Welcome to Irvine

Two of Irvine’s claims to fame are seemingly contradictory: it is both the oldest new town in Scotland and the newest new town in Scotland. Its status as a new (or planned) town was established in 1966 when it was acquired for development by the Development Corporation. It was the last of five sites in the country with which the corporation dealt. Uniquely, in the case of Irvine, the Corporation chose to develop an existing town, one that had, in fact, been settled since at least the 12th century. The result is today’s town of Irvine, a town restructured to a modern design, which incorporates many historic buildings. Straddling the River Irvine, as it joins the River Garnock, before flowing into the Firth of Clyde on the Ayrshire coast, Irvine is also unique in being the only coastal new town. Its redeveloped antiquity and coastal setting, mean that it is considered the most successful of the corporation’s projects. The proximity of Glasgow-Prestwick International Airport, just 12 miles to the south near Ayr, has enhanced Irvine’s position in recent years.

One does not have to travel far to be confronted by evidence of the longevity of human settlement in the area. Finds from around 6000 BC along the coast at Monkton (on the outskirts of Prestwick) and Neolithic sites in the Irvine Valley (namely the remains of a settlement at Tulloch and a stone circle at Newmilns) shed light on the earliest of Ayrshire’s settlers. Some believe the Grannie Stane, visible in the River Irvine from Irvine Bridge, may be Irvine’s own stone age monument, but this has yet to be confirmed. At the eastern end of the Irvine Valley, the area around Louden Hill has been shown to have been settled by both the Romans and later the Vikings. Cumulatively, the archaeological evidence suggests that Irvine lies in a landscape rich in ancient history.

While it is possible settlement in Irvine goes back several millennia, the available evidence only succeeds in confirming that a town has been here since more recent times. There is some evidence that Irvine was visited in 839 AD by St Inan. It seems a reasonable assumption, that as the missionary sought to convert the local pagans, he would not have come to a site that was not populated. Irvine’s ancient St Inan’s Well commemorates the saint. More substantial historical evidence of Irvine’s existence emerges centuries later. King David I’s Great Constable, Hugh de Morville, made Irvine a burgh in 1140. The town’s status was later enhanced; firstly in 1240 when Alexander II granted it a charter and then in 1308 when Irvine was confirmed as a Royal Burgh by King Robert I.

The growing importance of Irvine is also reflected in its archaeology. Seagate Castle overlooks the oldest street in Irvine, which was once the main route between the town and the harbour. The original wooden tower was built some time before 1184, before being rebuilt in stone in the 1360s and then remodelled and expanded by Hugh the 3rd Earl of Eglinton, around 1565. It is said that the castle was visited by Mary Queen of Scots and that this is the origin of the town’s Marymass celebrations, held in August of each year. Irvine may have had its first wooden bridge in the 14th century, which was also later rebuilt in stone in the early 16th century. After being reconstructed and widened a number of times through the centuries, it was eventually demolished in 1973, one of the victims of the new town plan. Until 1558, there was a priory, which housed a community of Caramalite Friars. By the 17th century there was a gallows on the outskirts of the town on the road to Saltcoats. It was here, on the 12th of March and 5th of June 1650, that a number of witches, accused of being members of the Irvine Coven, were burned at the stake. The Gallows Knowe was levelled at the beginning of the 19th century to make way for the construction of a new academy.

Up until the 18th century Irvine’s success was based on its importance as a major west coast port. In fact, it was the third largest port in Scotland and considered the port for Glasgow, until the deepening of the Clyde and the development of Port Glasgow. Nonetheless, while Irvine may have become relatively less important, the industrial revolution sweeping the country at this time may actually have led to its growth in absolute terms. Over the following two centuries Irvine’s harbour exported massive quantities of coal and chemicals, while local industries included engineering, foundries, sawmills and shipbuilding. By the mid 20th century the decline in Irvine’s traditional industries prompted the Development Corporation to step in.

While the changes made by the corporation were far from wholesale, the redevelopment instigated radically changed the face of Irvine. The centrepiece of development has been Irvine Harbourside. Now home to part of the impressive Scottish Maritime Museum and the Magnum Centre, which includes a concert hall, a cinema and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The Magnum Centre remains one of Scotland’s most visited attractions. Some would argue that the success of these modern developments has gone a long way to compensate for the loss of some of the town’s antiquity. Certainly the result of Irvine’s unprecedented development has left a unique blend of old and new which is in itself major attraction.