Ayr in the 17th and 18th Centuries – Ken Nairn

Last week’s speaker was local businessman Ken Nairn whose interests are many and varied. He was invited on this occasion to talk to the club about the old town of Ayr through the 17th and 18th centuries with a particular focus on the influences and implications of slavery. Drawing on both his keen interest in local history and his experience of organising walks through the “Remembering Auld Ayr” Facebook site, Ken regaled his audience with tales aplenty of times gone by and the legacies that still remain visible today. “Deliver well and people will come” is his philosophy.

After his introductory remarks Ken took us on a whistlestop tour of many old sites and buildings of historical importance, introducing us to (mostly) men who had achieved a certain importance in the civic, commercial and educational life in and around the town. In only ten minutes he managed to rattle through 200 years of earlier history to take us up to the mid-18th century and the dawning of the “Enlightenment” period.

One figure who Ken focused on was John Welsh, or Welch, a Scottish Presbyterian leader, who was born in Dumfriesshire and educated at Edinburgh University (where he married Elizabeth Knox, a daughter of John and Margaret Knox) later ministering in Ayr for a period between 1600 and 1606. His preaching resulted in his imprisonment by the order of King James VI of Scotland. The lawyer Thomas Hamilton wrote to James VI about Welsh and others in a case that was important because many Scottish subjects of James were devoted to the ministers. In 1606, John Welsh of Ayr was exiled to France, where he continued to preach.

Moving to the 18th century, Ken cited a number of other folk who made their mark in different ways, although not necessarily with Ayr connections, and these included David Hume, Scottish philosopher and scholar, and his American polymath friend Benjamin Franklin and William Mclure (born in Ayr) who was the creator of the first geological map of an area of the US and was known as the “father of American geology”.

Another notable Ayr man of that period was provost John Ballantine (a contemporary of Robert Burns) whose local family business was trading, through the port of Ayr, with plantations in Virginia and the Caribbean with inevitable links to slavery. His enduring contribution to the town was the promotion of two major capital projects, evidence of which can still be seen today: the building of the original ‘New Bridge’ of Ayr and the piloting of the Royal Charter to turn the ancient Burgh or Grammar School into Ayr Academy.

Ken then touched on the great estates of Belleisle, Rozelle, Sundrum, and Auchencruive to choose just a few examples of how these had profited from the proceeds of slavery. He made the telling point that “history is not ours to erase or destroy, but to learn from”.

Alan Meikle thanked Ken for such an entertaining and educational snapshot of life in the Enlightenment period and remarked that Ayr had certainly made its own valuable contributions.