BEITH BYGONES

by Donald L Reid
  • Beith Academy Class of 1935. Where are they now?
  • Many locals will recall "The Wee School", latterly the infant department of Beith Primary.
  • Beith BC Under 8s in 2003. Perhaps a few stars of tomorrow?
  • Beith Townhouse an important town centre building
  • Inside Spiers School of happy memory to many locals
  • Do you remember the Coach House, now a derelict site
  • Sorting Office, Eglinton Street, Beith
  • Jimmy Seggie, a weel kent Beith character who served with distinction in the 2nd WW
  • Beith Librarians on Red Nose Day 1993
  • Beith Academy class of 1946
  • Beith Cross in 1999 prior to restoration

The following is extracted from Donald L Reid's local history book, BEITH BYGONES, published in 2003. Copies are still available for £6 (plus £1 postage) from Donald L Reid, 7 Manuel Avenue, Beith KA15 1BJ Tel: 01505-503801 E: donaldleesreid@hotmail.com

EARLY SETTLEMENTS

Like its neighbouring towns in the Valley of Garnock, Beith's history wings its way far back in time to at least the Bronze Age. The hill fort on Cuff Hill providing strong evidence that early bronze-age man lived in the area and the so-called Druids graves on the east side of the hill point to settlements in this area. The flat plateau on Cuff Hill is one likely location in that it afforded security, good cultivation and pastorage. The conversion from Druid or Baal worship occurred around AD839 under the reign of Kenneth McAlpine, King of the Picts. The conversion to Christianity is attributed to St Inan, a missionary born in Irvine and probably a disciple of the monastery of Whithorn. He is reputed to have transcribed the Scriptures and Psalms into the native tongue and is recorded as being 'a celebrated Christian doctor'. History tells that he preached from a prominent position on the west side of Cuff Hill, known as St Inan's Chair, where there is a cleft in the rock face and it was near this location that he reputedly baptised the pagan folk at his Holy Well, known as St Inan's Well, where the pure crystal-clear spring water still flows to this day.

KIRK OF BEITH

The Church of Beith was originally a chapel established by the Monastery of Kilwinning, and the monks enjoyed the tithes and revenues, and found a curate to perform the clerical duties. The old parochial church was built on the site of this chapel adfacent to what is now the Cross. All that now remains of the old church is the front gable and belfry, the rear gable wall having been built to preserve the building for its historic interest and for use as part of the burial grounds. The other parts of the building were taken down and removed when the current parish church was completed in 1810. It has been suggested that the old church was erected about the same time or soon after the Reformation. In the front gable a stone bears the date 1593, which probably belonged to the older building. Another stone bears the date "AD 1754" apparently this being the year the gable of the older building was enlarged and restored.

About 1683, the Kirktoun of Beith is said to have consisted of "five dwelling houses, besides the kirk and minister's manse."

PARISH OF BEITH

The Parish of Beith covers 25 square miles on the northern tip of Ayrshire with the town itself only 1 mile from the Renfrewshire border. The Parish includes Longbar, Barrmill, Burnhouse, Greenhills, Gateside and a myriad of farms and cottages in the fertile rural district, famous for the excellence of its dairy products. The town of Beith is situated on the crest of a hill, known originally as the "Hill o' Beith" or hill of the Birches. The name evolved from the Gaelic word meaning birch. Further evidence can be found in local place names with designations such as Roughwood, Fulwoodhead, Threepwood and Woodside indicating that at one time much of the district was covered with wood. The streams Lugton and Dusk, tributaries of the Garnock, rise in the parish.

MILL O' BEITH

Part of the recorded history of Beith can be traced as far back as the 6th century when a battle was fought "in the woods of Beith" and the Kingdom of Strathclyde waged a losing battle against invading Saxons, Scots and Northmen. In the eleventh century, Beith was granted to a knight by the name of Hugh de Morville, from Cumbernauld, whose wife Avicia de Lancaster, in turn granted the lands of Beith to the monastery of Kilwinning. Although the monk's land lay largely along the route of the Roebank burn it is said that they built the first "Mill o' Beith" with their home farm at nearby Grangehill. These monks built the first chapel for the people of Beith, still to be seen today at the Cross. The first houses of the town were clustered round the chapel and this evolved into the present town.

SACKING IRVINE CUSTOMS HOUSE

In 1733 forty or fifty Beith smugglers sacked the Irvine Customs House, escaping with a rich booty of confiscated contraband goods. Many of these same men, 12 years later, joined with the famous Rev. John Witherspoon, Minister of Beith, 1745 - 1757, when he led the men of Beith to Glasgow to defend King George III against the Young Pretender in the '45 rebellion. Despite receiving orders to return to Beith, Witherspoon carried on, was captured at the Battle of Falkirk and imprisoned for a time in Doune Castle. Emigrating to America he became President of Princeton College and a representative in Congress of the Province of New Jersey. During the War of Independence he supported the Americans and signed the Declaration of Independence. Indeed Witherspoon's predecessor, William Leechman, ordained in 1736 and served as minister of Beith until 1744, later distinguished himself as a Professor of Divinity, and Principal of the University of Glasgow.

REV JOHN WITHERSPOON

Witherspoon's Beith home at 32 The Cross and all the historic buildings at the Cross beside the Auld Kirk are now the focus for a multi-million pound regeneration which began in 2002 and is due for completion in October 2003. Known as the Beith Townscape Heritage the initiative was born in 1996 when several groups came together with a shared vision of turning the dilapidated Cross buildings back to their former glory. A major £3.2 million partnernship scheme was co-ordinated by North Ayrshire Council and supported by the St Vincent Crescent Preservation Trust, Beith and District Community Council, Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire, Historic Scotland, Communities Scotland and Cunninghame Housing Association. The scheme had the full backing of Brian Wilson MP and Allan Wilson MSP and then local councillors James Jennings OBE JP and Robert Reilly JP. The entire project has been a marvellous example of a co-ordinated approach to improving a town centre and has been warmly welcomed by the entire community. It is anticipated that it will also give the economy of the town a real boost.

SMUGGLERS

In earlier days Beith seems to have had the unhappy reputation as being a town which harboured those whose intentions were not always lawful. In 1789 a company of 76 soldiers were quartered in the town dealing with the continuing illicit trade in tea, tobacco, and spirits. This caused great inconvenience to the law-abiding citizens on whom the soldiers were billeted. The town was policed in this fashion for some time thereafter. Hence, the Main Street's popular public house is still called the Smugglers Arms, recalling the days when Beith's location between the coast and Paisley and Glasgow, made it a convenient stopping off point for those involved in nefarious activities.

BEITH SUPPLEMENT

Many of the stories of Beith and its history were recorded over the years in the town's newspaper, The Western Supplement and Advertiser later called the Beith Supplement, which served the town from 1865 until it was incorporated into the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald in 1965. They provide a fascinating history of Beith and are an invaluable record of yesteryear.

GROWTH IN POPULATION

The Parish of Beith grew from 2,064 in 1755; to 2,872 in 1792; 3,103 in 1801; 3,755 in 1811; and 5,052 in 1831. During the early 1790's, at the time of the first Statistical Survey, the Parish of Beith was thriving and numerous trades people were required to meet the needs of a semi-rural population of under 3,000 people. Much of the production would also serve the manufacturing needs of the nearby large towns of Paisley and Glasgow. Beith was able to boast 5 lint mills, 4 corn mills, 3 licensed distillers, 2 candle works, malt work, tan-work and tobacco manufacturing company. 70 people were weaving muslin, 63 making thread, 50 spinning cotton, 44 weaving gauze besides many females employed in sewing and tambouring muslin embroidery. In addition there were 29 Shoemakers, 22 Masons, 21 House-carpenters, 15 Smiths, 13 Tailors and numerous Butchers, Coal-hewers, Flax-dressers, Bakers, Coopers, Stocking-makers, Barbers, Saddlers, Grocers, Cloth Merchants and one Watchmaker. There was also one bookseller whose shop generally contained about 3,000 volumes.

INDUSTRIAL BEITH

The industrial development of Beith in the 18th and early 19th Century saw the end of traditional industries such as flax dressing, hand-loom weaving, later superseded by the power-loom, and tanning and currying hides became important with William Barr (Bathwell Tanning and Currying Works) and William Muir (Bath Lane Tannery) being two shrewd businessmen and local benefactors.

Cabinet-making and chair-making were first regarded as handicrafts by independent workers, each with his own tools and small home-workshop, making sideboard or chairs from the locally produced wood to the finished article of high-class furniture. Through a gradual process of evolution, cabinets, chests of drawers and tables were added to the handicrafts of skilled workers.

FURNITURE MAKING

Beith furniture making industry rapidly passed from the home-working artisan to the modern factory system with a strict division of labour from 1860 onwards. Beith names which became world famous included Matthew Pollock (Caledonia Works) John Pollock (Victoria Cabinet Works), Robert Balfour (Bark Mill and West of Scotland Cabinet Works), Hugh Stevenson, William Stevenson and Hugh Higgins (Stevenson & Higgins of Janefield Cabinet Work. Factories were built employing hundreds of workmen and the fame of Beith furniture spread until "Beith quality" became the standard of high-class material, manufacture and finish. To give an idea of its popularity and fame it is interesting to recall that markets served included Scotland, England and Ireland and orders were forthcoming from countries as far off as Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and even South America. Sadly, the cabinet works had all closed by the early 1980s, but local people are proud of 'Beith which licks creation in making chairs and tanning hides.'

PIGOT'S DIRECTORY OF 1831

]In 1831Pigot's Directory provides some revealing information about the vitality which was evident in the town. Schools (with head teachers shown) were located in New Street (Mrs Fleming), Newton (David Gillan), School Wynd (Robert Glasgow), Gateside (John Blair) and Brackenhills (David Harvey). Parochial schools were situated at Braehead (James Reid, master and session clerk), Hazelhead (Bryce Kerr), Giffin (John Miller), Whang Street (Mary Reid) and Head Street (Robert Wylie). The town had five bakers shops, three banks, six blacksmiths, two bleachworks, three booksellers and stationers, Fifteen boot and shoe makers, two brick and tile works, two cabinet works (James Dale, Whang Street and James Love, Townhead), eight carpenters and cartwrights, two cheese dealers, two coal masters, two coopers, two cork cutters, one cotton manufacturer, one currier and tanner, three insurance company offices, two flax dressers, five fleshers, seventeen grocers and spirit dealers, two hairdressers, three horse dealers, one Inn and posting house, four ironmongers, three land surveyors, two lime burners, seven linen and woollen drapers, three milliners and dress makers, two rope makers, two saddlers, six seedsmen, one starch manufacturer, two stocking makers, four straw hat makers, four surgeons and druggists, eight tailors, two tallow chandlers, five wholesale tea dealers, eight thread manufacturers, nineteen vintners, two clock makers, four writers as well as a nail maker, messenger, flower lusher, card cutter, bookbinder, tinsmith and stone mason. The ministers were Rev George Colville (established church), the incumbent at the Relief Church was Rev James Anderson and United Associate, Rev James Meikle.

BEITH TODAY

Today Beith is a dormitory town with a reputation as a friendly and welcoming place in which to work, live and socialise. In 1966 a local survey estimated that 48% of the population worked outside the town whilst today the figure is more likely to be around 80%. The population is around 7,000 helped by the completion of ten private housing estates dating from 1966 to the present and by redevelopment of sites within the town. By 1998, around two-thirds of households in Beith had one or more cars compared to about 40% in 1966. The result is much more traffic with commensurate parking problems. The town has an abundance of social organisations for everyone and there are excellent transport links to Glasgow.

The key local issue affecting the area in the last few years has been the increase in the number of landfill sites located in the district. 2002 saw proposals to locate a huge site at Trearne Quarry on the edge of Gateside Village, there already being four in the district. This project resulted in the formation of Residents Against Tip Site (RATS), a pressure group aimed at stopping the Trearne landfill site going ahead. The group have worked hard at fund raising and at getting their message across to the public about the level and extent of adverse problems resulting from this proposed landfill site. At the time of writing the next stage of the proposals will be a public enquiry and it still remains to be seen if Beith and district will have another landfill site foisted upon the district.

YESTERDAY AND TODAY

Local photographs of yesterday and today always attract much curiosity. The atmosphere of looking back at the sights and scenes experienced by those in whose footsteps we now walk, is something which touches the heart as we revisit scenes, often long gone, once taken for granted and now only a happy and sometimes hazy memory. Talking of yesterday's experiences is always special as memories pour out of people about friends, places and events happily recalled with a smile. The selection in this book will, I hope, spark precious memories for Beithites at home and abroad. I have enjoyed compiling this work and I was proud to have known Sheila Pearson, to whom it is respectfully dedicated. Author royalties will be donated by the publisher to the Dr Henry Faulds Society, which aims to establish a lasting memorial in Beith to Dr Henry Faulds (1843 - 1930), the Beith born father of fingerprint science. A donation will also be given to Beith Primary and Gateside Primary Schools. If you have Beith connections or an interest in the history of Scotland, you should know and be proud of Dr Henry Faulds. This, then, was an extract from Donald L Reid's book, Beith Bygones.


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