Fish Cross has been the old marketing heart of Ayr for over 800 years.
None thanked Burns so kindly for damning the capital of his native county to immortal fame. My mither never forgave him the slight, not even in her twilight years, well after the bard’s bonny turn o’ phrase brought worldwide celebrity to our crooked wee corner of the globe.
As a lad and wicked denizen of the old toun myself, I took considerable pride in Ayr’s infamy. These days I am well past my prime, but sitting by the fire, chewing on the stem of my pipe while the wind blows fierce outside, I find myself reminiscing on those early years of the present century. In those days, the town of Ayr had a very different character from which it now possesses. It occurs to me that while my own face has grown, quite unfairly, craggy, lined, and toothless with the years, Ayr has only grown fairer – clipped and primed for the coming twentieth century.
I preferred the auld toun when she hadn’t quite shaken off her ancient features. I can still recall, with alarming alacrity, the tight knot of fear coiling in my stomach when chance would have my gaze fall upon the dungeon clock of the auld tolbooth. The lidless eye, which crowned the gallows and oversaw many a doomed man to hang, haunted no small number of my nights as a bairn.
But of all Ayr’s wicked terrors, there were none more fearsome than Muckle Nanny.
With age and wisdom, I look upon her with great affection now, but as a lad – and one, I’m not ashamed to admit, so cowardly and prone to flights of fancy as I was – the mere sight of her was enough to freeze the marrow in my bones.
In those days, the auld toun consisted of one street, that which we now call High Street, and between this and Isle Lane stood the auld Market Cross. It was here round which the fish wives with their creels of fresh catch would congregate with cries of “Caller haddie!”
My mither often quipped that the notoriety of the fish wives was not unlike that enjoyed by the ladies of London’s gossiping Society Papers, for while the fishermen of the burgh were renowned as brave, hardy men, their wives were even more so.
Quarrels were a regular feature of the market. A great deal of my youth was spent watching with morbid delight as arguments quickly dissolved into gutter fights. Such scuffles were almost always settled by the fishermen’s better halves, for police held little authority among them.
Muckle Nanny cut a fearsome figure; broad in every direction, with forearms thick as tree stumps and a voice like a Peninsular sergeant. She far exceeded the average height of the fish wives and could comfortably meet the gaze of the tallest trader at market (if they in turn were brave enough to keep from shrinking under hers). When a brawl was at its hottest, she would stride into the thick of it like a giant and, catching the miscreants by their scruff, shake the fight out of them.
It is here that I recant my own experience with the Giantess of the Fish Cross. I cannot recall the details of the quarrel I found myself caught up in, but I suspect more than two of us were involved. Our real error was staging our fight in the heart of the Fish Market, a mistake we’d come to regret deeply, for no sooner had the first punch been thrown did Muckle Nanny come barrelling down upon us with all the suddenness and terror of a landslide. I felt myself plucked from the ground and the air shaken out of my lungs until my ears rang.
We made no such mischief again. Nanny was, in truth, the Goliath among the Philistines of the Fish Cross, and as I trembled four feet off the ground in her great meaty paw, I proved myself no David beneath her wrath.
This story is inspired by James Howie’s accounts of the time (1861), recounting true events and memories.
The History of Ayr (An Historical Account of the Town of Ayr for the Last Fifty Years: With notable occurrences during that time from personal recollection) 1861
Written by: Hali Campbell
Illustrations by: Hali Campbell
Audio by: Ben Niven
Audio recording and mixing by: Scott Andrew