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Ramble Round Kilmarnock
Chapter IV

Wild flowers--The Macwheelan Murder--The Cairn--Symington--The Church and Graveyard--Witherington--Old Sandy Neil--"Laird" M’Pherson--"Jock o’ the Whalps"--The Glen.

My first ramble having wakened both curiosity and interest, I gave myself to the delight of visiting in my leisure hours the many scenes and antiquities in the vicinity of the town that are consecrated by history and hallowed by tradition. This being the case, I selected a sunny Saturday for my second ramble, and equipped with a walking-stick I passed through the Holm, crossed the new bridge at Riccarton, and sped along Ayr Road. Leaving the village behind I soon gained Peace-and-Plenty, and paused to admire the neat flower-pots in front of the miners’ cottages, but as they were already familiar to me I moved on, for

"The wayside flowers, sequestered from the throng
In nature’s quiet lanes,"

are dearer to me than the gaudy plants of the garden. Yes,

"There seems a bright and fairy spell
About their very names to dwell;
And though old Time has marked my brown
With care and thought, I love them now.
Smile if you will, but some heart-strings
Are closet link’d to simplest things;
And these wild flowers will hold mine fast,
Till love, and life, and all be past;
And then the only wish I have
Is that the one who raises
The turf-sod o’er me, plant my grave
With buttercups and daisies."

About a quarter of a mile from Peace-and-Plenty a road to Dundonald branches off to the right. Turing into it I crossed a bridge, beneath which a burnie purled as it jinked on its way through the fields. A little beyond the bridge I entered a road on my left which is known as Fortacres Road. Like most old roads it is rugged and undulating, but nevertheless it is very pleasing, because from its height the eye sweeps over a wide range of landscape. Following its course for half-a-mile or so, I came to a part where it takes a sudden turn and passes on to Fortacres and other places.

At the turn on my left hand side there is a cairn or heap of stones, formed by every passer-by so inclined adding one. It marks the spot where one of the most cold-blooded and  heartless murders that ever stained the annals of our country was committed, for there one in the dawn of early manhood welled out his heart’s blood, and stained the highway with the crimson tide. He was named James Young, was in the eighteenth year of his age, and a native of Riccarton. On the evening of Dudd’s-day, 1848, he left the farm of Fort- acres, where he was serving, promising to return the same night. About seven o’clock he arrived at his farmer’s house at Knowehead, Riccarton, and remained in the company of his father and mother and other members of the family until half-past ten, when he left to return to his master’s house. That house he never reached, for his body was found by two young men about four o’clock next morning at the spot indicated lying in a pool of blood, with a ghastly wound in the neck that had been inflicted with a carpenter’s chisel. When found the body was cold and stiff, and both hands were filled with earth and grass that the poor fellow had clutched in the agony of death. A small bundle lay beside it. The pockets had been rifled, and a silver watch that the victim wore was gone, showing clearly that the murderer had stained his soul with blood for the sake of plunder. The authorities were soon at the scene of the crime, but a clue to the murderer was wanting. An Irishman named Mcwheelan had been seen lurking in the vicinity on the afternoon of the day of the murder, and as he was suspected, but having disappeared, a description of his person was sent to the various police stations throughout the country, and this circumstance led to his apprehension. While passing a toll-bar between Beith and Paisley, a farmer observed a suspicious-like character leaving the toll-house. He thought nothing of the circumstance at the time, but shortly afterwards, upon hearing that £35 and a silver watch had been abstracted from it in the absence of the occupant, it struck him that he knew the thief, and he at once mounted a horse and rode post-haste after him. He overtook the object of his search near Paisley, dismounted, laid hold of him, and unaided took the watch and money from him, after which he detained him and handed him over to the Paisley police. Finding that the description of their new prisoner tallied with that of the man wanted in Kilmarnock, they communicated with the authorities there. He proved to be Macwheelan, was brought to Kilmarnock, and link after link of evidence was formed until a chain was made that convicted him. It was found that he arrived in Beith on the Saturday after the murder, and that he gave the watch to his victim to an acquaintance to pawn, and after the proceeds had been squandered in drink he had set off to Paisley. All this and more proved against him at the trial. Suffice it to say he was sentenced to death, and that he suffered the extreme penalty of the law at Ayr, dying impenitent, having denied the crime to the last.

As I stood by the spot where the earth had drank a brother’s blood I thought on the present barbarous state of society, and wondered when the great federation of mankind would take place. Eighteen hundred years have rolled away since the angelic host of the plains of Bethlehem announced the "good tidings of great joy," and proclaimed "peace on earth and goodwill toward men;" but alas! that blessed state is still far distant, and will remain so, so long as men disregard the laws of their being and allow a spirit of selfishness to predominate over their duty to God and themselves.

Throwing a stone on the cairn--not with a feeling of superstitious reverence, but as a mark of my abhorrence of the crime--I descended the hill at the Fortacres toll entered a road that turns off in the direction of Symington. It is one of the old country sort, rugged, hilly, and winding, but it passes through a varied and beautiful country, and as I traversed it I was charmed with the view of Dundonald hills, the old grey ruins of the castle, and many other beauteous scenes that stud the landscape.

A walk of two miles or better brought me to the secluded village of Symington, a small place with some 300 inhabitants, who are nearly all engaged in agricultural pursuits. It is beautifully situated. In and around it there are very many fine old trees, whose giant arms and luxuriant foliage give to the place a picturesque appearance and to the visitor a favourable impression. The houses are nearly all one-storeyed, and for the most part are built near the church--a quaint, old-fashioned, low-roofed structure, with an old-fashioned-like clock on its front, and a bell, the rope of which dangles by the side of the building. It stands in the centre of a small burying-ground, which is surrounded by a wall and shaded by tall trees. The date of its erection is unknown. Chalmers says--"The church of Symonstoun was granted to the convent which was founded at Feil, or Faile, in Kyle, during the year 1252, and it continued to belong to that convent till the Reformation. The cure was served by a vicar pensioner who had a settled income and a glebe, and the minister and brothers of Faile enjoyed the remainder of the tithes and revenues." In 1797 the church was repaired, and a wing was added to it, but at this date it is an excellent state of preservation, and likely to serve for many generations.

Being desirous to inspect the burying ground, I tried the gate, but found it locked. Climbing to the top of the wall I dropped inside and stepped with reverence upon the grassy mounds, and in the quietude of the place spent an hour of sad reflection rambling among the tombstones. Many of these are very old and curious, and have, when new, been masterpieces of art in the eyes of the villagers. Near the church door there are several elaborately carved, and bearing curious devices, in which the plough, the spade, the skull, and cross bones are very prominent. There are several very chaste stones and monuments of recent erection, amongst which that to the memory of the Rev. Thomas M’Cracken is the most attractive. It bears the following inscription:--"Erected by the Free Church congregation of Symington in affectionate remembrance of the Rev.Thomas M’Cracken, A. M., M.D. Born 2nd November, 1836; ordained 11th May, 1865; died 31st May, 1839. He fell asleep." From the churchyard I gained the roadway by crossing the wall at the corner where stands the ruins of a cottage, and found myself opposite an entrance to the manse. It was built in 1786, and is at present occupied by the Rev. Mr. Davidson, the parish minister.

At the foot of the village is situated the Free Church, and adjacent to it the schoolhouse of the body. The church is a small building entirely destitute of architectural adornment. It bears the date 1843.

At the foot of the village also, and in a field off a road that branches toward Ayr, an individual name Witherington was executed in 1815 for highway robbery. This place was the scene of the crime. He was tried in Edinburgh, and from that city was brought under a strong escort. When passing through Kilmarnock the cortege was followed by a vast crowd to the place of execution. When the revolting spectacle had been gone through the body of the culprit was cut down, conveyed to the town, and buried in the Low Churchyard.

Although Symington is mentioned in records dating as far back as the reign of Malcolm IV. and William the Lion, yet there is little of interest connected with it, the church being the only antiquity in the district/ Symon Loccard held the lands under Walter, the first Stewart, in 1165, and from him they are said to have derived the appellation of Symonstoun. This Symon also held a manor in the upper part of Lanarkshire which bears the same name.

Symington cannot boast of having given birth to any "eminent characters," although it has produced several droll ones. The most prominent of these was old Sandy Neil, the minister’s man--or, in other words, beadle, bellman, and gravedigger. He was a droll character in every sense of the word, and will be long remembered for his eccentric habits and witty sayings. There is a story told of him in connection with the church clock. It seems at one time to have got out of repair and would either go too fast or too slow. Several clockmakers had tried their hand at it but had failed to regulate it. Sandy latterly took the wayward machine in hand, and under his care it kept excellent time. A villager meeting him one day said--"Man, Sandy, the clock does brawly noo since ye took in in hand; hoo do you manage?" "Weel," replied Sandy, "when she gangs owre fast I just throw a shoofu’ o’ gravel intae her; an’ when she gangs owre slow I just tak’ a pickle oot."

One Sabbath a goat found its way into the churchyard during divine service, and finding the churched open walked in. The intruder being observed, Sandy’s attention was called to it. Going up he stroked its back with great kindness, and gently pushed it towards the door, but when he got it there he kicked it into the churchyard, and as he did so, exclaimed--"Out the house o’ God, ye brute! out the house o’ God!"

I might relate other anecdotes of old Sandy did space permit, for there are many good things gold of him; but he passed away with all his peculiarities, and now sleeps

"Where the cottar and the laird
Lie side by side and slumber
In the auld Kirk yard."

"Laird" M’Pherson was another well-known character. He was a shoemaker, and was dragged into fame against his will, being chosen by Thom, the sculptor, as the model of his Souter Johnnie. The likeness is very striking, and any one who knew the "Laird" cannot fail to recognise him in the figure at the Burn’s monument.

The road that passes through Symington proceeds north-westward by Dundonald. When passing up that portion of which the village is built, I was amused to see the occupants of the primitive-like cottages looking after me. Doubtless they speculated as to who and what I was, and what would be the purport of my visit. At the outskirts of the hamlet the road makes a quick descent. Here I stopped at a well to drink from the pitcher of a village maid with bare feet and unkempt hair. Her laughing countenance spoke happiness and contentment, and as I drank I longed to be as void of care as she. The well is an open one. It is neatly built in, and bears the date 1821. Making good use of my stick I sped onward and soon left the village behind. The road is very picturesque, and winds over gently rising grounds. On either side are sloping fields with numerous enclosures, clumps of planting, farmhouses, and gentlemen’s residences. The mansion house of Townend and the woods and lawns that surround it have a fine appearance from the road. This estate is delightfully situated, and being greatly improved of late years, is one of the finest in the district.

Arriving at a very romantic portion of the road where a craggy eminence is covered with trees and decked with brambles and creeping ivy, I turned into a roadway that leads to Clavin farm. Proceeding along it for a short distance I came to an excavation in the face of a mound, on the top of which there is a plantation. The place is called "Jock o’ the Whalps," and is so named from the circumstances that a hermit-like personage bearing that title lived in a wretched hut built against the face of the rock, with his wife, a pig, a cow, and a number of fowls. The hut has long been in ruins. John Vallance was the proper name of this "character." He is said to have received the appellation of "Jock o’ the Whalps" from his having taken a number of moles to Ireland and sold them to the green natives as the pups of a peculiar species of the dog tribe. He was an individual of very filthy habits. Sharing the apartment in which he lived with a pig was not his worst fault, for it is affirmed that if a cow in the neighbourhood died of disease he would watch the place where the carcase was buried, disinter it by night, carry it piecemeal to his dwelling, and convert it into hams, but for what purpose can only be conjectured.

About a quarter of a century ago a favourite walk was to Jock’s residence, and many pranks the youths of the town played upon him. He was a native of Stranraer, but when very young settled in the parish of Symington. In early manhood he is said to have been well-to-do in the world, but how he came to adopt the strange mode of life that he led during his latter years seemingly no one knows. Over twenty years have passed since he lived, but he is still remembered and his name has become a household word in the district.

Returning to the highway, I held onward until I came to a spot where the road takes a sudden bend. Here I entered an avenue, and having passed through a field gate began to ascend a steep hill-side. The sward beneath my feet felt soft and carpety, and the blooming heath perfumed the air with its fragrance. At my approach numerous rabbits timorously scampered off to conceal themselves in their burrows beneath the furze, while the linnet chirped its alarm as it flew from bush to bush. Gaining the top of the eminence I reached a plateau, which is of circular form and surrounded by the ruins of a wall supposed to be of Roman origin, and to have enclosed an encampment or look-out station--a purpose for which the height is eminently adapted, for it commands a wide range of the Frith of Clyde and of the surrounding country. Seating myself on a boulder, I gazed with delight on the scene--a scene the like of which cannot be witnessed from an equal elevation in any other part of the country. Looking eastward a glimpse of the Emerald Isle is obtained, and the dark hills of Arran are seen standing out in bold relief, forming a fine background to the waste of waters that lie between them and our shore. Along the coast are several towns with wreaths of smoke hanging over them, while the view inland is said to comprise "protions of fourteen counties." Reluctantly withdrawing my gaze from the delightful prospect, I descended the hill in the direction of the farm of Harperscroft, and having gained Troon Road turned my face towards Dundonald, and sped onward at a brisk pace.

Arriving at the entrance to "The Glen," I paused and listened to the flood of sound poured forth by the feathered inmates of the wood. There is a neat gateway here, and near it a board fixed to a post with the polite request, "Please shut the gate," painted thereon. Entering, I complied with the modest demand, and walked down the pathway, shaded from the sun’s rays by the wealth of foliage overhead.

"The Glen" is a pass through the Calvin Hills, is used as a foo-road to Troon, and is much resorted to by pedestrians and picnic parties during the months of summer. The sward is of a mossy nature, and feels soft and elastic under the feet; and here and there in the pathway I observed names and initials, the letters being formed by the removal of the turf. The plantation through which "The Glen" passes is thickly wooded. The tall trees in some instances stretch their arms over the path and form a leafy canopy, while Flora has scattered her flowery gems around in rich profusion. In the wood the foxglove, the harebell, and the tall fern grow in wild luxuriance, and enhance the beauty of this truly picturesque place. Directing my steps to the farm of Hallyards, I entered the garden in quest of the ruins of St. Mary’s Chapel; but alas! time and the many improvement made by the tenant have nearly obliterated all traces of this ancient religious house. With some difficulty I managed to trace a portion of the walls, but did not meet with anything calling for a special note. About one hundred yards or so from the site there is a well of excellent spring water which is still known as St. Mary’s well, but like the chapel its history is shrouded in oblivion. Seating myself by its brink I mused upon "the days that are gone"--dark days, when superstition strangled science and retarded the progress of the human race. Producing a drinking cup, I dipped it, and as I quaffed the dripping bumper I felt thankful that my lot was cast in an age and in a land where science is nurtured and where intellectual and political freedom is the birthright of every citizen.

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