Fairlie, Ayrshire.

This page will be devoted to items of interest in the Cunninghame district of Ayrshire, particularly the village of Fairlie and the family name - Cunningham.

I have included below  a shortened version of the history of the village of Fairlie. My research for this, apart from local knowledge, is from the archives of Largs library and the Largs and District Historical Society. (Their museum is worth a visit).

There are two fairly recent publications: - Fairlie Village Walks by Owen A. Gurton and Old Fairlie by Frank Donnachie. Both booklets have a wealth of information about Fairlie

The Village of Fairlie -- The Fifes of Fairlie


The undernoted is extracted from: - 'Topographical description of Ayrshire, more particularly of Cunninghame together with a genealogical account of the principal families in that Bailiwick'.
Written by George Robertson, published by the Cunninghame Press, Irvine and printed by Edward McQuistan - 1820.

"Cunninghame -- all that part of Ayrshire to the northward of the Water of Irvine".

Said by Buchanan that 'the name is Danish and signifies the King's House' - but there is no evidence that the Danes inhabited this part of the country or that any king had a house or 'hame' in it. Cunninghame is distinguished, in old sayings, as a country of butter and cheese.

It is more probable that the name is derived from the Gaelic, the ancient language of the inhabitants. If the name were spelt according to the usual Gaelic pronunciation, Cunnigam or Cunnigham the meaning may be known.

which, by deviating from the ordinary pronunciation, confound all etymology. A Gaelic expert stated that Cuinneag means butterchurn and that Cuinneag'am would mean the Churn district.

Expressed in the ancient language of the district, Cuinneag'am, quasi Cunigham, the very mode of spelling used 200 years ago (17th century) by the families of Cunigham of Caprington, and Cunigham or Cunighamhead. (See Supplement to the Retours, date Maii 12th and 18th, 1613.)

Research has shown that that part of the present Shire of Ayr was anciently included in Galloway. It would seem that Carrick, south of the Water of Doon, because of its similar aspect and local position could have been attached to Galloway. It has been said that there is a charter in which it is stated that the town of Irvine is in Galloway. The Barony of Giffen, in the heart of Cunninghame, is, in all deeds of conveyance said to be in Kyle-Stewart. Stair, on the other hand, situated in Kyle-Regis, is legally held to be in the Lordship of Eglinton in Cunninghame, and is also in Eagleshame and other lands in Renfrew. A great proportion of Cunninghame is possessed by the noble families of Portland, Eglinton, Loudon, Glasgow, Montgomery and Lindsay Crauford. The great bulk of their property is let to tenantry on lease to the leased Barons, who are mainly cultivators."


Fairlie is a small village situated on the North Ayrshire coast, approximately 2/3 miles South of Largs. It is a charming village with a natural beauty, nestling between hills to the East and the Firth of Clyde to the West, looking directly towards the Cumbraes, two small islands, just off Fairlie. Fairlie also has a magnificent view of the Isle of Arran

King David I appointed Sir Richard de Morville, a Norman, to hold land in Scotland. He became High Constable of Scotland and Lord of Cunninghame, Largs and Lauderdale. This piece of land was sub-divided among Richard's relatives and friends, and, in the 13th century the land of Fairlie was held by the de Ros (or Ross) family of Tarbert, the land to the North was held by the Boyles and to the South by the Sempills.

It was one of the sons of the Ross family who built the Castle and adopted the name Fairlie. The family continued to live in the Castle until the 17th century, but by the end of the 19th century the castle was in ruins. (The Castle has now (1999) been sold and is to be converted into a dwelling).

The land to the South of Fairlie Burn, held by the Sempills, was never held by the Fairlie family and is actually in the Parish of West Kilbride. The Montgomerie family latterly held the estate (Southannan). The original building of Southannan House or Castle was demolished in the 18th century and the present house was built some time later.

To the North of Fairlie are the Kelburn lands, with a fine castle, where members of the Boyville (Boyle) family have been since the 12th century. A David Boyle was honoured in 1703 by being created Viscount Kelburn and Earl of Glasgow. One of the later Earls, in 1850, had a wall built round the estate to give work to the poor people of the area. The present Earl has greatly improved and developed the estate. It is now a country centre, open to the public, and attracts many visitors from far and wide.

According to ancient records it would appear that Fairlie developed as a fishing village, as it had a good, sheltered anchorage that was fully used in the 16th century. Weaving also began to help the prosperity of the village as the demand for Paisley shawls increased. The cottages below Fairlie Castle (Burnfoot) were known as Weaver's Row.

A bit further North was the "middle row" (Ferry Row), where the fishermen and ferrymen lived. The remains of the old ferry quay can still be seen. This became known as Knox's Rocks as Knox White, an old Fairlie worthy, hired boats in this area in the 20s and 30s.
Still further north was "north row", an indeterminate group of modest dwellings (the Bay Street area). The families kept pigs and hens, grew fruit and vegetables - the more affluent had a cow - other necessities of life were obtained from peddlers, who travelled the countryside. An occasional visit to Largs (by foot) especially to Hyndman's market or to Colm's (Columba's) Day fair.

A turnpike road was built from Greenock to Stranraer in the 18th century and merchants and master mariners began to move into Fairlie. The channel between Fairlie and Cumbrae (Fairlie Roads) was a popular anchorage for merchant shipping, mainly to avoid the dangers of press-gangs at Greenock and the customs could be easier avoided at Fairlie.

The old cottages, in time, were improved and some enlarged, new buildings were erected. Some of the originals are Rockhaven (the Ferry Inn), Fairlie Lodge, Beach House, Allanbank, Fairlie Cottage and part of Brookside.

It was in the late 18th century that John Fife came from Kilbirnie to set up business as a cartwright in Fairlie, leading to the famous Fifes of Fairlie. (You can read their story on this page, below).

A character, Peter Peterson, arrived in Fairlie from Glasgow, where his business was. He seemed to be lawyer, banker and estate agent, and was the first commuter to live in Fairlie, realising that he could have the best of both worlds. He set up a bank in the village and the good people at that time made good use of it. Unfortunately he absconded with all the money, leaving many debts behind. A story, published in the local paper at the time, said that he had committed suicide and that his body was buried at low water mark and covered with large stones. It was believed at that time that suicides would never be at rest and might walk from their graves, unless weighed down.

Other 'new' residents soon arrived, a Mr C.S.Parker, his brother-in-law, Mr Tennant and his friend Professor Milne and around 1820 Fairlie House, Fairlie Craig and the Creich were built. The new residents, who were fairly affluent, instigated and raised money for the building of a church and a school, and in 1834 the work of building Fairlie Parish Church was completed. At first it was a 'Chapel-of-Ease', an off-set of the Parish of Largs to 'ease' its membership. (See Out of the Past -St Paul's Church of Scotland, Fairlie, by Alexander Watson M.A.). A Church school was also built, and in 1843, at the Disruption, the then minister, Rev John Gemmel, signed the Deed of Demission, In 1844 the Free Church (St Margarets) was built the money raised by public subscription. The two churches flourished side by side until 1968 when circumstances arose to facilitate the union, as it was recognised that what separated the churches was much less important than the shared common beliefs. St Margarets became the Church Hall after the union in 1968 and has since been sold , St Pauls reverted to its old name of Fairlie Parish Church. ( St Margarets has since been sold and is now a dwelling house).

Around the latter part of the 19th century, Fairlie was still quite a small place, and it was only after the coming of the railway, which was opened to traffic in 1880, that it began to grow. Bungalows at the South end of the village proliferated in the 20s and 30s, housing many of the employees of I.C.I.'s Explosives complex at Ardeer, Stevenston. A small council development grew up at the North end of the village. This progress was halted during the war years, but the advent of the Atomic Power Station at Hunterston , the NATO Boom Defence Depot in the 60s and the Ore Terminal in the 70s encouraged growth. Since 1960 Fairlie has just about doubled itself population wise.

The Railway Pier station was opened in 1882, and became an important part of life in Fairlie, serving the Isle of Arran and the Cumbrae, as well as being a stop for many cruise steamers. One of the first 'drive-on, drive-off' ferries, the Glen Sannox, commenced in 1957 serving the Isle of Arran. Boat trains ran to and from Glasgow and Kilmarnock and freight service also ran daily. The growth of road transport and the private car saw the downfall of the pier, it was closed in 1972. The boatyard was closed in 1985 and was demolished in November of that year, making room for more housing developments.

Fairlie now, is a quiet residential place, with an ever-changing population of commuters and pensioners. It now only has a Railway Station, a Church, and a garage with a Spar shop. No Hotel and no Post Office .


The following article was extracted from 'The Fifes of Fairlie', researched and written by John Millar of Fairlie and printed in Scottish Local History, Volume 30, February 1994.This is the journal of Scottish Local History Forum,Edinburgh.
There is also an excellent book written by May Fife McCallum and published by John Donald Publishers Ltd entitled 'FAST AND BONNIE' A History of William Fife and Son, Yachtbuilders

For more than 130 years, until the start of the Second World War, among sailors and yachtsmen worldwide the words 'Fife' and 'Fairlie built' were synonymous with first-class workmanship and beauty of design in sailing craft.
The little village of Fairlie in Ayrshire on the West Coast of Scotland had become a household name internationally through the efforts and genius of three generations of the Fife family. They became famous as yacht designers and builders, yet this family's involvement with marine craft and its rise to fame in that field stemmed from the humble ambition of a teenage boy.

John Fife, of Kilbirnie, born about 1742-1743, came over the hill to Fairlie around 1770, on the death of his father, and set himself up as a cart and millwright, by all accounts, successfully; he was employed both by the Earl of Glasgow and the Laird of Hunterston.

His second son, William, born in 1785, probably developed a keen interest in the sea and ships when he helped his elder brother, John, who built fishing boats. Around the end of the 18th century merchant ships often used to lie at anchor in the shelter of Fairlie Roads and young William decided to build himself a rowing boat to enable him to visit the ships and listen to the tales of far away places. Such was the excellence of construction of his rowboat that it was bought from him practically before it was launched. The same fate befell his second boat, so he rented a piece of the foreshore from Lord Glasgow at a shilling a year. His father tried to dissuade him, but he persevered and from this simple beginning grew the world-renowned Fife yacht yard.
In 1800, when William was fifteen years old, Fairlie was a small fishing hamlet situated some two and a half miles south of Largs. The Fairlie shore was flat, with shallow water, 'the sea retires back on the ebb tide to a great distance', leaving the fisherman's boats stranded when the tide was out. Yet it was here that William Fife began his business. The early output is poorly documented, but with time and experience he eventually produced the local type of fishing boat about 20 feet in length with a single sail.

The workmanship and reliability of the craft he built must have spread and enhanced his reputation even into yachting circles; for James Hamilton, eventually Commodore of the Royal Northern Yacht Club, commissioned him to build a 50-ton cutter, and the 'Lamlash' was built in 1812. This venture was a success, as was proved by its achievements in yacht racing. Industrialisation in Glasgow had brought considerable new wealth to the Clyde and produced a number of wealthy individuals whose leisure pursuits favoured water sport and created a demand for cruising and racing yachts. With the advent of steam propulsion in 1813, William was approached by a consortium of ship owners to build a steamer, resulting in the paddle steamer 'Industry', launched in 1814, the seventh steamship to be built on the Clyde. It was built of oak, from Kilbirnie and was powered by an engine from Thomson of Glasgow. The spur gearing driving the paddles made such a distinctive grinding noise it became known, affectionately, as the 'Coffee Mill'. It had a working life of 55 years and was finally broken up after being laid up for some 20 years.

In those days the tools used in construction were very primitive indeed, as were the working conditions as building took place out in the open with no shelter from the elements, despite the temperate climate.

William was self-taught, studying the design and building of sailing craft from a book on naval architecture and became a first class draughtsman. Although Fairlie was not a very suitable place for the building of steamers, William elected to stay in Fairlie and continue his work. The bread and butter of the business was in the building of the smaller fishing type vessels, the commission of a larger yacht was a bonus and his reputation grew. One of his many triumphs was the 30-ton cutter 'Gleam', built in 1812 to the order of an Irish owner, Mr Gore-Booth. It became the foremost racing boat on the Clyde. Throughout the years of its existence and passed on to each succeeding generation, emphasis was placed on first class workmanship and top quality materials in the Fairlie yard. Every boat, no matter how big or small, left the yard as perfect in every way as it was possible for human hands to fashion it.

William Fife married in 1813, and his first son, also William, was born in 1821. (To avoid ambiguity throughout this article, the William Fifes will be referred to as I, II and III). William II entered his father's yard as an apprentice in 1835 and yacht building at that time brought in no money as few were built for pleasure. William I had to revert to building working boats to make his living and turned the yacht building side over to William II and by the time he was 27 he had designed the 40 ton cutter 'Stella',' whose racing success established his reputation. This was followed by a succession of well known yachts such as 'Fiona, Cythera, Bloodhound, Neva, Annasona, Cymba, Torch, Kilmeny' and 'Surge'.

William II was probably a better businessman than his father, extending the yard and building 'on spec'. It wasn't until around 1880 that covered accommodation was built for the construction of yachts. William II had four brothers, all of whom were apprenticed in the yard. A younger brother Alan, who was probably as well versed in the craft as his brother, never retired, working till he died at the age of 81. William II prospered and his yachts won high regard in yachting circles. Increasing prosperity on the Clyde saw the growth of yacht clubs and by 1870 yacht racing was flourishing on the Firth of Clyde. William Fife III was born in 1857, and he too showed promise as a first class designer and builder of yachts. After spending some time with his father, he decided to broaden his experience and went to Fullerton of Paisley, where he gained experience in designing steel merchant ships, and in 1881, when he was 24, was asked by the Marquis of Ailsa to manage a yacht-building yard near the ancestral home of Culzean Castle. While there he designed and built the racing yacht 'Clara', of composite construction. It was seldom beaten.
William III returned to Fairlie in 1886, increasing the size of the yard and building new sheds and installed modern machinery. All this activity brought a modicum of prosperity to the village, the boatyard was a large employer of labour and much ancillary business grew. The foremost accolade came when he was asked to design a challenger for the America's Cup for Sir Thomas Lipton. The result was 'Shamrock I', a yacht of composite construction, 128 feet in length. Fife realised that a yacht of this size could not be built and launched in Fairlie. It was eventually built at Millwall on the Thames in the Thorneycroft yard.

Unfortunately 'Shamrock I'' did not manage to win the America's Cup. 'Shamrock III' was also designed by William and built at the Denny yard at Dumbarton and was launched in 1903. William III never married so no heir was left to carry on the business. During his lifetime he designed and built many beautiful yachts. The schooner 'Altair'launched in 1931 returned to the Clyde and Fairlie in May 1991 to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee.

During the Second World War the yard was taken over by the Admiralty. William Fife died in 1944 and when the Admiralty returned the yard to the Fife family, it was sold and became the Fairlie Yacht Slip Ltd. under Mr Archibald McMillan, building fishing boats and repairing racing yachts.

The yard finally closed in 1985 and was demolished in November of that year to make way for a housing development. Little remains now to remind us of once world-renowned yard. The village has the name Fife in two of its streets and the weather vane on the Parish Church steeple consists of a model of 'Latifa' a Fife yawl, meaning 'beautiful' in Hebrew.

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