Scotland’s Oldest Bridges.
A map-based catalogue of the oldest masonry bridges in Scotland.
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 were carved on a stone on the east parapet, and the faded remains of this could still be seen in the 19th century.
The first written mention of the bridge is is in a 1236 charter of Alexander II along with provision “ad susten. pontis” ; this wording indicates maintenance rather than construction, and suggests an already established structure. The Burgh Court Book mentions the bridge in 1440. In the 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. James was ferried over the river on his way to Whithorn because the bridge was under repair. The ferry was at the St. John’s Kirk. It has been generally assumed that the present masonry bridge is from this time. The single remaining Gothic arch might be compatible with this date (in reality, it may be a slightly broken segmental arch). An old ford preceded the bridge, a little distance away.
Between 1585 and 1588, the arches were crumbling 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. Slezer’s 17th century painting reveals an over-arch and gateway at the eastern end.
The north arch collapsed in 1732 along with the abutment on the north bank. Masons were appointed. 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 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’s 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 (Ref), an Ayr architect, that the final decision was taken to preserve, in 1907.
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 below. These shafts were filled with concrete effectively to pin the structure to the clay. 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 that particular attention was given to the ‘distorted’ south arch (below). 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 in his report 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 masonry of 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 this was wrong; it is a broken or hinged 16th-century segmental arch. The foundations were also inspected with care, and the report has provided an excellent description of a brander (see structure section) : “These oak cradles were formed of roughly hewn timbers, in part squarely dressed, half-checked at the cross angles, scarfed at the longitudinal junctions, and pinned together by a number of 1-inch oak pins, securely driven home. The timbers varied from 4 to 5 inches, to 8 to 10 inches square. The heaviest followed the outline of the piers and cutwaters, and were held together by lighter cross-pieces, these again, beneath the junction of the piers and cutwaters, being stiffened by angle struts. This oak cradle framing had been set upon the boulder clay, which again had been cut into, or the cradle wedged up from it, with oak wedges to a level surface, and upon the timbers large irregular flat stones laid. The spaces between these stones, as also between the cradling timbers, had been filled in with loose stones.”
There is an odd historical quirk associated with this bridge. It seems that a 19th century Ayr goldsmith claimed to have acquired a portion of wood from the foundations. John Lyall had his premises at Old Bridge Road which was very nearby. He created expensive up-market souvenirs: bracelets, pendants and snuffboxes, each incorporating a tiny portion of this wood, usually embedded in silver or brass with a ‘Brig o' Ayr, 1252’ engraving. These are high quality items, and appear, today, to fetch several hundred pounds at reputable London auction houses. The pieces have been dated to1800 by Christie's. The date of the embedded wood, itself, cannot be confirmed or denied. The samples are too small for dendrochronology, and although carbon dating requires smaller sampling the heavy preservatives in the wood imply that, even with that procedure, sampling would use up most of the material.
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 segmental arches, each of differing masonry, reflecting many rebuilds over the centuries. The recessed 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 arches are of 52ft span and rise 27ft above the waterline. It is 13ft wide between the parapets.
The Auld Brig appears on Roy's survey, Adair’s map and Blaeu's Atlas. Pont did not cover Ayrshire, but Gordon’s map from the same period does include Ayr Bridge.
Page last updated Oct.2020