Reminiscences of Old Saltcoats Sixty Years Ago [1840s].
By Captain John Smith.
From the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald 04th December 1903
Pigot’s “History of Saltcoats" recalls many memories of the past. I will spend a little time over some of the names there. There are over twenty whose family name begins with Mac. Most of these came from Arran. There was no room for them on the island. They began to emigrate and landed at Saltcoats, a rising place in the early days and far enough from home. Tailoring was an easy business to learn, and most of our tailors were highlandmen. But more than Mac's came over from Arran, and whether it was a Henry, or a Hamilton, or a Howie, or Heron, or Shaw, they brought the dialect that could never wholly be overcome, however long was their stay. The shibboleth of Arran was noticed in them at all times. How remarkable is dialect to distinguish a man's country. The south of Ireland is different from Cork and the Cork dialect so different from Dublin. Dublin dialect is very pretty and not in any way pronounced. The Belfast dialect is born in Belfast people, and you can single out a Belfast man at the ends of the earth.
There are exceptions to all rules, and the dialect may not always follow one to another country. We had a servant, Annie M'Dougall, from a farm at Oban. Her English was perfect. She was home on leave for six I weeks, and when she came back she said she had not spoken a word in English all the time she was at home, and yet we could not detect, from her speech, that she had been in the Highlands.
That is exceptional. The Highlanders love the Gaelic, their native tongue. Sixty years ago and more the population so increased with Highlanders that a Gaelic chapel had to be built for them, and a Gaelic minister was got to attend to their spiritual wants The North Parish Church of to-day was built in my day as the Gaelic chapel; two things happened at that time to rivet it in my memory. One was that a workman fell down from the gallery through the lathing on the minister’s right hand of the pulpit and got his ribs hurt; the other was that another boy and I were on a plank after the workmen left, swaying as boys do, when the plank broke, and we ran and never looked behind.
The Gaelic Chapel was built by the Scott brothers of West Kilbride. They were two handsome men. They lodged at the foot of Hamilton Street while the chapel was building. They had to pass our house to and from their meals. We had little girl who boarded with us. She grew to be an attractive young lady. She must have been of the Highland race from her dark, Celtic appearance—dark hair, dark eyes, and long ringlets. Her name was Jane Macfarlane. She contrived to be at the front window with her seam when the Scott brothers passed to and fro. I don’t know all that passed, but I happened to be at the marriage of James Scott and Jane Macfarlane, that took place in our house in Hamilton Street and came about by the building of the Gaelic Chapel.
That was one of the Mac’s, although she did not get a place in Pigot’s directory. Alex. M’Gill was a mason. That family in Kirk Road had none of the appearance of the Celtic race about them; but the Macnabs had. I saw lately Mr Macnab, of Lochawe, who has a strong resemblance to the Macnabs of Saltcoats, and his daughter, now in the Southern Morocco Mission, has strong resemblance to the Saltcoats Macnabs in features—in hair, and eyes, and nose, and bones. The Macnabs, of Saltcoats, were a distinguished race. The old son William went out to Sydney, New South Wales, and entered into business. He sent for his brother Tom, who went out to join him. He was not long out when word came home that Tom was drowned in the harbour while out yachting. Frank next went out and joined the firm. At times there comes into one’s life a boom of prosperity. That boom came to the colonies in 1850 when the gold diggings started. Many made fortunes and retired. William Macnab was one of them. He left Frank in charge, came home, and settled down in Rothesay. Frank wrought away till the boom was over, when he retired, it is said, with £30,000. On his way home he spent so much of his time on the Continent that he never reached his native land, for on the Continent he sickened and died.
Robert Macnab, called Bob Macnab, served his time in the “Alpha" with Capt. James Crawford. He was a man of great strength, and there was not a goodlier looking man in the town of Saltcoats than he was at one time of his life; but what brought down many brought him down. I saw him in Sydney as mate of a ship in the colonial trade. Our custom house officer told me that that man Macnab was the terror of all the colonials. He ruled by physical force.
The head of the clan Macnab, according to tradition, was a branch of the great Macdonald family. The only relic of their ancient territories is a burial-place on an island in Loch Tay. More likely, says Thos. Smibert, they are descended from the Albionic race and of clerical descent. Macnab meaning the son of an Abbot. The head of the clan is described by Smibert in 1850 as Francis Macnab. Owning a small estate in Perthshire at the head of Loch Tay, his residence was near the beautiful village of Killin, which latterly has come to be a mere shadow of what it was. He was a man of gigantic stature and proportions and vast strength. Whether in his Highland garb on the hills or on the streets of Perth, or Edinburgh, he was held in wonder for his personal appearance. His education was defective, but he had wit and humour in a high degree. A gentleman called at his house and asked if Mister Macnab was in? The Highland chief ordered him not to be admitted. He remarked, “There are many Mr Macnabs, but may the auld black leg hae me if there's ony but ae Macnab.” The friend learned the lesson, that no laird must have Mister to his name, and he called next day and met a cordial reception. The old chief died sixty years ago at the age of eighty-two. The chief of the clan Macnab was no exception to other chiefs of the Highland clans. They are all proud of their descent, and at their annual gatherings, which many of them like to keep up, they rehearse the mighty achievements of their forefathers under Prince Charlie.
The clan Cameron, whose chief was Donald Cameron of Lochiel and M.P. for Aberdeenshire, presided lately at an annual gathering of the clan in the Queen’s Rooms, Glasgow, and Dr Chas. Cameron, M.P. for Glasgow, so well known as proprietor of the “North British Daily Mail," is of close descent, and spoke at another clan gathering. The chief of the clan Macfarlane lately called to see me as a foster brother of Jane or Jean Macfarlane, who was brought up with us and married out of our house. Many of the Macs are Irish, and Jane Macfarlane never lost a particular accent she had all her days, as she was brought to us from Ireland.
The Highlanders in general were powerful men. Their chief could call them out to follow him with the broadsword and the shield. If that is not wanted in warfare now, they are useful in the police force for handling evildoers. A lady one day said to me “Mind you don't forget Betsy Miller to give her a place in the history of Saltcoats.” “O yes, Betsy must get a place.” But let me speak of the living. When I was a boy, John Good was a man, and when the railway came through Saltcoats there were gates put on at the crossing of Raise Street, Jack’s Road, and the Ardrossan Road, and a man stationed at all the gates. John Good had his little sentry box at Jack's Road, and made wooden spoons with his knife out of apple tree wood between trains passing. That was more than sixty years ago, and he and Mrs Good were in Saltcoats last summer—as usual they like to visit the old place once a year. Mrs Good served in Glenhead in the early days of old Mr Hunter. John King still goes about, son of Peter King the mason. These men must be a great age. And we saw lately Mrs Stirrat (Elisabeth Reid), daughter of Robert Reid, the sawyer, aged 92 years. So much for the healthy climate of Saltcoats. People may live there to a great old age.
To be a Highlander did not require Mac to his name, for there were Murchies and Taylors and Hendries and Robertsons, and many others came from Arran and settled in Saltcoats. Many of them owned small vessels and traded with them.
John Robertson was one of those well-to-do Highlanders who owned a smack trading out of Saltcoats. He had a family of sons that turned out well. The late Captain John Robertson, of Manse Street, Saltcoats, when he thought he had a competent portion to live on, retired from the sea, built a house, and lived in it. A retired captain in Ayr built property and lived on his rents. He said a shipmaster should never have property to rent, for he just goes on in his houses as he used to do in his ship, ever repairing and making improvements. He was not far wrong. Captain Robertson was a genius from his youth. It is said the boy is the making of the man. When a boy, John Robertson built a clinker boat, just big enough to carry himself only. He sat in the bottom, looked out of the main hatch, and pulled himself about the harbour, and when the tide was in he rowed himself close up to Dockhead Street. I was told what my father said to him when he was learning navigation. "Well, John, I have had hard heads, and I have had soft heads, but your head beats them all, it is like a sponge, it takes in all.''
John M’Allister was another decent Highlander, who had a trading smack. One night, in a very thick fog, making for Saltcoats, he got on the rocks near the North Pans. The rocks went through the bottom of his smack. He knew when the tide made he must be drowned, or get help. The night, if dark, was calm, and the piercing cries that rent the air, were almost unearthly, and heard all over the town. A boat went off in the direction of the cries, and took the new crew off the wreck.
The M'Allister family did fairly well, as the saying goes, for seamen. Angus, the youngest, was a great swimmer. No boy could excel him in the water. He could dive, and where or when he would come to the surface we had to wait to see. He could sit in the water or float light. I only met two other men like him in my travels. It was when they had drink in that they took to the water, and they could sit there.
(To be continued)
 Pigot’s National Commercial Directory 1837 page 275
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