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AYR, ITs APPEARANCE, TRADE, AND ANTIQUITY—ITS CHARTERS, PRIVILEGES, WALL, AND CASTLE-THE BARNS OF AYR-THE BURNING OF THE BARNS AND MASSACRE OF THE ENGLISH“THE FRIAR’s BLESSING”—THE CASTLE DESTROYED BY BRUCE AND REBUILT BY THE ENGLISH-TAKEN BY THE TOWNSPEOPLE —THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES OF AYR-THE STATE OF SOCIETY IN AYR AT THE REFoRMATION.—THE PEST-THE FORT-CROMWELL’s TROOPS–MARTYRS.
AYR nestles in a beautiful valley at the mouth of the river Ayr, and has a harbour which, in early times, ranked amongst the first ports in Scotland. Of late years it has been improved and deepened, and on its north side a spacious dock, capable of accommodating vessels of heavy tonnage, has been constructed. The burgh may be said to include Newton and Wallacetown, for all three are under the same local government, connected by bridges, and included in the same Parliamentary constituency. The streets are clean, well built, and for the most part spacious; but its trade, which consists of engineering, shipbuilding, agricultural implement making, plumbing, iron and brassfounding, tanning, brewing, and other crafts, is not carried on with any degree of spirit, for its business to a considerable extent depends upon the residence of persons in easy circumstances, and it may be added, upon the thousands of visitors who annually flock to view scenes which the memory and genius of Robert Burns have rendered famous. The population last census amounted to 17,954. The town contains twelve places of worship—viz., four Established, three Free, two United Presbyterian, one Evangelical Union, one Episcopal, and one Roman Catholic—and the educational requirements of the community are superintended by an efficient School Board. That a settlement of some kind occupied the site of the town of Ayr in prehistoric times is more than probable, and
that it was a Roman station is evident from the fact that relics of that wonderful people have been discovered embedded in the soil in and around the town, and also that a road of their construction has been traced from Kirkcudbright to its very centre ; but those wishing further information on this point had better consult the third volume of Chalmers' Caledonia. “There are manifest indications,” says the Statistical Account, “that the whole of the lower part along the sea coast from river to river (Ayr and Doon) has been the scene of some great struggle in which the Romans and the natives were combatants, and that probably in more than one conflict. Throughout the whole of this space Roman and British places of sepulchre are found, with Roman armour, swords, lances, daggers, and pieces of mail and brazen camp vessels intermixed with British urns of rude baked clay, hatchet and arrow heads, and other implements of warfare used by the Caledonians.” In what form the town existed at that period cannot now be ascertained, but one thing is certain, that although often remodelled, it has witnessed in some shape or other three great eras in the history of our country—viz., the Roman invasion, the war of independence, and the struggle for civil and religious liberty. The charter erecting Ayr into a royal burgh was granted by William the Lion on the occasion of his having built what he terms his new castle of Ayr. The deed conferred extensive property and many important privileges upon the burgh, but when it is considered that the district was an almost impregnable forest at the period, the gift appears the reverse of munificent. Alexander II. confirmed this charter, and in addition to his father's grant, bestowed the lands of Alloway on the burgh, and conferred on the burgesses the right of acquiring such portions of land as they might clear of timber, at the rate of twelve pennies yearly for every six acres. Alexander III. frequently held court at Ayr, and from this it may be inferred that it was at that period an important town. To guard against freebooters and the assaults of more deadly foes, it was protected by its castle, and by a strong wall on the east and south, and the sea and river on the north and west. Lord Hailes supposes the castle to have been erected to check the incursions of the men of Galloway, and probably the wall was built for the same purpose. But
both had to withstand the assaults of more determined foes-more so the castle, for it was the main point of attack in time of war.
It is said to have been stormed by the Norwegians under Haco, but it is more certain that it and the town were occupied by the English during that critical period of Scottish history, when the usurper, Edward I., held every town and fortress in the kingdom. According to Blind Harry, Wallace performed some daring and almost improbable exploits in Ayr, but the most noteworthy was the burning of the Barns, a retributive act that the English merited for the treacherous murder of his uncle (Sir Ranald Crawford) and other Scottish nobles. Although Lord Hailes has questioned the truth of this event, yet the veracity of the blind minstrel regarding it has been sufficiently attested by other writers of a less prejudiced disposition, and on that. account a brief notice of the transaction is appended.
The Barns of Ayr are supposed to have been granaries for the storage of the produce of farms cultivated by the burgh tenantry. That such buildings existed in Ayr is sufficiently attested by the burgh records and by the fact that stacking was but little resorted to by our forefathers and that it was customary to store the harvest in buildings for the purpose. From the text of Blind Harry, however, the Barns in question appear to have been a kind of temporary barrack of one apartment for the accommodation of that portion of the English garrison to whom the limits of the castle could not afford quarters. A kind of parliament, or "justice aire,” to which Sir William Wallace and the leading Scottish nobles were invited, was ordered to be held in the Barns on the 18th June, 1297. They flocked to the place of meeting on the day appointed, but the treacherous English had matters arranged so that every visitor was seized and strangled the moment he entered. In the language of the minstrel —
“ No Scot escaped that time who enter'd in,
Unto the baulk they hang'd up many a pair ;
Thus eighteen score to death they put outright,
By a fortunate mishap Wallace did not arrive in Ayr until late in the day, but he had no sooner done so than he was hailed by a woman and informed of the foul butcheries at the Barns. He was overwhelmed with indignation at the tidings, and wept when he learned that his uncle and other relatives and friends had been ignominiously slain. Burning with revenge, he bade her farewell, and rode to Langlane Wood in the hope of meeting with a band of followers in its recess. In this he was not disappointed, but his joy knew no bounds when at dusk he again descried the female who accosted him in Ayr at the head of a band of trusty burgesses, and heard that the English soldiery were rioting and drinking in the Barns in all the recklessness of fancied security. A council of war being held, it was decided that the town should be entered at midnight, and that the Barns and every house in which any portion of the enemy resided should be given to the flames. As a preliminary arrangement, the woman and a burgess were sent to chalk the door of every house in which Englishmen dwelt. Twenty men afterwards fastened them with ropes; but while they were so engaged Robert Boyd of Kilmarnock, at the head of fifty men, passed stealthily into the town and lay in ambush near the castle gate to prevent the garrison issuing forth. The arrangements being complete, Wallace, at a given signal, appeared on the scene, and with a reserved force of two hundred and fifty men surrounded the Barns, and in a twinkling had them and every marked house in the town in a mass of flame. The scene was appalling, but the minstrel's description is so graphic that it deserves quoting—
“The buildings great were all burn'd down that night;
With sorrow thus, and many a grievous groan,
As the flames shot up and illumined the district, the inmates of the castle threw open the gate with the idea of assisting their fellows and the townspeople to subdue the fire, but they had no sooner done so than Boyd
“Won the port and entered with all his men,”
and put every southerner to the sword before their consternation and confusion were allayed. Among the religious houses that existed in Ayr at the period was that of the Black Friars. In it “seven score Southron loons” had taken up their quarters, but the instant the prior learned what was being transacted at the Barns and throughout the town, he armed himself and brethren and slew his unwelcome guests as they slept. The affair was ever after referred to as “the friars' blessing.” According to Blind Harry, 5000 Englishmen perished by fire and sword that night. The awful revenge taken by Wallace did not go unpunished, however, for Edward sent down 4000 men to chastise him and recapture the castle. After a desperate struggle this was accomplished ; but the triumph was brief, for shortly after the event the English were compelled to evacuate this stronghold, being as unable to hold it as they were every other place of strength in the country. In 1299 this castle was held by Bruce, but when forced to retreat before the overwhelming force marching westward to attack him, he burnt it, as that was the only available means of preventing it falling into the hands of the foe. The English, however, deeming it an important stronghold, had it speedily rebuilt, and in spite of all opposition occupied it until the decisive battle of Bannockburn, when it was, along with other fortresses, surrendered to the victorious Scotch. After the battle of Halidon Hill, it again fell into the hands of the English, but the lads of Ayr, led on by their Sheriff,