Historically, criminals were marched across the brig to a drumbeat, banished to the other side.
Have a look! If you look carefully when crossing the cobbled brig, two stones can be seen laying at a different angle to the others under foot. These mark the divide between Ayr Town and Newton Town.
I have left this letter in our secret spot we had as children. I didn’t know where else to find you. I know you will not find it since you cannot be seen in Ayr again, but I wrote it anyway.
I had to tell you. I need to get this off my chest – as I am so angry at you! I cannot begin to tell you how mad I am at you. I must tell you how selfish you and your actions have been. As your sister, I am allowed to hate you so vehemently and speak so honestly. To get yourself banished, BANISHED EDWARD! You were drummed out of the toun, with the whole toun watching. Mother hasn’t stopped crying and Father has been having hushed conversations with members of the council, all of which he has walked away from with his head hung low, wringing his hands and sending cursed words out into the world!
I hope you are happy now. You know how seriously William Neisbit has taken his role of ‘kepar of the Toun. How much he is trying to keep the plague from entering Ayr. And you go and do something so stupid as to talk to the Bleyth sisters from Irvine. A town KNOWN BY ALL to be absolutely ravished by the Black Death. I hope your 5 minutes of fanciful flirtation was worth you and your family’s utter ruination. Did you know they batted their eyelashes and whispered sweet nothings into the Guards ear to even be allowed past the gate?! The guard was later sent marching over the bridge too. Those girls deserve to be branded and scourged for their actions. A pity be upon them! I have been told if they try to return, they will be hanged. HANGED! As could you if you come back to Ayr.
Provost Richard Bannatyne has fallen victim, as well as some other members of the council. There have been more wooden ludges erected at the Foul Mure beyond Carrick Street where they have been hospitalising the confirmed infected away from everyone else. They call them hospitals but they’re just huts for people to die in.
There was a knock on the door last night. We were visibly forced out of the house and the Clengers came in and set the house on fire. We have no home anymore. They were worried in case you were infected and had brought it into the home. We are lucky we weren’t thrown into the ludges with the rest of them. We are being housed in the school room, and if we’re still okay in 10 days we can be released. But released where?! We have no home! Neisbit gave father some money as compensation, with a great to-do about how the cost to the toun would be horrific. I felt like spitting in his face!
You’re my brother and I should always love you, but your selfishness has ripped this family apart. One day you will reckon with Our Lord, and I hope he finds forgiveness easier than I can.
I do hope this letter finds you.
The now only child of the Naismiths,
The Black Death had ravaged Scotland in 1350-51 and 1361-62; there were later epidemics in 1380, 1401, 1430, 1439, 1456; in 1499 and 1500 it is known that Prestwick and Irvine were threatened. Experience no doubt suggested the drastic measures recorded in the burgh records when the pest came to Ayr with dreadful impact in 1545-56; threatened again in 1585, 1587, 1597, and 1601; re-appearing to wreak further havoc in 1606-07 and in 1647. How devastating was the epidemic of 1545-46 can only be guessed. Impressive precautions were taken as soon as the scourge was rumoured. In 1544 the ports were strengthened and manned by watchmen, two vennels were closed up, and thorns and stakes protected ‘the oppin partis of the toun’. Despite efforts to exclude infected persons, from September 1545 till the following March ‘the pest wis wonder greit’ in Ayr as in ‘all the burrowis townis of this realm’. The normal burgh organisation broke down. Provost Richard Bannatyne very likely fell victim, as Master of Works Alexander Farquhar certainly did, and possibly other members of the council. In this emergency William Neisbit was appointed ‘kepar of the toun’ and as ‘vice-provost’ or ‘president’ isolated ‘the seik folkis upoun the mure’ and exercised special disciplinary powers against ‘thame that brak rewli in the tyme of the pest’. How ruthlessly the crisis was handled is revealed by an edict of 1585 (probably based on the measures of 1545) that persons entering the town otherwise than by the ports should be scourged and branded; any person communicating with unauthorised visitors would be banished; all infected persons were to be hospitalised in wooden ‘ludges’ erected on the Foul Mure beyond Carrick Street; if any such re-entered to the town they would be summarily hanged. ‘Clengers’ were hired to disinfect clothing by boiling in kettles, and to fumigate houses with fire and water. The cost to the town was horrific. Loss of life must have been considerable, including William Neisbit himself. At least £470 was spent over the next few years in connection with the pest, including compensation to persons whose houses were burned down and to the schoolmaster for fees lost ‘quhen the schule held not’. It says much for the resilience of the local economy that the burgh finances were soon restored to normalcy.
Written by: Kirsty McConnell
Illustrations by: Lori Isabella McColl
Audio by: Rebecca McCallum Stapley
Audio recording and mixing by: Scott Andrew