By Sheila A Grant
Kilmarnock remains a friendly, welcoming west coast town. Centred in farmland but with a short trip to the coast or up to Glasgow it is a fine location. Its first appearance in historical records was as a hamlet at the beginning of the 14th century. There is mention in the annals of the courageous Boyd family of Dean Castle, whose turbulent history is woven through that of the town.
A poignant tale of the Boyds has recently been commemorated in the newly created green space near the town centre. On a gable end, painted by local artist, Tom Lightbody, a mural depicts a lady in red, head bowed beneath her parasol. Lady Anne Livingston never recovered from the death of her husband, William Boyd, the 4th Earl of Kilmarnock, who was captured at Culloden, taken to the Tower of London and beheaded. For a year after his death, overcome with grief and prior to her own demise, Lady Anne walked regularly in Howard Park where her ghost is said to linger yet.
The paths and cycle tracks of Howard Park run parallel to the River Irvine, flowing from Irvine Valley to the coast. Originally named Barbados Green, this is where Kilmarnock Football Club, the oldest football club in the Scottish Premiership, first kicked a ball. The town’s successful cricket team desperately wanted a sport to play in the winter. The original game leaned towards rugby, hence the name of their present location.
Lord Howard de Walden and his family, who lived for a time in Dean Castle, donated the money to create this small park. A half hour walk from the Howard leads you to Kay Park on land purchased from the Duke of Portland, thanks to a bequest from another successful native of Kilmarnock, Alexander Kay.
The varied gradient of the park reveals two contrasting views. From the higher end close to the Burns Monument Centre, the view is over the roofs on the Glasgow Road as far as Bonnyton. Sadly, fire destroyed the tower that once capped the Burns Monument. A narrow challenging stair within was worth the climb and was the subject of many postcards. The whole expanse of the town was spread beneath. The tree-lined avenues slope down to the loch, alive with ducks, swans, moorhens and coots. The cemetery is spread in front, reaching out a distance towards farmland beyond. Children love the swing park here and practice their bicycle road sense on the miniature road lay out.
The Dean Country Park, with fields of deer and domestic animals, is an ideal destination for a family day out. The many walks of varying degrees of challenge add to the attraction and with the refurbished Dean Castle there is interest for all ages. Devoid of traffic this is a great place for children to run free. A tearoom provides added incentive.
Kilmarnock Academy, now converted into apartments, has been a landmark since 1898 when it took possession of the building, eye-catching on high ground. A swimming pool was added in 1901. Bracing? No. Chilling? Yes!
Before changes in education the focus was to get into the Academy. Many former pupils gained fame thanks to the discipline and skilled teaching therein. Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin, Kilmarnock writer, William McIlvaney, Stewart Conn, poet, Margaret McDowell, swimmer, Craig Conway, Sottish International footballer and Air Vice-Marshall Stuart Atha are only a few examples of successful former pupils.
Across from the Academy stands the impressive Dick Institute, visited by the late Queen Elizabeth II shortly after her coronation. The largest museum gallery space in Ayrshire, this grand building was a gift from James Dick, born in Kilmarnock but residing in Australia.
I have fond memories of the ‘Dick’ grateful for the abundance of books that encouraged me to become an avid reader. Always more than a lending library, the work of local artists hung in the entrance hall, art and crafts were displayed frequently, writers gave talks on their work, lectures took place with subjects covering art, travel, and life in general. To this day there are events of interest to all.
In the 1950s the gallery upstairs was full of glass cases of stuffed creatures, which prior to television were unfamiliar to many people. There was even a half lion in a glass case!
The recent addition of a Young People’s Gallery is a welcome addition.
In the centre of the town, New Laigh Kirk, the oldest active church in the town, has history stretching back to the little hamlet origin of Kilmarnock. After attending a service there Robert Burns mentioned the Kirk in a poem. His friend, Tam Samson, lies under an enormous stone in the churchyard, amongst other interesting graves.
The wild Ayrshire moors that surround Kilmarnock saw horrendous battles where the Covenanters bravely fought to maintain Presbyterian conventicles. Hounded by government troops many were captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed. The heads of two of these valiant people are interred in this churchyard.
The stained glass windows within the Kirk are beautiful to behold especially if the sun shines through the rich colours. The majority date back a few hundred years but around the time of the Millennium, three modern examples of the art were installed, designed by Susan Bradbury, a local stained glass artist. The older windows each commemorate a prominent person of the town.
Lord Howard Walden is the subject of one. His many hobbies and interests – sailor, fencer, falconer, playwright, amateur actor – are all portrayed in the window, the central figure wearing a coat of armour. As a collector, it is said he would often appear fully dressed in metal. Eating may well have been a challenge!
A former Provost, James Hood, another benefactor of the town, is remembered in glass. He was the victim of a practical joke by another councillor. A year after Andrew Carnegie opened Loanhead School, the Provost received a letter seemingly from Carnegie offering to finance an extravagant memorial to Burns. The town had merely to provide a site. Provost Hood was so excited to convey the news but was left embarrassed when the story went around the world illustrated by cartoons of the perpetrator on his knees humbly presenting £50 to the Infirmary as compensation for his mischief.
The local history group has information on history and places of interest in the town, but what about the present?
Kilmarnock is spreading out in every direction. So what makes the town a pleasing home? The number of reputed primary and secondary schools is surely an attraction and the addition of a smart new college near the railway station attracts students from around the country.
Want to work out? Get fit? Train for a sport? Swim or play badminton? The Galleon Sports Centre covers a range of classes and training facilities.
Have you heard of ‘Celebrate Kilmarnock’? No? Then please do look it up. A fine team of Kilmarnock residents, chaired by David Cameron, minister of New Laigh Kirk, is working to raise the standard of Kilmarnock with activities and events in which all ages can participate.
Johnnie Walker may have moved away, but Kilmarnock is still going strong.