The small North Ayrshire town of Dalry stands on the west bank of the River Garnock, almost enclosed by a loop of rivers formed by the River Garnock to the east, the Rye Water to the north, and the Caaf Water to the south. The Garnock Valley traditionally offered the easiest overland route from Glasgow to Ayrshire, and Dalry developed to serve the traffic along the route, as well as a focal point for the wider rural area. Perhaps unusually, Dalry has never been bypassed by the main road, and the A737 crosses the River Garnock north-east of the town before coming through it en route south towards Kilwinning.
A sense of the transport links on the eve of the railway era can be gained from part of Dalry's entry in an 1837 Ayrshire Directory produced by Pigot & Co: 'To Glasgow the "Fair Trader" (from Saltcoats) calls at the Crown Inn every morning (Sunday excepted) at eight; and the "Herald" calls at the King's Arms every evening (Sunday excepted) at seven; both through Beith and Paisley. To Saltcoats and Ardrossan the "Herald" (from Glasgow) calls at the King's Arms every morning (Sunday excepted) at nine; and the "Fair Trader" calls at the Crown Inn every evening (Sunday excepted) at half past seven.'
The arrival of the Glasgow, Paisley Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway (GPK&AR), which opened a station in Dalry on the main line along the Garnock Valley in 1839, revolutionised overland transport. The coach services were instantly uncompetitive, especially in terms of journey times, and the railways began an era of supremacy that was only really challenged a century later with the advent of widespread car ownership.
The lack of a bypass leaves Dalry a busier place than it would otherwise be, and just how widespread car ownership has now become is particularly obvious where the A737 passes through the edge of the town centre.
The centre itself however, remains very attractive. The Cross is a broadening of the main street which you could readily imagine housing a bustling medieval market. Today this is bounded on one side by St Margaret's Church, built in the 1870s and apparently undergoing major refurbishment when we visited. The other side of the square is home to some very attractive buildings, including Trinity Church, built in 1857; the Clydesdale Bank building, now home to an estate agents; and a particularly fine library, built in 1853.
Heading south-east from The Cross takes you down New Street, another attractive shopping street. The highlight here is the carving on the central gable of the Co-Operative building. It's not really matched by the modern lime green branding of the shop, but is certainly worth looking out for. At the far end of New Street is the Biggart Fountain. If you head north-west from The Cross you find yourself, until you reach the 1960s inner ring road, anyway, in a street pattern that feels much more enclosed and much older; which certainly repays a little exploration.
Dalry's earliest origins are unclear. The crossing over the Rye Water seems to have been defended by a motte and bailey castle from medieval times, though other castles or grand houses in the area are a little more dispersed. The most notable is Blair Castle, which stands just over a mile to the south-east of the centre of Dalry. This may also have medieval origins, though the earliest parts of the building on view today date back to the beginning of the 1600s.
Dalry appears to have been operating a market by the 1680s. A map produced in the mid 1700s shows a significant settlement here, and in the following decades the substantial Drakemyre cotton mills were developed on the Rye Water on the north side of Dalry.
As already mentioned, the railway arrived in 1839, and four years later Dalry became a junction station when a branch line was completed from here to Kilmarnock. For a while this made Dalry an important station on the network, though its importance diminished once a direct railway line had been built from Glasgow to Kilmarnock via Stewarton in 1873.
In the meantime, Dalry had gained a steelworks at Blair, half a mile east of the town, using ironstone and coal mined locally as its main raw materials. Textiles also remained important to the local economy thanks to the Bridgend woollen mills. The steelworks closed in the 1920s, and the last coal mines followed in the late 1960s. It would be fair to say that by the 1970s the local economy, and population levels, were depressed, to the point where the town's secondary school closed in 1976.
Change for the better was on its way, however. Anyone approaching Dalry from the north today will be only too aware that it is certainly not a post-industrial town. Hoffman la Roche built a huge plant here in the early 1980s, which is now the largest producer of vitamin C in the world.