Hidden History of the River Garnock

The following guest blog post has been kindly written for us by Heather Upfield of Kilwinning Heritage and it discusses the history of the River Garnock, which she has chronicled in a new article which you can download and read for free by clicking HERE.

Kilwinning Heritage has just published a new text about the River Garnock, as it flows through Kilwinning, titled ‘HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE RIVER GARNOCK: THE KILWINNING STRETCH FROM THE VIADUCT TO THE LUGTON MOU’, taking a journey from above the viaduct, north of Kilwinning, to the confluence of the Lugton and Garnock rivers downstream.

Researched and written by Kilwinning Heritage member Heather Upfield, it explores the unique names of the fishing sites and dams, and the vanished industry along the banks: the 19th/early 20th century Eglinton Ironworks, the mills, mill lades and railways. There are traces and remnants of this industrial heartland still to be seen. It also explores a riverbank curiosity in the Druid Mounds, and a vanished St Ninian’s Isle in the river!

Heather has also drawn on conversations with the Kilwinning Eglinton Angling Club and Kilwinning residents who were happy to share their knowledge and memories.

It’s a short text, illustrated with colour photographs taken by Heather in her many walks up and down the river. She took advantage of the low water-table in mid-June 2023, which exposed glimpses of the past normally under water. A diagram of the stretch of river locating the sites is included.

In part, this article is a response to North Ayrshire Council Heritage strategy to link Kilwinning Abbey and the town centre, to Eglinton Country Park and the Castle, through a riverbank walk along the Garnock.

It’s available as a free full colour down-load pdf from Kilwinning Heritage website which you can download HERE.

Some printed copies will be available from Kilwinning Abbey Tower & Heritage Centre at opening hours till the middle of September.

Here’s the opening section as a taster!


“The Garnock is a moody river. It rises in Clyde Muirshiel Country Park to the north and runs south through Kilbirnie, Glengarnock and Dalry, before flowing through Kilwinning. It continues its course alongside Garnock Floods to its confluence with the River Irvine, and beyond to the sea. It is only around 20 miles long, but it is rich in history, much loved by anglers, and it’s perfect for a leisurely stroll along the paths of the riverbank, with plenty of wildlife.

It’s likely that in the 5th or 6th century, St Winnin himself sailed up the western seaboard from either Wales or Ireland and continued up the Garnock to Segdoune, where he settled and founded his Kil. John Strawhorn estimates that 500 years ago, the sea would have reached the Dirrans, before completely silting up. Imagine mooring your boat at the foot of Dirrans Terrace!

The river has not always been in good condition. Lee Ker writes that in 1692, William George was reported for Sabbath Desecration, after he threw a dead horse over the bridge into the Garnock on a Sunday! While in the 19th and early 20th centuries, industry along the banks must have caused unimagineable pollution.

Today the river is more healthy. Gordon Donaldson, President of Kilwinning Eglinton Angling Club, deserves credit for his work as a volunteer ranger. He has taken ongoing responsibility for planting young trees along the full length of the Garnock, to preserve the fragile ecosystem of the river. As he also holds a City & Guilds qualification in Invasive Plants removal, you might see him on the banks tackling Giant Hogweed and other invasive species.

In conversations with neighbours, it’s common to hear them say, for example, they saw a salmon leaping over the Barrel dam; or they were out walking the dog along the Bags; or they used to swim in the Salmon Hole. It became evident that there is a wealth of local knowledge about the Garnock and arcane terminology commonly in use among the general population.

This guide includes information from Kilwinning Eglinton Angling Club; old maps and textual sources; and Kilwinning residents’ memories. It draws together, in numbered sections, the intriguing names of the six fishing sites and seven named dams (weirs); and explores the fascinating hidden history of the riverbanks, with their traces of long vanished features with some still to be seen.

A diagram of the river and the sites mentioned, is at the end, along with Acknowledgements and Bibliography.

A neighbour related this poem, from her father. It describes a moody river and could well be the Garnock!

The Angler’s Lament
“Sometimes ower early, Sometimes ower late
Sometimes nae water, Sometimes a spate
Sometimes ower glaury, Sometimes ower clear
There’s aye summat wrang, when I’m fishing here”

On the west bank, a riverside track begins upstream from the VIADUCT, though it’s now said to be dangerous through riverbank erosion. From the Woodwynd, the track becomes a pathway and it continues all the way to the underpass beneath the A78 and beyond to Nethermains Bridge on the B779, near the cowp. On the east bank a riverside path starts at a gap in the wall on Irvine Road, opposite Buckreddan. This path continues downstream as far as the DIRRANS BRIDGE, which can be crossed to continue the walk on the west bank.

The west bank path effectively unites KILWINNING ABBEY with EGLINTON CASTLE: join the riverbank path at Bridgend and walk south along to the OLD RAILWAY BRIDGE. Walk over the bridge and the path leads to the Irvine Road and pedestrian access to Eglinton Country Park.”

Also by Heather Upfield:
Time Piece: A history of James Blair and the clocks, clock & watchmakers of Kilwinning 1719-2019 (2019).
The Five Women of Kilwinning Accused of Witchcraft in the 17th Century (2020).

Both books published by Kilwinning Heritage and available from the website, along with ten other books exploring Kilwinning’s history. To browse the Kilwinning Heritage Shop, click HERE.