Ayrshire Towns and Parishes

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Kerelaw House




The ancient Castle of Kerelaw, or Kerila according to the old spelling, is situated in the parish of Stevenston, about a mile from the Cross of the town. Its situation is very pleasing, being built in what may be described as a cosy nook surrounded by lowlying hills in a highly cultivated district. Stevenston itself has an ancient history, being mentioned in a charter of the Loudoun family so far back as 1240. The parish and town derived their name from Stephen Loccard son of Richard Loccard, who acquired a grant of the lands from Richard Morville, Lord of Cunningham about the year 1170. Although inland, the soil is fertile and highly cultivated, yet towards the sea there is an area of almost pure sand, the one portion of the parish forming a great contrast in physical features to the other.

The Castle is a ruin, but not standing solitary and neglected, but amidst beautiful surroundings. About the end of the eighteenth century a new mansion house was built to replace the Castle as a habitation, and as the newer house is still inhabited and only a few hundreds of yards from the old building there are all the amenities of a modern residence surrounding the ancient pile. From two directions there is a beautiful avenue as an approach to the Castle and mansion, bordered on each side by trees. Some of the fine old specimens have been cut down of late years, yet to a stranger their absence is unnoticed in the general effect. The Castle was at one time covered with ivy but that has been removed, and the picturesque remains are seen to all the more advantage.

From the high road looking down on Kerelaw all that is seen is the summit of the ruin. It rises above the surrounding trees like the remains of some ecclesiastical building. One thinks involuntarily of the Abbey of Kilwinning at the sight of the pointed Gothic windows. Approaching it the wonder of the windows grows, for the high, old ruin, with its thick walls and deep-set arrow slits, is so different from the lofty arched windows which form one side of what seems a square. There are even ornamentations of the twisted cable design which are taken as proof of pre-fourteenth century architecture. One can only come to the conclusion that the different parts of the Castle are of widely different dates, and trust to a little research to find a solution of the anachronisms.

The Castle stands on the rather steep, wooded bank of a small stream; and overlooks a beautiful glen. On the opposite side of the stream and at the top of a gradual ascent there is the modem mansion of Grange or Kerelaw - a tall, plain building. but with a handsome pillared porch, and with the rather quaint effect of a bay window inserted inside the line of wall above the porch in the second storey..,

In the centre of the courtyard of the Castle a pine tree has taken root. and has risen as high as the walls. Cottages for the workpeople have also been built in the court, and their high corbie-stepped gable-ends add to the picturesque effect of the whole. A fine old walled garden is just beyond the Castle and under the trees which face the wall the ground is thickly sprinkled at present with the flowers of the white and of the purple crocus - one of the most beautiful flowers of the springtime, and nowhere seen with such a fine effect as under the bare or budding trees of February or March.

From Stephen, or Steven Loccard, the lands passed to the Loudoun family, and the name of Saltcoats-Campbell given to a portion of the parish at one time came from its connection with the Campbells of Loudoun. Robert I. granted a charter of the lands of Loudoun and Stevinstoun to Duncan Campbell and Susanna, his spouse. From the Campbells it passed to the Cunninghames, or family of Glencairn and Kerila Castle was one of their strongholds. Nine fishermen of Saltcoats had leases granted by Glencairn dated from Kerila in 1545. "The fishermen were bound to carry the Earl’s furniture, in their two boats from the creek of Saltcoats to Finlaystone, every spring, and bring it back again in the autumn when the family returned to Kerila. Also to furnish him yearly with half-a-barrel of herrings."

There seems to have been a Castle of Kerelaw perhaps from the time of Stephen Loccard or from the days of the Campbells of Loudoun. Previous to 1488 when m possession of the Glencairn family, it was partially destroyed by fire by the Montgomeries, who were at feud with the Cunninghames. The feudal lords were nothing if not quarrelsome, and if they could not get at their neighbours in the open, with whom they had a good-going grievance, they thought nothing of setting fire to their house and home. It was rather a futile proceeding, for the nobles were still working away on Old Testament lines, and an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was their guiding principle. The Cunninghames had their revenge, although it took nearly half-a-century to eventuate, and then at last-doubtless to their great satisfaction - they burned their neighbours’ fine old Castle of Eglinton to the ground. Not only that, but all the family papers of the Montgomeries were burned with the Castle. A new house might be built, but the papers were an irreparable loss. James V. in consequence gave to Hugh the first Earl of Eglinton and Lord Montgomery, a charter " de nova " of all his lands in Ayr, Renfrew, etc.

In the seventeenth century the whole barony of Stevenston was acquired by Sir Robert Cunninghame, Physician in Scotland to Charles II. At his death his nephew, Robert, succeeded him, a man of great public spirit and much enterprise. It is recorded of him that " with a very enterprising genius and persevering spirit he made trial at a great expense on the different seams of coal, bored, and also put down shafts or pits at considerable distances from one another to ascertain their declivity, their thickness, their qualities, with the principal troubles or obstructions to them. These things he ascertained with an exactness that surprised his successors who are still in possession of some of his papers, and have seldom found him far mistaken in his conjectures. He drove a level mine underground through his own and part of Lord Eglinton’s estate for a mile and a half, and thus laid the upper part of several of the seams dry. After this he began to turn out a greater quantity of coal than had ever been done before; and to open a door for the exportation of it, he set about building a harbour at Saltcoats, carrying on this work entirely at his own charges. amid many difficulties and discouragements from its exposed situation; the winter storms for several years demolishing part of what had been done during the preceding summer. At last he completed the harbour about 1700, and with some small reparations it stands to this day (1793)."

The expense of these beneficient schemes was too heavy a burden to bear for even the owner of the whole parish of Stevenston, and he was obliged to sell a considerable part of his estate. reserving to himself however, the track of it nearest Saltcoats. with a servitude for working the coal on the rest. It was then that the Hamiltons, of Grange, came into possession of Kerila, and in that way we find that Kilmarnock people had formed a connection with the old Castle of Stevenston.

The Mount, in Dundonald Road, now the residence of Mr. James Lawson, was formerly called Cambuskeith, and Hamilton, who became proprietor of Kerilaw, was one of the Hamiltons of Cambuskeith, and which family ultimately held many other lands in the neighbourhood. The name Cambuskeith still survives as that of the mill on the River Irvine, not far from the gates of The Mount, The Hamiltons were the same family as the ducal house of Hamilton. Hamilton, of Grange, was said to be representative of the Ayrshire Hamiltons. It will be of interest to glance at their family history.

In 1489 Alexander Hamilton, of Cambuskeith, the fourth in direct succession, was served heir to his father. He married Marion, daughter of Sir Adam Cunninghame, of Caprington. so that he had not to go far for the lady fair, for Caprington Castle was just across the Irvine, and Sir Adam was his nearest neighbour. His son John was killed in 1544 on the "Muir of Glasgow," probably Mearns Muir, and very likely in one of the feuds of the period. His grandson in 1563 was charged with celebrating Mass and attempting to restore Popery. The Reformation was only three years old at that time, and in some remote places the people had not yet heard of it. Evidently the great change in religious matters was well enough known to Hamilton of Cambuskeith, but he chose to ignore it. Many monasteries tried to ignore it also, and probably that was why Knox was so intent on destroying Monastic houses. At Crossraguel, near Maybole, the monks went on in their usual practice in defiance of the law for nine years after the Reformation was an accomplished fact.

John Hamilton, the ninth in succession, is designated of Cambuskeith or Grange. Grange had belonged formerly to another family of the same connection, but evidently this member of the Cambuskeith family had acquired both estates and this is the beginning of the name of Grange in their designation. "Cambuskeith" was soon dropped and the Hamiltons became known as of Greng or Grange.

John Hamilton, of Grange, occurs as a debtor in the testament of John Andersoune, schoolmaster at Kilmarnock, in 1629. Hamilton of Grange " In the year following " Johanes Hamilton of Grange" was admitted a burgess of the town of Ayr. He married Margaret Knox, who is mentioned by the older name as Lady Cambuskeith in the testament of Elizabeth Arnot of Kilmarnock in 1638 . John was succeeded by his brother, Alexander who married Elizabeth Craufurd of Craufurdland and they had a family of two sons and six daughters: It Is noticeable in the old genealogical records how often the lairds and ladies of other days intermarried with families in their own neighbourhood. They seldom went seeking the far away birds with their fabled fine feathers.

John Hamilton, the fourteenth, brings us into connection with the Castle of Kerila, In 1685 John acquired part of the lands of Stevenston-Campbell from Robert Cunninghame of Auchinharvie, also the barony of Stevenston-Cunninghame, from the Glencairn family, The Castle of Kerila became then the family residence of John Hamilton, but he continued and desired to be designated as of The Grange. Whether it was that he changed the name of Kerila, or that he wished his title to be taken from his Kilmarnock estate is uncertain. Probably the latter conjecture is correct. The new proprietor of Kerila married Elizabeth Pollock, daughter of Sir Robert Pollock of that ilk, by whom he had nine sons and two daughters. His fourth son, James, became a proprietor in the West Indies and father of General Hamilton a celebrated statesman and patriot in the United States.

General Hamilton deserves more than passing mention. Mr. Landsborough, father of the late Dr. Landsborough, of Kilmarnock, and minister of Stevenston before the Disruption, says of him in the new Statistical Account (1842) " that he was the most eminent man which Stevenston produced, although it was in America that he distinguished himself." Mr. Landsborough says " he was the mentor of Washington, the framer of the present constitution of America and moreover a man of strict honour and integrity;  equally esteemed in public and private life." About the year 1852 the following paragraph went the round of the newspapers :- " Great interest has been excited in New York by the discovery that Alexander Hamilton was the author of ’ Washington’s Farewell Address.’  This composition, which has become known throughout the civilised world and reflected so much honour upon the first American President, has always been regarded as one of the best written State papers in the English language." All of which brings honour to Ayrshire, and also shows that great men as well as those who are otherwise, have some of their finest speeches written by proxy.

John, the eldest of the nine sons, succeeded, and, dying unmarried, was followed by his brother, Robert. He also died unmarried, and was succeeded by his brother’s son, the son of the third in the family. Alexander, an advocate, became Lieutenant - Colonel of the 2nd regiment of Ayrshire Local Militia. He sold the Grange, Kilmarnock, to Miss Scott, afterwards Duchess of Portland, who had acquired Cambuskeith a few years before, the more ancient property of the Hamiltons. He built the new house of Kerila or Grange some time before 1790, and died in 1837, without issue. .

Captain John Brown, a nephew, a sister’s son, became representative of the family. Alexander Hamilton left many debtors, which even the money brought by the -. sale of part of his estate was insufficient to satisfy, so the new representatives disponed the further estates to trustees for the creditors, by whom it was sold.

The lot with the new mansion house was bought by Gavin Fullarton, Esq., a descendant of an ancient Ayrshire family. In his youth Gavin Fullarton went to the West Indies, where he prospered and became proprietor of a large estate in Demarara. He preferred to end his days in his native country, however, and he came to his estate in Ayrshire and spent his days happily in its care and improvement. Perhaps it was he, with memories of vivid colouring of a warmer climate, who planted the fine shrubbery which surrounded the mansion house. There are specimens, or were in his day, of the giant flowering mimosa, and the Ribes with its scarlet petals, which, it is said. were not outrivalled in all Scotland. The climate of Stevenston, however. is very mild, and in the sheltered precincts of the mansion house of Grange flowers and flowering shrubs might flourish which in more exposed positions would have died or, at least. would never have reached beauty nor maturity. .

The Fullartons came originally from Kilmichael in Arran, and held their charter from the days of " Guid King Robert the Bruce," and were hereditary Crowners in the Island of Arran. Gavin Fullarton’s grandfather and father wore in succession ministers of the parish of Dalry in Ayrshire. Tradition has it that at one time Kerila Castle was the residence of the Abbot of Kilwinning. Authentic history tells us that the office of Commendator of Kilwinning Abbey was conferred on Alexander Cunninghame, third son of Alexander, Earl of Glencairn. This was probably another attempt at ignoring the Reformation, for it is expressly stated that the office was given to Alexander after the Reformation. Such being the case there is nothing more likely than that Alexander lived at Kerila. Living there in the more peaceful times than when the Castle was built what is there more probable than that he added to the fortress habitation the great hall with Gothic windows like those of the Abbey of Kilwinning. We have not seen it conjectured elsewhere. but tine theory accounts for the windows. It is stated, however, that " the great hall of Kerila was ornamented with the coats of arms of the Scottish nobility taken from the Abbey of Kilwinning when it was destroyed at the Reformation." That the great hall was part of the original Castle is open to question. In any case, no Castle of the thirteenth or fourteenth century had such beautiful windows, and they are entirely out of keeping with the other parts of the Castle which still remain. If the hall was already in existence when the Abbot took up his residence in the Castle he probably rebuilt the outer wall and delighted his aesthetic taste by a replica of the beautiful windows of the Abbey, which had suffered so much from vandal hands. Having saved from destruction the coats of arms of the Scottish nobility, he placed them in the hall as in a worthy setting and reminiscent of that from which they came.


Originally an article in The Kilmarnock Standard on 5th April 1924

Taken from the book "Stevenston - The Kernal of Cunninghame" written by James Clements.  

In 1685 Kerila Estate was sold by the Cunninghames to Mr. John Hamilton, formerly of Cambusmeith and afterwards of Grange, both near Kilmarnock. They continued to reside at Kerila until about 1789 when they built the present mansion house of Kerelaw and changed the name to Grange. On his death the estate was sold to one Gavin Fullarton, a West Indian merchant, who wisely restored the old name, and the estate is now again known as Kerelaw. 

The most eminent member of the Hamilton family was undoubtedly Alexander Hamilton, a great-grandson of John Hamilton, who purchased Kerila in 1685. He rose to the rank of General in the American Army and was highly distinguished there as a soldier, orator and statesman. He is said to have been 'the mentor of Washington', the framer of the Constitution of America.



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