Saltcoats stands on the North Ayrshire coast of the Firth of Clyde opposite the Isle of Arran. Today's Saltcoats merges virtually seamlessly with Ardrossan to the north-west, and the two, along with Stevenson to the east, form the "Three Towns".
Saltcoats owes its name and its existence to the discovery here of easily worked coal deposits in the 1200s, when the monks of Kilwinning Abbey operated mines here. A common early use for coal extracted from coastal deposits was to provide the heat to evaporated sea water to produce salt, and the shores here rapidly became lined with sheds in which coal fires burned 24 hours per day under large pans of sea water. This must have been a pretty unpleasant place 800 years ago.
In eastern Scotland this early industry grew along both shores of the Firth of Forth and gave rise to a series of place names ending in "pans", the best known of which is Prestonpans. In Saltcoats the settlement that grew on the shore here was named after the sheds or "salt cottis" in which the process took place. It's a short step from "Saltcottis" to "Saltcoats". It is perhaps no surprise that when the pub chain Wetherspoons opened a large new pub in Saltcoats they called it The Salt Cot.
Saltcoats was made a burgh, a status that allowed it to hold markets, in 1528. By the mid 1600s a visitor reported that Saltcoats was a fishing village with a fairly safe anchorage and an open beach. Besides fishing the main source of income seemed to be the export of cattle and fish to Ireland, and the import of corn and butter. In 1684 the laird, Robert Cunninghame started work on a new harbour to allow coal from his mines at Stevenson to be shipped out, much of it to Ireland. He also built new salt pans, to add more value to the coal from his mines. By 1772 a two mile length of canal had been constructed to allow the easy transport of coal from Stevenson to Saltcoats.
In the mid 1700s the bustling town gained a shipyard, and others were established later in the century, though one later relocated to Belfast and another to Greenock. By the early 1800s Saltcoats had reinvented itself as a resort, despite still having a thriving port which was home to some 40 ships and a range of associated industries.
In 1840 Saltcoats was linked to Glasgow by railway, and the town was also given a station on a new line to Ardrossan opened in the 1880s. From the mid 1800s, Saltcoats Harbour began to be eclipsed by the larger and increasingly better used harbour at Ardrossan. An attempt was made to redress the balance when a new harbour was built at Saltcoats in 1914. This seems to have silted up by the 1920s. More successful was the building of a swimming pool in the 1930s, taking advantage of Saltcoats' increasing popularity as a resort for holidaymakers from Glasgow wanting to spend time "doon the watter".
With a broad sheltered bay, "South Bay", between Saltcoats and Ardrossan, and a Beach Pavilion built in the 1920s, Saltcoats provided all the facilities, accommodation and entertainment needed to become a successful seaside resort. Its role as a holiday destination diminished with the arrival of cheap air travel and mass summer migrations to the guaranteed blue skies of the Mediterranean, but on a warm summer's day it remains an extremely popular destination for day trippers wanting to spend time beside the seaside.
Today's Saltcoats has as its focus the line of the main A738, Glencairn Street and High Road, which also follows the railway line through the town. Running away to its south is Countess Street, on which you find the imposing town hall. Much of Saltcoats occupies a blunt rocky promontory, at the end of which is the pavilion and amusement park. To its north is South Bay, while to its south is the harbour with, beyond it, the broad curve of Irvine Bay.