The town of Beith stands on the east side of the valley of the River Garnock as it flows south towards the sea at Irvine. Traditionally this valley offered the easiest overland route from Glasgow to Ayrshire, and Beith developed to serve the traffic along the route, as well as a focal point for the wider rural area. The road that follows this route today, the A737, has bypassed Beith immediately to its east since the 1930s, so you need to make a slight effort to reach the town itself. It's certainly worth it to find somewhere which retains a considerable amount of character and charm.
Within the heart of the town itself is The Cross. This would once have formed a focal point. Today it forms the meeting point of two attractive parts of the town, now separated by the start of an ill-judged "inner ring road" built in the early 1960s. To the north-east is the narrow and winding medieval Main Street, which offers the public library and the Smugglers' Tavern (the latter dating back to the 1750s), and a general air of having seen better days and perhaps hoping they will return. A street corner at the far end of the Main Street carries what we suspect may be one of Scotland's oldest extant road signs: with "To Largs" painted on the stone wall of a building above an arrow.
To the south-west of The Cross, Eglinton Street forms the main street running out of the town. Many of the buildings here date back to the first half of the 1800s, though the Saracen's Head and its neighbour, effectively just around the corner from The Cross, date back to the end of the 1700s.
In many ways the most striking building on Eglinton Street is Beith Townhouse, a rather fine confection of pink harling and built to a scale which makes you think of an oversized dolls' house. This was built in 1817 by the architect William Dobie. It originally comprised a court house and reading room on the first floor, with shops and a cell on the ground floor. To the side of the Townhouse is The Strand, a street which climbs to become Townhead Street. Enjoying an elevated position on this side of the town is Beith Parish Church, built here between 1806 and 1810.
The Cross itself has some nice buildings on its south-western side, and distantly on its north-eastern side, but it is very dominated by the main road carving through its centre. So much so that it is all too easy to overlook what was once the focal point of the area, the gable end of the Auld Kirk. This was built in 1593 and converted to become a mausoleum when the new church was built to replace it in the early 1800s. The surrounding kirkyard looks interesting, but the one point of access was securely padlocked when we visited.
The origin of the name of Beith is generally accepted as coming from the Gaelic for "birch". The first settlement in the area may have been a little to the east of today's town, where modern maps show "Hill of Beith", and it seems reasonable to assume that at one time this area was colonised by birch trees. Nothing significant now remains of he nearby Hill of Beith Castle.
By the early 1700s a market existed in Beith, trading in locally produced textiles. The importance of the route on which Beith stood was reflected in the establishment here of a post office in 1715. By 1800 Beith was home to a school, a number of water driven lint mills, and a thriving home-based cotton manufacturing industry. There were also two businesses making candles, and three distilleries.
The 1800s saw the coming of the railway, in a manner of speaking. We've already mentioned the importance of the Garnock Valley as a through route, and in 1840 the Glasgow, Paisley Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway (GPK&AR) built a line along the valley linking, obviously, the places identified in the company's name. Unfortunately for Beith the nearest station was a mile to the north-west of the town, near the head of Kilbirnie Loch. It took until 1873 for Beith to gain a railway station within the town itself, when a branch line was built to connect it with another company's main line at Lugton, to the east.
By this time Beith had already begun to make a name for itself as a manufacturer of furniture. At the end of the 1800s there were six furniture factories in or around the town, and a number of companies went on to succeed in worldwide markets. McNeil Bros became renowned for board room, and library fittings and Stevenson and Higgins for lift cages fitted in hotels and department stores. Meanwhile Balfours became the main manufacturers of fireplaces in Scotland, and Matthew Pollock Ltd made furniture that was fitted in the liners the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth II.
The last of the furniture making companies closed in 1983, though a major defence munitions site to the south-east of the town, opened during World War Two, remains in use. And in the 1980s large areas of bonded warehousing were built in the Garnock Valley to support the Scotch whisky industry.
Today's Beith is an attractive and welcoming place in which as many of 80% of residents - many in new housing estates developed in recent decades - commute to work outside the town itself. Much has changed, not always for the better, but this is a town which, against the odds, has retained that most elusive of qualities: real character.