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Old Statistical Account


[Transcribed from the original by David Courtney McClure.]


[Vol. VII, pages 598-614.]

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

By the Reverend Mr John Sheppard.

Name, Soil, and Surface

This parish was formerly called “the Muirkirk of Kyle;” and no person who looks on its face, can be at any loss for the origin of its name.  No great proportion of this parish is arable, or fit for tillage.  As the country is hilly, the surface of the greater part of it is heath or hether [sic], interspersed with spots of verdure; both of which, taken together, afford good pasture for sheep.  Where two thirds of the surface is hether, and the other grass, the pasture is reckoned by the sheep–farmers preferable to any other.  Even where the plough is employed, which is the case in many parts of this parish, the ground is not well adapted to the improvements of agriculture.  The soil is, in general, mossy, and the alternative commonly light and gravelly.  Some few spots, indeed, are to be found where it is deep, and of a pretty strong clay; but these bear no proportion to those of a contrary quality.  As much of the ground is wet or marshy, draining is a most necessary improvement; indeed so necessary, that it must be first in order, before any other can be attempted with any possibility of success.


Hills, Woods, Rivers, etc.

The only remarkable hill, in the parish, stands at a small distance from the manse, and is called Cairn, or Cairn Table.  It is of a considerable height, and, in a clear day, affords a prospect both extensive and diversified.  Two large cairns of stones are heaped together on its summit; and here, tradition says, was formerly a place of worship.

There are no natural woods of any extent in this parish.  Some few banks indeed, in different parts, and pretty far distant from one another, are covered with trees that seem to grow spontaneously; but the general face of the country is by no means so agreeably diversified.  It would appear, however, that this was not its original state, especially from the names given to particular farms, such as Nether–Wood, HarWood, etc.  The names still remain, and so do the farms; but the woods are now no where to be seen.  They have left no vestiges, not a single representative behind them, except a few decaying old trees can be called by that name, which after all are, in all probability, of a later origin.  Long trunks and branches of trees, found deep buried in mosses, confirm the notion that the woods once covered these very spots where now only their names remain.  It is much to be regretted, especially in such a country and climate, that these woods are now no more, for surely the ground, or rather pasture, to be gained by destroying them is by no means an equivalent for the loss of one of the most natural, as well as the greatest ornaments, of the face of any country.  Among these trees that here seem to grow spontaneously, the chief is the mountain ash, or rowan–tree, as it is called in the language of the country.  It adorns the wildest scenes; and often meets the eye unexpectedly by the side of a barren rock or sequestered stream, seldom seen, indeed, except by the inhabitants of the air, and the flocks that pasture around, or their [600] solitary keeper as he moves along to “call his wanderers home.”  There are no rocks either of size or shape sufficient to strike the eye of the traveller, or deserve notice.  There are no remarkable rivers that run through the parish, though a variety of lesser streams.  The principal are, the water of Ayr and that of Greenock; the latter takes its name not from its source, or from the adjacent country, but, in all probability, from a range of farms near its banks; it joins the water of Ayr at the boundary of the parish to the west.  The last mentioned rises in this parish a few miles eastwards of the manse.  It is soon swelled by a number of lesser streams; and taking its course by Lorn, and the picturesque scenes of Barskimming, at last runs into the sea, at the county town.  Both of these waters abound with trout of a blackish colour, but excellent quality, with some few eels, but here are scarce any perch.  They have suffered much of late by the ravages of poachers with nets, who, at once, pillage the rivers, and destroy the more moderate sport of the angler, who seldom fails to pour forth blessings liberally on them, as he returns home with his basket much lighter than usual.

Birds, etc.

The birds are much the same as in other parts of Scotland.  It is to be regretted that there are few songsters of the grove; and indeed, except the sky–lark, few of the spring, as the melody of the blackbird and thrush is seldom heard.  The larger curlew or whaup, which hatches here in summer; and returns to the sea shore in autumn, is one of those early visitants that announce the approach of spring, and call to begin the labours of the garden.  Like the cuckoo, [1] it has little variety of notes, but it appears much [601] earlier; and its view is the more pleasing as it announces that the severity of the winter is past, and that ‘the time of the singing of birds' is approaching.

Climate and Diseases.

The air is naturally sharp, and favourable to health, though often loaded with vapours and damps, owing to the mosses and marshy grounds, so frequently to be met with, and the surrounding hills which intercept the clouds.  It is no wonder that both of these taken together should form an atmosphere not perfectly dry.  As a proof of this, a few days will affect, with mouldiness on its surface, any thing placed on an earthen floor or lower storey.  A convincing proof that the atmosphere would, in all probability, prove unfavourable to the health of the inhabitants, were it not for the frequent high winds which disperse the moist vapours, or at least change their places, and prevent them from stagnating.  Neither this, nor indeed any other cause, arising from situation, affect the inhabitants with those distempers which are commonly produced by a moist air or damp situation.  There are here no peculiar diseases, nor any other that do not equally affect other countries, and other [602] situations.  Perhaps daily habit gradually forms the constitution to every climate and every state, and prevents the human body from receiving injury from these circumstances that would affect the constitution of others not born to them.

State of Property

Property has been changing its possessors for some time past, and is still in a fluctuating state.  Formerly the greater part of the whole parish was divided among a number of smaller heritors.  But as a gentleman of extensive fortune has bought the lands of several of them, the number of proprietors is considerably diminished of late.  The number of these, who reside, does not exceed 4, whose property is not very extensive.  The non–residing heritors amount to about 10, including the two principal ones; one of whom comes into the parish only occasionally, and the other seldom or never at all.

The value of property is much increased in this parish within these few years.  A sheep farm, for instance, which, a few years ago, was bought for £300 within this twelvemonth gave 1000 guineas; and this is by no means dispropertioned to the price of other lands lately sold here.  What, at first sight at least, makes this appear extraordinary is, that the rise above mentioned is not, as in some like cases, owing to the advanced improvements of agriculture, or cultivation, or, indeed, to any material change of the soil in any one respect, but the discovery, and expectation of farther discovering, those useful minerals, which even the most barren spots cover and contain, and which are so necessary for carrying into effect the manufactures lately established here, has stampt a superlative value on those grounds, on whose surface the traveller was formerly apt to cast his eye with indifference, and sometimes with disgust.



The implements of husbandry here are the common ones, which are too generally known to need either enumeration or description: the mode of cultivation, is the easiest and simplest the inhabitants can find.  Ashes and the contents of the dunghill, the manure commonly in use.  Such melioration as may be got by vicinity to the sea shore, is not to be procured here; even lime, with which the country abounds, has been hitherto seldom, and but sparingly, used by the common farmer, who alleges that it calls forth the whole strength of soil in a single year or two, and, of consequence, impoverished the ground in proportion for double the number following.  But the more satisfactory reason, alleged at least, is that lime spread on the ground, is unfavourable to sheep pasture, which last is, indeed, the principal object with every farmer and smaller proprietor.  Here, as on the other hand, there seems but little encouragement to the improvements of agriculture, or even of common tillage, in a country where, whatever other advantages it may possess, it must be acknowledged both the soil and climate forbid the luxuriance of growth, or where, should the grain outgrow the ordinary size, the too early frosts either check or arrest it in its progress, and prevent it from ripening, while, on the contrary, the lighter and poorer increase coming earlier to maturity, escape the danger.  Though, from the above causes, husbandry has remained only in its infancy here for a considerable time past, yet, from the fluctuating state of property, and its sometimes falling ito the hands of men of fortune, who have money to spare in making experiments, it is to be supposed that new implements, and new modes will be introduced, though, after all, it is hard to say whether good crops of grass, for pasture in summer and hay for cattle in winter, is not the utmost to which the ground here can be brought; [604] and, upon the whole, the best mode of melioration and improvement.

Seed–time and Harvest

The seed–time is much the same here as in other parts of the country, but the harvest is late, being seldom general before the end of September, and sometimes not till the beginning of the month following.  There is hardly any possibility of hastening it by sowing earlier, as the ground, from various causes, is not soomer is case to receive or nourish the seed; to sow grain therefore of the earliest king than can be procured, is the only probably method of providing against this material inconvenience.  Those generally raised here are oats, and common or rough bear, in contradistinction to barley, sometimes rye, seldom pease, which, unless in favourable seasons, do not ripen.  Potatoes commonly thrive well, and make a great part of the food not only of the poorer sort, but of the generality, in the end of autumn and during the whole of winter.  In common they are dressed with milk, and make both a palatable and wholesome meal. [2]

Good and bad Seasons

No particular incident has marked the seasons here for years past.  The common calamities [605] which affected the country, in general, and its highest parts in particular, in the year 1782 were severely felt here. [3]

Real and Valued Rent

The real rent about £1400 Sterling; and the valued rent £1881 6s 8d Sterling [sic].

Price of Grain and Provisions

Meal per boll from 16s to 17s 4d, common bear from £1 to £1 2s Ayrshire boll.  [606] These are the only marketable grain produced in the parish.  Beef from 5d to 5½d per pound, mutton 4½d and 5d, veal 6d, pork from 5d to 6d; lamb 4d and 5½d, butter from 9d to 10d, cheese from 4s a stone to 7s 6d, ewe–milk cheese when new 6d per pound, when old 9d, fowls from 9d to 12d, chickens from 3d to 4d, eggs per dozen 3d, 4d and 5d.  It is proper here to remark that provisions of all kinds have risen considerably of late, from the vast increase of consumers.  This parish never did raise grain sufficient to maintain its inhabitants even in its former state, now it may be asserted, than even at a moderate computation, its produce of grain, etc. is not equal to above one third of the demand.

Wages and Price of Labour

Both of these too have had a very considerable rise from the above cause, and the manufactures lately established.  Men servants receive from £8 to £12 yearly with victuals, women from £3 to £4.  Labourers per day from 1s 2d to 1s 6d without victuals; mowers, in hay time, 1s 3d with victuals; wrights, 2s without victuals; masons, the same; taylors, from 10d to 1s with victuals; shoemakers, weavers, etc. charge by the piece, but their wages have risen in the same proportion.


There are two considerable manufactures lately established here, that of iron and coal–tar.  The latter now produces likewise a manufacture of lamp–black.  As the former is yet in its infancy, an account cannot be given of it so minute, at least, and particular, as if it were in a more advanced and mature state.  Its first commencement was in the year 1787, and the furnace began to blow in July 1789.  The manufacture is not yet brought to the perfection intended, but is gradually advancing, and in a progressive state.  [607] There are, for the encouragement of those concerned, the most favourable appearances in the necessary articles of coal, iron–stone, and lime.  Several attempts have been made for discovering iron ore, but it has not yet been found in any large quantity.  Appearances however favour farther experiments.

Towns and Villages

The only villages, or rather clachan, as they are commonly called, that deserves the name, lies at a small distance from the church, by the side of the high road, on a rising ground called Garan–hill, which therefore gives name to the range of houses that occupy it.  They have increased greatly in number since the commencement of the works, and new houses and new streets have risen around them.  Many new houses, besides some of them of a very neat structure, have been built at the works themselves, and others are daily appearing, that will, in a short time, greatly exceed in number and elegance those of the old village, formerly indeed the only one that the parish could boast.

Roads and Bridges

The road from Edinburgh to Ayr by Carnwath and Douglas–miln runs through this aprish, and, excepting a few miles in the parish itself, is in tolerable repair.  Another great road from Glasgow to Dumfries and Carlisle is now in great forwardness, and will be completed before the end of the present year.  It will run across the parish somewhat in a transverse direction, and intersecting the other near the gret new inn, and then stopping its course southwards to Sanquhar, will shorten the communication with Dumfries by several miles.  There are three bridges now a–building, on the line of road from Edinburgh to Ayr.  One on the water of Ayr itself; one on the water of Greenock, before its junction with Ayr; and, a third, on the water of [608] Garpel.  These bridges have been long much wished for by the public; and it seems strange that they should not have been built sooner on a line of road so long and so much frequented.

State of Church, Manse, etc.

The parish kirk was repaired, and heightened, in the year 1775, when the present minister was admitted.  Though sufficient then  to accommodate the whole parish, it is now, by no means, large enough to contain the present inhabitants, and those numbers that have been pouring in from all quarters, in consequence of the manufactures.  To accommodate with seats, even those of them who seem earnestly to desire the means of religious instruction, it would be necessary either to make a considerable addition to the present kirk, or to build a new one.  The glebe consists of between 8 and 9 acres, almost all arable, yet unfit for tillage, because unfit to raise such crops as sufficiently repay the labour.  For some years, it has been used only as pasture, and raising hay for winter, a mode of treating it that seems best adopted to its nature.  In many places, it is wet, and, in others, runs into the opposite extreme, being light and gravelly.  Draining has been attempted for the former, and in many places with success.  Indeed this mode never almost misses its aim, for it seldom fails to drain either the ground or pocket.  The original stipend is £400 Scots, 2 chalders meal, and one of bear, about £70 in value at an average.  An augmentation has been lately decerned, which, including communion elements, does not amount to £14 Sterling.  This, it seems, from the want of free teinds, is the utmost that can be granted.


The poor are supported by the weekly collections, together with the interest of their money.  The principals [609] amounting to £130 and lent out for the above purpose.  The yearly collections formerly were £12 they are now about £17.  These funds are managed by the kirk session, the trustees in the first instance, who generally take care that the yearly income and disbursements keep pace with one another, and that the principal is not encroached upon.  None of the poor are allowed to stroll into other parishes; and there is seldom an instance of one begging within the bounds of the parish itself, yet the country, in general, and this parish in particular, is much visited, or ratjer infested, by strolling poor, from other quarters.  One cause of this is the improper police of some larger towns.  Nothing is more common that to banish those that are convicted of bad practices the “Liberties of the city,” as they are called.  This is neither more nor less, than to punish the adjacent country for sins committed in the town, to lay it under contribution for the convenience of the city, and free the one of nuisances by sending them to the other.  Because the worthless behave ill in one part of the kingdom seems no good reason for sending them over the countru at large; and allowing them a wider range for their depredations.  Banishment, besides, from one particular district, or, in other words, enlargement, is no punishment to vagabonds, but the contrary.  It is told of a soldier, from a neighbouring kingdom, who being convicted of mal–practices, was to be banished Scotland for life.  When the judge intimated the penalty, “Bless your honour,” said the culprit, “put your sentence soon in execution.”

School and number of Scholars

There is a parish school established, with a salary of £7 15s about 40 scholars attend in winter and 30 in summer.  The branches taught are Latin, English, writing, arithmetic, book keeping, and occasionally church music.  The schoolmaster possesses, besides, [610] a free house and garden; and his whole emoluments, exclusive of the two last, may amount to about £30 per annum.

Parish Records

For about 20 years past, a regular list has been kept of marriages, births, and deaths; before that period, the accounts are very imperfect, often broken off, in some places hardly legible, seen to have been irregularly taken, or, if regular, are now lost.

Marriages, for the 3 last years


Births, for ditto


Deaths, ditto



The greater number of growing persons have died of consumptions, of children the greater number of the natural small–pox.


In 1755 the numbers were rated at 745.  When the present minister was admitted in this parish, the number of examinable persons was 447.  The increase of men, women, and children, connected with the manufactures, is 532.  The whole number of souls, at present, may be computed at about 1100.  The word computed is used because, in a crowd of people, that are perpetually shifting, some going and some coming in their room, it is difficult to mark the precise number for even a gew weeks; and were the numbers now  fixed, they would probably not remain the same till the account of them is published.  They will, however, in all probability, greatly increase, and that in a few years.

Horses, Sheep, etc.

The number of horses has increased considerably within these few years.  The iron works, in their several imployments, maintain abour 30, and these, together with those employed in other parts of the parish, [611] amount in all to about 75.  Horses are at present about three times the price they gave 40 or 50 years ago.  About 14,000 sheep are produced and pastured in this parish.  They have risen in value considerably within these few years also.  Though the chief article of trade here, there is only one market for them upon the spot, and that chiefly for lambs, about the beginning of August.  They are commonly driven for sale to Linton, Lanark, Carnwath, Kilbryd, and sometimes Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Mineral Springs

There is only one spring that has yet been discovered that is of a medicinal nature.  It is useful in complaints of the stomach or bowels.  Indeed, from the great quantities of iron stone, together with some ore, it is to be presumed that several chalybeates might be found, or perhaps already flow unseen and undiscovered, especially as the water, when confined or checked in its progress, seems tinged in the same manner as when it touches iron or steel.

Antiquities, etc.

There are here, scattered up and down, the monuments of some of those covenanters who fell during the calamities of the period in which they lived.  Of these the most remarkable is the grave–stone of one John Brown, erected at a sheep farm–house, called Priest–hill or Priest–shiel, near the confines of the parish of Lesmahagow.  His monument is placed on the spot where he suffered, not far from the threshold of his doot.  The inscription is legible, and bears that he was shot through the head by a party commaned by Graham of Claverhouse, while upon his knees, and in the act of prayer.  Tradition adds, that Claverhouse, or one of his party, lifted up his dead body, and carried it to his wife, asking her, “what she thought of her husband?”  Mair,” said she, “than ever I did; but the Lord [612] will avenge this another day.”  Such are the blessed effects of enforcing or attempting to enforce uniformity in religion.

Size, Manners of the People, etc.

Nothing very singular distinguishes the people here from those of other parishes of the like nature.  They are of the ordinary size in general, and of a healthy and robust constitution.  Their turn of mind, so far as it is peculiar, is, in a great degree, formed by their situation and manner of life, and they discover a strong attachment to the palce of their birth, and former residence, or, in their own words, “weary sair for the Muirkirk,” even when they remove to countries more fruitful and better cultivated.  Their chief amusement in winter is curling, or playing stones on smooth ice; they eagerly vie with one another who shall come nearest the mark, and one part of the parish against another; one description of men against another; one trade or occupation against another; and often one whole parish against another, earnestly contend for the palm, which is generally all the prize, except perhaps the victors claim from the vanquished, the dinner and bowl of toddy, which, to do them justice, both commonly take together with great cordiality, and, generally, without any grudge at the fortune of the day, or remembrance of their late combat with one another, wisely reflecting, no doubt, that defeat as well as victory is the fate of war.  Those accustomed to this amusement, or that have acquired dexterity in the game, are extremely fond of it.  The amusement itself is healthful; it is innocent; it does no body harm; let them enjoy it.  There is another custom here, less noted indeed, but seemingly of equal antiquity, commonly known in the language of the country by the name of rocking, that is when neighbours visit one another in pairs, or three or more in company, during the moon–light of winter or spring, [613] and spend the evening alternately in one anothers houses.  It is here marked because the custom seems to have arisen when spinning on the rock or distaff was in use, which therefore was carried along with the visitant to a neighbour's house.  The custom still prevails, though the rock is laid aside; and when one neighbour says to another, in the words of former days, “I am coming over with my rock,” he means no more than to tell him that he intends soon to spend an evening with him.

Disadvantages and Advantages

The disadvantages may be collected, in general, from what has been already mentioned as to the nature of the soil and climate.  The principal meliorations or improvements still requisite are inclosing; but the inclosures must be formed with stone dykes to render them effectual in a sheep country; also draining, and planting trees, in order the shelter the fields from cold, and “clothe the nakedness of the land.”  In all these respects the exertions of Admiral Stewart, who has now a large share of property in the parish, are worthy of notice, particularly in the last.  His large plantations of trees of various kinds that diversify the scene, some in belts, some in other forms, but all extensive and covering different grounds, formerly of little use, as they now begin to strike the eye of the passenger as he moves along, promise, in a few years, to give a very different aspect to the face of the country.  Some plantations too of the Iron Company begin to rise to view.  They are disposed with taste, on spots happily chosen, where they will soon rise to beauty.  Though not so extensive as the other, yet, for the share of property the Company possesses, they are very considerable.

This parish possesses many advantages that are not always the lot even of better climates, and of richer soils. No [614] country abounds more with peat, coal, lime, and good quarries of stone for building.  Were any remark to be made upon the qualities of these; the coal does not seem to have equal strength with that found in the deeper soils of the Lothians, therefore burns for a shorter period, but that inconvenience is sufficiently compensated by it abounding almost every where along the sides of the water, its cheapness to the consumer, and its accessibleness to all.  Perhaps the lime too may be liable to the same remark, and from the same cause; but the stone lies under no such exception.  It is of a proper colour, and takes an excellent polish, being equally adapted to conveniency or ornament.

These are the local and natural advantages of this parish, and they are no doubt considerable.  But it boasts, of late, other advantages, still greater in one respect, because they enhance its natural ones, give them value, and call them forth into effect, I mean the manufactures lately established, and which have been already mentioned.  The success of these is an object truly desirable.  Every friend of his country and of the public must, upon all occasions, wish well to laudable and useful enterprise.  We respect, nay we praise, that man who can improve or enrich the surface of the earth, can mow down rich crops from fields formerly barren, or even double the grains of corn, upon those that bore before.  But surely an equal share of praise is justly due to that man, who, in countries that are ungrateful to the labours of cultivation, and either discourage or forbind its ungainful toil, can drag from the sluggish bosom of the earth, in which they lie concealed, inactive, and useless, those minerals, which under the forming hand of art gradually assume every figure and every shape, and serve at once to accommodate, or adorn life.


[1]           The cuckoo has been celebrated in a little ode, that may almost vie with the music of the spring (vide Logan's poems).  [601] But, the curlew, though one of its earliest birds, has never been so fortunate, and as the writer of this cannot deck him in poetic plumes, like the other, he begs leave in humble prose to relate the following anecdote in his praise.  A country gentleman, from the west of Scotland, and who lived in a parish very similar to this, both in soil and climate, being occasionally in England for a few weeks, was, one delightful summer evening, asked out to hear the nightingale.  His friend informing him, at the same time, that this bird was a native of England, and never to be heard in his own country.  After he had listened, with attention, for some time, upon being asked if he was not much delighted with the nightingale, “It's a' very gude,” replied the other, in the dialect of his own country, “But I wad na' gie the wheeple of a whaup for a the nightingales that ever sang.”

[2]           Hardly any root cultivated in this country is so generally agreeable, and suited, at once, to the taste, both of the luxurious and of the poor, of children, and grown persons, as the potatoe, yet perhaps no root whatever is, taken by itself, more insipid and tasteless.  Its agreeableness is perhaps owing to this very cause, as we find those foods that affect the palate most strongly, though ever so agreeably, most quickly lose their relich, and soonest become disagreeable or nauseous; and presumption, at least, that the simplest foods are the most conducive to health, because most agreeable to nature.

[3]           In this parish, severe frosts in the harvest months, heavy rains, snows, and frost again, reduced the corn, while on the ground, or in the sheaf, to the state of barley during the first stages of malting.  The meal still retained an unnatural and disagreeable sweetishness, and in colour resembled coal or peat–ashes.  The straw, by the above process, was discoloured, and, when dry, seemed deprived of every vegetable juice, appeared tasteless, and void of nourishment.  Physicians, and some who were no physicians, declared both grain and straw to be unwholesome, and prognosticated diseases and death to men and cattle.  Yet it is remarkable, none of those direful consequences ensued, and the cattle, in particular, never appeared healthier, or more stout for labour than in the spring immediately following.  The same all–governing power which permitted the calamity to take place, seeming to interpose to prevent or suspend its natural and so much dreaded consequences.  Possibly, too, the nourishment of the grain was arrested in the straw, but though this will account for the healthiness of cattle, yet, by no means, for that of the species.  Much praise is due to the humanity of those who, in this season, so strenuously and successfully exerted themselves to save their fellow men from famine and from hunger, in those parts of the kingdom where the fruits of the earth were entirely blasted or destroyed, by bringing grain from the more fruitful fields of richer countries in happier climes.  Much also is to be ascribed to the exertions of those who brought sovereign aid to those parts of this country, where the calamity was still felt, though not so severely.  A species of white field pease imported, became very seasonable supply to this parish, especially in the spring months, and moderated in a great degree, the threatened calamity.  Upon the whole, it may be affirmed that dearness of meal, but not absolute scarcity, and the destruction of seed grain, were the only material inconveniencies which this part of the country suffered from the unfortunate season 1782.





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