To set the scene for the time period of our earliest documented ancestor, it was the early 1600's and King James I still sat on the throne. He had only recently commissioned a new version of the Bible, we now know as the King James Version. A 100 ft. galleon called the Mayflower planned to set sail from Plymouth, England, bringing a group of Separatists to the New World. It was during this time of exploring new ideas when Henry Clark was born. He lived in the town of Ayr (or Air spelled back then); a town which actually dates back to the Roman occupation of Scotland, which ended almost 2,000 years ago. In 17th century Ayr, its inhabitants would’ve enjoyed a healthy trade of goods by way of the sea. While exporting cattle, cotton and aggregates, a variety of goods were imported from other areas, such as sugar and molasses from Barbados, wine and salt from France, timber from Norway, grain from Ireland, and tobacco from the Americas. Because of its convenient location to the sea, Ayr was the chief curing station for herring and other fish, which were consumed as food, but also provided oil for lamps.
The Town of Aire, Slezer - 1707
Twa Brigs (Two Bridges) of Ayr, by T. Higham - 1840 (The Tollbooth is in the background)
As like other bustling Scottish cities, Ayr could not escape the numerous ills of the times, suffering from many epidemics of the plague between the years of 1545 to 1647. According to The History of the County of Ayr, (1847, James Paterson, pg 161) in 1610, two thousand people are said to have "fallen as sacrifice to the plague," of which only ten prevailed. But in 1745, the whole population was estimated not to exceed 2,000. Therefore, the population of Ayr seems to have been much greater during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than in the eighteenth.
Despite the constant spread of diseases such as cholera, chicken pox, leprosy and the Black Death, and thereby experiencing a high infant mortality rate, Ayr’s population began to grow rapidly in the mid-1700's. Because of its growth, there were other woes which befell this town, such as an influx of beggars and vagrants. Parliament had an answer for that. They ordered anyone without a skill or trade to work in the manufacturing industry, in places called "work houses." Instead of collecting unemployment, able-bodied beggars of all ages became slaves for a period of time and only gained their freedom after working for a set number of years. Conditions in these work houses were often deplorable, so people would avoid working there if they could. [Wouldn’t that be great if we could do that today? It sure would cut down on welfare spending.] It was during this time that the Countess of Eglinton utilized her newly found labor force and turned the old citadel (a fortress) into a brewery. Here they distilled good ol' Scottish whisky, cinnamon and ales. While American colonists were in their infant years of building tobacco plantations and carving out a living on the frontier, Ayr’s commerce increased vastly; and continued flourishing for many more years.
Back to life in the 1600's, Scotland was closely governed by the City Council, local Magistrates and Ministers. In fact, many ministers actually enacted laws, because if you recall, there was [and still is] no separation between church and state. So to keep the town on a tight schedule, as like most towns, Ayr hired a group of minstrels whose duty it was to play to the townsfolk each night and morning, by way of warning them when to go to bed and when to rise. Since laws dictated that families must observe the Sabbath, a Bellman rang the bells in the Tollbooth at six o’clock on Sabbath morning, to remind the people to prepare for worship. However, it seems that not all members of the family kept that law. In March of 1606, a group of six men were cited for “playing at ye nine-holes on the Sabbath day.” [Scotland’s favorite pastime was a temptation they just couldn’t resist.]
During the mid-17th century, far worse crimes than skipping church made it into the record books. In fact, 1649 was known as the “Year of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt.” In an attempt to establish a “godly society,” the radical and newly established Kirk party passed a Witchcraft Act that encouraged local presbyteries to seek out witches. The hunts were initiated usually by the local minister or one of his assistants. If they were able to obtain a confession, then they were paid a commission. It’s no big surprise then that over a span of two years (1649 & 1650), 612 accusations were recorded and over 300 witches were executed (burned). The chief evidence in their case was “common rumor.” Once accused, the defendant was allowed several opportunities to confess. Some of these opportunities included tortures, such as “pricking” – where the accused was pricked over and over whilst the accusers looked for “the devil’s mark.” Sleep deprivation over a period of three days was used as well. You can imagine the hallucinations and erratic behavior this caused. Therefore, rather than endure such tortures, many women simply confessed. The confessions included "renouncing their baptism, taking on a new name from the devil, having familiar intercourse with him, and other sundrie sorceries.” Most of the so-called witches were relatively low social class women who couldn't afford to pay off the clergy to escape being labeled a witch. The Witch hunt declined after the 1660’s when the elite of society began to take a more rational view of the world. As a result, the "witch prickers" (as they were called by name of the instruments they used) were exposed as frauds and the legal system began to reject evidence from them. The last witch was executed in 1727 and the law making witchcraft illegal in Scotland (enacted in 1563) was finally abolished in 1736.
An early hagbut rifle
There was some merriment during this time, however. The townsfolk of Ayr held a week-long county fair twice yearly, with archery and shooting contests. The shooting contests used a gun called a "hagbut" and through these contests the entire townsfolk were encouraged to practice their aim. The county fairs then were not much different than they are now, except they ended at sundown. The town would not see gas street lamps until 1747. As early as 1698, there is mention of horse racing, which also brought the townsfolk together, but it was held at different times than the fairs. Up until the mid-eighteenth century, there were no street lamps, city sewers, water systems and only one marketplace. It was, indeed, the best of times and the worst of times.
The House of Newtown (or 'Newtowne') of the title is the large fortified building in this view. Ayr Auld Brig ('old bridge'), dating from 1470, is on the left of the house, leading into the town. The spire in the distance belongs to the Tolbooth, and the church on the left of the prospect is the New Church. Slezer gives a slightly different spelling of 'Aire' for this drawing than the one used for 'The Prospect of the Town of Air from the East'. Like the previous plate, there are sheep and shepherds in the foreground of this view. Image from Theatrum Scotiae by John Slezer, 1693.
Seen from a hill above farmland, the approach to the town of Ayr – or 'Air' in an older spelling - is on the left by the Auld Brig ('old bridge') built in 1470. The Tolbooth spire stands out above the rooftops near the centre. The building on the right with a tower is St John's Church. Small boats and larger ships line the River Ayr – probably 'clip art' type illustrations by a different artist. On the east bank in this scene are two horsemen accompanied by armed men. Possibly they are on their way to the Cromwellian fortifications, built in 1652, which guard the harbour on the far right on the opposite side. Slezer added a rural touch by having a shepherd seated in the foreground, watching his flock. Image from Theatrum Scotiae by John Slezer, 1693.