Historical description of Ayrshire, Scotland

AYRSHIRE, an extensive county, on the western coast of Scotland, bounded on the north by Renfrewshire, on the east by the counties of Lanark and Dumfries, on the south by the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and Wigtonshire, and on the west by the Firth of Clyde and the Irish Channel. It lies between 54° 40' and 55° 52' (N. lat.), and 4° and 5° (W. long.), and is about sixty miles in length and nearly thirty in extreme breadth, comprising an area of about 1600 square miles, or 1,024,000 acres; containing 31,497 houses, of which 30,125 are inhabited; and a population of 164,356, of whom 78,983 are males, and 85,373 females. This county, which includes the three districts of Carrick, Kyle, and Cunninghame, was originally inhabited by the Damnii, with whom, after the departure of the Romans, were mingled a colony of Scots, who emigrated from Ireland, and settled in the peninsula of Cantyre, in the county of Argyll. In the eighth century, the Saxon kings of Northumbria obtained possession of this part of the country; and in the reign of David I., Hugh de Morville, who had emigrated from England, and was made by that monarch constable of Scotland, received a grant of the whole district of Cunninghame, in which he placed many of his English vassals. Previously to their final defeat at the battle of Largs, in 1263, the county was frequently invaded by the Danes; and during the wars with Edward of England, it was the scene of many of the exploits of William Wallace in favour of Robert Bruce, who was a native of the county, and obtained by marriage the earldom of Carrick, which, on his accession to the throne, merged into the property of the crown. The change in the principles of religion, which led to the Reformation, appears to have first developed itself in this county; and Kyle is noticed by the reformer Knox as having at a very early period embraced the reformed doctrine. Before episcopacy was abolished, the county was included in the diocese of Glasgow; it is now almost entirely in the synod of Glasgow and Ayr, and comprises several presbyteries, and forty-six parishes. Within its limits are the royal burghs of Ayr (which is the county town) and Irvine; the towns of Largs, Beith, Ardrossan, Saltcoats, Kilwinning, Kilmarnock, Mauchline, Catrine, Old and New Cumnock, Muirkirk, Maybole, and Girvan; and numerous large and populous villages. Under the act of the 2nd of William IV., the county returns one member to the imperial parliament. The surface is varied. In the district of Cunninghame, which includes the northern portion, it is comparatively level; in Kyle, which occupies the central portion, it is hilly and uneven, though containing some large tracts of fertile and well cultivated land; and the district of Carrick, in the south, is wild and mountainous. The principal mountains are, Knockdolian, which has an elevation of 2000 feet above the sea; Cairntable, rising to the height of 1650 feet; Knockdow and Carleton, each 1554 feet high; and Knocknounan, 1540 feet. The chief rivers are the Ayr, the Doon, the Garnock, the Girvan, and the Stinchar; and the county is intersected by numerous smaller streams, the principal of which are the Rye water, the Irvine, and the Kilmarnock water. There are also numerous small lakes, especially in the district of Carrick; but the only one of any extent is Loch Doon, from which issues the river of that name. The coast, particularly that of Carrick, is precipitous, rocky, and dangerous, and possesses few good harbours; towards the extremities it is almost inaccessible owing to rocks in the offing, and towards the centre the beach is sandy, and the water so shallow as generally to preclude the approach of vessels of any considerable burthen.

About one-third of the land is arable and in cultivation, and the remainder, of which a very large portion is mountain waste, is chiefly meadow and pasture. The soil is in some parts light and sandy, and in others a rich clay, and nearly the whole of the district of Cunninghame is a rich and fruitful vale. The dairies are well managed, and their produce is in very high repute; the county is distinguished for its excellent breed of cattle. The moors abound with all kinds of game, and the rivers with salmon and trout. The minerals are, coal, ironstone, lead and copper ore, black-lead, and gypsum, the two first of which are largely wrought; the coal is very abundant, and the working of it for exportation is daily increasing, for which purpose tram-roads have been laid down, and harbours have been constructed. There are also extensive quarries of freestone and marble. The ancient forests of Ayrshire have long since disappeared; and the plantations, which are extensive, are mostly of recent growth. In this county the seats are Kelburn House, Eglinton Castle, Culzean Castle, Loudoun Castle, Fairley Castle, Dalquharran, Blairquhan, Bargeny, Fullarton House, Dumfries House, Stair House, Auchincruive, Auchinleck, and many others. The manufactures comprise the various branches of the woollen, the linen, cotton, and thread manufactures, for which there are extensive works at Kilmarnock and Catrine; the weaving of muslin is also general throughout the county, and the Ayrshire needlework has long been distinguished for its elegance. There are tanneries and potteries, iron-foundries, and some very large iron-works, of which those at Muirkirk, Dairy, and Glengarnock are among the most celebrated in the country. Along the coast are valuable fisheries, and salt-works, and works for kelp and soda. Facility of communication is maintained by excellent roads, and bridges kept in good repair; also by the railway from Ayr to Glasgow, with its different branches. The annual value of real property in the county is £531,319, of which £390,278 are returned for lands, £86,430 are for houses, £27,851 for mines, £11,313 for railway communication, £1301 for quarries, £843 for fisheries, £507 for iron-works, and the remainder for other species of real property. There are numerous remains of antiquity, consisting of the ruins of fortresses and religious houses, in various parts of the county; all of which are described in the articles on the several parishes where they are situated.

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