Zoom Into North Ayrshire

Collated by Emma Boyd

North Ayrshire is a council area in the south-west of Scotland. Set along the coast of the Firth of Clyde and with a population of over 135,000 at the last census; it is the most populous of the three Ayrshire regions. The area was formed in 1996 from the former Cunninghame district, and includes the Isle of Arran and the Cumbrae Isles. The majority of people live in or around the county town of Irvine. 

With its extensive countryside and coastline, the county has long been a popular tourist destination, and locations such as Largs and Millport were some of the spots Glasgow workers travelled “doon the watter” to in their thousands for days trips after the introduction of paddle steamers in the 1800s.

The county has also been an important location for industry throughout its history, from the steelworks in inland towns such as Glengarnock, to the associated industries from Irvine being a port, including the exporting of goods, shipbuilding, rope and anchor making. Further north along the coast, the natural deep waters of Hunterston has seen the area earmarked for many proposed and realised industries over the years – such as fish farming and as the home of Hunterston power station.  

Agriculture continues to be synonymous with the county too; with products such as Ayrshire milk, cheese and bacon known far and wide.  

Where to find local collections:   

Ayrshire Archives, Ayr 

Irvine Townhouse local history collections, Irvine 

Book – non fiction 

Historical memoir of the family of Eglinton and Winton, by John Fullarton, 1864 [In Histories of Scottish Families

Book – fiction 

Internet Archive 
(If you create a free account with this service, you can virtually “borrow” books) (external resource) 

John Galt (1779-1839) is a well-known author originally from Irvine, and “Annals of the Parish, or, The chronicle of Dalmailing during the ministry of Rev. Micah Balwhidder” is one of his most famous works. Although fictional, the novel provides a largely realistic account of a minister’s life in late 18th/early 19th century rural Scotland, and the changes that were underway at the time thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

You can also read the autobiography of Galt here: https://go-gale-com.nls.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?action=interpret&id=GALE%7CCY0104341348&v=2.1&u=nlibscot&it=r&p=SABN&sw=w [In eResources – Sabin Americana

(This resource requires to be logged into a Library account and have a residential address in Scotland – you can join as a member here). 


Scottish Moving Picture News No. 120, Scottish Grand National, 1919 [In Moving Image Archive] (The race when it was held at Bogside, with the horse victorious that year being “The Turk, II”) 

Saltcoats Gets New Esplanade, 1933 [In Moving Image Archive] (Sir Josiah and Lady Stamp performing the opening ceremony of the Sandilands esplanade) 

Holidays at Largs, c.1950 [In Moving Image Archive] (Various Largs scenes) 

Manuscript collection 

Minerva of Leith!, 1821 [In Word on the Street

Sketches of Kilwinning and Kilwinning Abbey, by George Henry Hutton, 1789-1806 [In The Hutton Drawings] (index images 28g-28i/thumbnails 9-12) 


Gall and Inglis’ new tourist map of Arran, with parts of Bute, shewing the roads, hills, 1900 [In Mapshttps://maps.nls.uk/view/142842233

Cvnninghamia by Timothy Pont and Joan Blaeu – Blaeu Atlas Maior 1662-5, Vol 6 [In Mapshttps://maps.nls.uk/view/108520452  

Ayrshire Sheet XVI. NW & SW (includes: Ardrossan; Saltcoats) Ordnance Survey map, 1938 [In Mapshttps://maps.nls.uk/view/75494339

An e-resource 

The Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-1845 
https://stataccscot-edina-ac-uk.nls.idm.oclc.org/static/statacc/dist/search?q=Ayrshire (external resource) 

These are an excellent resource for providing an in-depth insight into daily life in different areas of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. These contemporary reports were compiled by ministers of parishes throughout the country and cover a range of topics including descriptions of trades, education, religion and agriculture. 

A business  

Biography of Kemp family – showmen and cinema exhibitors [In Moving Image Archive

Goodnight from Harry Kemp, 1933 [In Moving Image Archive

If you lived in North Ayrshire, especially around the Saltcoats area from the early 20th century, there’s a good chance you would be familiar with the Kemp family. George “President” Kemp established a number of cinemas across Scotland, including many within Saltcoats itself. “La Scala” was the first purpose built cinema in “The Three Towns” (Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston), completed in 1913. A family affair, son Harry introduced the legendary “Kemp Summer Shows” in the late 1920s and took over the business in 1925 on the retirement of his father.

A person 

John and Martha Kerr’s story [In Scots Abroad

Like many of their compatriots, John and Martha Kerr from Dalry emigrated to the United States in the 1800s in search of opportunities and the potential of a better life. Read about their story and experiences of settling in Illinois, before they eventually moved back to Scotland over a decade later. 

A song or piece of music 

The Ballads and Songs of Ayrshire by John Glen, Vol 1, 1846 [In Special Collections of Printed Music

A ghost, myth or legend 

Wife of Beith, 1811 [In Chapbooks printed in Scotland

A castle or other historic building 

Eglinton Castle, 1804 [In Scotia Depicta] (plates XXIIa and XXIIb / thumbnails 49 and 50) 

Skelmorlie Aisle, Largs: its symbolism, form and functions by Aonghus MacKechnie, 2020 [In eResources – EUP journals online

(This resource requires to be logged into a Library account and have a residential address in Scotland – you can join as a member here). 


Topographical, statistical and historical gazetteer of Scotland, Vol 1, 1842 [In Gazetteers of Scotland]  

Queen of the Milky Way, 1944 [In Moving Image Archive]  

Ayrshire has long been known for the quality of its produce, especially for those from the dairy family. The initial link above is an account which discusses the origins of Ayrshire cows and their development as a breed by individuals such as Bruce Campbell, 2nd cousin of James Boswell. The film follows the growth of calf Myrtle on a farm in Ayrshire in the 1940s.

A photograph 

Peaks of Arran from Saltcoats [In From shore to shore

The Harbour, Ardrossan [In From shore to shore

Something about the county town 

Irvine is located at the most southerly point of the county, situated in a bay along this section of the south-west coast and at the estuary of the rivers Irvine and Garnock.  

The town was established as a royal burgh by 1308, and possibly even earlier, and was of significant importance in the mediaeval period – serving as one of the earliest Scottish capitals and base for a number of kings including Robert the Bruce. William Wallace and Robert Burns were well-kent faces in the town and surrounding areas during their respective periods in history, and it is claimed that Mary Queen of Scots stayed briefly at Seagate Castle in 1560. 

With a history rooted in the celebration of Assumption Day by early inhabitants of the town and known as Mary’s Mass where market stalls and shows were set up during weeklong festivities; the tradition endured and is still a highlight for the town each August. Watch a clip of the Marymass Parade from c.1931: https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/1239 [In Moving Image Archive]. 

This town plan of Irvine by John Wood from 1819 provides a fascinating insight into not just the layout and development of the town as it was at this time, but also of the proprietors of each property: https://maps.nls.uk/view/74400039 [In Maps]. You can also read the accompanying descriptive account, published in 1828: https://digital.nls.uk/gazetteers-of-scotland-1803-1901/archive/97353501 [In Gazetteers of Scotland].

Although a settlement stretching back centuries, Irvine was also designated as one of five “new towns” across Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s. The Irvine Development Corporation (IDC) was created to develop and manage this expansion and they had many ambitious plans for the town. Some of these never came to fruition but those that did radically changed the aesthetic of the historical town centre and harbour areas, such as the building of Irvine Mall and the Magnum Leisure Centre. View the creation of new houses in nearby Dreghorn from this era, in 1974: https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/T0383 [In Moving Image Archive].

Irvine is also the birthplace of two of the First Minsters to have served Scotland since the establishment of the devolved government in 1999 – Jack McConnell (Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale) and incumbent, Nicola Sturgeon. The former was raised on the island of Arran and attended Arran High School, whilst the latter grew up in Dreghorn and was educated at Greenwood Academy.

Something about a village or small place 

Ardeer is a small town which has now been incorporated into Stevenston on the Ardeer peninsula. Originally an island, its later extensive sand dune system and remote location was chosen as the base for The British Dynamite Company from the 1870s, which grew to become the largest explosives factory in the world, employing thousands of local people. Find out more about the company from the following resources:

Information on founder Alfred Nobel and the history of the company 
https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobel-in-scotland/ (external resource) 

Collection of photographs and information relating to the company [In SCRAN

(This resource requires to be logged into a Library account and have a residential address in Scotland – you can join as a member here). 

Watch the workers of the factory having some fun in their down-time at the Ardeer Sports Day in 1929: 
https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/0566 [In Moving Image Archive]

Further reading   

Saints, monks & knights: North Ayrshire’s mediaeval and early Renaissance history in stone, by Mark Strachan, Museums Galleries Scotland and North Ayrshire Council, 2009 

In the Valley of Garnock (Beith, Dalry and Kilbirnie): pictures and stories of yesterday and today in Beith, Dalry and Kilbirnie, by Donald Reid, R. Allan Richardson, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Beith (North Ayrshire) Open Award Group, 2001  

25 walks in North Ayrshire: ramblers guide, by Nicolson Maps, 2009