The area where Catrine now stands has been settled since at least the Bronze Age. In early Christian times a chapel and a holy well stood next to the River Ayr, both probably dedicated to St. Cuthbert. The exact location of the chapel is uncertain, although the Ordnance Survey map shows it as being beneath Catrine's Bowling Green, not a good site for excavation! Burial urns were discovered in the area in the late eighteenth century, probably during construction of the water power system for the Catrine Cotton Works.
What subsequently happened to these burial urns is not known. However, some of the finest existing examples of Bronze Age cup and ring markings can be seen near the beautiful Ballochmyle Viaduct, about two miles outside the village itself.
Catrine Cotton Works
The modern history of Catrine begins in 1787, not long after the Ballochmyle estate changed hands from the Whiteford (sp. Whitefoord) family to Claud Alexander, who bought the estate on his return from serving as paymaster-general in Bengal for the East India Company. Senior employees of that company were typically able to enrich themselves during their sojourn in India and Claud Alexander was no exception. He was concerned that he should not return to Scotland and drink away his fortune and sought investments to secure his money.
His brother urged him to get into the lucrative slave trade, on the basis that he had just as much brains as the merchantmen of Liverpool. Instead, chance and circumstance took him into the cotton business. The cotton baron, Richard Arkwright, enraged at his Manchester colleagues who kept challenging his patents in court, essentially franchised out his cotton business and created a major industry in Scotland from scratch. Arkwright provided machinery, building designs and technical expertise during the construction stage, and then took an annual royalty payment on each spindle in the mill. A series of massive cotton mills were built in this way, beginning with New Lanark. Stanley in Perthshire followed then Deanston, Catrine and Blantyre. These new mills were far bigger than the typical English mill and benefited from significantly lower labour costs in Scotland.
The Rise of Industry and Enlightenment
It was the age of the Scottish Enlightenment and Robert Burns was prancing around the Braes of Ballochmyle, as he had a fancy for Wilhelmina Alexander, Claud's 31 year old unmarried sister. Meantime, in the glens of the north, the notorious Highland Clearances were in full swing. The network of financiers, merchants and philanthropists working with Arkwright were doing everybody a favour by bringing starving homeless souls to their cotton mills, where large numbers of women and children workers were needed. So, while the raw cotton was cultivated by slaves in the plantations of the American South, it was processed by Scottish mill workers who were effectively slaves also through the indenture system.
It is difficult to examine this period without sounding political but this should be no reason to shy away from looking at how our modern industrialised world came into being. One side of the argument says mill owners like David Dale and Alexander were ruthless exploiters of their workforce, bringing them forcibly to the mills and then incarcerating them in the mill villages. The received wisdom of the time (amongst the powerful) was that they were doing "them" (i.e. the white poor in Scotland and the enslaved blacks in the Southern USA) a favour by providing them with houses, plots on which to grow vegetables, a rudimentary education for their children, some basic health care, and compulsory religious instruction. As they saw it, they were "improving" the people (their Human Resources) in the same way as an enlightened estate owner improved his land. However, some of the ungrateful workers and slaves tried to run away.
At Catrine, the mill owners were outraged that they had good houses lying empty. Some of the workers even refused to attend the church built especially for them. For the mill workers to have the illusion of freedom or just a taste of it, was sufficient to let the genie out of the bottle. The spread of education to the workers set in train the events which ultimately culminated in universal suffrage in Britain, and in America the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Catrine Grows and is Sold
Map evidence suggests that before 1787 Catrine was the area by the River Ayr at the end of modern-day St.Cuthbert Street. Down in the holm, in the area where Mill Square is today, was a small hamlet called Daldorch consisting of a smithy, a corn mill and a few other cottages. When Arkwright's team hit town and began building a massive cotton works all hell let loose and this sleepy hamlet would never be the same. Construction took place between 1787 and 1789. A dam was built across the River Ayr and a mill lade cut round the side of the hill to take water to the new twist mill. At the same time much of the housing of the old village of Catrine was built (St.Cuthbert Street, Mill Square, St.Germain Street and so on).
The twist mill imported raw cotton in bales and converted it into thread, sometimes known as cotton twist. Obscene profits allowed for the swift construction of a “Jeanie house”, where the thread was woven into cloth, and other ancillary buildings. The fortunes of Catrine over the centuries were determined by world events far away from the village. The balance was tipped by a sequence of wars and economic ups and downs: In 1793 war broke out with France; cotton supplies dried up; the Royal Bank of Scotland nearly collapsed due to unwise investments; business generally was in decline and so began a series of enforced shutdowns of the mill, decimating profits in the process. In 1801 the entire Cotton Works (and hence most of the village too as it was part of the works) were sold to James Finlay & Co. This company had sufficient capital to invest in Catrine at a time when its competitors were struggling to stave off bankruptcy and this technique served Finlay well over the years.
In 1806 Catrine was the first cotton works in Scotland to install power looms. In 1816 a gas works began to operate. Catrine had street lighting, two years before London. In 1823 the bleaching works was built. In 1828 Catrine was completely modernised when the engineer William Fairbairn remodelled the water system. The highlight of this was the installation of the giant wheels (the "Lions of Catrine"), two fifty foot diameter suspension water wheels, which powered the entire works, and which at the time were the largest water wheels in Britain.
Despite all these wonders, there could still be "trouble at mill". With a dip in the economy in 1834 and 1835, there was sufficient unrest at Catrine that at one point, the militia had to stand off nearby. By 1844, management of the works had been allowed to drift sufficiently that the now loss-making works were put up for sale. It was not a tempting prospect and there were no takers. Meantime, Finlay was diversifying into other business interests, most particularly in tea estates in India and elsewhere. Profits from these enabled a programme of reinvestment at Catrine, which enabled it to prosper until the outbreak of the Second World War. As the mill plodded on, so too did the village, and Victorian Catrine grew up on the south bank of the Ayr. Banks, churches and hotels opened (some later closed). In 1903 the railway belatedly arrived in Catrine, only to close to passengers in 1943. After World War II, Finlay, brimming with confidence, built the New Mill at Catrine.
New streets were built in the housing scheme up on the hillside to attract workers, although a writer at the time fretted about it being so far for the housewives to walk to the shops (about 4 minutes) that there was a danger of the place becoming a town of two Catrines. The famous giant wheels were unnecessarily reduced to scrap metal and firewood so that a new hydro-electric scheme could be built on the site but then the hydro site was relocated to (what is now) the car park for the whisky bond. After years of rationing, the British public would buy anything, but when rationing ceased and choice increased, Finlay's goods looked old-fashioned and expensive next to cheaper imports. Trade declined and by 1968 the New Mill had also closed.
The Old Mill itself had been demolished in the early 1960s and the New Mill building soon followed it to the land of memory. To make things worse, Ayrshire's deep coal mining industry was also collapsing and the removal of these two largest employers in East Ayrshire, textiles and coal, began a generation of decline, deprivation and despair. It is only in recent years as the housing market in Glasgow has overheated and new roads have made the area accessible, that forlorn and empty properties are being redeveloped and new housing is once again being built.
TodayIn 1993 the water power system to the old cotton works was scheduled as an Ancient Monument reflecting its unique historical importance and in 1994 was sold to Catrine Voes Trust for a nominal £1. By 2005 the Voes Trust had lost its way as they say and was revitalised with a new board of directors and renamed Catrine Community Trust. We have many projects on-going, this is our web site. Please support us in our work to save historic Catrine for future generations to learn from and enjoy.