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Roads and Tracks of Ayrshire

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Introduction Carriers
The Royal Mail Other Traffic
Coaches Railways
Personal Transport  

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In this chapter we will take a look at what sort of traffic there was on the roads and what the roads would have looked like. The Turnpike Age was of course the great age of coaching and these coaches would have been a prominent sight on the roads at that time, not least the Royal Mail. Just as prominent would have been the toll points where people would have grudgingly paid what seemed to them to be exorbitant charges. Apart from the toll keepers and the road builders, it would also have been common to see associated trades such as wagon making and innkeeping.


The better roads and the improved economy led to numerous carriers setting up in business and most towns and villages had carts and wagons travelling frequently to the larger towns, particularly on market days. Farmers also were more prosperous and could afford carts to carry their produce to market. It was also the period of the industrial revolution that resulted in considerable traffic as raw materials like limestone and coal were exploited and new industries developed. Other sights on the roads at this time would have been large groups of cattle being driven to market and of course ordinary people.


The Royal Mail

A weekly post had been established between Scotland and Ireland in 1662 and used the main route south to Portpatrick. In 1787 the Post Office had instituted a daily coach service between Glasgow and Ayr, replacing horseback deliveries. After 1820 this was extended to Portpatrick. The route was Kingswell, Fenwick, Kilmarnock, Ayr, Maybole, Girvan and Ballantrae. The Reverend Lawson remembered as a child the excitement of the mail coach with its guard in a flaming red coat and the stirring bugle calls. (1) (see here for examples of coach horn calls) The Royal Mail was exceptionally fast: Kilmarnock 7.15 pm (with a break); Ayr 9.15 pm; Maybole 10.30 pm, Kirkoswald 1045 pm, Girvan 11.30 pm. It was superseded in 1850 by a steamship service and then by the railway.


From a public house in DalmellingtonBesides the Mail Coach, the Post Office used other coaches and indeed local carriers and sometimes delivered on horseback. In this way even small villages were included. Taking daily links between the larger towns for granted, it is interesting to see the less important links for they imply regular journeys by riders. Barr was linked to Girvan three times a week and Colmonell had a daily delivery from Ballantrae. Dailly, Kirkmichael, Kirkoswald, Straiton and Crosshill were served from Maybole. Beith had deliveries from Dalry and Kilbirnie, and Kilbirnie had them from Beith but not Dalry.


Dalrymple letters were taken to and from Ayr by the local carrier each week. Muirkirk received mail from Kilmarnock and from England and the south by way of Douglas. New Cumnock was served both by Old Cumnock and Sanquhar, and Ochiltree by Cumnock. Tarbolton received mails from Kilmarnock but Failford, Stair and Joppa near Coylton had no service. There were no post offices in Dundonald or Symington.



There was a rapid development of coach travel at this time. Apart from the references in the NSA, Pigot's Directory of 1837 (2) gives us a complete picture of the routes and timings and indeed the names of the coaches. It also lists the numerous carriers who went to the small towns.


Besides the Royal Mail, two other coaches ran each day from Ayr to Glasgow and one to Edinburgh through Kilmarnock, Galston, Newmilns and Darvel. Market coaches ran to Ayr on Tuesdays and Fridays from Girvan, Maybole, Dalmellington, Ochiltree, Cumnock, Irvine and Troon. Dailly was served on Fridays. Damellington also had the Dumfries coach that ran three times a week. There was a daily omnibus to Kilmarnock.


Kilmarnock was on the daily Glasgow - Carlisle run that took in Mauchline, Catrine and Old and New Cumnock. There were cars on Fridays (market day) to Newmilns and Symington and a daily coach from Glasgow to Ardrossan through Irvine, Kilwinning and Saltcoats. There were also daily runs to Troon and Symington.


Saltcoats had two coaches running to Glasgow each day through Kilwinning, Dalry, Beith and Paisley and two to Irvine and Kilmarnock. An omnibus also ran to Kilmarnock each day. Irvine had a daily coach to Glasgow through Stewarton, Dunlop and Barrhead and a car to Ayr on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.


It is noteworthy that there were no coaches to Largs or Greenock, nor to Muirkirk or Kilbirnie or villages in Carrick like Straiton and Barr. The Newton Stewart routes from Girvan and by way of the Nick O' the Balloch were not in use by coaches at that time.


Travel times are quite interesting. When compared with today of course they are slow but not that slow. One can still take an hour between Ayr and Cumnock on a bad day as compared to the three hours it took on the Independent in 1837, although the usual journey time is 30 minutes. Kilmarnock to New Cumnock was 3 hours, a journey done in 35 minutes today. The Cumnock bypass certainly helped in this as today's traffic would take a considerable time to get through Cumnock and Auchinleck.


Ayr to Kilmarnock took 1 hour 15 minutes; this is about 25 minutes in today's times. The Edinburgh coach, the Independent took a further 45 minutes to Galston and a further half hour to Newmilns. This can be done is 15-20 minutes today. Kilmarnock to Irvine was one hour and a further hour to Saltcoats. Thanks to the dual carriageways these journeys can now be done in about 10 and 15 minutes respectively, 25 minutes in total. Saltcoats to Kilwinning was 30 minutes, then an hour to Dalry and a further hour to Beith.


The names of the coaches are quite romantic: the Independent, the Robert Burns, the Fair Trader, The Union and the Ayrshire Lass being some of them. We have today an overly romantic view of coach travel as shown by the Christmas cards depicting coaching inns. Travel in the turnpike days was definitely better than before but it was still uncomfortable and tedious. There were complaints about coaches being overloaded with passengers and luggage, and being driven "furiously or incautiously, to the danger and alarm of the lieges" as an Act of 1823 has it. For those travelling outside it was miserably cold as well as dangerous - not a few fell off the coach. In winter there was always the possibility of being stranded in a snowstorm. The Ayr Advertiser of 1827 relates how 6 coaches were stranded in a great snowstorm where drifts were as deep as 20 feet. (3)


Personal Transport

There were now numerous types of vehicles available to individuals with the money available to pay for them. Their names are romantic: examples are phaetons, cabriolets, landaus, gigs, chariot, berlin, calash, chaise and chaine (see images here). Apart from the long distances now available to coach travellers, the individual could now travel a considerable distance in comfort.



As detailed in Pigot's Directory, there was an extensive network of routes used by carriers that reached to all parts of the county. Kilmarnock had carriers to 27 towns and villages, folowed by Ayr with 24. Irvine and Muirkirk had 7 each.


From Kilmarnock there were services more or less every day to the Irvine Valley towns, to Troon, Irvine, Ayr, Stewarton, Mauchline and Cumnock, and Glasgow and Paisley. Every week there were three runs to Tarbolton and two to Catrine, Newmilns, Saltcoats and Ochiltreee. There were weekly runs to Beith, Dunlop, Crosshill, Girvan, Maybole and New Cumnock as well as Edinburgh and Castle Douglas. Newton Stewart had one every fortnight.


Ayr had links most days to Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Maybole and Cumnock. The majority of the other links seem to have been on market days (Tuesdays and Fridays) to Catrine, Crosshill, Dailly, Dalmellington, Dalrymple, Irvine, Mauchline, Maybole, Ochiltree, Saltcoats, Straiton, Troon and Tarbolton. There were weekly carts on other days to Crosshill, Girvan and Patna. The long distance links were to Paisley, Edinburgh, Kirkcudbright, Moniave, Sanquhar and Stranraer.


In the north of Ayrshire, Largs had weekly carts to Glasgow and Paisley and to Irvine and Saltcoats. There were two weekly carts to Greenock. West Kilbride had daily links to Saltcoats and a weekly journey to Glasgow. Kilwinning had two carts a week to Glasgow and Paisley and a daily connection with Saltcoats. Saltcoats and Stevenston had daily links to West Kilbride, Irvine and Ardrossan; there were three connections a week with Glasgow and two with Kilmarnock. Dalry only had two weekly carts to Glasgow, and Kilbirnie had one. There was a better service for Beith with links to Glasgow, Paisley, Greenock, Stewarton, Kilmarnock, Largs and Saltcoats. Stewarton had two runs to Glasgow and Paisley each week and a daily service to Kilmarnock. Irvine had the same links plus two carts each day to Saltcoats and Ardrossan, a twice weekly service to Ayr and a weekly journey to Greenock. Only the Royal Mail coaches ran on Sundays.


Muirkirk had carts to Mauchline, Cumnock, Ochiltree, Ayr, Kilmarnock and Glasgow twice a week. There was a weekly connection to Edinburgh. Cumnock had carts going to Kilmarnock 5 times a week, 4 to Ayr, and 3 to Dumfries, Sanquhar and Glasgow. There was a weekly connection to Edinburgh. New Cumnock had slightly fewer connections to the same towns, along with Paisley but there was nothing to Edinburgh. Ochiltree had carriers to Ayr, Glasgow and Muirkirk. Catrine had carts to Glasgow and Kilmarnock each week, market links to Ayr and two journeys to Muirkirk each week.


From Newmilns and Darvel, carts ran 3 times a week to Glasgow and Kilmarnock and once a week to Strathaven. Galston had the same service to Glasgow and daily connections to Kilmarnock.


Girvan had weekly carts to Ayr and Maybole and Ballantrae, Glasgow and Stranraer. Dalrymple had market journeys to Ayr as did Barr, Straiton, Crosshill and Dailly. A cart went from Crosshill to Glasgow by way of Kilmarnock every Monday. Likewise carts went from Dailly and Barr but only every fortnight.


Kirkoswald had runs to Glasgow and Ayr each week as did Maybole with an additional cart going to Girvan twice a week. Besides its connections to Ayr, Dalmellington had two carriers going to Glasgow and to Castle Douglas. Likewise Straiton had carriers passing through twice a week as they travelled between Glasgow and Newton Stewart. Tarbolton had weekly links to Ayr, Glasgow and Kilmarnock.


What is almost as interesting as the services are those places that had no carriers. There was nothing for Ballantrae or Colmonell or for Fenwick. Dalry and Kilbirnie had no connection with any other town in Ayrshire, only Glasgow; and Kilwinning was hardly any better with its links to Saltcoats and Glasgow. Largs and West Kilbride also had poor road links but in the case of Largs there were daily steam packets to Ardrossan, Ayr, Greenock and Glasgow. Troon and Ardrossan also had excellent links by water.


Other Traffic

Besides coaches and carts, the packman or cadger had been an essential part of trade since the middle ages. Cadgers were itinerant salesmen who travelled either on foot or with pack horses touring the villages and fairs with an assortment of goods that the local housewife would otherwise have difficulty in obtaining. There is still the odd Cadger's Lane or Loan, here and there, for example in Hurlford. There was a Cadgerhole on the Carsphairn road over the border in Dumfrieshire that hints at their hard life and that they probably had favourite stopping places. A John Stirling was the last of the pack-horsemen to stop at Stewarton on his trips from Glasgow to Ayrshire. He led 6 white horses in train. The leading horse had a bell the sound of which the others followed. (4) Stewarton had a Cadger's Fair where tinkers, horse dealers and the like were allowed into the town once a year to hold a market. It also had races through the town but a local minister campaigned against this and it was stopped in 1852.


Another colourful sight would have been groups of soldiers on the march. The Glasgow-Portpatrick road was intensively used by the military on their way to Ireland. The Reverend R. Lawson in his book about Girvan quotes references from the Town Council Minute Book of 1785 - 1836 that illustrates the amount of military traffic using the road. (5) These include mention of carts for sick soldiers and for baggage, and "up-put" for soldiers on the march.


The road was also used extensively by Irish immigrants travelling to Glasgow on foot or in search of farm work. The influx of Irish in the 1850s in the Famine years must have been considerable. Although made at a later date, some idea of how they were viewed can be gained from a quotation from around 1900: the Portpatrick Road "might be called the road from Dublin to Glasgow, which is sufficient in itself, we suppose, to account for the great number of vagrants who infest it." (6)



It was of course impossible for the coaches to compete with railways and as soon as a line was built the coaches went out of business. An indication of when this happened is given by the dates for the various railway services. (7) The first alternative to travel on the turnpikes was the canal planned to link Glasgow, Paisley and Ardrossan. By 1813 the stretch to Johnstone was completed and carried a fair amount of traffic and passengers. It was intended to take it as far as Ardrossan but there was a delay in raising money and by that time it was clear that building a railway line would be a better option.


In 1840 the railway from Glasgow to Ayr was completed. This is the present day line through Beith, Dalry, Kilwinning, Irvine, Troon, etc. Because of difficult topography Kilmarnock had to make do with 5 connecting coaches a day from Irvine until 1843 when a branch from Dalry was opened. There was a horse drawn waggonway from Kilmarnock to Troon that was converted into a railway line in 1846.


A route to the south was open by 1850 when an extension from Kilmarnock to Horsecleugh near Cumnock was linked to an extension northward from Dumfries. As this was in competion with the Carlisle to Beattock route there was a need for a faster line between Kilmarnock and Glasgow and this was built via Kilmaurs, Stewarton and Dunlop by 1873.


In 1856, Maybole was linked to Ayr and then to Girvan by 1860. The eventual extention to Portpatrick for the Irish traffic took until 1870 to complete. A line to Ballantrae was mooted but never built but it is interesting to see that there was lively competition at this time between the Caledonian and the Glasgow and South West companies who used the roads to cart the fish caught in the herring season to Girvan and Stranraer respectively - 100 horses were used on the Girvan trip.


Numerous branch lines were opened over the years bringing more and more towns and villages onto the network. Auchinleck and Muirkirk were linked in 1848, Galston and Newmilns to Kilmarnock by 1850, and Ayr and Mauchline in 1870. Dalmellington had been linked to Ayr in 1856. A branch from Annbank to Cronberry was opened in 1872 and then linked to the Dalmellington line in the same year.


Farther north, Kilmarnock was linked to Irvine and in 1878 a branch from Ardrossan to West Kilbride was opened. This was extended to Largs by 1885.


With travel by rail being faster, cheaper and more comfortable the turnpikes were reduced to taking local traffic and were becoming more uneconomic. Even then enterprising coach proprietors delayed the inevitable by arranging coaches that would connect with trains and take passengers to outlying places. Thus in 1850 a coach left the rail terminus at New Cumnock for Dunfries and the Hero left Ayr for Wigton once the Glasgow train arrived. It went via Girvan and Barrhill and cost 15/-inside and 10/- outside. There was a coach to Girvan via Kirkoswald and another via Dailly; and three to Dalmellington and Patna, Ochiltree and Joppa and Straiton and Crosshill respectively. (8)


Apart from the effect of the railways there was a growing reform movement to abolish tolls and the statute labour system and replace them with a fairer and more efficient system. This led to the setting up of a Commission to report on the situation which it did in 1859. In this report, details are given of the roads in Ayrshire at that time and the opinions of witnesses as to what should be done.


We shall look at this report in the next section, and then in the following section at the great changes that took place with the passing of an Act in 1878 that abolished the turnpike and statute labour systems, after which the roads were taken over by the new Ayr County Council in 1883.



1. H Douglas, R Lawson of Maybole, 1831-1907, AANHS, 1978 (see under Early Reminiscences)

2. Pigot's Directory of 1837, reprinted as No.7 in Local History Series, GC Book Publishers, Wigton, 1998

3. J Mackay, Kilmarnock, Alloway Publishing, Darvel, 1992

4. J House, Stewarton, Stewarton Bonnet Guild, Kilmarnock, 1970

5. Rev. R Lawson, Places of Interest about Girvan, J & R Parlane, Paisley, 1892

6. Rev. K Hewat, A Little Scottish World, Kilmarnock

7. John Thomas (Revised Alan J S Paterson), Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, Vol. 6, Scotland, David & Charles, 1984, pps. 112- 142

8. Ian M Mackintosh, Old Troon and District, 1969, 1972


Next (Turnpike and Statute Labour Roads in 1859)