Seagate castle, Irvine
Maryborough salt pan houses
weavers' cottages in Crosshill


Culzean coach house
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Old Statistical Account

Island and Parish of the Cimbraes

[Great Cumbrae and Little Cumbrae]

[Transcribed from the original by David Courtney McClure.]

[Vol. XI, pages 391–397.]

(County of Ayr, Presbytery of Irvine, Synod of Glasgow and Ayr.)

By a Friend of the Rev. Mr Henry Graham, Minister of that Parish.

Name, Situation, and Extent

The name Cambray, Cimbray, or Cimbraes, is said to be derived from the Gaelic, implying a place of shelter, or refuge.  It is an island in the Frith of Clyde, surrounded by the sea, distant from Largs 2 miles, upon the E; from the Island of Bute, 4 miles, to the W; and separated from the Little Cimbraes, upon the S, by a strait three quarters of a mile over.  The length of the island, from NE to SW, is 2½ miles; the breadth, from E to W, 1½ miles.  It is of an irregular figure.  The surface contains about 2,300 acres, onew third of which is, or might be made, arable.

Hills and Prospects

With few exceptions, the hills rise with a gentle assent, to the various heights and forms they [392] assume, from the skirts of the island, till towards the centre, where they may come near 400 feet above the level of the sea; and, unless in 2 or 3 places, they are not much incumbered with rocks.  The prospect, from every point of view, is delightful; particularly from the S, where the Little Cimbraes, and the Point of Pencross, with their ancient castles, bound it by sea.  The Frith, too, often displays the beautiful scenery of the extensive navigation of the West; while that noble beacon, Eilsa, rises towards the horizon; and, to the N, Gatefield, in Arran, seems to support the clouds on its brow. [1]

Climate and Diseases

The island, being surrounded by the sea, and there being little marshy ground, the air is pure and salubrious.  Snow seldom lies long; and frost does not penetrate deep, unless in very severe winters.  Its effect upon the vegetables in the gardens, is much less than on the adjoining grounds.  The parish abounds with excellent spring water.  These advantages, joined with temperance and industry, contribute greatly to the health of the inhabitants.  As an evidence of the goodness of the climate, there are at present (May 1793), 35 people above 60 years of age in the island; an uncommon number advanced in years, in so small a community.  There is no particular disease prevalent.  Fevers rarely visit the island; and, when they do, seldom prove fatal. [2]   Inoculation now prevails, which renders the small–pox both much milder, and more frequent.


Soil, Cultivation, Produce, and Minerals

The soil, in general, is a gravelly loam, and some clay.  It produces good crops of oats, bear, pease, potatoes, and some flax.  The manure, beside what is made on the farms, is sea weed, and shells, with small coral, which they dig out of pits in several parts of the island.  It has been observed, that were the farms more generally inclosed, and subdivided and improved, by the introduction of turnips and sown grass, it would add much to the fertility of the island.  The advantage of these improvements, and the addition of the manure, upon their farms, that such crops would produce, could not fail, with the industry of the farmers of this island, to be highly beneficial, and would put the ground in a progressive state of melioration.  Were a plan of this kind properly formed, there can be little doubt but suitable encouragement would be given by the proprietors; by assisting them in inclosing their farms, and by lengthening their leases, which are too short, and their renewal too precarious, for great exertions; a circumstance which equally affects the interest of the proprietor and tenant.  There is plenty of lime–stone in the island; but the great expence of coal has hitherto prevented its being used as a manure.  There is also an unexhaustible fund of free–stone.


There are few trees on the island; but the few we have, seem to grow tolerable well.  Lord Glasgow has made a small plantation of pines and Scotch firs, on a piece of moorish rising ground; and, should they thrive, the hills might be planted farther up; and, assisted by the shelter of those below, in keeping them from the influence of the sea water, such plantations might, in time, be very valuable, from the demand on the Clyde, and the advantage of water carriage.



The population of this island is nearly doubled within these 40 years.  On the 1st of January 1793, there were in the parish,





In all


Persons under 60 years of age


Persons between 60 and 70


Persons between 70 and 80


Persons between 80 and 90


Person aged 96




The return to Dr Webster, in 1755, was


Hence there is an increase of




Average of births for 10 years





The number of weavers is






Masons and quarriers [3]



Cattle, Commerce, Fish, Manufactures, etc.

There are at present, on the island, 33 horses, 350 black cattle, and 347 sheep.  The prices of provisions are regulated by the Greenock market.  The farmers find a ready sale for what they can spare, after supplying their families, among the seafaring people and tradesmen; who, besides a ready market, save them the expence of carriage.  The fist chiefly caught here, are haddocks, cod, whitings, lyth, cuddies, mackerel, and a few herrings.  Of shell fish, too, there is some variety, but in no great quantity.  No manufactures of any consequence have ever been attempted here.  The chief obstacles, to any considerable exertion in that way, are the expence of fuel, the want of a sufficient run of water to drive machinery, and [395] the ferry being often interrupted by storms.  From 1600 to 2000 yards of coarse linen, however, and some linen yarn, are exported from the island; with free–stone, to the value of fully more than £200 a year. [4]

Village, Harbour and Roads

The village of Milnport, contains about 60 houses, which have been mostly built within these 25 years, and are still increasing.  It is pleasantly situated on the SW side of the island, and has a commodious dry harbour, that will admit vessels of considerable burden, particularly during spring tides, when the water rises from 10 to 12 feet along the shores.  There is also an anchoring ground, which is well sheltered by a small rocky island, where vessels may be moored to iron rings in the rocks, and ride in safety in the greatest storms.  The prosperity of this village, as well as that of the island, is much owing to its being the rendezvous of the Royal George revenue cutter, Captain James Crawford.  The officers and crew of this vessel are inhabitants of the island.  There is little done to the roads, excepting to that between the village and ferry, which has lately been repaired, and a ready intercourse established between the island and Largs.

Proprietors and Rents

The whole island belongs to the Earls of Glasgow [5] and Bute.  The valued rent is £1087 8s 2d [396] Scotch;  the real rent is nearly £700.  The average rent of the arable land may be from 10s to 12s per acre; and the remainder of heath and pasture, from 1s to 2s per acre.

Church, Poor, and School

The value of the living is about £70, with a small glebe.  The Earl of Glasgow is patron.  The church was built in the 1612, and is now too small to accommodate the inhabitants.  The manse was built about 26 years ago, and is in good repair.  There are few poor upon the session list.  The collections made at the church door, amounting to about £16, with the interest of a small fund, is nearly equal to their support.  English, writing, and arithmetic, are carefully taught, and the school is pretty well attended; but the schoolmaster's salary and perquisites are very trifling.

Natural Curiosities

There are two rocks, called Reppel Walls, on the E side of the island.  They rise out of the elevated ground, and run along, or rather across, a plain near the sea, in the direction of S by E, and N by W, distant from each other 500 feet, running in parallel lines; the one to the E about 30 feet in height, 89 in length, mean thickness 10 feet; that to the W 200 feet long, 70 feet high, where it comes out of the hill, and 60 feet near its outer end; the thickness 12 feet.  In the same direction, there is the appearance of a foundation running into the sea.  Something similar to these are seen in the opposite side of the island.  [397] They have joints and seams like the basaltic rocks in Staffa, but not columnar.  They are composed of the same materials, and may be estimated as the production of volcanic fusion and eruption; a process of nature, which, however dreadful and tremendou, seems to be productive of the greatest changes the surface of this globe has undergone.


The people are sober, regular and industrious, in a remarkable degree.  It is not known, that any person born in this parish has ever stood trial before a criminal court.  Considering their opportunity of improvement, they may be deemed intelligent; and it is but justice to the seafaring part of the community to say, that, for their line of life, their general conduct is peculiarly proper and praise–worthy.


[1]           Unless the weather is particularly clear, a cloud generally hangs on the top of Gatefield.

[2]           In the year 1783, a great number of people were attacked by a nervous fever; but it proved fatal in only one instance.  The small–pox frequently made great depredations, when the infection was introduced but once in several years, which indeed was the case about 40 years ago, in most places of Scotland.  They generally appeared in those days with pestilential malignity.

[3]           The farmers and their servants constitute but a small part of the community, the seafaring people being the most numerous.  Servants wages are much the same as in the neighbouring parishes: men servants from £6 to £8 Sterling, a year; women, from £3 to £4.  A mason gets 2s, a joiner 1s 8d, and a tailor 10d, with meat, per day.

[4]           All the free–stone, employed in erecting the much improved harbour of Portpatrick, was taken from this island.

[5]           About the beginning of last century, according to the tradition of the island, there was a family of the name of Montgomerie, who then possessed the greates part of the land now belonging to Lord Glasgow, and had a mansion house at Billikellet.  Among the last of that family was Dame Margaret Montgomerie, joint patroness of the kirk, who, being on horseback at the green of the Largs, is said to have been thrown off amidst a crowd of people; but, being a woman of high spirit, she pursued the horse, and received a strole of his foot, [396] which proved instantly fatal.  The arms of this family are upon the end of the kirk, and were lately to be seen on a part of the ruins of Billikellet.  About a quarter of a mile from Billikellet, there is a large stone set up on end.  About 6 feet of it is above the ground.  It appears to have been the rude monument of some ancient hero.  There is also a place which, the inhabitants point out, as having been a Danish camp, though no vestiges of it now remain.





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