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The Disputed Location of Muirkirk Toll

Thomas Miller of Barskimming, Lord President of the Court of Session; Keith Stewart, brother of the Earl of Galloway and Receiver General of the Land Tax for Scotland; Claud Alexander of Ballochmyle, a former paymaster of the East India Company and founder of the cotton mills at Catrine; James Boswell of Auchinleck; and John Loudon McAdam of Sauchrie: these Ayrshire landowners were the principal protagonists in a dispute over the relocation of a tollbar in the parish of Muirkirk in 1789. Their active involvement in what might seem a very local and even trivial matter, underlines both the importance attached to improvement, agricultural and industrial, in the late eighteenth century and the extent to which improvement depended on road development.

The Ayr to Edinburgh turnpike road which ran through the parish of Muirkirk was included in the first Ayr Road Act in 1767 (7 Geo. III c.106), in which it was defined as the road leading from Ayr by Mauchline, Sorn and Muirkirk towards Douglas, so far as that road is within the said county of Ayr. Note 1  A tollbar was erected at Boghall (Wallacetown) near Ayr in 1770, and another at Mauchline in 1772. Note 2 Metalling of the road as far as Mauchline was probably completed within a few years of the passing of the Act. East of Mauchline, however, matters proceeded more slowly.

James Boswell (1740-1795), one of the trustees on the committee for the road, recorded in his journal on Friday, 8th November 1782, that he walked from breakfast till dinner laying out a new road from Sorn. Note 3  Two and a half years later, on Tuesday 24th May 1785, a petition was submitted to the commissioners of supply for Ayrshire, signed by Thomas Miller Esq. Lord Justice Clerk (1717-1789) as convener of the road committee, seeking the reinstatement of a grant for two bridges on the line east of Muirkirk, over Ponesk Burn and the Water of Ayr. Notes 4,5   A grant of 70 had been awarded for these bridges some years previously but, the bridges not having been built within the prescribed three years, it had lapsed. According to the petition, the trustees had advanced large sums of money out of their own pockets for making and repairing the said road without any prospect of repayment; and they have now nearly completed the line of said road through this county to join Mr Douglass's [sic] road by which a very important communication is opened to Edinburgh and a great part of Scotland. The grant was renewed. The road was either not nearly completed as they claimed, or soon fell into complete disrepair, because a couple of years later it was being made anew.

1785 was the eve of dramatic changes in that part of Ayrshire, described by Fullarton as that bleak, uncultivated country. Note 6  That year Keith Stewart (1739-1795) commenced to acquire land in Muirkirk, becoming the largest landowner in the parish within a few years. In 1786 Claud Alexander (d.1809) and his partner, David Dale, commenced the cotton mill at Catrine in the adjacent parish of Sorn. Notes 7,8   In the same year Archibald Cochrane (1749-1831), 9th Earl of Dundonald, founded the British Tar Company and began to erect his tar kilns at Kaimes, where Stewart became both his landlord and provider of finance. Note 9   Stewart commissioned mineral surveys and, as a direct result of his efforts to interest ironmasters in the deposits in the parish, the Muirkirk Iron Company was established by a group of entrepreneurs from Glasgow in 1787. Notes 10, 11  The reward for his endeavours and investment was that the company contracted to take minerals from his lands. Note 12  It was also to be a potentially profitable customer for the tar company, which contracted to coke 10,000 tons of coal a year, sufficient to supply one furnace. Note 13

Thomas Miller was also convener of the committee for the turnpike from Kilmarnock to Cumnock. In 1787 he resigned from that post, explaining that the business of the Roads required more attention & more frequent meetings that he can attend. Note 14  Notwithstanding this, he continued his active involvement with the Muirkirk road.

Good communications were essential to the success of Muirkirk's nascent industries. It was, according to the founders of the iron company, a Desart & Inland Place, and they would preferably have established their furnaces elsewhere, had similar deposits of iron ore been available. Note 15  Stewart, as befitted a landowner committed to developing the commercial potential of his estates, became involved with the road committee. On Friday 5th October 1787, the trustees meeting in Mauchline were joined by John Bushby, sheriff clerk of Dumfriesshire and Stewart's factor. He attended on behalf of Stewart, for whom he made a memorandum of the proceedings which was agreed correct by all those present. Note 16  According to Bushby Mr Alexander has undertaken the making that part of the road between Air & Muirkirk that joins to Mauchline so far as his interest runs .. and so far as not reimbursed at the End of the 7 years he becomes a Creditor with others on the Toll bar funds. This left about 560 falls (about 2 miles) of road to be made to the junction with the road towards Muirkirk from Cumnock, and about half a mile beyond Muirkirk. The sum required was about 140, which Stewart was going to advance. They calculated that he would be repaid out of the conversion money of the parish in seven years, but that for payment of interest he would have to rely on the revenue of the tollbars. A further 100 would be required for bridges. John McAdam of Craigengillan and Adam Crawford Newall of Polquhairn, both having lands lying along the road, would benefit from its improvement. There was little hope of assistance from them however: The first will not advance a shilling in my opinion; he will trust to Mr Stewart's advancing the money rather than allow the road to stop short - The last cannot advance as he is but a Life-renter [and is] very pinched. Following his death, in July 1791 Crawford Newall's lands, about 1100 Scots acres, were subject to a judicial sale. Note 17  Stewart's response to Bushby is not in the muniments, but it is clear that he did advance a sum of money and become a creditor on the road.

In addition to his interests in Muirkirk, his estate and mansion of Glasserton in Wigtownshire and his duties as Receiver General of the Land Tax for Scotland, Keith Stewart was a commodore in the Royal Navy. About this time he was called away for service against the French, and in 1788 he commanded the Berwick in action against the enemy fleet. This absence in the service of his country coloured his reaction to subsequent events. Notes 18, 19 

Development of communications continued. The partners in the iron company were particularly interested in the road to Glasgow by way of Strathaven, which was then almost impassable at any time of the year. According to John Ainslie, the Edinburgh land surveyor and map maker, in his report dated 15th July 1788 prepared for the commissioners of supply of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire (though he addressed it to the road trustees of the two counties), the Road from Muirkirk to Strathaven in its present condition is so wretchedly bad that it is next to an impossibility for any person upon Horseback to travel upon it without a Guide and even then very dangerous, and altogether impassible for any Carriage. Note 20

Progress continued on the Edinburgh road, with the Ayrshire commissioners of supply making a grant of 150 on 30th April 1788 for bridges over the Greenock and Garpel between Sorn and Muirkirk. Note 21  The name "Garpel" is misleading. The burn referred to is the Whitehaugh, crossed by the road near to the farmhouse of Garpel, and not the Garpel Burn on the line of another prospective road, that from Muirkirk to Sanquhar. On this occasion the petition was presented for the road committee by Claud Alexander, Arthur Campbell of Auchmannoch and John Farquhar Gray of Gilmilnscroft. It was pleaded that the bridges were necessary in order to make the above Line of Road passable for Travellers.

The road committee had three meetings in the following month. Note 22  At the first, held in Mauchline on Thursday 1st May, two matters were tabled for further enquiry: a proposed alteration of the line east of Muirkirk; and whether it would be advantageous to alter the present positions of the tollbars. The second was at Muirmiln on Saturday 10th May. They examined a new line proposed by Commodore Stewart, which they considered much better than the existing one. But as the Old line is partly made and the rest passable and there is at present no ffunds, they opted to keep the present line unless Commodore Stewart will advance money. It appears that he did not choose to do so. At this meeting they also recommended that the Tollbar should be removed from Muirkirk to near to the Junction of the Mauchline and Cumnock Road providing Mr Strang will agree to pay the Original expense of building the present Tollhouse. From this it appears that a Mr Strang was the instigator of the relocation of the Muirkirk tollbar. The third meeting took place at Mauchline on 26th May, but its business appears to have consisted solely of receiving the report from the previous meeting. None of these meetings were attended by Stewart, who as we have seen was attending a naval engagement; nor by Bushby to act on his behalf. Alexander attended all three; James Boswell on the 26th only.

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836) had by now an interest in Muirkirk, through his employment as agent for the tar company founded by his cousin, Archibald Cochrane. He must also have been known to Stewart, who in a letter dated 26th July 1788 to John Wright, then conducting mineral surveys for him, wrote that McAdam should be informed when Mr Wilkinson, an English ironmaster, arrived in the parish. Note 23  McAdam soon became the main negotiator between the British Tar Company and the Muirkirk Iron Company. Note 24

The relocation of the Muirkirk tollbar was the only issue on the agenda at a meeting of the road committee which was held in Mauchline on Tuesday 7th April 1789. Note 25  Those attending were Alexander (presiding), Miller, Boswell, Campbell, Farquhar Gray and McAdam of those already mentioned, together with Bruce Campbell - a cousin of Boswell's, and Robert Aird of Crossflat. In a demonstration of fairness, they rouped the bar first in its present position, and then in the proposed position. The best offer in the first case was from the current tacksman, James Murdoch, for 25-5s-0d, and in the second case was from Charles Hopekins at Muirkirk, for 26-10s-0d. Mr Strang offered to purchase the existing tollhouse for 18-0s-0d if the bar were moved. The offers of Hopekin and Strang were accepted and the road trustees agreed to build a new tollhouse at Wellwood dykes. No dissent was recorded, though it appears from a subsequent letter written by Alexander to Stewart, that McAdam may have at least expressed doubt.

In that letter, dated Sunday 3rd May 1789, Alexander complained that McAdam has misrepresented the business of removing the Muirkirk Toll bar. According to Alexander, at the suggestion of James Boswell, they had offered very fair to Mr Macadam on the 30th April, That if he would secure us in a House at or near the present situation we paying the Rent that we should let the Tollbar remain for this year he paying the difference betwixt the Rent offered at Muirkirk & what was offered for the situation at Wellwood. Note 26

McAdam was by then running the tar works, writing to Stewart on Monday 11th May that he had found it necessary to go to Muirkirk because the tar was not to his liking. Note 27  He wrote to Stewart again on Saturday 16th May, saying that the business of the Muirkirk tollbar was much more scandalous than he had thought. Note 28  McAdam had taken great pains at Muirkirk to get to the bottom of it. He had discovered that Mr Strang has used any unfair means to prevent the peoples biding [sic] for it in its present situation by promises threats and the idea of his Town being exempt and on the contrary had his own emissarys to bid up the other place. Alexander was ashamed to acknowledge his being so egregiously taken in to countenance this business and therefore wishes it never to come to publick hearing. Thomas Miller, on the other hand, was angry that people he calls Strangers / meaning yourself and my [sic] should interfere in what he has directed for a dozen of years and therefore he opposes you. We cannot know what substance there was for McAdam's accusations. Miller's anger, however, was unjustified. However recent their interest in the road compared to his own, Stewart and McAdam were qualified to act as road trustees, and to attend and vote at meetings of the road committee. Stewart was also entitled to be concerned as a creditor of the road.

Stewart wrote a memorandum, undated, but clearly following receipt of McAdam's letter (memorandum in the sense of a note of something to be remembered; a record of observations - possibly for future use). Note 29  He saw the removal of the tollbar from Muirkirk to Wellwood as only an Indulgence to one Proprietor at the Expense of another. Despite the results of the roup, he thought that the revenue would have been higher had the bar been left at Muirkirk. He felt that because he had been granted security upon the toll funds when he advanced money for the road, he should have been consulted before the bar was moved, and that during his absence some Gentlemen . . . took many undue means to gain their object. Despite the People being prevented from bidding for the Toll bar as it then stood, only a few shillings of annual rent were gained by moving it. Little of this small gain would have been lost by waiting for his return. He was sure that this small indulgence would have been granted to him as a subscriber to the road, even to me a Stranger (with reference to Miller's categorisation of him), if other concealed reasons had not been at the bottom, which were not explained to the meeting, because they were not fit to be brought forward.

An appeal by the Honble. Keith Stewart of Glassertoun against the removing of the bar from Muirkirk to Wellwood dykes was laid before the general meeting of Ayrshire road trustees in Ayr on 1st June 1789, presided over by the Earl of Dumfries. Note 30  With the consent of the parties, the 21 trustees at the meeting deferred giving judgement thereon. Perhaps this consent indicates that Stewart was by some means reconciled to the matter. The appeal did not come before the general meeting again, and Stewart's surviving records contain no later reference to the bar.

However Stewart and McAdam continued to be involved with improvement of the Edinburgh road. A petition to the commissioners of supply on 16th June 1789, signed by McAdam on behalf of Stewart, pleaded that the bridge across the Ayr at Muirmiln was gone into great disrepair and would soon become dangerous for Passengers. Note 31  A newspaper advertisement placed in July by the clerk to the road committee, Gavin Hamilton, indicates the nature of the concession which Stewart had won. Notes 32, 33  An additional tollbar was to be erected to the east of Muirkirk, near to the county line. Thus Dernhunch (or Darnhunch) toll was established, and in the roup of bars that took place at Mrs Crook's inn in Mauchline on Wednesday 20th April 1791, those for the Ayr to Edinburgh road were at Bogwood, Wellwood and Dernhunch. Note 34

According to a measurement of the section of road between Muirkirk and Sorn dated 3rd November 1789, a length of 372 feet then remained unmade. Note 35  The bridges over the burns of Greenock and Whitehaugh were not completed until 1794, delayed in part by the demand for labour in the iron and tar works, and further grants were awarded for bridges on the road, for instance in 1792, 1793 and 1798. Note 36  Sheppard commented that the road was tolerable excepting a few miles in the parish. Of the bridges then being built he wrote, it seems strange that they should not have been built sooner on a line of road so long and so much frequented. Note 37

The economic importance of roads in underpinning all other improvements was such that landowners of substantial means were involved in road business. Although they might agree in general about a particular road, they could fall out over matters of detail according to the interests of their own estates and undertakings. This was particularly so in the Kyle district of Ayrshire, which lacked a single, dominant landowner deferred to by the rest, such as the Earl of Cassillis in Carrick or, to a lesser extent, the Earl of Eglinton in Cunninghame.

David McClure

This article was published in Ayrshire Notes No. 12 (1997).


  1. James Strang of Kaimshill, probably the Mr Strang of the toll dispute, failed in his contract to supply coal to the Muirkirk Iron Company and in December 1789 surrendered his assets to the company. Note 38
  2. Thomas Miller died at Barskimming on Sunday 27th September 1789 and was buried in the family vault at Stair. Note 39
  3. Keith Stewart died at Glasserton on Tuesday 3rd March 1795. Note 40  His trustees were John Loudon McAdam and John Bushby. Note 41
  4. John McAdam, his own financial difficulties precipitated by Stewart's death, sold Sauchrie and in 1798 left Ayrshire for Falmouth. Note 42
  5. Early in the nineteenth century two reservoirs (the lower of which has since been drained) were created east of Muirkirk near Glenbuck for the mills at Catrine. The road was diverted and Dernhunch toll was replaced by one at Glenbuck on the county line.
End Notes
  1. David McClure, Tolls and Tacksmen (AANHS 1994).
  2. CO3/4/1, Minutes of the general meetings of Ayrshire roads trustees.  Back to text
  3. Irma S. Lustig and Frederick A. Pottle (eds.), Boswell:  The Applause of the Jury 1782-1785.    Back to text
  4. CO3/1/3. Minutes of the Ayrshire commissioners of supply.
  5. David McClure, Miller of Barskimming in Ayrshire Notes No. 8 (1995).
  6. William Fullarton, A general View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr (1793).    Back to text
  7. James Edward Shaw, Ayrshire 1745-1950 (1953) p. 56.
  8. Ian Donnachie and George Hewitt, Historic New Lanark (1993) pp.14-15.
  9. J. R. Hume and J. Butt, Muirkirk 1786-1802:  The creation of a Scottish industrial community (Scottish Historical Review Vol. 45, 1966) p. 162
  10. Hume & Butt, op. cit. p. 164.
  11. Rev. John Sheppard, Old Statistical Account, Muirkirk (1791-2).
  12. GD46/17/5, Tack of minerals, Keith Stewart to Muirkirk Iron Company.
  13. Hume & Butt, op. cit. p. 168.
  14. CO3/5/1, Minutes of the committee of trustees for the road from Kilmarnock to Cumnock.    Back to text
  15. Hume & Butt, op. cit. p. 170.    Back to text
  16. GD46/13/11 (4).
  17. Glasgow Mercury, 19-26/7/1791.
  18. P. H. M'Kerlie, History of the Lands and Their Owners in Galloway (1906) p. 492.    Back to text
  19. Dictionary of National Biography.
  20. GD46/13/11 (9).
  21. CO3/1/3, op. cit.   Back to text
  22. GD46/13/11 (4).    Back to text
  23. GD46/17/8.    Back to text
  24. Hume & Butt, op. cit. p. 172.
  25. GD46/13/11 (5).    Back to text
  26. GD46/13/11 (28).    Back to text
  27. GD46/13/11 (29).    Back to text
  28. GD46/13/11 (30).
  29. GD46/13/11 (33).    Back to text
  30. CO3/4/1, op. cit.    Back to text
  31. CO3/1/4, Minutes of the Ayrshire commissioners of supply.    Back to text
  32. Glasgow Mercury, 14-21/7/1789.
  33. The same Gavin Hamilton who was a friend of Robert Burns and whose farm of Mossgiel had been rented by Burns and his brother Gilbert in 1784-6.
  34. Glasgow Advertiser, 12-25/3/1791.
  35. GD46/17/1.    Back to text
  36. CO3/1/4, op. cit.
  37. Rev. John Sheppard, op. cit.
  38. Hume & Butt, op. cit. p. 168.    Back to text
  39. Dictionary of National Biography.
  40. GD46/17/12, p. 1.
  41. GD46/17/12, p. 35.
  42. David McClure, Tolls and Tacksmen, op. cit.    Back to text

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