Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Alloway and Southern Ayrshire Family History Society

Friday, 20 March 2015

19 March 2015 - "Scottish Screen Archive"

Five members of the Society "travelled north" to the Ayrshire Family History Societies' joint meeting hosted by Largs FHS.  We were given a fascinating glimpse into some of the films held by the Scottish Screen Archive followed by a lovely supper provided by Largs and a chance to hear about the activities of the other Societies and chat with members.

The Scottish Screen Archive is a film and video collection of more than 100 years of Scotland's history.  The Archive was set up in 1976 and has been part of the National Library of Scotland since 2007.  It preserves more than 48,000 items, mostly non-fiction, including: documentaries, amateur and home movies, industry and agriculture films and much more.

The film show began with a selection of general Scottish films dating from very early days of silent films, through the thirties and on to films of more local interest such as those of Clyde Steamers and the Largs of the 30s, 50s  and 60s including one of the crowning of the Brisbane Queen.  Many of those present recognised the buildings and streets of former years and all were enthusiastic to see reminders of past days.  Seaside scenes of holidaying children and families were especially appealing, but one old film of Glasgow children having a "day in the country", originally silent, had sounds added in the studio at a later date and everyone appreciated the efforts those in the studio made to imitate the sounds of chickens, cows and dogs...   Perhaps even more amusing were the advertisements from the 60s which including the family dancing into the kitchen to eat their morning porridge - this can be seen by all on their website at   The tremendous amount of work which has gone into restoring some of the material was illustrated by "before" and "after" shots of the Queen Mary setting out down the Clyde for Southampton after fitting out which was amateur footage shot with very early Kodak colour film.

We were all left with the feeling that this is a tremendous resource for all interested in Family History and the Archive is due to have a new home in 2016 which will make it more accessible.  In the meantime, the website at is a rich source of information. 

Pat Weston

17 March 2015 - "Dundonald Castle"

At the final meeting of the Society over 20 members were present to hear Irene McMillan, a member of the Friends of Dundonald Castle, give us a wonderful picture of the history of the site and the castles which had stood on it over the centuries, together with the characters linked to it and the current activities which take place there.  She lives just below the castle and explained that it was the first thing she saw each morning and the last thing she saw before drawing the curtains at night.

The hill on which the present castle stands is in a good position to build a fortification and there is evidence of 2 previous castles standing on the site.  Although only 200ft. above sea level, the top gives an excellent view on a clear day. Archaeological work done by Historic Scotland shows that there have been habitations on the site for some 5,000 years.

The Strathclyde Britons who took over the site after the Romans left had their main base at Dumbarton Rock, but three of their kings were called Donald and it is thought likely that this is where the name Dundonald originated.

Walter FitzAllan came to Scotland in the 1100s where his friend King David made him the
High Steward.  He was given land in the West and chose the hill on which to build a medieval castle.  He wanted a fort to protect the coast from the Vikings who were at that time taking over the Western Isles.  Taking the name Alexander de Dundonald he began building a grand castle modelled on the one in Coucy‑le‑Ch√Ęteau in France.  Alexander's wife came from near there and he was of Breton descent himself.  There is evidence that French stone masons were brought over to work on the construction.  Alexander led the forces at the Battle of Largs in 1263 and, after the defeat of the Vikings, the importance of the site as a defensive fort was lost and the castle soon became a ruin.

The current castle was built by the 6th High Steward, Robert II. He had a sad start in life as his mother was killed and he was born by a very early Caesarian section.  He was only 11 years old when his father died and not long after he also lost his grandfather.  Not a great deal is known about his life, but he seems not to have engaged in too many wars, but preferred to govern by getting his family represented everywhere - often by advantageous marriages.  Robert had 2 wives, 5 sons and 7 daughters.  The 2 wives are buried in Paisely Abbey.

The castle he built was not so much a fortress as a fun place for the summer months. The castle consisted of 3 floors, the Basement, the Laigh Hall and the Great Hall, the arched roof of which was made of Whinstone constructed by making a wooden pattern on which the stones were laid until the arch was completed with a key stone before the supporting frame was taken away.  Today the Great Hall has lost its roof and has been left open to the air but the vaulted ceilings of the Laigh Hall and Basement still exist.

A Minstrel Gallery can be seen.  Minstrels were often part of a Noble's entourage or sometimes travelled independently.  They had their own room - perhaps because if "wandering minstrels", they were suspected of being spies or of carrying disease.  The top floor was divided into two areas, a living area and a sleeping area.  Eventually an extension was needed which included bedrooms and dungeons - one of which was built complete with a toilet but the other was probably entered via a hole in the floor. 

During excavations, Historic Scotland found the remains of smaller buildings, probably stables, brewery and so on.  The remains of St. Ninian's chapel is quite close by.  Land also owned by Robert included Bute and the Cumbraes - Little Cumbrae being used as a deer park.

Robert died in the castle in 1527 and after this James V sold it to the Wallaces of Craigie.  They did not restore the castle, but built Auchans House nearby.  However, by the 1600s the Wallace family were out of favour due to their sympathy with the Covenanters and in 1666 the Cochrane family, who had helped in the Restoration of the monarchy, were the owners.

The 10th Earl of Dundonald fought in a number of naval battles around the time of Nelson and after this founded the Brazilian Navy and helped set up the one in Chile.

The Montgomeries of Eglinton used old Auchans House as a Dower House and one famous inhabitant was Suzanne, a Dowager who was inclined to run around the grounds naked and made friends with the rats in the building.  According to the stories she tapped on the wall when she had her meals and the rats arrived to have their share, the rats she told friends were "preferable to Edinburgh Society".  Boswell and Johnson came by to see her on their visit to Scotland.  By the time the Dowager died at the age of 91, the house had deteriorated considerably.  

In 1950 the Castle was sold to the State and the land sold off for building.

Visitors today enter the castle at the basement level which once held stores, etc., rather than having to scale a ladder up to the original first floor entrance to the Laigh Hall which was used for feasts and meetings.  At these, only the most important person present had a chair, everyone else using a stool - this perhaps led to the origin of term "chairman". 

In 1985 Historic Scotland took over the property and their mission was to consolidate the buildings.  There is now a walkway at the level of the floor of the Laigh Hall.  An Archaeological dig they organised unearthed many artefacts and discovered much about the history of the site.  Although the castle itself is owned by Historic Scotland the ground surrounding it is owned by South Ayrshire Council and the Friends of Dundonald Castle (their Logo is a Robert II coin) have helped with the Visitor Centre, Gift Shop and Museum working hard to encourage local people to use the building.  Nowadays the castle is used for weddings and musical evenings as well as other local events such as "Halloween Evenings".  It will be open this year from 28 March 2015 until end of October 2015 and the website can be seen at

Pat Weston

Thursday, 19 February 2015

17 February 2015 - "The Fenwick Weavers"

Over 20 members attended an interesting talk on the "Fenwick Weavers" given by Jim O'Neill a director of the reformed Fenwick Weavers Co-operative Ltd.

Much research on the history of the Fenwick Weavers was carried out by John Smith who lived in the town, but who died before his booklet telling "The Fenwick Weavers Story" was published.  The idea for the research was triggered by a little girl's question as to why there were many memorials to the Covenanters, but none to the Fenwick Weavers.

The town of Fenwick lies on the road between Ayr and Glasgow - the land being boggy for agriculture it was weaving which became the main industry. Up to the 18th century, the life of the ordinary people was largely determined by local gentry and landowners. There was a strong Covenanting tradition in the Fenwick area, which introduced the inhabitants to alternative ways of doing things - and the need to keep them quiet.  From the mid 1700s there were a lot of ideas in the air - Thomas Paine was writing pamphlets, the future would bring both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

From 1758 in Fenwick, the hand-loom weavers met frequently at the village water pump where the women could gather around it without suspicion while the men met on the other side of the "Parliament Wall" and could be warned if they needed to disperse.  Although the enlightenment had improved the education system, the hand-loom weavers did not have an easy life.  With the threat of the industrial revolution the need to avoid paying too much for their raw materials and to obtain fair prices for their finished cloth became more and more of a problem.  Co-operation seemed the best solution and they decided to form a society where they would have collective power.

In 1761, sixteen weavers and apprentice weavers were afforded sanctuary in the Church to sign the Charter which had been drawn up for them by William Brown, Lawyer of Kilmarnock. The principles included honesty, fair pricing, majority decisions, regular contributions to a poor fund and member admission charge to the society of two shillings and sixpence (12.5 pence). This original charter can still be seen at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh along with the full record books of the Fenwick Weavers Society which was gifted to the library by Andrew Fowlds MP, a descendant of one of the original weavers.  This establishes the fact that the Fenwick Weavers Society is now recognised as "the first co-operative worldwide for which there are full written records" by the International Co-operative Alliance.

The weavers were not only concerned with their working lives.  Loans were made to members - a forerunner of the Credit Unions we know today.  They had the idea of buying in bulk from Kilmarnock and then selling at a fair price to non-members as well as members in the village.  In 1769 the first "Co-operative shop" was set up and their records show there was only one year in which they made a loss.  In 1808 they set up a library.  John Fulton a local shoemaker, with the aid of books borrowed from the library, educated himself in astronomy and mathematics.  He went on to build one of the finest Orrerys in the world - by melting-down his mother's brass candlesticks.

In 1834 the society helped to set up a "Fenwick Improvement of Knowledge Society" which supported such things as the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. In 1846 Frederick Douglass, an escaped American slave who later went on to become a prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, came to Fenwick where he gave speech to a large crowd.

The outlook for home weaving was becoming bad so the Weavers set up an Emigration Society in 1839. This successfully helped members to emigrate to many different parts of the World, carrying their co-operative ideals with them.  This led to the reduction of the population of the village from ~2000 down to ~500 and ultimately led to closure of the Fenwick Weavers Society by the remaining three members in 1873.

The most famous son of the village was probably Sir George Fowlds who learned the weaving business from his father.  After working in a drapery in Glasgow, George emigrated to South Africa.  However, he and his wife, Mary Ann Fulton, decided that life in South Africa was too harsh and in 1885 set off for New Zealand.  After founding a successful business he moved into public life where he put into practice the values and principles of the Weavers Society learned from his father.  He was elected to Parliament and joined the government as Minister for Education and Public Health in 1906.  In 1911 he resigned from active politics, but went on to be involved in a huge number of Societies such as the Red Cross, Auckland University and many more.  He was knighted in 1928 and died in 1934 with his remains returning to Fenwick for burial beside those of his parents.

George's father, Matthew Fowlds, born in 1806 and died in 1907, was one of the last active Fenwick Weavers Society members up to its eventual closing in 1873.  He achieved his centenary and a grand celebration was held at the George Hotel in Kilmarnock. 

The new Fenwick Weavers Co-operative was formed in 2007 and have a website at In this, they describe the work being done to maintain the old houses and the Heritage trail around the village.

John Weston

Sunday, 25 January 2015

20 January 2015 - Extraordinary General Meeting

The Society Chairman opened the Extraordinary General Meeting called to determine the future of the Society. There were 24 members present who discussed the problem of not being able to find volunteers to take over as officers and committee members for the next Society year, as is required by our Constitution and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

Although everyone was reluctant to take the step, no other solution discussed seemed possible. It was therefore proposed and approved by the majority present that we should formally wind-up the Society.  The formal minutes of this meeting will be circulated to members in the near future.

The consequence of this is that after our year-end, on 31 March 2015, the Alloway and Southern Ayrshire Family History Society will no-longer exist.  This Website will be taken off-line and archived and any assets held will be disposed of as detailed in the Constitution.

Sorry about this...
John Weston, Webmaster

20 January 2015 - "Ayrshire Mining"

Andrew Dick, an ex miner himself, gave 34 members and guests a fascinating picture of "Ayrshire Mining".  He brought along not only his slides, but also 2 items which were of great importance to the miners.  Firstly a "Piece Box" in which miners would have carried their food for their day underground and secondly a "Davy Lamp" which was vital to the safety of those in the mines.  Local dialects gave different names to these lamps - in Ayrshire it was referred to as a "Glennie" while in the North East of England it was a "Geordie".  Before these lamps were used to identify the presence of dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide, canaries were carried as they would quickly pass-out before the gas affected the men.  Andrew recalled one occasion when it had saved his life and the lives of others when they were about to test a supply road and the lamp held up at the entrance had immediately gone out thereby stopping them from going further.  Another early safety change was to exchange the miner's cloth caps for helmets!

The "A" Frame used to carry the lift-cage cables at the Barony Colliery between Ochiltree and Auchinleck still stands.  Also on the site are illustrations showing details about the pit and a Memorial Stone for those whose bodies were never recovered from the 1960's disaster.  The mine was a very deep and dangerous one and although it re-opened after the disaster it closed in 1989.  

In 1879 Kier Hardie became a Trade Union organiser and a statue of the man who became the first Independent Labour Member of Parliament stands outside Cumnock town Hall in the heart of the area.

One of the most terrible mining disasters in the history of British coal mining took place at the Knochshinnoch Castle Mine at New Cumnock in 1950.  An early warning of trouble was given when a farmer came to the pit head to explain that one was his fields was "moving".  Those checking the mine to ensure there was an escape route found a barrier of gas.  In the event around 125 men were trapped, some for as long as 3 days.  We were told that the spirit of the miners was summed up in a memory to be found on the "Patter in the Pits" tape: The rescued man who declared that at least he would have been entitled to his bonus given the amount of time spent underground and did anyone know the winning horses for recent horse races!  Many heroic efforts were made to rescue the men and Andrew Houston and David Park were awarded the George Medal for their contribution.  Andrew organised the men underground, while David voluntarily left his place of safety to join the trapped men to instruct them in how to use the "breathing equipment" necessary to their escape through the dangerous gas.  For anyone interested in finding out more, Andrew recommended "Black Avalanche" a book written about the disaster by Arthur and Mary Selwood (available in the Carnegie Library in Ayr and from Amazon or other vendors). A film was also made in the 50s based on the disaster - "The Brave Don't Cry". (also available from Amazon or other vendors) At this time the population of New Cumnock was 7,000 whereas it is now around 2,000.  On the plus side the slag heaps are now nature reserves.

One sign of the tough life of the miners was that they were paid for the coal they produced identified by them putting their initials on the "Tubs" they had filled. There were so many disputes with the check weigh-man employed by the mine owners that the men collaborated to employ a "Justice Man" to stand by the weigh-man to ensure that they got the right wages. 

Another mining area was around Patna where there are a number of "lost villages" such as Lethan Hill where there are Memorials.  The Dunaskin Heritage Centre showed for a time the history of ironstone mining, which stopped in 1921 due to cheap imports from Spain, then the brick and coal industries which replaced it.  The "Waterside Rows" are left and current photographs show them as lovely small houses.  It is thought that they were always better houses than found in the typical miners' rows so were probably occupied by those in supervisory positions. A slide illustrated the "Pug" - the engine made by Andrew Barclay in Kilmarnock which was used in the coal industry.  The Dunaskin Centre also still houses the building which was the "Company Store".  The mine owners such as the Bairds of the Dalmellington Iron Company controlled everything in the area and were inclined to issue wages in "Company Tokens" which had to be spent in the Company Store rather than in cash until the practice was outlawed by Act of Parliament.

Andrew's slides of the countryside around the mining areas today show the signs of land contaminated by chemicals, totally unsuitable for growing crops. In addition, the East Ayrshire countryside now shows different scars as the company recently operating an Open Cast Mine was due to "restore the land" after working it but went bankrupt and has left the site in a very bad state.

Slides were shown of the still-existing Laigh Milton Viaduct, initially built to transport the coal in horse-drawn wagons to the docks, and of some of the pit ponies when they were brought up from the pits on retirement to live in the fields.  The power of the coal owners has been mentioned, but the landowners who owned the mineral rights occasionally overstepped themselves, such as those in Craig House when they decided that the Craig Pit was doing so well they would increase their charges, but this simply caused it to close as uneconomic.  Names of coal-masters are recorded in many names found in Kilmarnock, such as John Finnie Street.

One famous son of the mining area was Andrew Fisher who was born at Crosshouse.  He started working in the mines at a very young age, probably because of his father's ill health, and was active in the National Union of Mineworkers.  This led to him being blacklisted and eventually he emigrated with his brother to Australia.  He returned to Crosshouse for a visit when he was the first Labour Prime Minister of Australia!  He was then made a Freeman of the Burgh of Kilmarnock.

Other famous sons included Robert Burns, who mentions the river and walk from Glenbuck to Ayr, and John Loudon Macadam who build the first tarred road at Muirkirk, but sadly died bankrupt in spite of his name being used today to identify "Macadamised" road surfaces.  Glenbuck itself was famous for the football players it produced including 6 who played for Scotland and, of course, Bill Shankly of Liverpool fame.

We are all aware of the way that the coal seams were laid down millennia ago, and Andrew brought this home when he spoke of the fossils of sea shells and pine-cones which he used to find in the Sorn Mine and take home to his children.

To bring us up to date there was mention of the Ayrshire coal seam which is said to extend into the sea as far as Ailsa Craig and the new idea of fracking under the sea.  Going from 700 mines at one point to the total collapse of the industry was discussed, including the Miners' strike of 1984 and the bitterness of the aftermath.  Andrew gave great credit to the women at the time for the support they gave the miners.

For anyone with mining ancestors in the area, there are several websites worth a look, such as: and

Pat Weston

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