Theatre in Ayrshire  ~  1800 - 2017

Musical and Theatrical Personalities in 18th, 19th and 20th Century Scotland

<macreadyWilliam Charles Macready, 1793 - 1873   magnify

Edmund Kean, 1789 - 1833   magnify

John Braham, 1774 - 1856  Magnify

Fanny Kemble, 1809 - 93   magnify

1838Charles KeanCharles Kean, 1811 - 68   magnify

TempletonJohn Templeton  1802-1886   magnify

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke 1818 - 66   magnify

Edward Compton,  1854 - 1918    magnify

1957Ena Michell
Ena Mitchell (1957)   (d. 1979)   magnify

1959Davic Ward  David Ward   1922 - 83  magnify

ca 1960Robert Wilson   Robert Wilson 1907 - 64   magnify

1966McKellar   Kenneth McKellar 1927 - 2010  magnify

ca. 1800Johnston
Henry Erskine Johnston, 1777-1845   magnify

ca. 1800
Harriet Murray Siddons (1783 - 1844)

Marie Thérèse Kemble 1774-1838   Magnify

Harriet Elizabeth Faucit 1789-1857   magnify

Charles Mackay, 1785 - 1857.  Magnify

ca. 1825Sinclair
Portrait of John Sinclair, 1791–1857  Magnify

Helena Saville Faucit, 1817 - 1898  Magnify


John Orlando Parry, ca. 1840 magnify

ca 1885Durward Lely
Durward Lely 1852 - 1944   magnify

1887KennedyDavid Kennedy 1825 - 86   magnify 

1982William McCue
William McCue 1934 - 99   magnify


Late 18th century records report an attempt by George Sutherland, manager of a touring company, to build a theatre in Ayr.  He was unable to find a suitable location and moved to Dumfries where he helped to establish the Theatre Royal (Dumfries) in 1792.

In 1796, a company gave performances in Ayr in a school-room at the Wallace Tower. Beaumont's company played there in 1802. This company included a very young Edmund Kean.

in 1809 Beaumont moved to the empty Gibb's soapworks beside the main gate of the former Dallbair House.  The next company who occupied the soap-work was managed by Montgomerie and Lacy. The well-known John Henry Alexander, of the Glasgow Theatre, acted here about this time, under the name of Master Middleton.

Henry Erskine Johnston (1777-1845) ran drama there before moving to Content Street, to a building which later became a brass foundry.   The great tragedian, Edmund Kean, appeared at these premises in 1811 and 1812, returning to Ayr for further engagements in later years.  By 1812, there were plans for a new theatre and the Content Street premises were abandoned.

Later, Johnston became part-owner (with the banker, James Morris) and lessee of the new 'small but handsome' Ayr Theatre.  Opening at Sandgatehead in 1815, there appeared, in due succession, most of the great actors and actresses of the day.  This building still stands at the top of Fort Street, and is now the Baptist Church.

This theatre, variously known as the New Theatre or the Queen's Rooms, and later known as the Theatre Royal, accommodated 600.   The Edinburgh company of William Murray with Mrs Harriet Siddons and the Glasgow Company under Seymour completed a seasons at this theatre. 
James Morris, part owner of the Theatre Royal, has left a record of many of the activities within the theatre between 1815 and its closure in the 1870's  He relates that Kean appeared at the Theatre Royal as Richard the Third, travelling from his home in Bute to Campbelltown and on to Ayr.

Other players known to have visited the Theatre Royal included Charles Mackay, (the inimitable Baillie Nicol Jarvie), sometime resident in Ayr and the comedian Horatio Lloyd, famous for his comic walk.  Other figures who appeared at the Theatre Royal, during those early years, include Macready, Miss Foote, Mr. and Mrs. Wood, Miss Helen Faucit and Miss Stephens.   Gustavus V. Brooke was also in Ayr as an actor/manager.

Over the years, The theatre provided a home for music.  Both Braham and Templeton, noted tenors, appeared in the house.  Other singers of note included John Sinclair, John Wilson and Gale.

In 1832 Paganini played two concerts at the theatre.  Tickets were priced at 7s 6d, 5s and 3s 6d.  Paganini was promised a fee of £100 for his appearance but it appears that the manager (Seymour) decamped with the funds.  Thereafter, Paganini always demanded a fee in advance, asserting that he would play better with the cash in his back pocket.

Test based on James Morris, Recollections of Ayr Theatricals from 1809. Ayr Advertiser 1872

Morris also had a financial interest in a theatre in Kilmarnock between ca.1830 and 1840



The first substantial theatre in Kilmarnock was the New Theatre (later known as the Opera House) in John Finnie Street.  Although built as a theatre with space to accommodate as many as 1200 persons, the venture was not a success and by the early years of the 20th century the house was dark.  Later the building served as a church (circa 1930/40), auction house, pub and nightclub.  A fire destroyed the building in the late 1980s, leaving a shell now incorporated into a new structure for Council offices.

Writing in 1875, shortly after the theatre opened with a performance of Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering, Archibald Adamson noted:

A short distance along it [John Finnie Street] on the left stands the New Theatre, a building that far surpasses anything of its kind in the West of Scotland. It is just completed, licenced, and opened under the management of Mr William Glover of the Theatre Royal Glasgow. The interior is commodious, beautifully fitted up, and seated for 1200. Externally, it is of large proportions. The front, which is Corinthian and elaborately ornamental - is gracefully chaste.

Adamson comments further on theatrical history in the town:

It may not be inappropriate to refer to former theatres in Kilmarnock, for the drama has had several unsuccessful struggles to gain a footing in the town, not the least of which was the attempt in Back Causeway somewhere about thirty years ago [ca 1830 - 40]. This theatre- or at least the stabling that was converted into such - was a rude affair of the kind; yet nevertheless the proprietors did their best to awaken a theatrical taste in the townspeople by engaging such actors as Edmund Kean, G.V.Brooke, Macready, Charles Vernon, and others; but they did not meet with the encouragement that their efforts merited, and after struggling for some years they had to give up for want of support.

Shortly after its close
(sic) a Mr Scott erected a wooden theatre near to where the railway arch now crosses Portland Street. He also secured good talent, but his exertions proved futile and like his predecessors he had to relinquish the attempt.

Its successor - a wooden one also - was opened by a Mr Bostock at the top of Langlands Brae. For a time large audiences were attracted, but gradually, in spite of stars and puffs, the interest waned and it collapsed.

Shortly it was followed by another of higher class, which was conducted by Mr Edmund Glover. It was a neat wooden erection, and occupied nearly the same spot as the last-mentioned. Success attended it for some considerable time, but gradually the audience thinned, and after struggling for two or three winters it was taken down.

The next effort worthy of notice was made by the late John Simpson and Mr Bostock in the theatre under the railway arch in Back Street, but the expense of the erection was so great that Mr Bostock grew terrified , disappeared and left Simpson to wrestle with the concern as  best he might.   For several years Simpson struggled with adverse circumstances, tried many attractions, not the least of which was his engagement of Sir William Don, Mr Parry, Mr Mortimer Murdoch, G V Brooke,

Since then, between six and seven years ago, various theatrical companies have visited the town but now that it is possessed of a theatre more worthy of support, it remains to be seen whether the Puritanical spirit of "Auld Killie" be sufficiently relaxed to give it the encouragement it deserves.

Old John Simpson, the leading spirit in the theatre under the railway arch, was a well known character, and is still spoken of with respect. He was a shoemaker to trade, but discarded the last to tread the boards, "the profession" being more congenial to his nature. He was a fair actor, and as such was a favourite with the people of Kilmarnock, and nothing gave the juveniles more pleasure than to see him killed in a piece, he having a way of his own in dying that gave universal satisfaction. Once when playing "Burke and Hare", and when simulating death on the gallows, he would have done so in earnest had it not been noticed that the prop under his feet had given way, and that he was black in the face.

He was of congenial nature, and whether in prosperity or adversity had always a kind word for everybody. When the playgoing inhabitants denied him their support he travelled the country with a booth, and in it "played many parts;" but having met with an accident whereby he lost the sight of an eye, and age and infirmity beginning to tell on him, he came to Kilmarnock, and by the kindness of a few friends was admitted to the infirmary, where after a short illness the curtain of death fell and closed the last scene of his eventful life on 21st December 1873.

Ref. Rambles Round Kilmarnock
A R Adamson (1875)
Published by T Stevenson, Kilmarnock Standard



During the early years of the 19th Century there were theatrical performances in Irvine although the location and extent of the activities is unknown.  The following notice appeared in the Air Advertiser in the Summer of 1817.

Theatre Irvine:  Under the sanction of the Magistrates and positively for four weeks only. In a few days a Theatre will be fitted up in a most commodious manner, with a select company of comedians, most of whom have sustained the leading characters in the principal Theatres Royal of the United Kingdom. Mr Bromby (the Manager) begs leave to assure the Nobility, Gentry and Inhabitants generally of Irvine, and its vicinity, that the business of the Stage, in the variety of representation, according to his arrangements, is conducted on such a system as he humbly trusts will afford general satisfaction. Every popular Novelty will be produced in regular succession, and no effort on his or the Company's part, shall be wanting to conciliate and deserve the favour of the public.

Air Advertiser and West Coast Journal, 24th June 1817


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