Before there was cotton, the early history of Catrine

Early days

Our history of Catrine begins in the 17th and early 18th century. Back then, the tiny village in Scotland consisted of a few cottages, a mill and possibly a blacksmith. There is also evidence of an early religious site nearby. Located by the powerful River Ayr, it had the advantage of consistent water power, good fishing and being in a sheltered valley, it was probably a pretty idyllic spot to raise a family and grow crops. Typically, in Lowland Scotland tenant farmers (cottars) had held and farmed their small plots of land in the same family for generations but that was soon to change.


Change comes to the village

The catalyst for change was the new 'industrial' way of farming beginning to sweep across the whole of the UK. Instead of land being held in 'common' and farmed by tenant families, landowners realised that sheep were more productive per head than people and began the process known as 'The Clearances' in Scotland and 'The Enclosures' in England. Whole families lost their lands and their homes in Lowlands and Highlands. Some were brutally forced out, some 'incentivised' to emigrate to the new world, some tried to find work in coastal towns or in the new 'manufactories', some ended up in the 'poor house'.

Field of Cotton

A major player on the world stage

Claud Alexander had been a paymaster for the East India Company. He came home to Scotland with a substantial fortune and set about looking for suitable investment opportunities (and a wife). His brother suggested investing in the slave trade, a very profitable and popular enterprise at the time. Claud chose the second option his brother suggested however, cotton and, partnering with David Dale, decided upon the fast-flowing Ayr as his likely power source. The small village of Catrine, with its sheltered valley and excellent fall of river water seemed ideal and he bought nearby Ballochmyle house to be his home.

The making of Catrine Cotton Works

From village to 'toon'.

Claud and Dale began building the town  of Catrine around 1786/7. By 1791 Claud was able to write to a friend in India, "And I have such a large family in my newly erected village to look after, that these and the management of my estate keep me constantly employed. I have now got above a thousand souls in the village, altho' the mill is not yet compleated. You would wonder to see what a deal of carding, roving, spinning and reeling is going on there. [...] I have just finished a house for a Sunday's school and a subscription is going about for a church. We are getting on apace you see."

Catrine Church

"Such a large family"

When Claud used those words he was merely reflecting the ideals of Smith, Hume and the other writers of the Scottish Enlightenment to which his partner David Dale subscribed. Adam Smith wrote "No society can flourish of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable". Writers of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland speak in glowing terms of Catrine and its healthy, contented workforce. A far cry from the Neoliberal brand of 'winner take all' capitalism we have come to know today. Of course it was also the norm then for children to start working at 8 years-old!

The selling of Catrine

In 1802, Claud sold Catrine, lock, stock and cotton works to James Finlay and Son of Glasgow. Fortunately for Catrine, Finlay's ethos was very similar to Claud's and the work continued almost uninterrupted, indeed the enterprise expanded. Under Finlay's manager Archibald Buchanan, Catrine became the only cotton works in Scotland  where the operation began with raw cotton and ended with finished, bleached and embroidered goods going out to customers throughout the world. In the early 20th century, a branch line railway was even installed which came right into the village to take sheets, tablecloths, handkerchiefs and all manner of quality cotton goods across the globe.

Wars and changing times

"Working to little profit" - James MacLehose 1886

As early as the middle of the 19th century however, problems of raw material supply and competition from new mills in India and in the USA were already affecting the profit from the Scottish mills. When Catrine was put up for sale along with several others after Kirkman Finlay's death it failed to sell and management of the Catrine Works passed to one James Clark, a young partner in Finlay's enterprise. Working with engineer Robert Barclay, he installed new and efficient machinery and focused on the home market capitalising on Finlay's reputation for quality goods. Catrine managed to stay afloat based on its good name. 

New investment but... ...

Well into the 20th century, even though cotton was no longer the mainstay of their global business, Finlay's seemed to feel an obligation to the folk of Catrine village with whose lives they had been so intimately involved for so long. Despite all the economic indicators to the contrary after the Second World War, in 1950, they invested huge amounts of money in a 'New Mill' in the village with the most modern equipment. Sadly, two decades later this too shut for good and was demolished in 1980.

The final curtain

Despite Finlay's best efforts, I think everyone in the village realised that the end had come for Catrine Cotton when, in 1963, the Old Mill building, which had been the iconic mainstay of the village for almost 200 years, was set fire to and demolished to make way for a 'straighter' road. Progress? Maybe. It's going to take a lot to fill the hole it left in the village and in the lives of its folk.