The market town of Kilmarnock is located in the Cunninghame district of East Ayrshire, 12 miles north-east from the coastal town of Ayr. The name of Kilmarnock translates from Scottish Gaelic into English as the 'Church of my dear little St Ernan'. Breaking down the name into its composite parts, cill means 'church', mo means 'of my', Iarnan is reputedly the personal name of the Irish priest and uncle of St Columba, and oc is a diminutive suffix - hence Kilmarnock. The town's name was recorded as 'Kelmernoke' as early as 1299, and it was declared a burgh of barony in 1591.
Kilmarnock appears in many poems by Robert Burns, and is also the location where the first edition of his poems was published. Indeed, the town boasts a number of poets and writers who were born there, including John Goldie, Gavin Turnbull, James Thomson and Alexander Smith. The suburb of Riccarton, meanwhile, is associated with the famous military leader, William Wallace. As a producer of 'the Kilmarnock Bonnet', the town was once strongly identified with the blue bonnet traditionally worn by Scottish countrymen. Traditionally a post and market town, Kilmarnock's municipal population in the census of 1841 was 17,846, increasing to 19,201 in 1851.
The elegant public buildings described by Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland of 1857, were mostly built in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Wilson highlights the town house (built in 1805) and the exchange building (built in 1814) as examples of 'pleasing architecture'. The main streets of Kilmarnock were re-designed early in the nineteenth century, with gas lighting being introduced in 1822. In 1827, the town of Kilmarnock, was, in the words of Chambers, 'the largest and most elegant town in Ayrshire'.
In his Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland of 1857, Wilson writes that 'Kilmarnock is the well-known seat of very important manufactures.' Wilson points out that the town was blessed with an abundance of nearby coalfields, as well as enjoying the many benefits produced by a rich rural hinterland. With the River Irvine and Kilmarnock Water dissecting the town, the local industry thus enjoyed the water power that was then so crucial to manufacturing development. The town's only economic disadvantage was its distance from the sea, which provided much business for local hauliers until the railway arrived in 1843.
In the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, Kilmarnock was famous for making bonnets, nightcaps, coverlets, blankets and other such garments. By the mid-point of the nineteenth century, however, the making of carpets had become the staple industry of Kilmarnock. In 1824, the declining industry of muslin-weaving was replaced by the manufacture of worsted printed shawls, thus giving local weavers and printers employment at what had appeared to be a time of recession.
Kilmarnock was renowned for the rich diversity of its industrial output during the nineteenth century, however, and manufactured clothes, shoes, boots and other leather products. The building of railway engines was another major industry in the town from 1840 onwards. The town also boasted a number of breweries, rope-works and iron foundries. Weekly markets were held on Tuesday and Friday, while a grain market was held each Friday afternoon. Fairs were held on special dates throughout the year. The world-famous Johnny Walker whisky brand name started life (as a grocery business) in Kilmarnock.
Culture and Society
At the mid-point of the nineteenth century, Kilmarnock boasted a number of societies and institutions that were common in Scottish towns during this era. For instance, there was a public library, an athenaeum, a mechanics' institute, a philosophical institution, a farmers' club, a horticultural society and a number of charitable and religious bodies. A weekly newspaper called the Kilmarnock Journal was published every Friday.