(One serious inaccuracy in this article, is the fact that the council were not behind the building of the village hall. It was built by cash raised by Sorn residents and completed in the early 1950s.)
R. Macalpine Ramage visits the award-winning village of Sorn and chats with some of its inhabitants.
LOOK for the village of Sorn on a map of Ayrshire of the mid 18th century or earlier, and your search would be in vain. Sorn Castle, yes - it had been there long before that time, but the small group of buildings clustered around the nearby church bore a different name: the little hamlet was originally known as Dalgayne.
It was at the church that I met my chief informant of the story of Sorn, Mr Alex Gibson. This friendly, quiet-spoken retired joiner of 76 proved to be a mine of information. It wasn't surprising, since I learned that he was at least the third generation of his family to have been born and bred in the village and he had been the Session Clerk of the church for close on 30 years.
Mr Gibson by the church
In Mr Gibson's company I did a tour of the church and the graveyard. The church, which in seven years time will be celebrating its tercentenary as a Presbyterian place of worship, is built of the local greyish-pink sandstone. It has a small open belfry and, unusually, three forestairs to laird's lofts. These external entrances were late 18th century additions and served the worshippers from the big house of Dalgain, Gilmilnscroft and Sorn Castle. These stairs were erected outside rather than inside, I gathered, not so much to permit the gentry to enter more privately, but rather for the more practical reasons that it was much easier and cheaper than putting them within the building.
The East wall bore three inscriptions carved in the outside stonework: the name of the first minister and the date of his induction, a tablet in memory of a 16 year old Covenanting martyr and higher up the date 1826, when a major repair of the building took place. In the old graveyard around the church there was a tombstone to another martyr to the Covenant, the graves of several of the earlier ministers and three family vaults - those of the Buchanans of Catrine Bank and the Somervells and Mclntyres of Sorn Castle. Mr Gibson informed me that neither the first man called to the charge in 1658 nor his immediate successors were Presbyterians: until 1692 the parish was Episcopal. Only at the latter date was the church opened as a Presbyterian place of worship, a manse was built, a glebe and stipend provided and a minister inducted. He was the Rev Mungo Lyndesay, aged only 26, who remained until his death in 1736. Two of his successors in later years were Doctors of Divinity: Dr George Gordon and Dr Rankine. The latter served the parish for 43 years and was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly in 1883. An earlier minister, Rev Lewis Balfour, had both his names perpetuated in the world of literature. He was grandfather of R.L. Stevenson, whose middle name of Louis had the same pronunciation, and who made the hero of his two novels Kidnapped and Catriona, David Balfour. As Mr Gibson and I walked away from the church, I noticed the old felons jougs hanging beside the door.
We crossed the road, and Mr Gibson pointed to the old mill by the stream, which for many years has now served as the minister's vestry and the Session Room. We moved up on to the high two arched bridge, the older of the two over the River Ayr in the village. As we leaned our elbows on the parapet, watching the river purling below, I mused that Burns may well have done the same when he wrote: "And from Glenbuck down to the Ratton Quay, Auld Ayr is just one lengthened tumbling sea. Mr Gibson told me that it was a minister, the Rev William Steel, who caused the bridge to be erected in the late eighteenth century, after one of his parishioners had been drowned fording the swollen river on his way to worship. I was also informed that at one time the bridge was on the route of one of the roads from Carlisle to Edinburgh! A glance at a physical map will show that, unlikely as it may seem, taking this route in a stagecoach would have been one way of going round the Western end of the Southern Uplands, instead of climbing up over them. Anyway, once over the bridge, a coach would very quickly have had two enforced stops, first at the toll house and then at the Greyhound Inn to change horses. Both these buildings are still there, but the former is a private residence and the old coaching inn has been modernised and has lost the thatched roof that it and other buildings nearby used to have
At this point we adjourned to Mr Gibson's comfortable house, on Anderson Crescent formerly part of the manse glebe. Over a welcome cup of coffee thoughtfully provided by Mrs Gibson, I heard something about the Sorn of olden days. Mr Gibson said that between 1800 and 1900 the village was completely self-contained. Besides the grain mill there was also a woollen mill, both water-powered, and a pottery. For tradesmen, there were no fewer than 5 smiths, a tailor, a shoemaker and two joiners - one of which was Mr Gibson's family business. Attached to the Sorn Inn there was both a bakery and a brewery. There was cheesemaking and there were masons and miners. At one time the majority of the men in the village worked in Sorn Pit, a few miles back along the road from Mauchline. It was an 'ingaunee' or drift mine, which closed in 1984.
Mr Gibson said that now the village was an ageing community. For the most part, the younger members of the 400 or so inhabitants needed to seek work and entertainment in one of the nearby towns. There was however the monthly meeting of the 'Rural', the church had its Woman's Guild and the river supported an Angling Club. There was also a bowling green and a football field. I enquired whether the minister of the church lived in the manse. "No," replied Mr Gibson, "he lives with his wife and two small daughters at Rowanlea, midway between Sorn and Catrine - it is a linked charge. His name is the Rev Alex Welsh, now in his thirties. When he came to us about six years ago he was the same age -26 - as the first minister of the Kirk, the Rev Mungo Lyndesay. It's Mr David Somervell that's in the Old Manse now".
I had heard of Mr Somervell and calling on him next, I gleaned further interesting information thanks to his family's long association with the village and the castle. I was at once struck by the attractiveness of the old house in its rural setting. It would have made a most suitable subject for and article in Home & Gardens. Mr Somervell admitted to me that he had always been interested in furniture, houses and gardens. After leaving the army, he had been able to indulge in his hobby by restoring in turn Killochan Castle and, in the Sorn district, Burnside Cottage, the mansion of Gilmilnscroft, and finally the old manse of Sorn. On seeing within the house how antiquity had been made to harmonise perfectly with comfort, and outside how delightfully the half acre of garden had been landscaped, I could tell at once that this had been a labour of love.
David Somervell at the Manse
Besides admitting to being
a restorer, Mr Somervell agreed that he might also be called a horticulturist,
and I felt sure that he had in no small measure been responsible for
an award, which had come to the village in 1984. I asked him to tell
me about it.
I could imagine this being
brought home to Sorn with no small measure of triumph. I asked Mr Somervell
to tell me something about the village.
I pressed him on his family's
connections with the village.
Continuing on up the main
street, I stopped for a few moments to admire the trim bowling green,
in front of which were a children's play park and miniature public gardens,
complete with an antique village pump. From this spot I was also able
to note how the village nestled in a hollow between high hills. One
the one side, rearing up above the houses was a semicircle of spruce
and larch trees, offering protection from Northerly winds. On the other
side, beyond the winding river a high grassy bank was also topped by
woodland. I took a stroll along the riverside track, where the branches
of the alders were loud with the calls of a party of feeding blue tits.
At the nursery I turned. Here, I learned, Mr McCallum utilised the greenhouses
to produce quantities of tomatoes and chrysanthemums in season. Continuing
on to the top of the village, I called in at the well-stocked General
Store and Post Office. I was glad to hear from Mrs Marshall, the Postmistress,
that at the present time there was no prospect of this Sub Post Office
being closed down. I asked her about the villagers. Were they nearly
all old people?
After this, I could not
leave Sorn without a visit to the Castle. I got back into the car and
rounding the S-bend after the church, crossed the bridge over the Cleugh
Burn, where it tumbled out of its gorge to join the River Ayr, then
went up the short steep hill. Almost at once, on the left-hand side
the Castle of Sorn came into view. Its pink walls and assorted chimney
stacks can just be seen through the gaps in the parkland trees. It stands
high on a rocky bank. At the top of the hill, I turned into the drive
through the picturesque archway adjoining the gatehouse. On the
entrance drive to a big house, one can expect to see a variety of things,
but never before had I encountered the massive bulk of a Sherman tank,
parked at the side of the driveway! Wonderingly,
I drove on. When the great front door of the castle was opened in answer
to my ring, I received my second surprise, for I was confronted by the
largest dog I had ever seen. The Laird walked round him to greet me.
He is Mr Bobbie McIntyre, son of the late Lord Sorn.
First, we went down a spiral stone staircase to the lower ground floor and I was shown the embrasures for crossbows through the 8-foot thick walls and the low vaulted stone ceiling. Then it was up to the very top of the building and out on to the dizzy battlements running round three sides of the old keep. Mr McIntyre seemed quite unperturbed, but I wasn't too keen to look over the edge because of the sheer drop to where the River Ayr tumbles 50 feet below over its rocky bed. A more impregnable defensive position could scarcely be imagined, but after we had gone inside again to continue our chat in Mr McIntyre's comfortable study, he told me that since its original construction the castle, like many others which continue to be inhabited, had been adapted for comfort, while still retaining its typical Scottish architecture.
From my host, who is one of the Vice-conveners of the Scottish Landowners Federation, I learned a lot in quite a short space of time. He told me that the name "Sorn" comes from an old Celtic word meaning a promontory or headland - most appropriate from the location of the castle. In the seventeenth century both the church and the village had adopted the name of the castle in place of the earlier Dalgayne or Dalgain.
The oldest part of the castle, the keep, was probably of fourteenth century construction. Since then, there had been various additions. Today there were five floors - or one for each century, as it were. Over the centuries, ownership of the castle had passed through the hands of various landed families or their close relatives, namely the Keiths, the Hamiltons, the Setons, the Wintons, the Eglintons and the Loudouns. In 1598 the Earl of Winton entertained a royal visitor, in the person of King James VI. Less accommodating was Charles II, who garrisoned the castle with a troop of Dragoons to overawe the Covenanters in the district. Another visitor was James Boswell, the diarist, who in 1777 was entertained by the Dowager Countess of Loudoun. Boswell was impressed by the gardens and indeed her Ladyship, who was very active until her death at the age of 99 and was responsible for many improvements to the trees, hedges and other features of the 8000 acre estate. Further alterations to the castle and improvements to the estate were later carried out by members of both the Somervell and McIntyre families.
The McIntyre family has
had a long connection with transport, both ships and motor cars, although
Gordon McIntyre, Bobbie's father, broke with the transport connection
by becoming Senator of the College of Justice, taking the legal title
of Lord Sorn. He died in 1983 at the age of 86. Bobbie McIntyre resumed
the family's motoring tradition and has a large collection of classic
vehicles - cars and motorcycles of both British and foreign makes. Bobbie's
family, his wife Rachel and their six boys aged from 1 to 14 - all share
his interest in both collecting and driving motorised vehicles of various
sizes. I asked Mr McIntyre about the Sherman tank.
My final act before concluding this most interesting visit, was to admire the framed "Curlers' Flag", hanging in the hallway. It must have measured something like six feet by three. I learned that it had been made in the seventeenth century by two old ladies for Robert Farquhar of Gilmilnscroft to carry at the Battle of Drumclog. Later, a suitable local association was sought, which might take care of this precious silken object. It was decided that the Sorn Curling Club was sufficiently reputable. When that club was eventually dissolved, the flag was removed to Sorn Castle, where it was stored for many years in a chest. Finally, a special frame was made for it, so that it might hang in its present position. It bears the motto "For God and the Presbyterian Reformation, for croun and countrie" and has a crown, the letters W.R (William Rex) and the date 1689. The lettering is in gold and the crown in blue and gold.
My first host of the day, Mr Alex Gibson, has a smaller nylon replica, which he made and inscribed himself.
Back to historical reference