Old Bridge of Ayr

There is a tradition that the first bridge was  founded by two maiden sisters , one of whom had seen her lover drown while fording the river.  The effigies of two women are reputed to have been carved  on a stone on the east parapet  and the faded remains could still be seen in the 19th century. 

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Morris ('The Brig of Ayr and something of its story')   notes that the first written mention is in a 1236 charter of Alexander II, along with provision “ad susten. pontis”  ; this wording indicates maintenance  rather than construction.      In Treasurer Rolls  for 1491 (James IV ) is found the entry “XVII Nouembris , to the massonis of the bryg off Ayre Xs.”: that is 10 shillings to the masons  of Ayr bridge.     There is no evidence that this is a new construction,  but  do we know that in  the same year  James was  ferried over the river on his way to Whithorn.  It has  been generally assumed that the present masonry bridge is from this time . The single remaining  Gothic arch is compatible with this date (in reality, it may be a slightly broken segmental  arch.) An old ford preceded the bridge, a little distance away.   A date stone with ‘1232’  is clearly a later addition.  

Between 1585 and 1588  the arches were ruinous and very major repairs were carried out – possibly a complete rebuild : "Ye bowis of ye brig yt ar ap-perend ruynous”.  Tolls were imposed.  In 1597 carts and sledges were temporarily banned, on penalty of five pounds.   In 1687 further  tolls were charged in the streets as well as the harbour and bridge, in order to pay for essential bridge repairs.

The north arch collapsed in 1732 along with the abutment on the north bank.  Masons were appointed for the repair . The whole bridge was examined  and still considered insecure.   It was decided that henceforth the nearby ford should be used at low water to spare the bridge as much as possible.   More patching and repairs are recorded in 1754, 1779 and 1782.   In 1785 an extensive report condemned three of the arches; however, all repairs were set aside in favour of building a new bridge at the location of the old ford.  This required an Act of Parliament. 

In 1788 the new bridge of Ayr was opened, thanks to the efforts of Provost Ballantyne and the design of Robert Adam. It was 100 yards downstream where the old ford used to be.   The old bridge became a pedestrian crossing.

  The New Brig and the Auld Brig are commemorated in Robert Burns's poem The Brigs o' Ayr.   The poem describes an argument between the two bridges, in which the Auld Brig predicts that it shall remain standing long after the the New Brig has gone.  

The New Brig claims-

There's men of taste wou'd tak the Ducat stream,
Tho' they should cast the very sark and swim,
E'er they would grate their feelings wi' the view
O' sic an ugly, Gothic hulk as you.”

The Auld  Brig replies-

"Conceited gowk! puff'd up wi' windy pride!
This mony a year I've stood the flood an' tide;
And tho' wi' crazy eild I'm sair forfairn ,
I'll be a brig when ye're a shapeless cairn!

Burns’ prescient suggestion became fact. The New Brig had to be demolished after a severe storm in 1879.  The present New Bridge is a complete rebuild.  The Old Bridge of Ayr is still standing. 

In 1879 an Ayr watchmaker, Robert Templeton bequeathed his entire estate of £10,000 in trust for the rebuilding of the old bridge.  Twenty-eight years passed before the estate was settled and the decisions were completed. No one knew what ‘rebuilding’ meant.  Administrators and engineers, having inspected the bridge, declared it irreparable and suggested knocking it down and starting again.  Lovers of history, supported by Burns enthusiasts,  wanted to preserve, renew and renovate. The next-of-kin challenged the will and stood-by ready to claim the bequest for themselves if the trust was not properly carried out. It was largely thanks to the campaigning of James Morris, an Ayr architect, that the final decision was taken to preserve, in 1907.

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The bridge turned out to be even more insecure than had been thought.  Scouring had completely undermined the piers  which had been founded on oak branders (see Structure section).  These had to be underpinned as did the cutwaters. Shafts were bored down through the infill and  the piers and through to  the foundations and below. These shafts were filled with concrete, effectively to pin the structure to the clay below. The voussoirs were carefully repaired and the arches strengthened and pointed. Stonework was replaced and the superstructure strengthened internally  by pumping in more concrete to replace the infill between the spandrels.    Morris reports particular attention given to the ‘distorted’ south arch (left) It was decided not to dismantle and rebuild it, but rather to infill it with concrete and underpin the foundations, thus preserving its distortion.  Since elsewhere he describes “ four beautiful segmental arches”, it appears that his view was that this south arch was originally segmental rather than pointed.  Certainly the voussoirs match the other arches and there is visible damage and sagging of the northerly spandrel.   This issue is important for dating.  Hume (RCAHMS 1977) describes three segmental and one pointed arch which rather implies a 15th century date.   I think he was wrong; this is a broken or hinged 16th century segmental arch.     

Today the Auld Brig of Ayr is a pedestrian pathway and historical monument, mainly dating from around 1585. There may be some foundation remains from the 15th century.   There are four arches, each of differing masonry, reflecting many rebuilds over the centuries.  The depressed voussoirs are in dressed stone and the spandrels are in rubble. There are massive cutwaters but no refuges.  The old lamps have been preserved. Parapets are stepped upwards at both ends and come from a later period. 

The Auld Brig appears on Roy's survey and on Blaeu's Atlas. Pont did not cover Ayrshire but Gordon’s map from the same period  does include Ayr Bridge.  

 

 

 

Dec. 2012                                      Site last updated  November 2017