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Royal Bank of Scotland Building Overlooking Kilmarnock Cross
Royal Bank of Scotland Building Overlooking Kilmarnock Cross

Kilmarnock has origins that probably go back more than a thousand years, but it owes its transformation from market town to major industrial hub to one man, William Boyd, Lord Kilmarnock. He made the mistake of backing the Jacobites in the 1745 uprising and, as a result, on 18 August 1746 he was beheaded in London.

Railway Station
Railway Station
King Street
King Street
Railway Viaduct
Railway Viaduct
Traditional Red Stone Buildings
Traditional Red Stone Buildings

As well as his head, Lord Kilmarnock's misjudgement also cost his family estates, which were seized by the Crown. The result was a removal of any real control over development in Kilmarnock. In the free-for-all that followed entrepreneurs flocked here to make their fortunes.

The Laigh Kirk
The Laigh Kirk
Street Art
Street Art
The Burns Statue, Kilmarnock Cross
The Burns Statue, Kilmarnock Cross

The town had long made an income from weaving, and this expanded dramatically, making an early name for itself in the production of bonnets. In 1728 Maria Gardiner started manufacturing carpets and blankets in Kilmarnock on hand looms, using spinners and weavers she had brought in from Dalkeith. Bonnets and carpets remained staple products of the town thereafter, with several thousand people being employed in the local textile industry by the early 1800s.

Kilmarnock's associations with the railways began as early as 1812, when the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway was built by the Duke of Portland to move coal mined from his land around Kilmarnock to Troon for shipment. Wagons were drawn by horses and by law only freight could be carried, so anyone wanting to make the journey was weighed and charged at freight rates.

An early steam engine made by George Stevenson was used on the line in 1817, but quickly discontinued when it was found to damage the track. The first true railway arrived in Kilmarnock in 1843, and within another 30 years the town had become the hub of a network heading out from here in six different directions.

In 1840, Andrew Barclay started to manufacture steam railway engines in Kilmarnock, and continued to do so until 1928, the company's engines being exported throughout the world. Most stories of past industrial glory end with a footnote about the demise of the company, so it almost comes as a surprise to find that having diversified into diesel trains and automatic transmissions, the company, now called Hunslet-Barclay, still employs 150 people in Kilmarnock, specialising in the refurbishment of railway vehicles and parts.

Kilmarnock was also home to one of Scotland's shortest-lived tram services. Built in 1904 the 14 trams could only travel at 7mph and the system was badly affected by bus competition in the 1920s. It was scrapped after the general strike of 1926.

Today's Kilmarnock is a bustling town with many fine and attractive buildings. It can, at times, be very busy - though not nearly as busy as it would have been if the A77 had not bypassed it in 1973. The heart of the town is at Kilmarnock Cross, where the pedestrianised shopping streets meet. This is overlooked by the domed Royal Bank of Scotland building, completed in 1939.

In the centre of Kilmarnock Cross is a fine statue commemorating the poet Robert Burns and his printer, John Wilson, who printed the first edition of Burns poems nearby. This is one of a number of fascinating pieces of street art dotted around the town centre, which include the head and shoulders of a figure shown above left.

Close to Kilmarnock Cross is the tall tower of the Laigh Kirk. The tower has been attached to three different churches. The first was built in the 1600s, and the second in 1750. This second church was the site of tragedy when on 18 October 1801 falling plasterwork caused a stampede, and 29 people were killed in the crush. The church was rapidly demolished and the replacement on view today was built in 1802: but with the tragedy still fresh in everyone's mind, the new church was built with no fewer than thirteen exits.

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