IRVINE (surveyed in 1859)
Irvine is situated in Ayrshire, on the east bank of the River Irvine, near the Irish Sea coast. The main part of the town is on a sandy ridge parallel with the river. Irvine was a major port until the deepening of the Clyde and the development of Port Glasgow in the eighteenth century. However, the harbour constantly had problems of being choked with sand, which restricted the size of ships which could enter.
The name Irvine may mean ‘place of the white river’ from the Brythonic words yr meaning ‘the’ and (g)wyn meaning ‘white’. Brythonic was the language of the Britons who inhabited Strathclyde in the sixth century AD.
Irvine was established as a royal burgh, possibly by Alexander II around 1240, but certainly by Robert I in 1308.
The medieval burgh of Irvine extended along either side of the High Street with long narrow properties behind the frontages. Even in 1859 there was little development in these back yard areas, although the town had extended both north and east along the main road with suburbs such as Townhead (sheet xvii.13.3).
The harbour was at Fullarton, on the west side of the river. This was not part of the medieval burgh, although by 1859 it was part of the parliamentary burgh. By 1859, the railway and station had also been built on this western side of the river. The bridge between the two parts of the town was first built in 1746, but widened in 1837.
Seagate Castle on Seagate (sheet xvii.9.22) is the ruin of a sixteenth-century tower house, which had been the property of the earls of Eglinton. The 10th Earl had removed the roof in 1746, allowing the property to become ruinous (Coventry, 2001). It probably stood on the site of the original medieval castle.
Trade and Industry
As late as the eighteenth century, Irvine exported a large tonnage of coal along the coast and over to Ireland. Until the emergence of Port Glasgow, it
was also a major importing port for timber and grain from America. The volume of trade was in decline by the mid-nineteenth century as can be seen by comparing the average yearly customs levied in 1840-4 which were £2,901, with the £1,574 yearly average during the period 1845-9 (Wilson, 1857). Many of the local industries related to Irvine’s position as a port, such as shipbuilding, rope making and anchor making. There was also a thriving cloth industry, including both weaving and sewing.
There was productive agricultural land to the east of Irvine. The plentiful local sources of coal are indicated by the sites of a number of old coal pits in the vicinity of the town.
In the late eighteenth century, Irvine was the centre of a strange fanatical religious sect called the Buchanites. They were led by a Mrs Buchan from Glasgow, who created civil unrest by encouraging communal living and, apparently, immorality. In 1784 she was expelled from the town as a result, followed by many of her admirers, including the local minister!
Wilson (1857) records the parish church, two United Presbyterian churches, a Free church and Baptist and Catholic chapels.
Irvine Academy was built in 1814 and by around 1859 it had a roll of some 500 pupils. There was also a smaller subscription school and two girls' schools.
The poet Robert Burns lived in Irvine for a short time in 1781 when he was working unsuccessfully as a flax dresser. Another poet and journalist, James Montgomery, was born in the town where his father was minister. Many of his poems are about nature but in one he may perhaps have been thinking of his home town:
‘His home, the spot of
earth supremely blest,
A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest.
West Indies (pt. III, l. 67) (http://www.giga-usa.com)