Welcome to Millport, Isle of Cumbrae
Millport is the capital of, and the only town on, the small island of Great Cumbrae (only 4 miles long) in the Firth of Clyde. For this reason it is fair to say that in the minds of both visitors and residents the town and the island are inextricably linked. Great Cumbrae is one of Scotland’s most accessible islands, being just a ten minute ferry journey from the mainland at Largs. Millport itself is the prettiest of seaside towns nestling in the outstretched arms of Millport and Kames Bays and offers both sandy beaches and great views of Little Cumbrae, Ailsa Craig, Arran, the Eileans and the North Ayrshire Hills.
Sunset over Great Cumbrae Island
People have lived on Great Cumbrae since earliest times. Originally arriving as hunter gatherers over 8000 years ago, over time they developed agriculture prompting the construction of more permanent settlements and monuments during the later Stone Age. However, on Great Cumbrae the most striking artefacts from the island’s prehistoric past are a number of Bronze Age cists, or burial chambers, at both Fintry and Lady Bays. One cist from Fintry Bay is on display at The Garrison in Millport Bay.
By the time of the Romans the inhabitants had organised themselves into loose tribal confederations. In the first centuries AD, possibly as a result of the presence of the Romans, tribal organisation became more sophisticated and the earliest of the country’s kingdoms came into being. Great Cumbrae was likely incorporated into the kingdom of the Britons, who had their capital at Dumbarton Rock, and later possibly became part of Dalriata, the seed from which the Kingdom of Scotland would grow. Around this time the island got its name: from old Gaelic Cumbray meaning shelter or refuge.
From the late 9th century onwards, however, a major new power in the region started to arrive from the north. Coming first as raiders the Vikings began to settle the islands in the west of Scotland. In 1098 military pressure forced King Edgar of Scotland to concede all but a few islands to King Magnus of Norway. Great Cumbrae became part of the Scandinavian Empire.
Scottish kings never gave up on the islands and strove through diplomacy and warfare to get them back. This culminated in the Battle of Largs in 1263 in which King Alexander III of Scotland retook the islands. King Haakon IV of Norway led his invading fleet in person. He had his base at Tomont Head on Great Cumbrae. From the knoll at the end of Downcraig Ferry he is said to have watched the battle across the water before joining the fray. Unfortunately for the Norwegians, at Largs he received a fatal wound which would eventually end his life on Orkney on his return to Norway. The Ladies Grave, on the hill beside the ferry slip, is said to mark the spot where a woman is buried having died of a broken heart after the loss of her Viking husband at the battle.
Whether the Vikings founded a settlement at Millport or not is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that by as late as 17th century there were two towns, Kames and Kirkton, at different ends of the bay. While fishing and farming may have provided the town’s subsistence it seems that smuggling was an important part of the economy. It was supported by the islanders, including the church which relied on smuggled wine for services. In 1634 ‘The King’s Boat’ was stationed in the bay to deal with the smuggling problem along the Firth of Forth. The presence of the boat seems to have stimulated growth: the two towns grew together, many of the new streets taking the names of the boat’s officers. At the same time a grain mill was opened up on Cardiff Street, possibly as the locals sought another method of making money: it is from this mill that the name of town is derived. The Garrison, possibly Millport’s most emblematic building, was built to accommodate the customs officers station in the town.
Millport’s latest stage of development began when Lord Glasgow built a pier at Millport in 1833. The pier opened up the town to visits by steam ships bringing day trippers from Glasgow. The Victorian seafront villas sprung up and Millport took on its present form. It was around this time that the remarkable Cathedral of the Isles, which holds the title of ‘Smallest Cathedral in Europe,’ was constructed, another of Millport’s emblematic buildings. Today Millport is a peaceful retreat from the urban chaos of nearby Glasgow.
A Brief History of Scotland