Communities across the region were strongly connected by their dependence on one another for natural resources, labour and transport during the emerging industrial era. This began with agricultural improvements, largely in the 18th century. Along with the enclosure of land, interventionist approaches to drainage was a key component of improvement that saw big changes to natural watercourses across the area.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, iron and steelmaking had transformed the population of Kilbirnie, as thousands of workers came from across the country to work in the industries. The blast furnace of the Glengarnock Iron Works opened in 1841 and operated until closure in 1985. The works occupied an extensive plot of land on the banks of Kilbirnie Loch and the iron and steel produced here was exported globally, putting Kilbirnie and Glengarnock on an international map. Ironstone came from across the region for use at the Glengarnock works — for example ironmasters Merry & Cunninghame provided factories and accommodation for workers in Barrmill. Iron foundries were also built in Kilwinning and Stevenston, where five blast furnaces used iron-ore that was imported through Ardrossan Harbour.
The need for water to power or support these industries saw several interventions to alter the natural course of River Garnock and its tributaries with weirs, sluices, bunds or rerouting.
The British Dynamite Factory is one of the most well known examples, built on the Ardeer Peninsula in 1871 by Alfred Nobel. It was later taken over by ICI, and went on to become the largest explosives factory in the world. It was a global supplier employing thousands of local people. The factory had its own jetty on the River Garnock in Irvine Harbour, serving ships disposing of time-expired explosives or importing materials for the works.
Other inventions across the region range from Martin Boyd’s automatic tide signalling apparatus, built on the town side of Irvine Harbour, and finger printing technology invented by Henry Faulds, who came from Beith.
Irvine’s harbour was one of the most important ports in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries, and once the third largest in Scotland for world trade. The Carters were invaluable as transporters of goods across Glasgow and the west of Scotland—transporting to and from Irvine Harbour, which was considered Glasgow’s sea port. Exports included natural materials mined, quarried or processed in the region, such as coal, iron and stone. Imports to the area’s ports included tea, tobacco, sugar and cotton, meaning the wealth of some was derived from the international slave trade.
Other key ports operated along the coastline, such as the docks established in Ardrossan. These docks exported coal and stone from the Eglinton works to Ireland, as well as becoming a key ferry terminal for passenger routes to Ireland. Passenger services from Ardrossan Harbour to Brodick on the Isle of Arran started in 1834. Services to Belfast and the Isle of Man followed in 1863 and 1892 respectively.
Looking west across Irvine Harbour
All of the towns in the area were engaged in the textile industry to some degree from the 1700s, with the emergence of flax spinning and weaving. During the 1800s Kilbirnie was the local epicentre of this industry, busy with flax-spinning mills, linen-thread mills, wincey factories, fishing-net factories and rope-works. They produced winceys, ginghams, woollen shirtings, flannels, linen thread, linen yarn, ropes, and fishing nets. The W & J Knox Treadmills are famous for nets made for the army, and are still in operation today.
Further up the valley, furniture making industries were established in both Lochwinnoch and Beith. The furniture industry for which Beith is famed began in 1845 with a small workshop started by Mathew Dale. It grew into a renowned local industry, with multiple furniture factories producing high-end cabinetry until the 1980s. Different companies created unique hand carved products, from boardroom and library fittings (Macneill Bros) to mantle pieces (Balfours) and furniture for ships such as the RMS Queen Mary (Matthew Pollock Ltd.).
Stoneyholm Mill has been used as to produce cotton, spin flax and manufacture nets and twine