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Ramble Round Kilmarnock
Chapter I

The Bridge connecting Kilmarnock with Riccarton, and the objects of interest in their vicinity--Caprington Castle--Riccarton Castle, it site and traditions--Traditions of Sir William Wallace--Riccarton--The Parish Church--Sandy M’Crone--The Churchyard--Old Stones--The East Shaw Street Miser--The Old Church--Village Worthies--The Village past and present--The Manse.

On a bright morning in the leafy month of June I stood in the Cross of Kilmarnock, staff in hand, for I had cast business and care aside for the day, and formed the resolution to ramble along some of the rustic highways and byeways, and explore the antiquities and sylvan scenes that intersperse the cultivated landscapes round the town. Glancing at the numerous thoroughfares which branch off this local centre, I passed down King Street, and being light of heart and limb, was well through Glencairn Street before I was aware that I was leaving the busy town behind, and that the beauteous scenery by which it is surrounded was bursting into view. Looking in front I beheld a scene at once picturesque and lovely--a scene that never fails to delight me when I look upon it. In the foreground Riccarton Tollhouse and old Bridge, behind a portion of the village, and away in the background the steep hills of Craigie bathed in sunlight.

Gaining the Tollhouse I found it situated between two handsome bridges which span the river Irvine. One of these has an ancient look, but the other is comparatively modern structure. The river here divides the parish of Kilmarnock and Riccarton, and forms the boundary line between the districts of Kyle and Cunninhame. The old Bridge bears the date of its erection (1726), and it is not a little curious--if Aiton is to be relied on--that the first carts used in Ayrshire were employed to convey stones for its construction. The road over the old Bridge leads through the village of Riccarton. At one time it was the highway between Kilmarnock and Ayr, but the portion on which the village stands being steep, crooked, and narrow, the new Bridge was built and a straight line of road formed some thirty years ago.

From the parapet of the new Bridge an extensive view is obtainable. In the distance are seen the cloud-capped hills of Arran and heights of Dundonald, but as I have no desire of tiring the reader with lengthy descriptions of scenery I will merely refer to the places of interest that come within the range of vision to the west of the village. About a quarter of a mile below the bridges, the river Marnock--mingles its leaden flood with that of its more pellucid and sprightly sister the Irvine, which winds along until it is concealed from view by the tall trees that embower the Castle of Caprington, the turrets of which peer from its sylvan retreat in impressive magnificence. This Castle is of great antiquity. It is built upon a rock that juts out near the bed of the river, and having been greatly improved and modernized of late years, it may be considered one of the finest buildings in the district. It originally belonged to a branch of the Wallace family, and according to the "Statistical Account" is mentioned in a charter bearing the date 1385, under the name "Castellum turris fortalice de Caprington." Adam Cuninghame, the first of the Caprington family, was a grandchild of Sir William Cuninghame of Kilmaurs. He inherited Caprington by marriage with a daughter of Sire Duncan Wallace of Sundrum during the reign of James II. The estate remained in the possession of his descendants until 1829, when the death of Sir William Cunninghame, bart, occurred. That nobleman dying without issue, the Baronetcy devolved upon Sir Robert Keith Dick, of Prestonfield, but Caprington is at this date (1875) in the possession of William Cathcart Smith Cunninghame, Esq. The estate is rich in mineral, coal of the finest quality being found in great abundance, and the miners are noted for their respectability and sobriety. The houses built on the estate by the proprietor for their accommodation are commodious and neat, and seem palaces when compared to the dwellings too often provided by coal masters for their men.

To the left, on the top of some rising ground, stands the farm-house of Yardside. It is built on the site of Riccarton Castle, but there is nothing of interest about it save some stately trees which are said to have adorned the garden of the ancient edifice. History is silent regarding this stronghold, and even Pont has failed to notice it in his topography; yet it is nevertheless certain that it was the abode of the Wallaces, baron of Riccarton, who were the early possessors of the district, and it is referred to as such in several ancient documents. Blind Harry speaks of it, and according to him it was the residence of Sir William Wallace, the Scottish hero. It was to Riccarton Castle Wallace fled when he slew the Cumberland chief, Selby, governor of Dundee, and to it he also directed his steps upon revenging the treacherous murder of his uncle and other barons by firing the barns of Ayr.

In the hollow, a little below the water meetings, stands the farm-house of Maxholm. Near to it a thorn tree called the "Bickering Bush" stood, it was said, to mark the spot where Wallace was set upon by English soldiers while fishing. A troop happening to ride past, five of the party left the corps and demanded the fish he had taken. Refusing to comply with their request, an altercation ensued, and one dismounted to forcibly possess himself of them. Being unarmed at the time, Wallace struck him down with his fishing-rod, wrenched his sword from him, and with a back stroke cut off the fellow’s head. Seeing the fate of their comrade, the others quickly dismounted to revenge his death, but two of the number met a similar fate. Blind Harry, who graphically records this incident, tells the remaining part of the story, as follows:--

"Three slew he there, two fled with all their might
Unto their horse in a confounded fright;
Left all their fish, no longer durst remain,
And three fat English bucks upon the plain;
Thus in great hurry, having got their cuffs,
They scampered off in haste to save their buffs."

A local tradition says that when Wallace found himself master of the field he made with all possible, speed to the castle and related the adventure to his uncle’s housekeeper.

The good lady, fearing that the English would not allow such an ignominious defeat to go unavenged, persuaded him to don a gown and "mutch" and seat himself at a spinning-wheel. The disguise was perfect, but it was not effected a moment too soon, for the clattering of horses’ hoofs were heard, and Wallace had scarce time to lay hold of the distaff and commence spinning when a number of soldiers dashed into the courtyard and roughly enquired if the author of what they termed "an outrage" was within. The old house-keeper met them, professed great amazement, and invited them to search the place. This they did, but failed to discover in the supposed old woman at the wheel the hero of the unequal fight.

Crossing the old Bridge, I passed up the street of the village and soon arrived at the Parish Church. It is a plain building of no particular style of architecture, and is adorned with a handsome spire, which is conspicuous object on the landscape, being discernible nearly the whole country round. The church bears the date of 1823, is built on the top of a justice-mound, and from its situation has an elegant appearance. A road leading to Hurlford separates the church from the churchyard, and while passing it I observed a man seated, ona mileston at a place vulgarly called "the lazy corner." Remarking to him that the spire of the church was exceeding high, he civilly replied that it was, but added he with a grin, "High as’ a’ as it’ is, a blin’ man ance gaed to the tao o’t."-- "A blind man go to the top of a steeple!" I said with astonishment.--"Yes, an’ what’s mair, he stuck a tattie on the cock’s neb--ye ken there used to be a cock on’t."--"But how did he get up? who and what was he?’ I curiously enquired.--"Weel ye see there was a scaffoldin’ roun’ it at the time, for it wasna quite finished." continued my friend, with an air of man communicating something of importance. --"But the blind man?" said I.--"Oh, ay, they ca’ him Sandy M’Crone, an’ although he had been blin’ frae his boy-hood he was smarter than mony wi’ their e’eicht, for there wasna a farm-house for miles roun’ but Sandy could gang to his lane; an’ what’s mair, he ance fand a lark’s nest, an’ brocht a seein’ man to see it."--"But what did he do for a living?"--"Oh, Sandy was a fiddler, sire; a grand fiddler was Sandy M’Crone, an’ a’ body ken’d an’ liked him, for his cheery, droll ways gat him mony frien’s. He belanged to Riccarton," he continued, after a pause; "an’, as I said before, Sandy was a grand fiddler--he could maist gar his fiddle speak. Hech ay (here he drew a long breath as if thinking of past pleasures) mony a waddin’, an’ rockin’, an’ merrymakin’ Sandy played at; but his elbow’s still noo, an’ nae mair will his music put life an’ mettle i’ the heels o’ the dancers," he said in a sorrowful tone. After this my loloqua- cious friend began to relate a fishing exploit that Sandy figured n on the bank of the Cessnock, but it smacked so much of the improbable that I bade him a hasty good morning and pushed on my way.

Passing the house of the venerable Alexander Black, I had a desire to call upon him, but the hour being early I deferred my visit until another time. Mr. Black is hale and hearty, and although bordering on ninety can crack a joke and enjoy one. He is the oldest man in Riccarton, and I believe the oldest freemason in Ayrshire. He is possessed of an excellent memory, and graphically and with great vivacity relates the sayings, doing, and actions of a past generation.

Finding the churchyard gate ajar, I entered, strayed amongst the grassy hillocks, and began to read the brief records on the tombstones--a rather solemn occupation, but one that does me good, for it reminds me that I am dust and hall to dust return. The churchyard is small; it stands some ten feet above the level of the road, and contains some curious and elaborately carved headstones which have the appearance of considerable antiquity, but the inscriptions are for the most part obliterated by the hand of time, and some are falling to pieces, although William Walker, the sexton, who is kind of antiquary, is doing his best to unearth and preserve them. A favourite representation on several is a ploughing scene, which in every case is rudely executed. In most instances the plough is drawn by oxen, and held by a figure resembling that of a man, while another stands in front with a goad in its hand as if urging the oxen forward. Other stones are decked with heraldic designs, and a few with Garden of Eden scenes, while others have emblematical representations of the trades that the sleepers followed when in life. For instance, one has the shuttle, reed, and temples sculptured on it; another millstones, wheels, and other gearing; while one small but curious stone has the bodkin, shears, and iron. The stone combining the oldest legible date bears that of 1641. Near the centre of the churchyard is the burying-place of the Cuninghames of Caprington, and behind it is that of the Campbells of Treesbank. Near to these there is a tablet to the memory of Sir James Shaw’s father. The stone states that he died in 1796, aged sixty-seven years. Close to that, again, a plain slab announces  that it is "Erected in memory of Mary Keohie, who was killed in the Low Church, Kilmarnock, 1801, aged 13 years." There are many other stones both ancient and modern that I might notice, especially that to the memory of the well-known wit, William Millar, who told the farmer’s wife when she set down whey to his porridge, that she needna hamper her  pigs for him, he could take milk brawly.

Among the forgotten dead, and in "a dry and comfortable corner" near to the gate, lies an eccentric individual whose death caused considerable stir in Kilmarnock, and more especially in the Holm quarter, where it occurred on the 17th, July, 1817. He was named William Stevenson, was a professional beggar of miserly habits, and occupied a back house in East Shaw Street that stood near to where Mr. William Frazer’s school now stands. He belonged to Dunlop, was a mason to trade, but begged his bread and lived upon charity during the greater part of his life. Robert Chambers mentions him in his "Book of Days," and from that work I cull the following particulars:--

"About the year 1787 he and his wife separated, making the strange agreement that whichever of them was the first to propose reunion should forfeit one hundred pounds to the other. It is supposed that they never met afterwards. In 1815, when about eighty-five years old, Stevenson was seized with an incurable disease, and was confined to his bed. A few days before his death, feeling his end to be near, he sent for a baker, and ordered twelve dozen burial cakes, a large quantity of sugar biscuits, and a good supply of wine and spirits. He next sent for a joiner, and instructed him to make a good, sound, dry, roomy coffin; after which he sent for the Riccarton gravedigger, and requested him to select a favorable spot in a dry and comfortable corner of the village churchyard, and there dig for him a roomy grave, assuring him that he would be paid for his trouble. This done he ordered an old woman who attended him to go to a certain nook and there bring out nine pounds to pay all these preliminary expenses, telling her not to grieve for him for he had remembered her in his will. Shortly after this he died. A neighbor came in search for his wealth, which had been shrouded in much mystery. In one bag was found large silver pieces such as dollars and half-dollars, crowns and half-crown, and in a heap of musty rags a collection of guineas and seven-shilling pieces; while in a box were found bonds of various amounts, including one for three hundred pounds, giving altogether a sum of about nine hundred pounds. A will was also found bequeathing twenty pounds to the old woman who attended him, and most the remainder to distant relations, setting aside sufficient to give a feast to all the beggars in Ayrshire who chose to come and see his body lie in state. The influx was immense, and after the funeral, which was attended by a motley group of gaberlunzies, all retired to a barn that had been fitted up for the occasion, and there indulged in revelries but little in accordance with the solemn season of death."

In the centre of the churchyard stood the old church of Riccarton, a small structure of considerable antiquity which will be remembered by many of the old inhabitants of the village and of Kilmarnock, for many of them have worshipped in it, and in their turn watched the little Golgotha by night to scare the resurrectionist and prevent the desecration of the dead. There is now not a vestige of the old building left. The stones which formed it were used to erect a one-storeyed house that stands near the old bridge. It was at one time a Roman Catholic of Dalmulin, but was transferred to the monks of Paisley, and remained in their hands until the Reformation. "After the Reformation," says Chalmers, "the parish of Ricardtoun was united to that of Craigie, and both were placed under the charge of one minister. But they were again disunited in 1648, and have since remained distinct parishes."

Leaving the churchyard, I regained the village street and passed on my way. The portion of the village surrounding the churchyard is very old. At the gate the houses have a quaint, old-fashioned appearance. Here is situated the principal inn, a modern building, and next to it a low-roofed, dingy, thatched cottage, with a signboard over its door displaying a crown. The house was called the Free-masons’ Arms, and was kept in "the good old times" by John Morton, a village worthy who was noted for wit and’ wisdom, and was looked to by the villagers as an authority in matters of law and politics. For a series of years he held the honorable position of village postmaster, and although long since dead he is still spoken of with respect. At the back of this erection is a two-storeyed one, venerable in appearance and old-fashioned in construction. An outside stair surmounted by a porch leads to the second flat, which at one time was the hall of the freemasons. Here the "brethren of the mystic tie" held their meeting, and often have the walls rung with the sounds of merriment and applause on festive occasions.

Amongst village notable of the old school, old David Templeton the bellman, and Robert Pitt the shoemaker, are worthy of notice. The first was peculiar for his dry caustic wit and droll sayings, and although long since gathered to his fathers the tall, gaunt form of the old man will be familiar to many readers. The last-named lasted his last shoe some four years ago, and now sleeps the dreamless sleep of death in the village churchyard. He was a poet as well as a wit, and during the last thirty years of his life he was a contributor to the poet’s corner of various Ayrshire newspapers.

Riccarton has a population of 1889. It was created a burgh of barony in 1638, but its civic power was never exercised. Although of great antiquity it was long an insignificant hamlet, and it is only within the last seventy years that it has become of any size or importance. It is now included in the parliamentary burgh of Kilmarnock, and being a suburb of that thriving town it will doubtless increase with its prosperity. About fifty years ago weaving was extensively carried on in it, so much so, indeed, that the sound of the shuttle could be heard issuing from almost every door, but the appliance of machinery in that branch of industry has in a measure silenced it. The village is principally inhabited by miners, and I think the character given them by a late minister of the parish is very applicable. He says--"I am happy to bear testimony to the general good conduct of a very large class of the inhabitants--I mean the colliers. There are very many of them in comfortable circumstances, inhabiting their own houses, bringing up their families respectably, and seemingly surrounded with many comforts, many of them being intelligent and pious men. Indeed, I may almost say with confidence what can seldom be said of the same class of workmen, that they are amongst the most orderly, industrious, and intelligent of our parishioners."

Leaving the old portion of the village behind, I passed along the footpath that skirts the garden wall of the manse and turned into Craigie Road. The manse is at present occupied by the Rev. William Jeffrey, the parish minister. It is a plain, old-fashioned structure, and has nothing of interest connected with it save it be the mantelpiece in the kitchen, which "The Statistical Account" states is the identical one that graced the fireplace of the dining-room Riccarton Castle.

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