Descriptive Gazetteer Entry for Largs

Largs (Gael. learg, ` a hill-slope '), a police burgh and parish in the district of Cunninghame, Ayrshire. The town is situated on the coast, upon a large gravel deposit, which was probably at one time part of the bed of the Firth of Clyde; and the broad shingly beach in front of the town has a gradual slope that makes it at once pleasant and safe for bathers. Largs stands on the highroad between Greenock and Ardrossan, 6 miles S of Wemyss Bay, 9 NW of Kilbirnie, and 30 NNW of Ayr. A second and more inland road also leads to Greenock through Noddsdale or Noddlesdale, but it is now rarely used except by the farmers through whose lands it passes. The nearest railway stations are at Fairlie, 3 miles S, which is at present (1883) the terminus of a branch of the Glasgow and South-Western railway, and at Wemyss Bay, where the Caledonian railway has a terminus; but plans have already been prepared to extend the Fairlie line to Largs, although operations have not yet been actually begun. Communication with Wemyss Bay is maintained by steamers plying in connection with the railway; and with Fairlie by means of daily omnibuses and waggonettes. The country surrounding Largs is picturesque and fertile; the climate is dry and healthy; and, although not so absolutely protected from the E wind as its inhabitants claim, it is one of the healthiest and most favourite watering-places on the Clyde. The main street, which at one part expands to a considerable breadth, runs directly inland from the pier and harbour, spanning the Gogo Burn by means of a stone bridge at its inland or E end. Running off from it, or parallel to it, are several other narrower streets and alleys, of which the chief is called Gallowgate. A broad esplanade, terraced on the sea-ward side, extends N from the quay for a considerable distance, and is continued almost to the Noddle Burn by a strip of rough common, separating the high road from the beach. A row of recently erected houses, intended for letting purposes, and the Episcopal church, marks for the present the extension of the town in this direction; while along the inland side of the road, stretching between these and the town proper, are situated a number of substantial villas, each in its own grounds. Southwards from the quay, a short street, crossing the Gogo Burn by an iron bridge, leads to the pleasant suburb of Broomfields, consisting of handsome and comfortable villas, built on the crest of a gentle grass-covered slope, inclining towards the sea. In the vicinity of the town, though beyond the boundaries of the burgh, there are numerous private houses, for the most part standing within pleasantly laid out gardens or grounds, and as these are generally occupied by the proprietors, even in winter, the society of the town is both more extensive and of a higher class than at most sea-bathing towns on the Clyde.

Largs has no public buildings of importance besides the churches. The quay, built substantially of stone in 1834, cost £4275; and, while it forms a kind of breakwater enclosing a small harbour, it is accessible by steamers on its outward side at all states of the tide. In 1816 a bath-house was erected at Largs; but that is now used as a public hall. The parish church, built in 1812 and repaired in 1833, is a plain building with a good steeple, in which there is a public clock. The church contains 1268 sittings. The Free church, a very simple structure, was built soon after the Disruption. The U.P. church in Waterside Street, built in 1826, has 690 sittings, and St Columba's Episcopal church, a small building in the Early English style with 250 sittings, was built in 1877. St Mary's Roman Catholic church in School Street was built to contain 140 in 1870. Largs had a parochial school, endowed with 100 merks annually, but without a schoolhouse, so early as 1696. In 1809 the heritors erected a school and master's house; and later Sir Thomas Brisbane erected, at a cost of £350, another school and master's house, endowing it with £30 a year. Both of these schools, together with one in School Street, are now in the hands of the school board. In 1881 the respective accommodations, attendance, and government grants of the various schools were:-Largs public school, 162, 167, £115, 12s.; Brisbane Academy and the Female Industrial school together, 420, 126, £83, 13s.; and another Female Industrial school, 103, 57, £43, 13s. On the esplanade in front of the parish church a handsome granite drinking fountain was erected about 1873 at a cost of £550 in memory of the late Dr Campbell, who for sixty-one years had been physician in the town. Largs cemetery lies a little to the SE of the town, on the steep slope of a hill, over which passes the road to Dalry. It is very carefully tended and neatly laid out, and its upper walks command an exquisite view over the Clyde. The chief object of antiquarian interest in Largs is what is known as the Skelmorlie Aisle, the only relic of the ancient church situated in the old graveyard, adjacent to the present parish church. This aisle, of chiselled freestone, was erected and converted into a mausoleum by Sir Robert Montgomery of Skelmorlie in 1636. In the interior its lofty roof is vaulted with boarding, painted in forty-one compartments with various emblematic, moral, and heraldic subjects, as the signs of the zodiac, escutcheons, texts from Scripture, several views of the mansion of Skelmorlie, and the representation of the death of one of the ladies of the Skelmorlie family from the kick of a horse. a richly carved monument stands across the aisle to the left of the entrance, 11½ feet long, 5 broad, and 18 high, to the memory of Sir Robert Montgomery and his wife, Dame Margaret Douglas, whose leaden coffins lie in the vault below. The epitaph of the latter alone is legible, and runs as follows:-

Bis duo bisq decem transegi virgvinis annos;
Ter duo ter decem consociata viro,
Et bis opem Lucina tulit. Mas Patris imago
Spesq domus superest: Femina iussa mori.
Clara genus generosa, anima speciosa decore
Cara Deo vivi: nunc mihi cuncta Deus.

On the corner of Sir Robert's coffin, however, is the inscription-

Ipse mihi praemortuus fui. fato funera
Praeripuo. unicum iddue Caesareum
Exemplar inter tot mortales secutus.

alluding to his habit of descending to pray in his wife's tomb, and thus, as it were, burying himself alive. In another coffin within the vault is the body of Ser Hewe the Monggombyrry, said to have been slain at Chevy Chase after himself slaying Percy; but according to the more historical ballad of the Battle of Otterburn (1388)-

Then was there a Scottish prisoner ta'en,
Sir Hugh Montgomery was his name,
For sooth as I you say.
He borrowed the Percy home again.

i.e., was exchanged for Percy. A large barrow or mound, about 25 yards long and 9 broad, and about 5 feet high, situated near the old burying-ground in the centre of the town, is by many held to be the ancient moat-hill or place for the punishment of criminals, especially as the Gallowgate is in the immediate vicinity; but others, including Dr Phené, who excavated the mound in 1873, incline to recognise in it the spot in which the Norwegians were buried after the battle of Largs. Other relics of the battle are referred to subsequently.

Largs is the seat of a head post office, with the usual departments; has branch offices of the Royal and Union Banks; and 18 insurance companies have agents in the town. There are 5 hotels, an agricultural society, 2 bowling-greens, a mechanic's library, and a fever hospital, besides various associations and clubs, of which perhaps Largs Yacht Club is most noteworthy. A gaswork was erected in the town in 1838; and water is supplied by gravitation from works on the farm of Middleton. One coastguardsman is stationed at Largs. There is little or no industry beyond a little fishing, and the ordinary retail trade of a small town. There are, however, a corn and saw mill on the Gogo, and another mill on the Noddle. Two Saturday newspapers are the Largs and Millport Weekly News (1876) and the Largs and Millport Herald (1883). Largs, until recently, was governed mainly by the county authorities; but since it became a burgh it has 1 chief and 2 junior magistrates, and 6 commissioners. The harbour is managed by a committee under a chairman. The burgh is in the Kilmarnock district of the sheriff-court; and a justice of the peace court for small debts is held on the first Monday of every month. A fair is annually held on Comb's Day (originally St Colme's or St Columba's), the first Tuesday of June after the 12th, but this gathering has lost almost all of its old importance. Besides the means of communication already referred to, two carriers ply to Glasgow, one six times, the other five times a week. Pop. (1851) 2824, (1861) 2638, (1871) 2760, (1881) 3079, of whom 1739 were females. Houses occupied 722, vacant 2h9, building 1 h.

The chief historical event connected with the town is the battle of Largs, fought 3 Oct. 1263, between the Scots, under Alexander III., and the Norse, under Haco III. The fleet of the latter had been much damaged by a storm immediately before the battle, which had been artfully delayed by Alexander; and the Norsemen were compelled to effect a landing with but a part of their whole strength. The battle which followed resulted in a complete victory for the Scots, and effectually put an end to the Norwegian claim of sovereignty over the western coasts and islands of Scotland. The chief scene of the fight was a plain to the S of the town, immediately below the mansion of Haylee; but there are memorials of the struggle extant in many quarters. Some of these are merely local names, as Camphill farm in Dalry parish, Burleygate and Killingcraig on the Routdon Burn; and still further S, Keppingburn, where Sir Robert Boyd, ancestor of the Earls of Kilmarnock, is said to have intercepted a band of fleeing Norsemen. Among the visible relics may be counted the remains of the tumulus known as 'Haco's tomb,' consisting of a large flat stone supported on two others. Till 1780 the tumulus was known as Margaret's Law; but when opened in that year, it was found to cover five stone coffins containing skulls and other bones, while many human bones and some urns were found above and about the coffins. From this discovery it was at once concluded that the remains were those of some of the slain at the battle of Largs; and popular haziness as to the details of the fight and the real fate of Haco has evolved the modern name. Another mound called Greenhill, at the entrance to the avenue of Hawkhill House, has also, perhaps too hastily, been identified as another Norwegian burial-place. Built into the garden wall of Curling Hall, a mansion near the shore in Largs, is a rude stone pillar, to which is now attached a copper plate with the following inscription:-

Substitit hic Gothi furor.
Conditur hic Haco Steinensis, et undiqie circum
Norvegios fidos terra tegit socios:-
Huc regnum venere petentes; Scotia vietor
Hostibus hic tumuios. præmia justa, dedit.
Quarto ante nonas Octobres, A.D.1263,
Ipsis Calendis Junii. A.D.1823,
Me posuit jussitque Joannes Carnius illam
Rem memorare tibi.-Tu memores aliis.

In 1644 a terrible plague devastated the town, of which several grave notices are contained in the records of Irvine presbytery, which then included Largs. The remains of several huts, found at Outerwards on the Noddle Burn, are believed to be those of the temporary refuge of the inhabitants of Largs during the pestilence. The 'Prophet's Grave,' in a retired spot within Brisbane Woods, contains the remains of the Rev. William Smith, minister of Largs, who fell a victim to the plague in 1644. The name was given to the spot because, as Mr Smith was dying, he affirmed that if two holly trees were planted, one at each end of his grave, and prevented from ever meeting, the plague would never revisit the town. The trees have been carefully kept asunder, and Largs has never again suffered from pestilence.

The parish of Largs is bounded on the N and E by Renfrewshire, on the SE by Kilbirnie parish, on the S by Dalry and West Kilbride, and on the W by the Firth of Clyde. Its greatest length, from N by E to S by W, is 9½ miles; its greatest breadth is 5¼ miles; and its area is 21,850 acres. On the E boundary a range of hills and high-lying moorland divide this parish so distinctly from the cultivated land to the N, E, and SE, as to give rise to the saying, 'Out o' the world and into the Largs.' There is probably a reference to this expression in the quaint name, 'the back of the world,' given locally to the NE corner of the parish. The chief heights in the E region are, from N to S, Berry Hill (943 feet), Knockencorsan (1028), Black Fell (1323), Burnt Hill (1569) and South Burnt Hill (148l), Peat Hill (1339), Rowantree Hill (1404), Hill of Stake (1711); on the extreme E border, High Corby Knowe (1615), Girtley Hill (1254), Cockrobin (1271), Box Law (1543), and Blacklaw (1525). The uplands gradually descend as they approach the shore, sometimes, indeed, terminating in abrupt declivities, especially in the N. For the most part they are covered with verdure, and give evidence of having been under tillage. A fertile plain, about a mile broad, extends southwards from about a mile to the N of the town of Largs, well-wooded and cultivated, and separating the beach from the higher ground.

Two burns, the Rotten Burn and the Calder Water, trace part of the boundary with Renfrewshire to the NE and E. But most of the streams of the parish are small, and flow westward into the firth. Of these the chief are Kelly Burn, which marks the N boundary, flowing through a beautifully-wooded den; Skelmorlie Water, entering the sea just S of Skelmorlie Castle; Noddle Burn, rising between Knockencorsan and Blackfell, and flowing SW, with many feeders, through Brisbane Glen; and the Gogo, which receives the Greeto from Waterhead Moor. Clea Burn, draining the lovely Kelburn Glen, and Fairlie Burn are small streams. Blackfield Loch, in the N, a very small expanse, is the only lake. Trap and Old Red sandstone are the chief rocks; limestone and shale are found near Quarter; and building sandstone is found. Part of the lowland soil is fertile alluvium, but in general it is a poor débris of Old Red sandstone. The upland soil is chiefly heathy or moorland. The families most closely identified historically with Largs parish are Fairlie of that Ilk, Boyle of Kelburn, Brisbane of that Ilk, Fraser of Knock, Wilson of Haylee, and Montgomery of Skelmorlie. The most extensive landholders are the Earl of Glasgow, Charles Brisbane of Brisbane House, the Earl of Eglinton, John Scott of Hawkhill, and Geo. Elder of Knock Castle. The chief mansions and seats are Skelmorlie Castle, Bridgend House, Ashcraig, St Fillans, Knock Castle, Quarter, Routenburn House, Brisbane House, Hawkhill House, Haylee, and Kelburne Castle, the property of the Earl of Glasgow. The parish contains, besides the town of Largs, the villages of Fairlie and Skelmorlie, at each of which there is a quoad sacra parish church, and the small hamlet of Meigle, where a small concrete chapel was erected in 1876. A high-road between Greenock and Ardrossan passes through the parish; and the Glasgow and South-Western railway in 1880-82 extended their line to Fairlie, where a new pier, etc., have been erected.

Including the whole of Fairlie and most of Skelmorlie quoad sacra parish, Largs is in the presbytery of Greenock and the synod of Glasgow and Ayr; the living is worth £532. Besides the churches in the town, there are Established churches at Skelmorlie and Fairlie, a Free church at Fairlie, and a U.P. church at Skelmorlie. Valuation (1860) £21,316, (1883) £42,478, 8s. Pop. (1801) 1361, (1831) 2848, (1861) 3620, (1871) 4087, (1881) 5149, of whom 3425 were in the ecclesiastical parish.

The name Largs appears to have been anciently given the northern and smaller of the two parts into which the district of Cunninghame was divided. John Baliol, competitor for the Scottish crown, inherited this lordship from his mother; and, on his forfeiture, it was conferred by Robert Bruce on his son-in-law, Walter, the Steward of Scotland. The church was held by the monks of Paisley till 1587, when the church lands, etc., were made a temporal lordship in favour of Lord Claud Hamilton. In the reign of Charles I. this passed to Montgomery of Skelmorlie. The church was dedicated to St Columba.

The antiquities of the parish, besides those connected with the battle of Largs (see ante), include Skelmorlie and Fairlie Castles, noted in separate articles. Not far from the former is an artificial mound, rising to the height of 100 feet, and partly overgrown with trees, which is supposed to have been used by the ancient Britons in the rites of sun-worship and serpent-worship. This serpent-mound was discovered by Dr.Phené, whose excavations on the spot resulted in the discovery of a paved platform in the form of a segment of a circle, and large masses of charcoal and portions of bones. ` Taking the latitude of the mound, and the points of the compass where the sun would rise and set on the longest day, this segment-shaped platform, devoted apparently to sacrifice by fire, is found to fill up the remaining interval, and thereby complete the fiery circle of the sun's course, which would be deficient by that space.. Independently of the time of year indicated by this fire agreeing with that of the midsummer fires of the Druids, we have here not only an evidence of solar and serpent worship, but also of sacrifice. 'About half-way between Skelmorlie and Largs is St Fillan's Well, near which is the site of the ancient chapel of St Fillan, now utterly destroyed. Near the modern Knock Castle rises the remains of an older building of the same name, a very ancient mansion of the Frasers of Lovat, from whom it passed in 1674. Immediately behind rises Knock Hill (711 feet), on which have been discovered the traces of a triply-entrenched camp, believed to be Roman. Various Roman coins and tiles have been dug up, especially in and near the town; and according to Paterson's History of Ayrshire, a Roman bath was discovered in Largs in the year 1820.—Ord. Sur., shs. 21, 22, 29, 30, 1865-73. See the Rev. James Johnston's Norwegian Account of Haco's Expedition (1782), and Gardner's Wemyss Bay, Innerkip, and Largs (Paisley, 1879).

(F.H. Groome, Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (1882-4); © 2004 Gazetteer for Scotland)

Linked entities:
Feature Description: "a police burgh and parish"   (ADL Feature Type: "cities")
Administrative units: Largs ScoP       Largs Burgh       Newton of Gogo Burgh       Ayrshire ScoCnty
Place names: LARGS     |     LEARG
Place: Largs

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