Girvan (surveyed in 1857)


The town of Girvan is situated at the mouth of the Water of Girvan, on the south coast of Ayrshire. It lies in the parish of the same name and is located approximately 13 miles north of Ballantrae and 21 miles south of Ayr. The name 'Girvan' appears to be of Gaelic origin and translates as 'Short river': Gearr meaning 'short' and abhainn meaning 'river'. Although it was created a burgh of barony in 1668, the town did not enjoy burgh privileges until the late eighteenth century. Whilst a number of manufacturers were based in the town during the 1700s, it was not until the nineteenth century that Girvan experienced an economic boom. This change in fortune was largely to do with the development of the harbour and the expansion of the domestic weaving industry. Fluctuations in the town's population at this time clearly reflect the dramatic changes that were occurring: 7,319 people were estimated to live there in 1851, compared with only 1,012 in 1791.

Town Planning

During the seventeenth century, Girvan largely comprised the area around the High Street and Old Street. The town's parish church of St Cuthbert was once located in the large graveyard (sheet 13) on Old Street; the church was eventually replaced in 1780 by a modern structure built in Church Square, near Hamilton Street. Whilst visitors to Girvan during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were generous in their praise of the surrounding countryside, they were often less than enamoured by the town itself. One such person, by the name of Heron, during a tour of Scotland in 1793, commented that the houses in Girvan 'are so low as to seem, at the south end of the village, rather caves dug in the earth, than houses built upon it.' He did, however, concede that the houses in the north-west of the town were 'more decent and commodious'. Although Wilson, in the Imperial Gazetteer (1857), believed conditions had improved since Heron's day, he nevertheless suggested that Girvan was still 'far inferior in neatness and dignity to many Scottish towns of its size'. His comments were very possibly a reaction to the type of dwelling that was being built in the town at this time. With the rapid expansion of the domestic weaving industry and the subsequent influx of people into the area, single-storeyed weavers'cottages were being hastily constructed in the south of the town.

Trade and Industry

During the eighteenth century, the local economy of Girvan largely depended on tanning, shoemaking and fishing. Whilst the weaving of cotton cloth was also taking place in the area at this time, it was not until the nineteenth century that hand-loom weaving became Girvan's main industry. According to Smith, in The Making of Scotland (2001), there were around 2,000 weavers working in the town by the 1840s, compared with only 100 by the end of the eighteenth century. With the mechanisation of the cotton industry in the late-eighteenth century and the rapid construction of more mills, the demand for weavers had reached record levels by the early nineteenth century. Girvan was just one of many towns and villages in the south-west of Scotland that expanded to accommodate the large population of weavers that flocked to the area in search of work.

At the time of survey, Girvan's small harbour had undergone recent improvements. Originally only able to admit small vessels, the work that was undertaken ensured that larger ships could use the harbour. This helped to establish a small export trade, mainly of coal and agricultural produce from the surrounding area. Regular steamers to Ayr and Glasgow were also run, helping to open the area up. Whilst coaches transported people overland to the larger urban centres of Ayr and Wigtown at this time, it was not until the 1860s that Girvan witnessed the arrival of the railway. Although the late-nineteenth century saw the decline of Girvan's domestic weaving industry, it also witnessed the birth of the town as a holiday destination. With the advent of the railway, people from Glasgow and the surrounding area flocked to Girvan to enjoy the sun, sea and sand.

Religious Life

During the mid-nineteenth century, Girvan was served by a number of churches of different denominations. These included the parish church, which was built in 1770 and extended thirty years later, a Free church, and a United Presbyterian church built in 1814. There were also local places of worship for the Reformed Presbyterians, Reforming Protestants, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.


At the time of survey, the educational needs of the people of Girvan were met by a number of different schools located in the parish. These included a parochial school, a Free Church school, a boarding school for young ladies, a charity school and an infant school. According to Wilson (1857), the parochial school included amongst its pupils 40 'poor children' who were taught for free.


A number of commercial and financial institutions were located in the centre of Girvan at this time, including eight insurance agencies and branches of the Union Bank, the National Bank, the Commercial Bank, the Royal Bank and the City of Glasgow Bank.

Culture and Society

It was noted in the Statistical Account (1845) that 'In no part of the kingdom are people, of the same rank in society, more respectable than the native inhabitants of this parish'. For the less fortunate members of society there were a number of benevolent societies established to provide support and aid. At the time of the Account there were 12 operating in the town. Girvan was also home to a subscription library, two circulating libraries, a mechanics' institute and a number of friendly societies.