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 set about surveying and draining the land for the purpose of mining coal. The drainage adit which was completed in 1686 still flows out at the front in Melbourne Park in Saltcoats. He wanted to export coal to Ireland but it was too difficult to transport coal overland, across sandy terrain, to the existing harbour at Irvine so he set about improving facilities at Saltcoats Creek which was nearer to where the coal was produced.
The new harbour at Saltcoats cost £1,000 having been authorised by Act of Parliament in 1686. The Act also allowed him to levy a charge of four pence Scots on every pint of beer sold within Saltcoats and Stevenston to help pay for the work.
The harbour took 15 years (1684-1700) to complete. Because Cunninghame did not own the northern half of the site, the harbour was not enclosed and gales every winter destroyed part of the previous summer's work. It was also prone to silting up. Even before completion, however, it provided an important outlet for Cunninghame's coal.
Marketing coal was an ad hoc business at the end of the 17th century making it difficult to plan ahead and Cunninghame did not have enough income to pay for all the development work without borrowing. He established the biggest, most productive colliery in Ayrshire and built an impressive new family home at Seabank House, but ended up in a tangled web of debt which led, after his death, to a long series of court cases.
He was highly regard as an entrepreneur by his contemporaries but was possibly overoptimistic and may have lacked the expertise of experienced miners. The miners themselves would have had to work in dreadful conditions.
Eric J. Graham, Robert Reid Cunninghame of Seabank House, Entrepreneur and Life Time Manager of the Stevenson Coal Company 1770-1814, Ayrshire Monographs No 19, Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 1997 (Appendix A, page 44)
Three Towns Local History Group, The Auchenharvie Colliery: an early history, Richard Stenlake Publishing, Ochiltree, 1996 (pages 4-12)
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