- A medieval royal burgh of Scottish significance
- Surrounded by Sites of Special Scientific Interest for nature
- Access to beautiful beaches and waterfronts for recreation
- Strong connections to Robert Burns who lived in and was inspired by his time in the town
- Cultural destination for visitors, with interesting and varied heritage venues
- Populated by striking and historic buildings
Irvine has been a medieval royal burgh since the mid 1200s, and one of the most important parishes in Scotland. The settlement of Dreghorn in the Irvine burgh dates back to at least the mesolithic period. Archeology has unearthed several Iron Age hill forts and ancient remains throughout the whole Irvine area.
The high tide mark on the River Irvine once reached as far as Seagate, enabling fishermen to safely unload their catch there. Seagate became the first inhabited area, accessed only via the south coast, with the assistance of maps detailing the location of quicksands and the river ford known as ‘Pubblie-Deidly.’
The River Irvine today, where the high tide mark once was. The river has since been widened and dredged.
Seagate Castle was constructed in the 1100s (originally from wood) as the protection and townhouse for what became Irvine Harbour. It was rebuilt in stone in the 1360s and extended in the 1560s by the 3rd Earl of Eglinton. Records report that Mary Queen of Scots stayed at the castle in 1563. It fell into disrepair by the mid 1750s, becoming a popular spot for smugglers and thieves to hide out. It remains the town’s oldest surviving civic building.
In the 12th century, Irvine was the military capital of the Lord High Constable of Scotland, and Bourtree Hill, the main estate in the parish, became resident to at least three different kings. Irvine was a memorable site during the Scottish Wars of Independence, when the English army attempted to attack the Scottish army encampment at Knadgerhill; however the Scots leaders managed to avoid conflict by persuading leaders to change sides.
In the 1600s the harbour was moved to Fullarton, built initially from river bed rocks. It quickly became a bigger port than Ayr and the main port for Glasgow, in particular trading with Dublin. Coal, tar, lime and chemicals were exported, and hemp, iron and wood were imported from Finland and Russia. Foundries, sawmills and warehouses were established at the port.
Looking west across Irvine Harbour
The Incorporated Trades of Irvine are a distinct part of Irvine's history both politically and economically. Irvine’s seven trades were officially incorporated in 1646 with the granting of a Seal of Cause. They included Hammermen, Weavers, Tailors, Cordiniers, Skinners, Wrights and Squaremen, and Coppers. The trades themselves had been part of the town's economy since at least the 1400s. When each of the crafts had their AGM it was the custom for them to distribute pies to poorer families within the burgh; a tradition that continues today.
The Irvine Carters were constituted in 1753 and became an important part of the town council. The Carters were invaluable as transporters of goods between Irvine Harbour and towns across the region including Kilmarnock, Paisley and Glasgow. Imports to Irvine included tea, tobacco, sugar and cotton, meaning the wealth of some was derived from the international slave trade. Today the Carters are instrumental in keeping alive a popular historic annual festival in Irvine called Marymass, originally an August celebration of the Virgin Mary.
Sculpture of the ‘Carter and his Horse’ by David Annand at Irvine Harbourside. Pardes of horse-drawn carts are still used in celebrations of the annual Marymass festival.
Bogside Racecourse on the banks of the River Irvine, is believed to be the site of the Marymass Races since the 1600s. It officially became a managed horse racing track in the early 1800s and was in operation until the 1960s. It had a 2 mile race course and was the first place in Scotland recorded to host a steeplechase. It also hosted the Scottish Grand National, Bogside Cup and the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup.
Today the racecourse borders Irvine Golf Club at Bogside, a historic recreational space still active after 125 years. The racecourse, golf club, Bogside Flats and RSPB Bogside Reserve, collectively make up a rich habitat variety on the floodplain of the Garnock, ideal as a roosting site for winter wildfowl and waders. Bogside Flats is a SSSI, designated for the quality of its salt marshes and mudflats.
Shipbuilding at Irvine Harbour began in the late 1750s and continued until the 1930s. The yard was first established by John Webb and changed hands multiple times, with each company adding or extending the yard. Shipyard employment reached its peak in the 1920s with over 2000 workers.
Robert Burns has strong links to Irvine. He moved to the town in 1781 as a 22-year old flax farmer, in order to work in the town’s flax mill on Glasgow Street. He wanted to learn how to prepare the flax ahead of being spun into linen locally. He found inspiration for his writing in the busy manufacturing environment of the town, and became good friends with Captain Robert Brown, who told him stories from life at sea and encouraged the young poet to write.
Irvine Harbour was home to several iconic structures constructed in the 1900s. The automatic tide signalling apparatus, which was built by the harbour master Martin Boyd, was a spectacular piece of innovation at its time, and was sited on the town side of the harbour. Across the water the Big Idea was a science centre opened at the turn of the millennium, however it only remained open for a few years.
The Harbourside is also home to the Scottish Maritime Museum which has a number of significant heritage ships. The MV Garnock tugboat, built in 1956 by George Brown & Co. Ltd of Greenock, rests in the water at the harbourside. The boat worked on the Clyde Estuary, towing ships which were loading and unloading explosives for ICI Explosive Works at Ardeer. It was in operation until it was damaged dramatically by an explosion when dumping explosives near Ardrossan.
The MV Garnock at Irvine Harbour in 2019.
Irvine received royal burgh status in 1372, making it an unusual candidate for gaining the New Town Status in the 1960s. Led by the Irvine Development Corporation (IDC), the town (and neighbouring Kilwinning) underwent major regeneration and capital investments to accommodate larger populations and new industries. In 1996 the IDC was wound up and responsibility for development transferred to the local authority.
The ‘New Town’ developments received a mixed reaction. The most popular new provisions included Irvine Beach Park and the Magnum Leisure Centre. The Magnum was originally intended to be partly a superstructure running all the way from Irvine Beach Park into the town centre; however only the leisure centre building and the central shopping centre were constructed. The now demolished Magnum closed in 2017, but is fondly remembered and was an outstanding facility in its time.
Irvine Beach Park remains a key asset for the town, and the transformation of an industrial wasteland into a high quality green amenity was one of the successes of the IDC. The park was used to host music events like the ‘Irvine Beach Festival’ in the 1990s, and sporting competitions such as the National Cross-country Championships and the Scottish Schools Championships.
The Stone Dragon at Irvine Beach Park
The estuary, where the Garnock and the Irvine rivers meet the sea, is the largest in Ayrshire and one of Scotland's best examples of a bar-built estuary. It is also designated a SSSI as it contains the only extensive expanse of saltmarsh and mudflats on the Ayrshire coast. It is also a major destination for migratory birds during the spring and autumn.
- Irvine Harbour was one of the most prominent ports in Scotland. It was historically the main port for Glasgow and was the third largest port in Scotland for world trade
- Bogside Racecourse was the first recorded place in Scotland to host a Steeplechase
- Dreghorn is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited village in Britain, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Neolithic village on land next to Dreghorn cemetery
- John Loyd Dunlop, the inventor of the first ever tyre, was born in Dreghorn
- The River Irvine estuary is the largest in Ayrshire and one of the UK’s best examples of a bar-built estuary. It is designated a SSSI as it contains the only extensive expanse of saltmarsh and mudflats on the Ayrshire coast.
- Irvine was dramatically expanded and altered by receiving New Town status in 1966