The history of Prestwick

Am Talks To Alasdair Malcolm Of Prestwick History Group

Other than the fact that Elvis Presley was once sighted at Prestwick Airport and that the town is the
birthplace of the Open Championship, I can’t say I know an awful lot about Prestwick’s history.

Luckily, Alasdair Malcolm is happy to give me a history lesson. Although he was born in Ayr, he has lived in Prestwick all of his life and spent 30 years in the local police force before retiring in 2015. He is now a member of Prestwick History Group, a group dedicated to keeping the town’s history alive.

He begins by telling me that The Open isn’t Prestwick’s only golfing claim to fame.

Bruce’s Well – Photo Credit – Alasdair Malcolm

“When Prestwick St Nicholas moved to their present course in 1892, the course they were on previously was turned over to the ladies. They were the first ladies club in the world to own their own course.”

It’s impossible to avoid the subject of golf when talking about Prestwick, particularly when you’re sitting in St Cuthbert Golf Club looking out over the lush, green fairways of the 8th and 18th holes. I do, however, try to steer Alasdair away from the sport by asking him about Prestwick History Group.

“Records say that Prestwick goes back as a burgh to 983 which makes it the oldest in Scotland. In 1983 they had millennium celebrations during which Alistair Cochrane and the late David Rowan organised some historical displays. On the back of that, in 1984, the Prestwick History Group started.”

The group holds meetings on the first Thursday of the month in October, November and December before skipping January and meeting again in February, March, April and May. The sessions are open to everyone and include presentations, Q&As and the obligatory coffee and biscuits. Usually held at the 65 Club, December’s meeting will take place at the Community Centre while the 65 club is being refurbished.

Photo Credit – Alasdair Malcolm

The aim is to entertain as well as educate and though many of the presentations relate to Prestwick, some cover other historical topics. November’s, for example, was on the work of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Although the group breaks for summer, the committee hopes to arrange some historical walks during the warmer months.

“Remembering Old Ayr… they have walks throughout the year and they’re very, very popular. We’re hoping to do something similar in Prestwick for places like the Old Kirk… or perhaps a golf walk.”
Golf again! I quickly ask about the Old Kirk instead.

“It dates back to the 13th century,” Alasdair informs me, “but it fell into disrepair. However, there’s been a lot of work done this year because… it’s not even a Grade A listed building, it’s actually a national monument, so it’s even more valued.”

He goes on to tell me about a stone mortsafe in the graveyard.

“It’s the thing they put on top of graves to stop grave robbers and so on. We met a chap from Historic Scotland a while back and he said it was the finest example of a stone mortsafe he’d seen in Scotland.”
This is just one of several ‘wee gems’ and it’s not long before Alasdair is sharing another.

“A lot of people don’t know about the Charles Rennie Mackintosh connection in Prestwick. The house that adjoins the doctor’s surgery in Station Road was the home of an architect called John Keppie. He employed Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s thought that Charles was actually engaged to John Keppie’s sister at one time… and undoubtedly spent time at the house in Station Road.”

Apparently, John and his sisters are buried in Prestwick cemetery.

“Interestingly,” Alasdair adds, “they’re in a gravestone that’s very architectural in design. I wouldn’t say it’s a classic Rennie Mackintosh, but it’s that era.

“And then there’s the Salt Pan houses.”

The what?

“They’re actually the same listing as Edinburgh Castle, they’re Grade A listed. They’re the most complete, existing examples in the country from the salt panning industry.”
I’m still none the wiser.

“We’re talking 14th century… they’ve got accommodation on the first floor. The ground floor has an arched roof. They brought salt water from the sea and it went into a big pan. They lit a fire underneath so the water evaporates, condenses on the walls… and there’s drainage channels at the bottom so it drains away. Over time, all you’re left with is the salt.”

The houses were specifically designed for this purpose and Prestwick’s Salt Houses, situated at St Nicholas Golf Course, were erected around 1760. Unfortunately, they’re not open to the public but there are still people living in Prestwick whose children were born in the first floor accommodation of the houses.

“And then there’s Bruce’s Well near Prestwick Toll.”

He’s on a roll now!

“The story goes that when King Robert the Bruce was on his travels… he was suffering from leprosy… and he stuck his spear in the ground. When he woke up there was water coming out of a spring where he had stuck the spear. He took some of this water and it helped cure the skin condition he had. That’s the legend.”

The well is just behind St Ninian’s Episcopal Church and now has railings around it and steps down to it. But Alasdair admits he wouldn’t drink from it nowadays!

Turning the conversation to the airport, he tells me of an air crash that happened in 1944 which was the worst air crash in Britain at the time and still ranks as the 22nd worst of all time in the UK.

“A US Army Air Force plane was trying to land in bad weather. In the final descent over Prestwick, the plane struck two houses in Berelands Road before crashing and demolishing two houses in Hillside Avenue.”

A total of 25 people were killed including five civilians on the ground. All five had been sleeping in number 6 Hillside Avenue and included a 5-year-old girl, Irene Haswell, who is buried in Prestwick cemetery.

There is currently no memorial to remember those who perished, but Prestwick History Group is keen to arrange something at the site. In fact, together with local councillors, the community council and Prestwick Academy, plans are taking shape to mark a number of significant places of interest in the town.

“Things like John Gray’s forge, the club maker,” says Alasdair.

Back to golf, then! John Gray was a local blacksmith who became a prevalent golf club maker. He was an elder of the church and second captain of St Nicholas Golf Club. According to Alasdair, a John Gray club can now be worth anything from £400 to £7,000 and he was the first club maker to actually stamp his name on the back of the club.

“And the lane between Urquhart Opticians and Lido,” he continues, “is known locally as the puddock scheuch.”

Come again?

“It was the original route of the Ladykirk Burn as it meandered through to the sea. Many years ago it was an open ditch. Scots for ditch is a scheuch. And what do you get when you have open ditches? You have puddocks, which are frogs.”

Photo Credit – Gill Sherry

I can’t help but agree when he says that things like this should be perpetuated (before they croak – sorry). The town today is very different from the original burgh and it’s important that people are aware of its humble beginnings.

“Until the 1840s, Prestwick was just a wee village between Irvine, Monkton and Ayr. Then the railway came along. That’s when the boom really happened… 1840s all the way through to the 1900s… that’s when it built up to pretty much what it is today.”

I’m sure there’s so much more Alasdair can tell me but I feel as though I’ve kept him long enough already. And there are only so many pages in the magazine! However, if you want to learn more – like how the first aircraft is believed to have landed in Prestwick as early as 1913, or how Freeman’s Hall came to be used as a jail, or about the town’s lacemakers – then pop along to one of Prestwick History Group’s meetings for 7.30pm. You’d be more than welcome.