In the 1400s the settlement of Newmilns lay at the heart of the estates of the Campbell Earls of Loudoun, which they oversaw from Loudoun Castle, a little beyond Darvel to the east. By 1490 Newmilns had grown to to the point where it justified being granted Royal Burgh status by King James IV, making it the oldest Ayrshire burgh not on the coast.
Today's Newmilns is a fascinating place, carrying signs of many different aspects of its history. Perhaps the biggest surprise, and the key to much of that history, can be found up a side street between the imposing three storey Loudoun Arms and the beautifully ornate Clydesdale Bank. Here you find Newmilns Tower, for all the world looking like a full scale tower house dropped into someone's back garden.
Newmilns tower is indeed a tower house. It was erected in about 1525 by Sir Hugh Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, following the destruction of Loudoun Castle by the Kennedys of Culzean. During the attack on Loudoun Castle, Sir Hugh's wife and nine children were all killed. The attack was apparently in retaliation for the role Sir Hugh had played in the murder of a kinsman of the Kennedys. The Earls of Loudoun continued to reside at Newmilns Tower until 1615. Some think they later built what is now the Loudoun Arms as a town house.
Newmilns Tower saw further use in the religious wars of the mid 1600s as a prison for Covenanters. Some of the prisoners held here were freed in a raid on the tower, but at least one was killed during the escape. The garrison did little to promote the justness of their cause by chopping off the dead man's head and playing football with it on the nearby green. The tower was fully restored by the Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust in the 1990s and is now a privately owned residence.
Nearly opposite the Loudoun Arms is the remarkably attractive little tolbooth, complete with its belltower. This was built in 1739 and restored in the 1980s. Another surprise lies near the east end of Main Street, in the red stone Morton Hall. This was built as a set of public halls in 1896 and funded by Arthur Harrison, a Birmingham shoe manufacturer who originally came from Newmilns. Some of the stonework above the entrance is especially striking (see image below).
Next to it is the equally attractive Lady Flora's Institute, built as a girls' school in 1877. The Institute was built in memory of Lady Flora Hastings, one of the daughters of the Earl of Loudoun, who became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. When Lady Flora succumbed to an illness which distended her stomach, the Royal Court, and the Queen, jumped to entirely the wrong conclusion and banished her.
Lady Flora's subsequent death proved there had been no impropriety or pregnancy, and the ensuing scandal over her treatment by the Court seriously damaged public perceptions of Queen Victoria for a time.