Girvan: A Walk Back Through Time

Yvonne K Jack

We are all a product of our past and this is as true of a town as any individual.

A charter granted by Charles II in 1668 to Boyd of Penkill wasn’t enacted until 1785 when Girvan became a Burgh of Barony.

Approaching from north or south, by road or rail, the familiar sight of Ailsa Craig (or Paddy’s Milestone), a remnant of a volcanic plug, sits serenely in the Firth of Clyde. No matter the weather, whether bathed in sunshine, alive with the cries of its colonies of seabirds, or wreathed in low cloud, the Craig is an impressive site dear to the town.

With a little imagination, it’s possible to picture the outline of a Roman galley, supplying the Roman camp on the north shore of the River Girvan close to modern-day Girvan Mains. The distinctive prow of a Viking ship might well have struck fear into hearts and minds as it ploughed swiftly past the ‘Place of Birds’ as Ailsa Craig was known in the Norse Sagas.

In more recent times, fleets of wooden fishing boats could be glimpsed heading to the rich grounds of the ‘Ballantrae Banks’ before returning laden with catches to Girvan’s small harbour. The Craig itself would draw lighthouse keepers to man the protecting light or day trippers who enjoyed the hospitality of Margaret Girvan’s tearoom after ascending the slopes in search of gannet or puffin. In the 21st century, Kays of Scotland arrive periodically to remove granite for curling stones, which travel worldwide to Championships and Olympics and sweep all before them.

On a stroll along Dalrymple Street, it’s possible to catch sight of the past. Dalrymple Street formed the link between two distinct older areas: the old town centred round the Church of St Cuthbert to the north, and Piedmont to the south. The original inhabitants lived in four streets clustered at the mouth of the river: Knockcushan Street (the site of the Hill of Justice at the time of Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, where disputes would be settled or dues paid), Bridge Street, High Street and Old Street. Here stone-built thatched cottages housed a small population of around 200 in the 17th century, mainly weavers, fishermen and tradesmen who served the surrounding area.

By the end of the 18th century, Girvan had grown and the Piedmont (now Glendoune) was home to weavers, many of which were immigrants from Ireland. Dwellings were described as ‘mean cottages’ where the clickety-clack of hand looms was the constant background music to poor families who lived in Ballybroke Street or Wilson Street. Greenside overlooked the open areas where cloth was bleached before being sent to the mills in Paisley and Glasgow.

Dalrymple Street was once a bustling and crowded thoroughfare. Looking up at the facade of the former Kings Arms (Kings Gait Flats), this splendid edifice was one of many hotels which attracted businessmen such as potato merchants coming to check on the ‘Ayrshire Tatties’. For holidaymakers too, this 19th century hotel became popular with wealthier visitors arriving by horse and carriage, charabanc or rail.

The hotel continued its success in the 20th century under the guidance of families like the Stewarts (1950s/60s) and Mortons (1980/90s) priding itself on excellent service. Glancing up at the large first-floor bay window, it’s possible to glimpse where happy couples cut their multi-tiered wedding cakes (from Austin’s, Davidson’s or Johnston’s bakeries) in the impressive high-ceilinged room.

In the post–war years, Girvan retained its status as a busy market town and a popular holiday resort. Dalrymple Street was well served by independent shops: clothing in J.G.Walkers (now Scintilli Dance Studio) or A.L.Colvins Drapery, a fascinating jumble of clothing and homewares where a smiling Nellie would delve into wooden glass-fronted drawers in search of winceyette nighties, or guide you upstairs, fighting through disintegrating brown cardboard boxes spilling their myriad contents in search of striped flannelette sheets, candlewick bedspreads or souvenir tea-towels.

No online shopping in those days!

There were numerous licensed grocers like Nisbets and Borlands, butchers, bakers, ironmongers like Jeffries or Crosbie’s (Wrights) where old fashioned courtesy was provided and still is, whether buying a pound of nails or a china tea-set. Other shops like Todd’s shoe store, John Murray’s photography and McCrae’s Pharmaceutical Chemist all thrived.

Girvan’s Woolworths was where generations of kids would spend pennies on sweets or toys including buckets and spades which were clutched in sticky hands all the way to the beach. The SCWS (Scottish Wholesale Cooperative Society) fondly known as the Co-op, occupied several sites on the street. Customers were looked after from child to adulthood and beyond. Insurance policies for home and life would inevitably ensure a fine send-off from the Co-op base in Duncan Street.

Street names allow us to look into the past. Hamilton Street and Montgomerie Street are connected to the Dalrymple–Hamiltons of Bargany Estate. Henrietta Street and Louisa Drive were named after The Duchess de Coigny and her daughter. Urnfield and Moat Hill reflect prehistoric times. The McKechnie Institute, a former library and reading room, is now a museum. The Davidson Hospital is a memorial to a much loved mother. Stair Park and Victory Park, both donated to the town, are reminders of a wealthier past and civic pride.

Like most seaside towns, Girvan has experienced its highs and lows. Victorian and Edwardian visitors came for the healthy sea air with walks along the shore and entertainment from the ‘Pierrots’ in the Stair Park bandstand. Hardy souls might dip a toe or even bathe in the cool waters, while families sheltered from westerly winds behind sea walls or windbreaks. In the inter-war years, families staying in small hotels or boarding houses would search out ways to spend their holidays. The boating lake with its red-painted bridge and motorboats was popular, while children were carefully supervised at the yachting pond or at the shows. Carousels, chair-o-planes, a helter-skelter and sideshows like roll-a-penny created a happy atmosphere for excited children with the burnt-sugar smells of candy floss to sweeten the air.

By the 1960s and 70s, in an attempt to stave off its decline, Girvan was providing family entertainment in the Beach Pavilion with singers, magicians and talent shows such as Glamorous Grannies and Bonny Babies. The futuristic Fifth Dimension appeared in 1970. Designed by Keith Albarn, this psychedelic experience made a lasting impression on young visitors in the early 1970s.

As we come to an end of this walk through time, we reach Henrietta Street which has rung to the sound of children’s voices since Victorian times with the Parish School, the High School (now Carrick Opportunities Centre), the Burgh School and the Doune School located along its length. This focus on education developed with the addition of a Catholic Primary School and St Joseph’s (later Sacred Heart) Secondary School. In the 20th century the convent, which had originally taken in destitute children, included fee paying boarders from the west of Scotland, the Outer Hebrides and beyond. In the 1960s ‘crocodiles’ of smart teenage girls chaperoned by nuns would be seen on their regular walks around the town.

A walk through our past is guaranteed if we only look closely enough.