The Scottish city of Ayr, within the historic county of Ayrshire in Southwest Scotland, has a rich history. It is one of the most agriculturally fertile regions in Scotland, and has enjoyed prominence for its crop bounty as well as a later history as an industrial hub. Ayr is now a popular seaside resort town, bringing tourists just the short distance from Glasgow to walk its beachfront and charming esplanade. Before it became a post-industrial tourist spot, the port of Ayr served as a major hub for Scott and Scotch-Irish emigration to the West Indies and the Americas, as well as in the settlement of Ulster. If you need to track your Scottish or Scotch-Irish relative back to the seventeenth century, you may find a challenge in the records related to Ayr genealogy. We’ll discuss a bit about Ayr, as well as one particular resource, by the acclaimed author Dr. David Dobson, that can help.
FamilySearch has a concise lay of the land for Ayr:
Ayrshire, an extensive county on the western coast of Scotland, is bounded on the north by Renfrewshire, on the east by the counties of Lanark and Dumfries, on the south by the stewartry of Kirkcudbright and the county of Wigton, and on the west by the Firth of Clyde and the Irish Channel. It is about sixty miles in length and nearly thirty in extreme breadth. It comprised an area of about 1600 square miles or 1,024,000 acres. It includes forty-six parishes and is divided into the districts of Carrick, Kyle, and Cunninghame. It contains the royal burghs of Ayr (the county town) and Irvine. There are thirteen towns and numerous large and populous villages.
Ayr was founded in 1205 based on a charter granted by King William the Lion. Initially it was a small village around a royal castle, but by the 17th century it had grown to become an important market town and a leading port on the west coast of Scotland. Ayr, as a burgh, was semi-autonomous, with its burgesses controlling much of the social and economic life of the community. The burgesses were all male and came from the elite of the urban society. Burgesses were either craftsmen or merchants; they elected a council that was headed by a provost.
From the medieval period onward, Ayr had shipping links with England, Ireland, France, and Spain, and from the mid-17th century onward, it had links with the West Indies and North America. During the 17th century, when substantial numbers of Scots crossed over to Ireland to settle, much of this traffic went via the port of Ayr, thus tying the port to the Ulster settlements as well. At the same time, trading links were established with the West Indies and the Thirteen Colonies, which facilitated emigration there.
The Scottish Census did not begin until well into the 19th Century, presenting challenges to the researcher relying on those records for information. However, given it’s importance to Ulster, and through two centuries of emigration to the Americas, it’s crucial to find another way to track your relative through Ayr.
In The People of the Scottish Burghs: The People of Ayr, 1600-1799, Dr. David Dobson’s latest book in his series on inhabitants of the Scottish burghs during the 17th and 18th centuries, he references between 1,500 and 2,000 inhabitants in the city or Ayr during the period. Many of the men listed in this book were burgesses of Ayr. Most of the entries herein provide a man’s name, occupation, a date, and the source. In many instances we are also given the name of at least one or more relatives, date of birth and/or death, names of witnesses, education, or more.
While he doesn’t claim it’s an exhaustive list of all residents, The People of the Scottish Burghs: The People of Ayr, 1600-1799 provides a critical piece of information not found elsewhere. Thanks to Dr. Dobson’s hard work, the distillation of hard-to-find data found in disparate records is presented in one accessible place for your research.
Image Credit: Pinkerton’s extraordinary 1818 map of the southern part of Scotland. Covers from England in the south to Angus Shire in the north. Includes parts of Adjacent England and Ireland. Covers the entire region in considerable detail with political divisions and color coding at the regional level. Identifies cities, towns, castles, important battle sites, castles, swamps, mountains and river ways. Title plate and mile scale in the lower left quadrant. Drawn by L. Herbert and engraved by Samuel Neele under the direction of John Pinkerton. This map comes from the scarce American edition of Pinkerton’s Modern Atlas, published by Thomas Dobson & Co. of Philadelphia in 1818. By John Pinkerton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.