Zoom Into East Ayrshire

Collated by Emma Boyd

East Ayrshire is a largely rural council area in the south-west of the country with a population of over 122,000 at the last census. The area was formed in 1996, from the former Kilmarnock and Loudoun, and Cumnock and Doon Valley districts; and the majority of people live in or around the county town of Kilmarnock.

The region has a rich history, with the first permanent settlers estimating to have dated to around the expansion of Christianity after the arrival of St Ninian in the 5th century. One of Scotland’s most famous sons, William Wallace, was very active in, and had many connections to the local area. Claimed to have been born in Ellerslie, just outside Kilmarnock, his family’s ancestral castle was based at Riccarton and he led the ambush of an English convoy at Loudoun Hill in 1297.

The area is also strongly associated with the Covenanters centuries later, who endorsed the National Covenant of 1638 which opposed the proposed religious changes to the Scottish Presbyterian kirk by Charles I. Many monuments to those who died for their cause can be found throughout the county.

East Ayrshire was at the centre of the Industrial Revolution, with the coal mining, iron making and an internationally significant textile production industry in operation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The introduction of steam power to many processes ensured industries survived for a significant period, and railways (the first in Scotland being the Kilmarnock to Troon plateway) expanded throughout the region. The world’s oldest railway viaduct was built at Laigh Milton, Gatehead in 1811-1812.

The decline in industries and closing for example of the coal mines and large companies such as Saxone’s shoe factory and Glenfield and Kennedy in the latter half of the 20th century had a profound effect on many local communities who relied heavily on these jobs, both financially and socially. There have been significant initiatives and investment introduced in recent years in response to encourage regeneration.

As of October 2020, Cumnock, the biggest town in the county after Kilmarnock, is home to the largest educational provision in Scotland in the form of the Barony Campus which provides schooling for children between ages 3-18.

For more information on local history, notable buildings and famous names with their roots in the county, visit the East Ayrshire Council website here: https://www.east-ayrshire.gov.uk/TourismAndVisitorAttractions/LocalHistoryAndHeritage/History.aspx

Where to find local collections  

Ayrshire Archives, Ayr

Burns Monument Centre, Kilmarnock

Dick Institute, Kilmarnock

Book – non fiction  

Caledonia, or, An account, historical and topographic of North Britain from the most ancient to the present times, Volume 6, 1890 [In Chalmers Caledonia]

Memories of Ayrshire, about 1780 by The Rev. John Mitchell, Series 3, Volume 33, 1939 [In Scottish History Society Publications]

Book – fiction 

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

William McIlvanney is a celebrated novelist, short-story writer and poet from Kilmarnock known for his gritty fiction. Read more about his works here: [In The Write Stuff] https://digital.nls.uk/writestuff/mcilvanney.html. You can also listen to a talk with William in conversation with David Hughes: [In Europeana] William McIlvanney – Search | Europeana.


Peace Day Celebration, Kilmarnock 1919 [In Moving Image Archive] (A Peace Day parade through the streets of Kilmarnock) https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/0770

Fenwick Events of 1931 [In Moving Image Archive] (Scenes of community life centred around local church activities) https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/1798

Cumnock Celebration, June 1951 [In Moving Image Archive] (Celebrations in Cumnock during the 1951 Festival of Britain) https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/1929

Manuscript collection 

The Auchinleck Manuscript (Adv MS 19.2.1) is one of the most important documents held within the National Library of Scotland’s collections. Produced in London in the 1330s, it provides a unique insight into the Middle English language and literature as Chaucer would have known it. This rare document is named after Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck who discovered the manuscript, and later donated it to the Library’s predecessor; the Advocate’s Library, in 1744.

Lord Auchinleck acquired his title after inheriting the Auchinleck Estate just outside its namesake East Ayrshire village on the death of his father in 1750. A great example of an 18th century Scottish country villa, Auchinleck House was built at this time and is thought to have drawn heavily on the design principles of architect Robert Adam. Still in existence today, it is managed by the Landmark Trust and can be booked as holiday accommodation.

Read more about the history and significance of the invaluable Auchinleck Manuscript https://auchinleck.nls.uk/ [In The Auchinleck Manuscript].


Plan of the Town of Kilmarnock by John Wood, 1819 [In Maps]

Coila Provincia by Timothy Pont and Joan Blaeu – Blaeu Atlas Maior 1662-5, Volume 6 [In Maps]

Photo Mosaic Sheet: NS 53 N.W. (Ayrshire) – Ordnance Survey Air Photo Mosaics of Scotland, 1944-1950, 1946 [In Maps]. These provide key information on the landscape of post-war Scotland and this example shows the towns of Galston and Newmilns.

An e-resource 

Newspaper eResources

The Library currently subscribes to 15 newspaper resources – these cover a range of dates and can be extremely useful for conducting local or family research in the East Ayrshire area for example, or just for taking a look at articles and photographs from old editions out of interest!

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

A business  

The Kilmarnock and Riccarton Post Office Directory, 1846-1847 [In Scottish Post Office Directories] (Part of around 700 Scottish directories published annually by the Post Office or private publishers between 1773 and 1911 and can be searched A-Z by trade to locate different businesses)

Ochiltree Tile Works, 1951 [In Moving Image Archive] (Film depicting the processes involved in clay tile production) https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/0948

A photograph 

Collection of photographs from throughout East Ayrshire [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).

A person

Alexander Fleming, 2009 [In Scottish Science Hall of Fame]

The Life and Prophecies of Reverend Mr Alexander Peden, by Patrick Walker, 1799 [In Chapbooks printed in Scotland]

A castle or other historic building 

Rowalan Castle, 1804 [In Scotia Depicta] (plates XLIVa and XLIVb / thumbnails 94 and 95)

A song or piece of music 

The Ayrshire Melodist, or, the muses’ delight, 1821 [In Chapbooks Printed in Scotland]


History and a range of photographs of Johnnie Walker company [In SCRAN]

Although Ayrshire is known for the quality of many of its food products, such as bacon and milk; the product most synonymous with East Ayrshire specifically is undoubtedly of the liquid variety. The Johnnie Walker whisky brand was established in Kilmarnock in 1820 by local man John Walker who sold the blended whisky in his grocer shop. It was an instant success, and the whisky is today one of the most popular brands in the world, selling millions of bottles each year.

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

Something about the county town 

Kilmarnock is located to the north-west of the county and is one of the largest towns in Scotland in terms of population. It was declared a burgh of barony in 1591 but can trace its town roots to centuries before. You can read an overview of the history of the town here: [In Maps] https://maps.nls.uk/townplans/background/kilmarnock.html before viewing the corresponding Ordnance Survey Town Plan of Kilmarnock, surveyed in 1856-1857 [In Maps] https://maps.nls.uk/townplans/kilmarnock.html.

Kilmarnock Academy boasts the impressive fact of being one of only two schools in the world to have educated two Nobel laureates. Alexander Fleming (mentioned above) was awarded in 1945 for his development of penicillin, followed by Sir John Boyd Orr in 1949 for his scientific research into nutrition.

The town would have regularly seen the famous face of poet Robert Burns who lived for a time in nearby Mauchline, and whose original edition of poems was printed in Kilmarnock in 1786 by John Wilson – hence known as “The Kilmarnock Edition”: [In Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect] https://digital.nls.uk/poems-chiefly-in-the-scottish-dialect/archive/74464614.

You can read an in-depth account of the characteristics of the town as were true at the time and included in the 1884-1885 volume of Ordnance Gazeteers of Scotland, which provide topographic, statistical, biographical and historical details of principal places of Scotland in the 19th century: [In Gazeteers of Scotland 1803-1901], Volume 4 (page 370-376)

Something about a village or small place 

Lace making was introduced to the Irvine Valley area in 1876 by Alexander Morton and Darvel and nearby Newmilns were centres for the many mills which began to open at this time. The lace, muslin and madras products were exported throughout the world, and Darvel became known as the “Lace Town”.

The legacy of this industry can be observed in the following clip celebrating the history of this excellence entitled Crowning of Lace Queen, Darvel, 22nd Aug 1953 [In Moving Image Archive] https://movingimage-onsite.nls.uk/film/1548. Read about the history of company Morton, Young and Borland Ltd who are based in Newmilns and are the last remaining lace factory in the region today: https://www.mybtextiles.com/history/ (external resource).

Further reading

The country houses, castles and mansions of East Ayrshire, by Alex F. Young, 2017

A history of the Ayrshire yeomanry cavalry, by William Samuel Cooper, 1881

Mining: Ayrshire’s lost industry: an illustrated history of the mines and miners of Ayrshire and Upper Nithsdale, by Guthrie Hutton, 1996