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Roads and Tracks of Ayrshire



The main purpose of this study is to identify the routes taken by the various roads and tracks in Ayrshire at different times. At the same time, details are given of how the road system was adminstered in different historical periods and what legislation was introduced both to build roads, and regulate their traffic. Inevitably, there is more information for later periods than for earlier.


Also covered in a little detail are some aspects of travel and transport at different times and the part roads and tracks played in social and economic life.


The subject is covered in chronological order, starting with the mesolithic. This was immediately after the last main ice age which ended about 10,000 years ago. As the climate improved, the first settlers appeared and by 6000 BC were well established in coastal areas, especially near Girvan and the vicinity of Irvine as well as an inland site near Loch Doon. While we cannot point to any one track and say it had its origins in this period at least we can be sure of their main routes.


The same applies to the succeeding period, the Neolithic, which lasted from about 4000 - 2500 BC. Again there was coastal movement as shown by archaeological finds, and movement around settlement areas in the Ballantrae, Muirkirk and Cumnock areas.


With the Bronze and Iron Ages (c.2500 - 1000 BC and 1000 BC - Roman times) we are entering more complex eras. Finds, both of artefacts and structures are more numerous from this period but considerable work needs to be done to date many of them and so allow an overview at different stages in this period. An overview of likely routes is given but without precise dating evidence it is hard to say what the network was at any one time.


The Romans invaded south-west Scotland in 81 AD as part of the Agricolan campaign and it can be assumed they carried out a thorough exploration of Ayrshire. Marching camps have been found at Girvan and a few miles north of Muirkirk and undoubtedly others remain to be discovered. Three Roman roads linked to Ayrshire have been discovered. One led to the fort at Loudoun Hill though it has not been traced beyond this; another runs up the Nith valley and has been traced to within a few miles of the Ayrshire boundary; and yet another has been found in the hills above Largs. Another road running from the south through Carsphairn to Dalmellington and Ayr has long been suspected to be Roman, although not proved to be such. Other routes have been proposed and an extensive literature exists on these. A reasonably complete overview of this literature has been provided and it will be seen that further fieldwork may yet confirm some of these routes to be Roman.


In the next period, the Dark Ages, we enter a strange almost mythic period hinted at only in early Welsh poetry and a scatter of placenames. Research into south-west Scotland in this period has been limited but there is enough information to get an idea of some of the main routes.


With the Middle Ages, the situation improves as there are sources of various types. This is the time when Ayrshire proper was formed by William I as one of a number of new shires in a process started by David I. David had been brought up in the Anglo-Norman court and when he succeeded to the throne introduced innovative ideas which led to rapid change. It is these which supply the clues to allow a reasonable reconstruction of the road network of that time. One in particular is worth noting here. This was the granting of trading privileges to the new burgh of Ayr, including the right to collect tolls at five collection points on the boundary of the new shire. This immediately allows us to identify the course of five major routes quite closely.


These sources are supplemented by an examination of the maps of Timothy Pont who carried out a survey of Scotland in the years around 1600. Although he does not show roads on his Ayrshire maps yet he does include river crossings which allow us to infer routes and his placenames contain other clues as to where these might have been.


In the succeeding Post-Mediaeval period, from about 1600 to the mid-1700's, there were more determined efforts to build roads. This is shown by the increased amount of legislation and the setting up of the adminstrative apparatus needed for road building.


Unfortunately, one of the main sources that could have told us what roads were built in this period has been lost to us. The source is the records of the Justices of the Peace who from 1617 had responsibility for road building in parishes. There are a few other sources such as the records of the Commissioners of Supply who dealt with bridges, and early maps but generally speaking the picture of this period is not as clear as it could have been. There is every likelihood that many roads were being built in this period under the statute labour system which required people to work on road building for several days each year without pay but without the records we have no means of identifying them and when they were built.


At the very end of the period, however, there is a compensation. This is in the form of the very detailed maps of the Military Survey of Scotland that was carried out under the command of General Roy. The maps are at a scale of 1 inch to 1000 yards and are surprisingly accurate. All roads and tracks are represented on them.


A full account is given in the text of the routes these followed. This was felt worthwhile as many no longer exist or vary in details from later roads that follow the same routes. At the same time, an account is given of the Armstrong map of Ayrshire published in 1775. Although much less accurate than Roy it allows an interesting comparison with the Roy maps showing for example the first of the turnpikes and some newly built parish roads. As it has been reprinted, copies can easily be obtained.


In 1767, the first of the Turnpike Acts for Ayrshire was passed, followed by another major Act in 1774. Over the years, other Acts were passed as the road network was expanded. In the text, we look at the turnpike system in general and at the roads themselves in some detail.


Whilst the turnpikes transformed the transport network of the day, work continued on parish roads. There was progress on these as the statute labour system had been amended to allow people to pay a tax rather than carry out the work themselves. This allowed competent road builders to be employed, and in any case, the techniques used in building roads were improving.


A useful source for these local roads is the Old and New Statistical Accounts for Scotland published in the 1790's and 1830's respectively. They give descriptions of each parish as written by local Ministers and include a wealth of information on the parishes including the roads. In this work, details of the roads in each parish are given based on these accounts, supplemented by other sources. Among these are some of the new and reasonably accurate "county" maps that appeared in the early 1800's, for example, Arrowsmith in 1807, Ainslie in 1821 and Thomson in 1828. Where appropriate, references are made to these maps but space does not allow treatment of the plethora of roads and tracks that they show. Ordnance Survey maps for Ayrshire start appearing in the 1850's and are entirely accurate.


Also given are some details of the transport on the roads. This was the age of the Royal Mail and the stagecoach as well as the horse and cart, and the roads looked very different from today.


With the coming of the railways, which soon reached into all parts of Ayrshire, there was a steady decline in the condition of the turnpikes as their revenues fell. Eventually the turnpike trusts were disbanded and both the turnpike roads and the parish roads became the responsibility of the new County Council from 1883 onwards. Some details of this are given in the text, mostly based on existing County Council records. This is supplemented by an account of which roads were built in this period and which were left to decline. The source here is a very useful list of roads and bridges which had to be completed by the new Council under the Road and Bridges (Scotland) Act of 1878.


In 1930, there was a re-organisation of local government, and a new Highways Committee with extended powers was set up. The minutes for this committee exist and a representative account of matters they dealt with along with details of new roads built in this period up to the early 1950's is given in the text. A brief concluding chapter dealing with the roads from 1950 brings us up to the present.


For those readers unfamiliar with Ayrshire, the map shows the main towns and roads as well as rivers and high ground. As with roads everywhere, the course they take is closely determined by the geography and Ayrshire is

Reproduced from the 1946 Ordnance Survey map. Crown copyright

no exception. In the main, roads and tracks in previous historical periods followed the valleys but as these were usually waterlogged and overgrown before the 1800's, they tended to be on the valley sides and in some cases on higher ground.


As already noted, the main methods used in this study were various sources and early maps, supplemented by some field visits and examination of aerial photographs. Other methods such as the use of placenames suggested themselves, and are noted in passing.


With the main focus being on the identification of roads and tracks, it means that in places the text is fairly dense with references to places along the line of a route. Although maps have been included on the site the reader will find it useful to have a 1:50000 or 1:25000 map to hand.



Street names are not covered in this study, except incidentally but the interested reader will find details in local histories as well as studies of particular towns.


Finally it is worth noting one or two issues that have emerged in the course of researching this work. One has to be whether any of the suggested routes for Roman roads in Ayrshire can be established as Roman. Another is the age of the Ayr to Dalmellington route - is it Roman or a mediaeval pack horse route or an early parish road? There is a strong possibility of a Dark Age or even Damnonian route from Ayrshire to Dumbarton Rock; and hints of an early route to the south through Stair. Yet another problem is that lack of records for the post-mediaeval period means our knowledge of this time is quite sketchy yet it is clear enough that roads were being built at this time. There is also the intriguing reference in the Old Statistical Account for West Kilbride of an ancient pilgrim way to Iona running from Edinburgh to Portencross.


Whatever the case, with each of these, as well as other problems, there is plenty of work to be done.


Next (Prehistoric Times)