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Beith, Ayrshire

Historical Description

BEITH, a parish, chiefly in the district of Cunninghame, county of Ayr, and partly in the Upper ward of the county of Renfrew, 18 miles (W. S. W.) from Glasgow; including the villages of Gateside, Northbar, and Burnhouse, and containing 5795 inhabitants. This place is supposed to have taken its name from a Celtic term signifying "birch ", and many parts of the district are referred to, as still bearing names formed partly with the word icood, such as Roughwood, Woodside, Threepwood, and others. In ancient times the locality consisted of the two great divisions called the barony of Beith, and the lordship of Giffen, the latter being the more extensive, and the two districts being divided from each other by the Powgree, a stream that falls into the Garnock near the south end of Kilbirnie loch. The barony was given in the twelfth century to Kilwinning Abbey by Richard de Moreville, the son and successor of Hugh de Moreville, constable of Scotland, and lord of Cunninghame; and his wife Avicia de Lancaster gave the lands of Beith, Bath, and Threepwood, also to the abbey. This religious establishment erected a chapel here, afterwards the church of Beith, the monks enjoying the tithes and revenues, and finding a curate to do the duty. About the period of the Reformation, the abbot and chapter feued out the lands in the barony for small feu-duties, which, with the other temporalities of the church, passed to Hugh, fifth Earl of Eglinton, who was created lord of erection of the monastery. The lordship of Giffen was given by the family of Moreville to Walter de Mulcaster, the donation comprehending the whole of the lands to the south and west of the Powgree: the ruins of a chapel founded by the monastery of Kilwinning, and dedicated to St. Bridget, are still to be seen on a part of this property.

Beith, at the beginning of the last century, was only a small village, consisting of a few houses in the vicinity of the church; but has since grown into a thriving manufacturing town, with a large and industrious population. It is situated on an eminence, in the midst of a district abounding with beautiful scenery. The town is well lighted with gas, supplied by a company established in 1831, with a capital of £1600. It contains a subscription library of 400 volumes, and two circulating libraries. The population comprises several merchants who deal very extensively in grain, and persons engaged in various kinds of traffic, but is to a great extent composed of hand-loom weavers; and about 200 persons resident in the parish are regularly engaged in the manufacture of flax thread. A mill for spinning flax, lately erected at North-bar, two miles from the town, affords employment to eighty hands; the proprietor has built several houses, and has commenced feus, so that a considerable village maybe expected shortly to arise on this spot. At Roughbank is an establishment of the same description, on a smaller scale, and also a mill for making potato-flour, occupying about fourteen persons; while at Knows an establishment has been formed containing forty steam-looms, furnishing employment to thirty persons. There are two bleachfields at Threepwood, in the north-eastern part of the parish; and the tanning and currying of leather are pursued to a considerable extent in the town. The enterprising spirit of the inhabitants has left untouched scarcely any article of profitable speculation. Beith is a post-town, and there are two arrivals and departures daily; also a daily despatch of letters to the neighbouring towns of Dairy, Kilbirnie, and Lochwinnoch. The great line of road from Glasgow to Portpatrick passes through the town, and the Glasgow and Ayrshire railway has a station about a mile distant from the place.

The marketable produce is usually sent for sale to Glasgow and Paisley; a weekly market, however, of ancient date, is held on Friday, and there are likewise annual fairs, chiefly for horses, on the first Friday in the months of January, February, May, and November (O. S.). A festival vulgarly called Tenant's day, attended by a great concourse of people, and celebrated for its show of horses, is held yearly on the 18th of August (O. S.), in honour of St. Inan, from whose name, with the last letter of the word saint, the appellation of the fair has been formed, by corrupt usage. Inan flourished about the year 839, and though chiefly resident at Irvine, occasionally remained for a time at this place, where he has left memorials in the name applied to the cleft in a rock, still called St. Inan's Chair, and in the name of a well, called St. Inan's Well. A fair called the "Trades' race" was formerly held in the month of June, when the trades assembled, and went in order through the town, with music and flags: this has been given up; but there is still an annual dinner of the merchants, who were united as a society previously to the year 1727, and the whole of whom meet for the purpose of conviviality on the anniversary, and choose a president. A kind of fair, likewise, is held in July, called the "Cadgers' race", when the carters ride in procession through the town. A baron-bailie and a baron-officer were formerly appointed by the Earls of Eglinton, who had considerable property in the parish; but nothing of this kind has taken place for many years, and the town has no particular local government. The town-house was built by subscription, in 1817: the lower part consists of two shops, and the upper part of a large hall, in which the justice-of-peace courts, the sheriff small-debt circuit courts, and public meetings are held; it is also used as a public reading-room.

The PARISH is in the form of a triangle, and is bounded on the west by Kilbirnie loch. It measures at its greatest length, from south-east to south-west, four miles; and comprises an area of 11,060 acres, of which 500 are in Renfrewshire. About 320 acres in the parish are uncultivated, 100 acres in plantations, and the remainder is pasture and tillage. The surface is considerably varied, throughout, with undulations, without presenting any remarkable elevations, the highest point, called Cuff hill, being only 652 feet above the sea. From this eminence, as well as from some of the uplands, extensive views are obtained of the surrounding country, amply compensating for the general uniformity of the local scenery. The hill is supposed to take its name from the word Coifi, or Cuifi, the appellation of the chief priest of the Druids, and to have been a principal seat of the worship of that ancient order: the fair of St. Inan, also, in later times, was held here. The prospect from the summit embraces the mountain ranges of Galloway and Carrick, the expansive estuary of the Clyde, the outline of the Perthshire hills, and the majestic Ben-Lomond. The surface of the parish gently slopes from the north-eastern quarter, the vicinity of Cuff hill, and is lowest at Kilbirnie loch, being here only ninety feet above the sea level. From this sheet of water a stream flows north-ward through Lochwinnoch to the river Clyde, along a valley in which the line of railway to Glasgow also runs. At Blaeloch-head is a small lake; and different parts of the parish are enlivened by streams: the two principal are the river Lugton, rising in Lochlibo, and falling into the Garnock below Eglinton Castle; and the Dusk, which rises at Threepwood, and joins the Garnock at Dalgarvan, below Dairy.

The lands present a great variety of soil, but in general are fertile, and tolerably well cultivated; the chief crop is oats. Large portions are in pasture, and about 900 milch-cows, mostly of the Ayrshire breed, besides young cattle, are grazed on the different grounds. Cheese is consequently a leading article of traffic, and is purchased of the tenants by cheese-merchants for the Glasgow market; milk is disposed of to some extent in the surrounding villages, and large quantities of rye-grass seed are shipped to England by merchants residing in the town. The farms are of small size, varying from fifty to 100 acres; and full two-thirds of the rent are made by the sale of the cheese, which is of excellent quality, and brings the highest price at market. The annual value of real property in the parish is £15,140. The chief mineral deposits are coal and limestone, which are wrought extensively: clay-ironstone is also found, and brick-clay is dug for use at two manufactories of drain tiles; ironstone exists in several parts, and a freestone quarry is in operation. Plantations are rare, especially those of an ornamental kind, except in the vicinity of the mansions, among which is Caldwell House, at the eastern extremity of the parish, a large and elegant modern structure, surrounded by a spacious park richly ornamented with trees, including some of great stature and beauty.

Ecclesiastically the parish is in the presbytery of Irvine, synod of Glasgow and Ayr, and in the patronage of the Earl of Eglinton: the minister's stipend is £251. 5. 11., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £130 per annum. Beith church, commenced in 1807, and opened for public worship in 1810, is a plain edifice with a tower and clock, and accommodates 1254 persons; it was erected at a cost of £2790, and the bell, which has a very fine tone, was the gift of Robert Shedden, Esq., of London, a native of this parish. There are places of worship for the United Presbyterian Synod and members of the Free Church. The parochial school affords instruction in the usual branches; the master has a salary of £26, with a substantial dwelling-house, a good garden, and the usual fees. There are also schools at Hazlehead and other places. A savings' bank was formed in 1834; and two societies have been partly endowed, for the relief of the poor. Alexander Montgomerie, one of the earlier Scottish poets, and of some celebrity, was born in the parish.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis