Robert Cunninghame (d. 1715), coal-merchant who constructed a new harbour at Saltcoats for the purpose of selling coal to Ireland.

In 1678, Robert Cunninghame inherited the Barony of Stevenston, including the southern shore of Saltcoats, from his uncle Sir Robert Cunninghame, who had been physician in Scotland to King Charles II.  He held the mineral rights upon the land, including coal, and set about surveying and draining the land for the purpose of mining coal.   

In 1686 a 1½ mile Drainage Adit (tunnel), measuring 2 ft by 2 ft was completed, running from the Auchenharvie Coalfields, emptying out at Saltcoats beach in front of Melbourne Park.  The Saltcoats end of the drainage adit was sealed by the council with a metal disk.  Large rocks, part of the sea defence, hide the existence of the drainage adit, but you can still observe the water making its way to the sea. 

Ireland was then a lucrative market with a growing demand for coal, but transporting heavy loads of coal over the sandy terrain to Irvine harbour proved too difficult.  Therefore in 1684 Robert Cunninghame decided to build his own harbour at Saltcoats, upon the long outcrop of rock known as the ‘Shott’.  As the north side of the site was owned by the Earl of Eglinton, the harbour could only be enclosed on one side.  This resulted in delays when winter storms caused severe damage to the existing works.  Saltcoats harbour was completed in 1700 at a cost of £1,000.   

An Act of Parliament dated 1686 granted Cunninghame an impost (tax) which enabled him to raise money to help pay for the works, followed by a further Act in 1693.  In 1707 his son James was allowed to raise a small duty on local brewing for the harbour’s maintenance and encouragement.  This amounted to a charge of four pence Scots on every pint of beer sold within Saltcoats and Stevenston.  When completed the harbour could hold 24 vessels capable of carrying between 30 to 100 tons of coal.  By 1770 Saltcoats had become the principal coal exporting port on the Clyde. 

In addition to coal mining and the building of the harbour, he also built new salt pans, at Saltcoats, using the useless pieces of coal from his mines, which could not otherwise be sold, to burn off the saltwater. 

Robert Cunninghame established the biggest, most productive colliery in Ayrshire.  In 1708 he built an impressive new family home, Seabank House. 

The cost of developing the coal fields and harbour led to him borrowing money as well as selling off the estates of Kerelaw to John Hamilton of Grange in 1685 and Ardeer to Rev. Patrick Warner in 1708. Following his death, the estate ended up tangled in debt, leading to a long series of court cases.