains a court-room and public offices. The Exchange buildings, erected in 1814, are of pleasing architecture, and have a large hall, which serves both as a well-furnished news-room, and as a place of mercantile resort. A very handsome and commodious inn, erected by the merchants' society, is not a little ornamental to the town. The Ayrshire banking company's office, immediately opposite to it, is likewise a verv fine edifice. The academy, the workhouse, the free-school, and five bridges over Kilmarnock water, and one over the Irvine, if not elegant structures, are at least agreeable for their utility. Kilmarnock-house arrests attention and excites musing thoughts, from its having been the mansion whence the last Earl of Kilmarnock issued to take part in the enterprise which cost him his life and the forfeiture of his title and estates. The Laigh kirk is remarkable for having spacious square staircases at the angles leading to the galleries, and still more so for the event which occasioned their peculiar conformation, as well as the re-edification of the entire structure. In 1801, while a crowded congregation were assembling on a Lord's day for public worship, the falling of a piece of plaster from the ceiling of the former church, excited a general and sudden fear in the masses who were already seated in the galleries that the roof was about to come down, and prompted a universal pell-mell rush to the stairs. A stream of persons who were in the act of ascending were met by the headlong torrent of the mass moving downward, precipitated to the bottom, and made the lowest stratum of a broad high pile of human beings vainly struggling to move off from the rush in the rear, and too numerous to be speedily extricated by the efforts of parties clearing the passages below. About 30 persons died from suffocation on the spot; and numbers more received serious and permanent damage to their health. The place of worship being now very wisely and philanthropically condemned by the heritors, its successor, the present edifice, was constructed more on the principle of securing confidence in its strength and facilities, than with a view to contribute an architectural decoration to the town. The High church aspires to be, in some degree, a counterpart of the conspicuous and very elegant church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, at Charing-cross, London; and,though it wants the portico, that very important part of the original, and is destitute of many of the ornaments of its model, and sends aloft a tower of only 80 feet in height, and, in general, is much curtailed in its proportions, it will pass as a decidedly fine piece of ecclesiastical architecture, and has been regarded as the most successful production of the Scottish architect, Gibb. Its roof, as to its interior ceiling, displays much taste, and is supported by two rows of very beautiful composite pillars. St. Marnoch's church is a Gothic edifice, with an imposing front and a sumptuous tower. The Relief church is probably the most pretending and the neatest of the numerous places of worship belonging to the religious denomination with which it is connected; and, being surmounted by a lofty spire, is a conspicuous and arresting object in the scenic groupings of the town. The Independent chapel possesses neatness in the exterior, and some novelty and pleasing arrangement in the interior. Other edifices in the town, whether civil or ecclesiastical, suggest ideas rather of direct adaptation to their respective uses, than of accidental or ornate properties.

Kilmarnock is the well-known seat of very important manufactures, — chiefly in the departments of carpets, shawls, boots and shoes, bonnets and leather. Its advantages, as to position and facilities, are abundance of coal, the circumjacency of a rich agricultural district to supply it amply and cheaply with provisions, healthiness of climate, populousness of neighbourhood, and the current through it, or at its side, of two considerable streams; and these are so rich as very fully to compensate its only disadvantage, the necessity of land-carriage over a distance of 6 or 7 miles to a port, and were speedily seen in much, if not all, of their value by the clear eye of the improvement-spirit which, during last century, peregrinated athwart Scotland. Though the incorporations of the town are of long standing — the bonnet - makers having been incorporated in 1647, and the skinners in 1656, and the other bodies possessing documents which, while of later date, are ratifications of former grants — yet during many years and several generations, the manufactures were very limited as to both variety and amount. 'Kilmarnock bonnets,' and 'Kilmarnock cowls,' or those broad flat bonnets which are extensively worn by the peasantry of the Lowlands, and those red and blue striped nightcaps which still figure grotesquely on venerable or hoary heads, and have often provoked the flash of wit and the scathing of satire, were, for a long period, the only productions by which the town's manufacturing character was known or maintained an existence. About 100 years ago, three or four individuals conducted the principal trade, buying serges and other woollen articles from private manufacturers, and exporting them to Holland. The demand for woollen goods afterwards increasing, a company was formed, and laid the foundation of the modern and hitherto uniformly flourishing productiveness of the place, by the erection of a woollen factory. About the same time was introduced the trade for which Kilmarnock, Ayr, and Irvine, continue to be noted, — the making of shoes and boots. Some fifteen years before the close of the century, spinning-jennies for cotton, and a carding and spinning machine for coarse wool, were erected. In 1791, when the Old Statistical Account of the parish was written, there were annually manufactured, as to value, £21,400 carpets, £21,216 shoes and boots, £15,500 leather, £6,500 printed calicoes, £3,700 snuff and tobacco, £3,500 leather-gloves, £2,251 cotton-cloth, £2,000 cabinet-work, £1,200 milled caps and mitts, and £7,800 bonnets, coverlets, blankets, plaidings, serges, mancoes, saddlers' cloth, saddlery, knit stockings, iron, and dyers'-work. Since that date the town has boldly and rapidly advanced in all the ancient departments of its manufacture, and has made very important additions in the articles of printed shawls, gauzes, and muslins of the finest texture, and some small addition likewise in the department of silk fabrics. Almost a characteristic property of the town is boldness and blitheness of enterprise, issuing uniformly in success, or, at worst, in encouragement. In 1824, at a time when muslin-weaving was the work of an ill-fed drudge, the manufacture of worsted printed shawls was introduced to the Greenholm printfield of this town, and to Scotland, by an inventive and spirited calico-printer, Mr. William Hall, and, not only at the moment greatly relieved the muslin-weavers, by providing them with remunerating employment, but almost instantaneously grew to be one of the most important manufactures of Kilmarnock. So early as from 31st May, 1830, to 1st June, 1831, only four years after its introduction, it employed about 1,200 weavers and 200 printers, and produced no fewer than 1,128,814 shawls, aggregately worth about £200,000. In 1837, the annual aggregate value was estimated at £230,000. - The carpet-manufactory may, amidst conflicting claims, be regarded as now the staple of Kilmarnock. Even 20 or 25 years ago, it rivalled that of Kidderminster in England, and had no competitor in Scotland; and about that time, or a little later, it was greatly improved by the mechanical inventions of Mr. Thomas Morton, a citizen who gives name to a locality in the vicinity of the Gas-works, who taught his townsmen at once to save time and labour, and to achieve accuracy and an extensive variety in their patterns, and who, so early as 1826, received public demonstrations from the manufacturers of the town of the debt of obligation which they felt his genius had imposed. During the year 1830-1, upwards of 1,000 weavers were employed in producing Brussels, Venetian, and Scottish carpets and rugs, the quality and patterns of which were not surpassed by any in the country. Three chief classes of carpets are manufactured, all of which are woven with harness, — Brussels carpets, of the kinds called "points" and "combers," —Wilton carpets, woven exactly like the former except that the brass wires(1) are graved, and that the rib is out open with a sharp knife after it has been fastened, —and Scotch carpets of three qualities, 9 porters, 10½, and 13½. With the Wilton carpets Buckingham palace was furnished. Another very beautiful fabric called Persians, is woven in the town for fire-screens, the weft being tied into perpendicular warps by the hand, after the manner of making rugs. The designs are beautifully executed from patterns procured from Berlin, prepared there for ladies' work, and found to be well-adapted to this fabric, and better executed than any which can be obtained at home. The wages of the carpet and rug weavers run from 12s. to 14s. per week nett, and occasionally higher. The yearly value of the carpet manufacture was estimated, in 1837, at £150,000. The total number of hand-looms in the town, in the various departments of woollen, cotton, and silk, was, in 1828, 1,150, and, in 1838, 1,892; and in the latter year, 1,800 of the number were harness-looms. The carpet-factories are six in number, and recently have all been either rebuilt or very much enlarged. Six mills, five of them on Kilmarnock water, and the 6th and the largest on the Irvine, are employed principally in spinning woollen or worsted yarn for the carpet factories and bonnet-makers. The annual manufacture of bonnets now exceeds 18,000 dozens in number, and amounts to about £12,000 in value. The manufacture of boots and shoes was estimated, as to the animal worth of the produce, in 1831, about £32,000, and, in 1837, about £50,000. The manufacture of leather, in the latter of these years, was set down in value at £45,000. Mr. Thomas Morton, the same ingenious mechanist to whom the carpet manufacturers acknowledge so much obligation, introduced the rather novel manufacture of telescopes, constructed at his private expense a valuable observatory with suitable apparatus, and mounted there some telescopes of such power and superior construction that be was invited to furnish copies or duplicates of them to other observatories. Of miscellaneous manufactures, including linens, cottons, silks, hose, telescopes, machinery, saddlery, hats, tobacco and candles, the value of annual produce may range between £70,000 and £100,000. The gas-works of Kilmarnock were erected in 1823, by a joint-stock company holding £10 shares, and managed by a committee of twelve. The town has branch-offices of the Bank of Scotland, the Ayr Bank, the Commercial Bank of Scotland, and the Ayrshire Banking company. The weekly markets are held on Tuesday and Friday; and the annual fairs on Shrove Tuesday, the 2d Tuesday of May, the 3d Wednesday of July, and the 3d Wednesday of October, O.S. The institutions, additional to those already incidentally noticed, are a Reservoir company, a Building company, a dispensary, an Agricultural society, a Merchants' society, a Society of procurators, a Male and a Female Benevolent society, a Female society for religious purposes, a Parochial association in aid of the missions of the General Assembly and other bodies, a public library, a parochial library, some circulating libraries, and a Philosophical institution. The town has a weekly newspaper, the 'Kilmarnock Journal,' and is noted for having been the birth-place of the first edition of Burns' poems. Kilmarnock was made a burgh-of-barony in 1591, by a charter of novo damus in favour of Thomas, Lord Boyd, holding of the Prince and Steward of Scotland. According to this and subsequent charters, ratified by a charter from the Crown in 1702, power was given to the inhabitants to act as in other free burghs-of-barony, and to the magistrates to present annually a leet of five persons to the superior, from which he should choose two bailies for the succeeding year. In 1700, the magistrates purchased from the superior the whole customs and common good of the burgh. After the passing of the act 3 and 4 William IV., cap. 77, on the 9th August, 1831, an invitation was given by the magistrates and town-council to the burgesses to elect annually eight persons, each rated at £12 rent and upwards in the police books for their dwelling-houses, from among whom the council should choose by ballot four new councillors, and no opposition being made by the superior, the invitation was acted on, and passed into a law. The governing body are a provost, four bailies, a treasurer, and eleven councillors. Constituency, both municipal and parliamentary, in 1839-40, 630. The property of the burgh was valued to the Commissioners on Municipal corporations at £3,675 5s. 9d.; and the debts due to it stated at £989 16s. 11½d. The revenue during the year preceding their inquiry was £380 11s. 6¼d.; and the expenditure £256 14s. 9d. In 1839-40 it amounted to £644 18s. 10d. The magistrates exercise the jurisdiction reserved by the jurisdiction act to burghs-of-barony then independent of the superior; they entertain civil causes to any pecuniary amount in the bailie-court, and are assisted by the town-clerk as assessor; they exercise, in the bailie-court, the functions of the dean-of-guild's jurisdiction; they exercise a criminal jurisdiction in cases of assault, but remit other cases to the sheriff; they hold in turn what is called the convenue court, which exercises a summary jurisdiction, upon a verbal citation in cases not exceeding 6s. 8d. sterling, and proceeds by poinding and arrest-ment; and they appoint the town-officers, and five of the fifteen directors of the academy, with whom lies the appointment of the masters. The fee payable by a stranger entering burgess is £4 4s. The incorporated trades, with their respective numbers in 1833, and the entry-fee they severally exact from a stranger, are the skinners, 25, £3 6s. 8d., — the tailors, 33, £6 6s., — the weavers, 49, £1 11s. 6d., -the bonnet-makers, 23, £7, —and the shoemakers, 74, £6 13s.4d. None of them has more than £300 of funds, and two of them have less than £100. The police of the town is regulated by an act of parliament passed in 1810, and is excelled by that of no town in Scotland for its vigour and utility. Kilmarnock unites with Dumbarton, Port-Glasgow, Renfrew, and Rutherglen, in sending a member to parliament. Population, in 1831, 16,072; in 1841, 17,844. The noble family of Boyd, the Earls of Kilmarnock, were descendants of Simon, brother of Walter, first Lord High Steward of Scotland. In 1661 William, 9th Lord Boyd, was created Earl of Kilmarnock. In 1745 William, the 4th Earl, took part in the rebellion under Prince Charles Edward, and on the 18th August, 1746, was beheaded, along with Lord Baltnerino, on Tower-hill. The eldest of his three sons became, in right of his mother, Lady Ann Livingstone, Earl of Errol; and in 1831, his grandson, William, Earl of Errol, was created Earl of Kilmarnock in the peerage of Great Britain.

(1) The ribbed appearance on a Brussels carpet in produced by the insertion of long brass wires between the shuts of the woollen web, so as to raise the warps, the wires being drawn out afterwards in succession. The selling price to the wholesale merchant of Scotch carpets, in 1839, was 2s. 10d. per yard; of Brussels carpets, 4s. 3d.  





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