Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
| Home | Contact | Events | Publications | Resources | Links | Membership | Interests | Activities | Notices |

Saturday, 22 February 2014

18 February 2014 - "Legendary Ayrshire"

Over 40 members and guests were present to hear Dane Love talk about the folklore, traditions and customs that were honoured by the Ayrshire folk of the past.  He has published a book, covering this topic, "Legendary Ayrshire" available from and other booksellers.

Dane explained that he was introduced to the "Stanes" (stones) and other important local sites to be found in the countryside by his father and this sparked an enthusiasm which remains to this day.  Many old stanes are disappearing; an example perhaps of the current preoccupation with the Internet - Web surfing being more in vogue than "Monumenteering" which was his preference.


One of the first group of Stones to come to his attention were the Blue Stanes at Old Dailly.  It is thought these may have been used as "lifting stones" to test youths' strength. These are now bolted to the wall probably to avoid problems for those who decide to try today...  We also have "Rocking stones" (many of which no longer "work"...) with local examples at Lugar and Cuff Hill at Beith. We also have the more common static stones such as the Barons' stone of Killochan, said to be the place the local Barons held their courts in feudal times. This is an erratic boulder of granite which must have come from 17 miles away, probably by glacial action.

St. Inan's Chair near Beith is actually a natural cleft in the rock from which there is beautiful view of Arran.

The broken stone at Rowallan Castle was supposedly caused when the Devil, who had not been invited to a feast, was pushed down the stairs.


Caves and Grottos have often been the focus of myths and legends - none more so than the cave of "Sawney Bean the Cannibal" situated on the coast North of Ballantrae.  The story goes that (and can currently be seen reported as "history" on the new website which shows the enduring power of such myths - Ed.) a family took up residence in the cave and lived by capturing travellers, robbing them and after killing them, eating the remains.  One day a group of travellers was captured, but a second group saw the events and raised the alarm.  Troops arrived - the "cannibals" were captured and taken to Edinburgh where they were duly tried and executed.  The story is so good that it was used in Johnson's "Lives of Highwaymen" and incorporated into the 1896 novel "The Grey Man".  The continued repetition has certainly embedded it into Ayrshire myths, but unfortunately there is absolutely no record of any such trial in Edinburgh.  Similar myths exist for another cave in Galloway and for one in Devon. The cave can however be found marked on Ordinance Survey Maps of the area.  Maybe this is an instance where truth should not stand in the way of a good story.

Wallace's Cave on the Auchinleck Estate is a man-made structure about 14ft square.  No-one really knows when it was made but it has been suggested that it was one of the 18th century follies created by Lord Auchinleck and there is no evidence to show Wallace going to the cave.  However, according to the account by Blind Harry, Wallace's Uncle owned the Estate at the time, so it is at least feasible that he could have been in it.  It does, however, look slightly ecclesiastical in shape and the roof construction could be interpreted as a Christian Cross symbol rather than the Saltire.  This would be similar to St.Margaret's cave near Dunfermline Abbey.

Also on the Aucinleck Estate is the Deer Cave referred to by Boswell - this has a more mundane history as the then-estate owner decided it would be cheaper to get labourers to dig a cave than to build above ground and it is actually a summer house in a semi-circle - the walls even having dado rails.

Peden's Cave close to the burn by the side of Lugar Water would have made a very good hiding place for the Covenanter, Alexander Peden, when he was being pursued by the authorities.  A bench like area has been cut from the stone, but it is difficult to access from the top and with steps to get down into it would certainly have made a good hideout.

Dinton Cave above Fenwick also had a difficult entrance being on a cliff surrounded by bushes and probably could be hidden by pulling up a bush to disguise it.  There is a record of someone shot nearby, so it was probably used around the Covenanting times.

The Culzean Castle caves were certainly used for smuggling as there are records of the family being fined in this connection.  Unusual in a cave there is also a pillar supporting the roof - erected to support the castle above when John Adam's rebuilding took place.   Many in the audience remembered the television programme "Extreme Archaeology" - when the team abseiled down to the caves from above, rather than walking down the nearby steps to the beach, and searched for human remains - being somewhat disappointed to find only sheep bones.

Cleaves Cave near Dalry is actually part of one of the largest limestone cave systems in the UK, consisting of a mass of channels and tunnels.  Consequently there is a legend that it was used by Fairies and it was most certainly used by

Covenanters and smugglers over the years.


Wells are also fertile ground for legends.  Just off the Holmston Road in Ayr is a spring named "Wallace's Heel".   Apparently Wallace fled down the river to escape the hounds that lost his scent in the water, but as his heel hit a rock a spring came out.  This was so famous in Victorian times there used to be a brass cup attached so that tourists could drink from it.

Robert Bruce's Well at Kingcase is well-known.  Although it is uncertain whether Robert suffered from Leprosy there was a skin problem of some sort and he evidently got relief from bathing in the water from this well.  He was so grateful that he granted lands in the area.  At one time some of the farm owners paid each year to maintain the well.

Saints Wells abound - St.Inan of Irvine's sits above the church and a stone records the story.  There is another well of his near Beith which is very useful for the cattle.

The tradition of "Cloutie Wells" where visitors made a wish and left a "cloute" (cloth) of some sort, such as that near Inverness is a tradition which seems to have been lost in Ayrshire. Modern cloth offerings don't decompose like the natural materials used in the past so probably many of the overhanging branches and trees have been removed to discourage the practice.

Saltcoats and Bloak have Mineral Wells and during the vogue for "Water Cures" they installed a way for visitors to pay for the privilege of drinking the water.  The Well at the shepherd's cottage at Barr, according to the "Statistical Account of Ayrshire", used to have a "Well House" for the same purpose.


Peden's Thorns at Cumnock were 2 Hawthorn trees.  Peden's body was originally buried on the Auchinleck Estate, but the troops removed it to hang on the Gallows tree - this was not permitted by the farmer who owned the land.  When he was finally buried at Cumnock, the legend was that if the branches of the 2 trees met disaster would overtake the town.  For a period they were tended to prevent this but this was later neglected.  For a while the tourists visiting the Covenanter's grave did the job of trimming the trees when they took souvenirs.  Eventually the Council decided to cut them down, but agreed to keep cuttings and plant 2 new trees as they grew. This happened and the current trees are some 50 years old but apparently most of the cuttings also survived, spawning the many hundreds of siblings in the area.

Prophet's Grave at Largs is that of a Minister who tended his parishioners during the Plague and that also had 2 trees, but these have now disappeared.

The Trysting Thorn near Coylton is supposed to be the one cited in Robert Burns' "Soldier's Return".  There is also a legend that Robert Burns himself used to meet girls there which, given his reputation, is not unlikely.  "Handfesting" and similar irregular Weddings were apparently common in the past and were popularised by Sir Walter Scott.  There is a site near Failford where Robert Burns met with Highland Mary and which may (or may not) have included the hand-tying and an exchange of Bibles and a commitment.  The purpose of the Handfesting ceremony was that a couple then lived together for a year and if, after that, they agreed to continue together they would have a formal wedding. There was a provision in Scots Law for any children born during the year of the Handfesting marriage to be legitimised. This continued until the introduction of the 1939 Marriage (Scotland) Act.


Beltane Bonfires were one of the last vestiges of Pagan culture to survive the introduction of Christianity.  Although they died out in most places there was a Tarbolton Minister who thought they were a good way to celebrate (before the Gunpowder Plot and Bonfire Night) so they remained a tradition in the area for a long time.

An unusual story exists around the West Kirk of Cumnock.  Apparently the Marquis of Bute the local "power" was keen that all the locals should attend the Parish Church and so was against the building of the new church.  Consequently the people quarried the stone and started building it themselves.  The Marquis refused to let them have sand and the story goes that by a miracle the Cumnock water filled up the hole and when it drained away the hole was filled with sand so they could finish building.


There was reputedly a Witches' stone near Craigie Church - the Witch who was trying to fly away with the stone found that the hook she was using broke and the stone landed on the ground.  By the late 1800s the stone had been blown up and more than 16 cart loads of rubble taken away (no wonder the Witch's hook broke!).

At the spot where the Malt Cross stood in Ayr and elsewhere, some 200 witches were executed with Maggie Osborne being the last and the Borough Accounts show the invoice for the barrels of tar needed for the fire.

Various curses are recorded. One being the wounded Covenanter who cursed the family who owned the cottage where he was refused help when wounded - and which no longer exists...  Penkill Castle and the Boyd family were cursed - apparently the last family member to live in the castle was robbed by 2 local rogues, as documented in the Scotsman. But whether either of families' problems were caused by the curses is certainly questionable.


The grave of Old King Cole is reputed to be outside Tarbolton.  Archaeological investigations in the 1880s suggest a Bronze Age date for the site.  However it is not impossible that the King was buried in an important old site, especially given that the authenticated Bronze Age horn now hanging at Caprington Castle was found there.


Wellwood House has a spiral stone staircase and the well-known "blood which can't be washed away" legend along with the usual explanation of the "maid seduced and betrayed by the Laird" story.

Poosie Nansie's Inn at Mauchline was reputed to be haunted and the television group which stayed overnight claimed to see 13 spirits. (perhaps Glenmorangie and cousins...)  However on speaking to a previous owner of the Inn, Dane found that the gentleman had never seen a single ghost in all his 40 years there.

Kames Institute, used by schools for a while as an outdoor centre, was the site where someone saw a vision of a man on a horse when they were in a lower bunk, but by the time they had aroused the sleeper in the upper bunk it had vanished.


Anyone who had noticed the Cunninghame Coat of Arms over the building in Ochiltree (formerly a Fish and Chip shop latterly a Chinese Take Away) was interested to hear the story that King Malcom being pursued by his enemies took refuge with a farmer in the area who hid him in a pile of straw (using a pitchfork to cover him).  When the King was successful in his bid for power he rewarded the family by giving lands and tithes and they, in turn, incorporated the fork symbol in their coat of arms.

The Dalrymple Coat of Arms, on the other hand, shows the card, the nine of diamonds, in the form of a cross, a card which has been called the Curse of Scotland because of its association with the Coat of Arms of the Dalrymple family member, John, Earl of Stair who was responsible for giving the order for the massacre of the Macdonalds at Glencoe.

Patricia Weston

Older Postings