Beith is a small town situated in the Garnock Valley in North Ayrshire, Scotland approximately 20-miles south-west of Glasgow. The town is situated on the crest of a hill and was known originally as the "Hill o' Beith" (hill of the birches) after its Court Hill.
Beith's name is thought to emanate from Ogham, which is sometimes referred to as the "Celtic Tree Alphabet", ascribing names of trees to individual letters. Beithe in Old Irish means Birch-tree (cognate to Latin betula). There is reason to believe that the whole of the district was covered with woods. The town of Beith itself was once known as 'Hill of Beith' as this was the name of the feudal barony and was itself derived from the Court Hill near Hill of Beith Castle.
The Wood of Beit, now the 'Moor of Beith', has been identified as an Arthurian site where according to Taliessin in a poem under the name of 'Canowan' it was the site of a battle in the wood of Beit at the close of the day.
Beith is said to have been the occasional residence of Saint Inan, a confessor of some celebrity, whose principal place of abode was Irvine. He flourished about 839. Although he is said to have been a hermit, according to tradition Saint Inan often visited Beith, frequenting Cuff Hill with its Rocking Stone and various other prehistoric monuments. A cleft in the west-front of Lochlands Hill is still known as "St. Inan's Chair" and said to have been used by the saint as a pulpit. An unsuccessful search for the saint's writings which were said to be preserved in the library of Bonci, Archbishop of Pisa, was made by Colonel Mure of Caldwell in the 19th-century.
Saint Inan is said to have preached to the assembled people from the chair on the hill. There was not a great population in the area at that time and the people were located not in Beith, but up on the top of the Bigholm near to the old Beith water dams. The first settlements were in the heavily wooded areas around the dams where people were safe from attack and could get food from the land, and fish in the lochs. The Saints of old went where the people were, and they also tended to go where there had been worship of heathen Gods. It has been suggested that High Bogside Farm, which used to be called Bellsgrove, was really “Baalsgrove”, which fits in with the story of Saint Inan going to where the pagan gods were. There is an annual civic fete held in the town bearing Saint Inan's name.
The sixteenth century poet Alexander Montgomerie was probably born in Hazelhead (now Hessilhead) Castle, which is on the outskirts of Beith, beyond Gateside. Montgomerie is regarded as one of the finest of Middle Scots poets, and perhaps the greatest Scottish exponent of the sonnet form.
Beith has a historical connection to smuggling and built a reputation during the 18th century as being a town which harboured those whose intentions were not always lawful. In 1733 forty or fifty Beith smugglers sacked the Irvine Customs House, escaping with a rich booty of confiscated contraband goods and by 1789 a company of 76 soldiers were quartered in the town dealing with the continuing illicit trade in tea, tobacco, and spirits. This caused great inconvenience to the law-abiding citizens on whom the soldiers were billeted. The town was policed in this fashion for some time thereafter. Hence, the Main Street's popular public house is still called the Smugglers Tavern, recalling the days when Beith's location between the coast and Paisley and Glasgow, made it a convenient stopping off point for those involved in nefarious activities.
A possible relic of the smuggling days of Beith is the ley tunnel that is said to run from the site of the Grace Church on Eglinton Street to Kilbirnie Loch.
Morishill and James Montgomery
Now a small housing estate, the house and land of Morrishill stood a short distance south of Beith. It commanded an excellent view and was well sheltered with trees. Owned by Robert Shedden, who purchased the land in 1748, it is notoriously linked to the case of James Montgomery.
James Montgomery, an enslaved African, was brought from Virginia to Beith by Sheddan. He wanted Montgomery, then called "Shanker", apprenticed to a joiner so that he would learn a skill and could then be sold for a large profit back in Virginia. When Shanker decided to be baptised in Beith Parish Church with the name James Montgomery in April 1756, Sheddan objected. Montgomery was dragged nearly 30-miles to Port Glasgow behind horses to be taken back to Virginia but escaped to Edinburgh before the ship sailed. Montgomery sought justice but before a decision could be made by judges he died in Tolbooth Gaol.
The practice of owning people did not become common in Britain and it was a result a number of contradictory legal decisions made, that raised the question of the rights of the enslaved, as well as the legal right to own people in Britain. The outcomes of these cases also influenced the abolition movement.
Rev. John Witherspoon
One of Beith's various claims to fame is that a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, the Rev. John Witherspoon, was a former minister of one its Church of Scotland parishes between 1745 - 1757. In 1745 he led the men of Beith to Glasgow to defend King George III against the Young Pretender in the '45 rebellion. Despite receiving orders to return to Beith, Witherspoon carried on, was captured at the Battle of Falkirk and imprisoned for a time in Doune Castle. He later emigrated and became a member of the US congress and in July 1776 he voted for the Resolution for Independence. In answer to an objection that the country was not yet ready for independence, according to tradition, he replied that it "was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it.
Witherspoon was also the sixth president of Princeton University and showed great commitment to liberal education and republican government. He died in 1794 on his farm "Tusculum," just outside of Princeton, and is buried in the Princeton Cemetery. His direct descendants include actress Reese Witherspoon, and he is commemorated by statues in Washington D.C., at the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley, and a plaque in Beith town centre.
The Scottish Poet Robert Tannahill's relatives lived at Boghall Farm near Gateside. His mother, Janet Pollock, came from Boghall although she spent much of her life at the home of her uncle, Hugh Brodie, who farmed at Langcroft at the foot of Calder Glen, near Lochwinnoch. Robert Tannahill (3 June 1774 - 17 May 1810), was known as the 'Weaver Poet', his music and poetry is contemporaneous with that of Robert Burns and they both died when relatively young.
Dr. Henry Faulds
Dr Henry Faulds, the originator of the concept of forensic use of fingerprinting, was born in Beith in 1843. A well-travelled man, he explained the suitability of fingerprinting for the identification of criminals and also wrote to Charles Darwin to forward his ideas. The letter was never published and he died in 1930, aged 86, bitter at the lack of recognition he had received for his work. His work in Japan is remembered by a memorial stone in Tokyo. In addition, a small stone memorial dedicated to his memory was unveiled in the centre of Beith in 1984 and, in 2007, a memorial was also placed in view in Woolstanton near to St Margaret's churchyard, where he was laid to rest.
About the time of the Act of Union, trade in linen cloth was introduced to Beith, which became so considerable, that the Beith markets were frequented by merchants from the neighbouring towns every week. By the 1730s, the declining linen cloth business was being succeeded by considerable trade in linen yarn. Crawford Brothers, flax spinners and makers of linen thread and shoe thread opened in Crummock in 1775 and moved to a factory at Barr Farm, Barrmill in 1836. The factory changed hands, continuing in production as the English Sewing Company until 1946. Beith merchants purchased the yarn made in the local area, and sold it to Paisley and Glasgow manufacturers. The demand for the commodity encouraged local farmers to raise great quantities of flax, and the linen yarn trade peaked around 1760. The manufacture of silk gauze superseded both trades and, from 1777 to 1789, the amount of looms in the town producing the gauze peaked at approximately 170.
From 1845 until the 1980s Beith had the honour of being the most important furniture-manufacturing town in Scotland with a reputation for high-quality furniture. The origins of the industry can be traced back to Mathew Dale who started by making hand-built furniture for local people in 1845. A former employee of Dale, Matthew Pollock progressed the manufacturing by introducing machinery in a factory setting 3 miles outside of the town at Beith North railway station. After approximately 12 years Pollock and his brothers sold the factory to Robert Balfour, and moved into the town to expand their business. Balfour suffered the same problems as the Pollock Brothers in being unable to attract workers from the town to walk the 3 miles to work. In 1872 he built a factory near the Beith Town railway station and persuaded the railway company to build a siding to allow easy transportation of raw materials and finished products.
The industry expanded across the local area making it a centre of excellence in furniture manufacturing and building its reputation throughout the world. In the late 1920s transportation switched away from the railway but the industry continued to burgeon with many companies producing high-quality furniture; McNeil Bros, specialised in board room and library fittings, Stevenson and Higgins made lift cages, which were fitted in many hotels and department stores, Balfours were for a number of years the main manufacturers of mantlepieces in Scotland, some were designed in the elegant style, and required the expert skill of woodcarvers. Matthew Pollock Ltd supplied furniture to both the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Queen Elizabeth II.
Furniture is no longer produced in Beith due to the closure of the various manufacturing firms. The closures were caused by a multitude of problems such as the state of the economy and an inability to compete with self-assembly furniture firms and their increase in popularity. The last big furniture manufacturer to close was Beithcraft (formerly Balfours) which finished in 1983 (after a major fire a few years earlier that destroyed large sections of the plant) with the loss of 420 jobs. With this final closure came the end of the Beith reputation for being one of the main furniture manufacturing centres in the country.
This history of carpentry is remembered in the nickname of the local football team, Beith Juniors, who are commonly referred to as "The Cabes" (Cabinet Makers).
Commonly referred by locals as "the Admiralty", the Royal Navy continues to maintain an armament depot, DM Beith, in the area. As part of Ministry of Defence reorganisation plans in 2005, the 360 posts at DM-Beith were cut by 60. This was attributed to changes in the way equipment and supplies were stored and distributed, and it was hoped that it would reduce costs by £50m a year by 2010.
Historically in recent times, the major employers in the area were the Glengarnock Steelworks and the Linwood car manufacturing plant. Outwith the furniture industry, a large proportion of the local population were employed within these industries. At its peak, the local Steelworks had 3,000 employees, but by the time it closed in 1985 it had been reduced to 200. The Linwood car plant manufactured the Hillman Imp, a competitor to BMC's Mini, and provided up to 9,000 jobs during peak production but was closed by Peugeot-Citroen in 1981. It has been estimated that 13,000 workers were left jobless in the region as both direct and indirect consequences of the Linwood closure.
Today Beith is a dormitory town with a reputation as a friendly and welcoming place in which to work, live and socialise. In 1966 a local survey estimated that 48% of the population worked outside the town whilst today the figure is more likely to be around 80%. The current population is around 7,000 helped by the completion of ten private housing estates dating from 1966 to the present and by redevelopment of sites within the town. The town has an abundance of social organisations for everyone and there are excellent transport links to Glasgow.
Deprivation and regeneration
North Ayrshire is ranked fifth highest in Scotland in terms of percentage of the population living in the most deprived areas. These areas have been targeted for regeneration by the local authority. This involves the targeting of activity and resources by the community planning partnership in relation to housing, crime, income, employment, health, skills and training and access to services.
A small area of Beith is one of three regeneration areas in the Garnock Valley. These are the smallest regeneration areas in Ayrshire. This is partly because rural deprivation tends to be less geographically concentrated than urban deprivation, and so it remains more hidden, being experienced by individuals and households rather than the larger communities. The area of Beith targeted for regeneration amounts to 359 households and 635 people (approximately 10% of the town's population).
The Auld Kirk
The Beith Auld Kirk started out as a parish church in the form of a cross way back in 1593, built in dedication to Saint Inan. The church got a bell tower and clock in 1800. The old bell still stands, and bears the following inscription: “This bell was given by Hew Montgomerie, sone of Hessilhead, anno 1614, and refounded by the Heritors of Beith, anno 1734″. The kirk had been built in a rather precarious position on a cliff-side, and from 1807-10 it was rebuilt a little further up the hill as the new Parish Church. The Heritors then moved the older portions of the Auld Kirk to the new one, leaving only the front door and the clock and the belfry. There was not much left of the old kirk after that, and it came to be used as a burial ground for the Woodside family. Later on, however, it was closed for further burials and partly renovated, with the old high wall replaced by railings and paths dugs over the ground. Presently, there are no sepulchers left standing of the old baronial families, and the earliest graves date back only till 1710.
There are a number of memorials to the Spier and Dobie families within the grounds of the Auld Kirk, and also a memorial to Robert Patrick of Hazelhead (Inspector General of Army Hospitals). A sundial dating from the 1840s is also visible, and a stone coat of arms thought to originate from the Auld Kirk manse can be seen nearby, in Reform Street.
The Town House
Beith’s townhouse was built by public subscription in 1817; the lower part of the building originally consisted of two shops, one of which was an ironmonger's operated by George B Inglis from 1862 until around 1900. There was also a small room where prisoners were kept prior to their appearance in the upper hall which was used as a JP Court, Sheriff Small Debt Circuit Court, meeting of the road trustees and as a public meeting room. It was also used as a public reading room. For the first twenty years the management of the Town House was in the hands of the JPs of Beith, Dalry, and Kilbirnie, the heritors of the parishes, the propietors of certain houses in Beith, and finally tenants of said houses within half a mile of the cross.
Places of worship
Beith hosts two listed 19th century Beith Parish Churches of the Church of Scotland, and the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Scapa Cottage is known locally as "Dummy Cottage". The entire outside of the sandstone building is indented with marks giving it a most unusual appearance; in earlier years it was a Toll House. A deaf-and-dumb young man lived in the cottage in earlier times, hence the acquired name "Dummy Cottage," an unacceptable term today.
Kilbirnie Loch (NS 330 543), is situated in the floodplain of between Kilbirnie, Glengarnock and Beith, and runs south-west to north-east for almost 2 km (1.2 mi), is about 0.5 km (0.31 mi) wide for the most part and has an area of roughly 3 km2 (761 acres). The loch is fed mainly by the Maich Water and is drained by the Dubbs Water that runs into Castle Semple Loch. Early authors often use the term 'Garnoth' or 'Garnott' and may be referring to a single large loch incorporating Kilbirnie Loch and Loch Winnoch (Barr and Castle Semple Lochs). Boece in his book of 1527 the 'Historia Gentis Scotorum' (History of the Scottish People), says that this one entity was nocht unlike the Loch Doune full of fische.
There is a long history of drainage schemes and farming operations in the Lochwinnoch area, with co-ordinated attempts dating from about 1691 by Lord Sempill, followed by Colonel McDowal of Castle Sempil in 1774, James Adams of Burnfoot, and by others. Until these drainage works Loch Winnoch and Kilbirnie Loch nearly met and often did during flooding, to the extent that, as stated, early writers such as Boece, Hollings and Petruccio Ubaldini regarded the lochs as one, using the name 'Garnoth' or 'Garnott'.
Spier's (pron. Speers) school stood on the Barmill Road near the old Marshalland Farm. It was built for Mrs Margaret Spier of the Marshalland and Cuff estate in 1887 to commemorate John Spier, her son, who had died at the age of 28, the last of her ten children. The school started as a fee paying day and boarding school, becoming part of the county education system in 1937. Following the construction of Garnock Academy, Spier's school closed in 1973 and the buildings were demolished in 1984. Robert Spier and family lived in Beith at number 62 Eglinton Street, formerly Whang Street, and they unusually had their own private chapel in the grounds. The 16 acres (65,000 m2) of woodland and gardens remain a popular site for dog walkers, bird watchers, and those out to enjoy the rural surroundings. There are a number of memorials to the Spier's family in the Auld Kirk grounds and in the local area. The Spier's family left a trust for providing financial help to those from the Garnock Valley pursuing further education. The Trust is a committee of North Ayrshire council. The trust committee decided in 2007 to investigate ways of making better use of the assets of the trust in particular the former school grounds and the council worked in partnership to set up a Friends of Spiers (FoS) organisation to develop ideas and seek funding. North Ayrshire Council was successful in an application to the Forestry Commission to provide funding for a footpath network around the woodland area.
William Fulton Love, writer and bank agent in Beith, built Geilsland House and developed this small estate near Gateside in the 19th-century although the deeds go back to the 17th-century. Geilsland is a special school, run by the Church of Scotland as part of its CrossReach initiative.
This mansion house and estate stood on the outskirts of Beith in an area now cut through by the main Dalry to Glasgow road. Built for the Kerr family in the 18th century, Crummock was sold in 1815 to William Wilson, who added to the house and improved the grounds. James Dobie, the historian and author, and his family lived here from 1836. Now demolished and a housing estate built on the site, some boundary walls and a cottage remain. Historic stones which had been built into the kitchen garden were donated to the North Ayrshire Heritage Centre, including the arched stone known as the shrine.
The Court Hill
The Court Hill is near Hill of Beith, below the site of Hill of Beith Castle, Gateside, in the old Barony of Beith. Dobie states that this is the moot hill on which the Abbot of Kilwinning used to administer justice to his vassals & tenants. It is a sub-oval, flat-topped mound, situated at the foot of a small valley. A number of large stones are visible in the sides of the mound. It is turf-covered, probably situated on a low outcrop, and is mostly an artificial work. Pre-dating the channelling of the burn which detours around it, the mound was probably isolated in this once marshy outflow of the former Boghall Loch.
In the 12th century the Barony of Beith was given to the Tironensian monks of Kilwinning Abbey by the wife of Sir Richard de Morville. The farm or Grange of the monks is indicated by the name Grange Hill and a castellated tower indicated as once existing in the area may have been the local dwelling of the Abbot of Kilwinning when he was visiting the barony to deliver justice at the Court Hill or attend to other business and later the local laird. No clearly undisputed remains have been found of the tower or grange buildings, however the New Statistical Account of 1845 written by the local minister, George Colville, states that the castle stood close to the Court Hill.
Loch Brand or Bran was the name by which Boghall Loch was formerly known. The loch, now almost completely drained, is the main source of the Powgree Burn and partly lay on the lands of Boghall. On or around the margin of the loch piles or stakes of oak or elm have been discovered and it is thought that these may be the remains of crannogs.
Beith Rocking Stone
The Beith Rocking Stone, weighing 11 tons, sits on top of Cuff Hill. According to local folklore, Saint Inan frequented the stone, that legend states rocked from side-to-side on a balance point.
Willowyards (Angel's Share fungus)
The area surrounding Willowyards and its whisky bond are characterised by a black staining that covers all living and non-living surfaces to varying degrees. The research that first led to the scientific identification of the organism causing this black and velvety encrustation was partly carried out using samples from Willowyard. The organism causing what is commonly known as 'Warehouse Staining', is a black fungus, Baudoinia compniacensis which is harmless and feeds upon the 'Angels's Share' of alcohol evaporating from the whisky barrels.
The town's George cinema was put up for sale in the autumn of 1982, but a surprisingly good run of E.T. over that Christmas period helped keep it open until the following summer. It finally closed on 25 June 1983 for conversion to a snooker club, although the building has since been demolished.