Monday, 26 May 2014

The Twa Brigs O' Ayr


The historic "Auld Brig O' Ayr", now forever
associated with the poem by Robert Burns.
The New Bridge is visible through the piers.
[From my own collection]

What does an old bridge in Scotland have in common with Dunedin New Zealand? Read on my friends.... The "Twa Brigs O' Ayr" [the two bridges of Ayr] in Ayrshire Scotland are of great historic interest, dating from the 15th and 19th centuries respectively. But when I contemplated writing a Blog about the 'Auld Brig' [old bridge] to go with my own 'Auld Brig' artefact I was very pleasantly surprised to discover yet another interesting association with my home town of Dunedin - and of New Zealand - of which I was previously unaware. But more of that anon....


A circa 1880-85 view of the "Twa Brigs O' Ayr",
by George Washington Wilson
[Source : Cornell University Library]

Why are These Bridges Famous? 

That the 'Auld Brig' served as the sole river crossing in Ayr for over three centuries and is now five centuries old is alone significant. But it was the [then] well known poem of Robert Burns, "The Brigs of Ayr" written in 1787 that truly immortalized the 'Auld Brig' and without doubt saved it from destruction in the early 20th century. 


The "Twa Brigs O' Ayr" prior to 1907
[From my own collection]

What do we know if its history? 

A Charter of King Alexander II of Scotland (1214-1249) from 1236 confirms that a wooden bridge then spanned the River Ayr, the wording of the charter clearly inferring maintenance rather than construction. The current 'Auld Brig', which is most likely on the same site, would appear to date from 1470-1525, being a four span "rubble" five meter wide bridge "with three segmented arches and a pointed arch, built of dressed stone throughout". Treasurer's Rolls dated 1491 (during the reign of James IV of Scotland) confirm “XVII Nouembris , to the massonis of the bryg off Ayre Xs.” [confirming payment of ten shillings to the masons of Ayr Bridge]. Although a plaque states "Auld Brig of Ayr, erected in the 13th century", together with the date "1232" on an adjacent stone, this would appear to refer to the original wooden bridge. The style of bridge is also consistent with 15th century bridge designs. 

Major Repairs

Major repairs were necessary between 1585 and 1595 when "ye bowis of ye brig yt ar ap-perend ruynous to be reparit wt all diligence becaus ye seasonn of ye yeir now provokis ye samen". Tolls were imposed to fund the repairs and again in 1687 when further repairs were found to be necessary. The north arch is known to have collapsed in 1732 along with a northern abutment. Thereafter the bridge was deemed to be insecure necessitating that all traffic use the nearby ford at low tide in order to save the bridge as much as possible. Further repairs were deemed necessary over the succeeding years until a report in 1785 condemned three of the arches. An Act of Parliament was passed to enable a new bridge to be completed downstream rather than a major repair of the existing bridge.


An early lithograph of the New Bridge
which was damaged beyond repair in 1877.
The 'Auld Brig' appears in the background.
[Source : "The Brig of Ayr And Something of its History"]

Construction of the New Bridge

Construction of the New Bridge commenced in the autumn of 1786. Although the Town Council ordered and in fact paid for a design by the noted Architect Robert Adam, it would appear that the canny Burgh turned this down in favour of a cheaper version by Alexander Stephen.

It was while the new bridge was under construction that Robert Burns wrote his famous poem, being first published in 1787. The new bridge was opened the following year. 


An Engraving of Robert Burns by
Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig, 1845
[From my own collection]

Immortalized in Prose

"The Brigs of Ayr" is essentially a dialogue between the two bridges, in which the 'Auld Brig' berates the New Bridge and predicts that it shall remain standing long after its replacement has gone. Here is but an extract with the prescient verse by the 'Auld Brig' predicting the destruction of its replacement :   

[From] The New Brig -

"There's men of taste wou'd tak the Ducat stream,
Tho' they should cast the very sark and swim,
E'er they would grate their feelings wi' the view
O' sic an ugly, Gothic hulk as you
.”

[From] The Auld Brig -

"Conceited gowk! puff'd up wi' windy pride!
This mony a year I've stood the flood an' tide;
And tho' wi' crazy eild I'm sair forfairn ,

I'll be a brig when ye're a shapeless cairn!"

And all Things Shall Come to Pass 

In 1877 Burns' poetic prediction was indeed realised, the New Bridge having to be demolished and completely rebuilt in 1878-79 after having sustained serious damage in a severe flood. The sturdy 'Auld Brig' remained standing - but probably only just. 


The arches of the "Auld Brig" shown with
the wooden supports added in 1904.
[From my own collection]

Irreparable

The large abutments on each pier of the 'Auld Brig' served to deflect the flood water and have in fact probably saved it from serious flood damage on more than one occasion. But after the opening of the replacement bridge Engineers now deemed the 'Auld Brig' to be "irreparable" and in a rather precarious state. Work on underpinning the arches (pictured) was undertaken in 1904 to enable the bridge to remain open pending a final decision. An Engineers report in 1906 calculated the cost of any permanent repair at £10,000 But the 'cult of Burns' and indeed a strong local attachment to the historic 'Auld Brig' would be its saviour. Burns could never have known that he himself would almost certainly save this historic structure for posterity. 

A Plea to Scots World-Wide

So how was this money raised? In 1906 the canny Town Council of Ayr, and playing on sentiment, sent "an ultimatum to the various Burns clubs, societies, and lovers of Burns throughout Scotland that unless they came to the rescue the march of progress demands its immediate removal." This resulted in a Voluntary Committee being formed with a "great public meeting in the Town Hall, Ayr" with Lord Rosebery making an "impassioned appeal to Scotsmen and lovers of Burns throughout the world to come to the rescue." While King Edward VII recorded his public support of Rosebery's appeal "to preserve an historic landmark" there is no published record of a contribution!


Remedial work on the 'Auld Brig', circa 1904
[Source : Canmore]

You Would Even Have to Gild the Auld Brig

News of Lord Rosebery's appeal was duly published in papers throughout New Zealand. The President of the Dunedin Burns Society, Dr Gordon MacDonald (and a fervent Scots historian), took it upon himself to raise the matter with the general public through a long letter to the Editor of the local paper, being re-printed in other regional newspapers. Here is just a part of his impassioned plea :

"Scotland values two immortal reputations which have consecrated her soul in a single century, and they are Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Sir, if every man who has attended a Burns dinner, and shed tears for the memory of Burns, and made speeches about Burns, and drunk whisky in honour of Burns, - if everyone of these now living in the world were to send a shilling, why your coffers would be overflowing, and you would even have to gild the "auld brig"

Although total contributions from New Zealand are unfortunately not reported, the various Scottish Societies in Dunedin were reported to "have all contributed their mile" with funds coming in from other groups including Masonic Lodges and individuals around the country. The final restoration cost amounted to £11,000 of which New Zealand can proudly claim to have played a small part. 


Remedial work on the "Auld Brig", circa 1904
[Source : Canmnore]

The Restoration Process

Restoration work on the 'Auld Brig', which was carried on between 1907 and 1910, included digging shafts down through the infill to the pier foundations which were found to be badly scoured. The original piers had been filled using oak "branders" or "cradles", being sturdy oak frames which had been lowered into the stream and then filled with stone to form each pier foundation. The centre of each pier was then completely filled with concrete down to the clay base with the facing stones being repaired. The arches were also strengthened, with more concrete being used, and stonework repaired. No attempt was made to correct the distorted south arch.    


My 'Mauchline Ware' style snuff box,
"Made of Wood from the Foundations of
"Auld Brig o' Ayr. Built 1252
[sic]"
[From my own collection]

Mauchline Ware Souvenirs

It is from these ancient oak "branders" that my snuff box is made although modern research has of course proven the assumed date of 1252 to be incorrect. It is hardly likely that the oak is from the original foundations of the first bridge knowing that so much oak was used in the construction of the second 'Auld Brig'. A number of these 'Mauchline style' snuff boxes and other small artefacts appear to have been made after 1907 and utilizing this old oak. Although some are unmarked, they are all believed to be the work of John Lyall of Ayr. While now reliably dating from the foundations of either 1470-1525 or 1585, the oak itself will considerably predate this period as ancient oak trees can have a life-span of up to 900 years. My Great Aunt advised me that this particular snuff box, which is unused, had been a family gift from her Uncle, Mr Adam Letham, being the owner of "The Queen's Hotel" at 9 South Harbour Bridge, Ayr, [now 'Cascades Bistro' at 9-13 South Harbour Street?] and situated within sight of both the 'Auld Brig' and the New Bridge of 1878-79. 


An aerial view of the 'Twa Brigs' as they appear today
[Source : Canmore]

Taunting Each Other Anew

From 1910 the old bridge has served only as a footpath thus the "Twa Brig's o' Ayr" remain, no doubt continuing to taunt each other anew!


A present day view of pedestrians crossing the 'Auld Brig'.
[Source : Google street View]

This is by no means an exhaustive 'essay' on the "Twa Brigs O' Ayr" but primarily serves to highlight not only my own artefact but also the direct New Zealand connection to the restoration of this old historic bridge. You can read a very full account of the history of the 'Auld Brig" Here.


Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :

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