The basement at 2a Academy Street
Thomas Hamilton (1784-1858), the distinguished Edinburgh architect, first came to Ayrshire when he was commissioned to design the Burns Monument at Alloway (completed 1823). The connections he made then helped him to get the job of designing Ayr Town Buildings with its huge spire. (Now, with later additions, Ayr Town Hall.) Around the time that the Town Buildings opened in 1830, Hamilton received two further commissions in Ayr - one from the Town Council to replace the dilapidated medieval Wallace Tower in the High Street with the present tower, and one from Quintin Kennedy's newly-established Ayrshire Bank to build a bank in the Sandgate, opposite the Town Buildings.
Hamilton's new bank replaced an earlier building on exactly the same site which had been the headquarters of the famous (or notorious) Ayr Bank of Douglas, Heron & Co., and the basement at 2a Academy Street, used as a restaurant in recent times, is believed to have originally been the vault of that earlier bank. Quintin Kennedy probably bought the old bank building, with its ready-made vault, and then demolished the above-ground structure, replacing it with Hamilton's fine new building which opened in May 1832.
The 1760s saw an economic boom in the west of Scotland, in agricultural improvement, in legitimate trade (especially with America and the West Indies) and in large-scale smuggling. Lending restrictions by the established Edinburgh banks made it difficult to get credit to fund the growth of these activities, and so the Ayr Bank was formed in 1769. For several years it did a great deal of business, but its lending policy was over-generous, it was badly managed, and a Britain-wide credit crunch in 1772 brought about its collapse.
There were close connections between the Ayr Bank and its near neighbour, the wine business in Academy Street which is still in existence.
Up until 1765, the Isle of Man, which was outside the British customs and excise system, was the base for smuggling in the Irish Sea/North Channel area. High-duty goods from overseas - tobacco, tea, brandy and rum were the most important - were stockpiled there and then smuggled to the nearby shores, including the Ayrshire coast. The Manx merchants who organised this included John Christian and Robert Whiteside, and they were closely associated with two Ayr merchants in league with the smugglers, David McLure and George McCree. In 1765 the British government intervened in the Isle of Man to stamp out smuggling activity there, and Christian and Whiteside then moved to Ayr, bringing their capital with them. Along with McLure and McCree, and some other partners, they founded the wine-importing firm of Alexander Oliphant & Co. in 1766 in the School Vennel - now Academy Street. Oliphant, one of the other partners, was a former customs officer who had been dismissed for irregularities. His former colleagues in the Ayr customs office, who knew about the smuggling connections of the partnership, suspected the new business of being a front for further smuggling activity.
While the chief partners in the wine company no doubt continued their connections with the smuggling bands operating at remote parts of the Ayrshire coast - who now had to arrange for their cargoes to come directly from European ports - letters of the company show that, instead of going to the trouble of smuggling wine, they practised a fraud. French wine was the most popular variety in Scotland, but the very high duty on it made it very expensive indeed. The duty was very low on Spanish and Portuguese wine, however, so the Ayr company arranged with their overseas agents to disguise French wine as Spanish or Portuguese, with false shipping papers.
A few years after the wine firm began business, the Ayr Bank was set up. While its leading shareholders were respectable noblemen and gentry - including those whose family names gave the bank its official name - the individuals most closely associated with organising and running it included Christian, Whiteside, McLure, McCree and their associates in the wine business - they were also shareholders in the bank − and the authorities were suspicious that it was involved in financing smuggling as well as more legitimate activity. From Fort Street most of the way over to the Sandgate, extensive wine cellars - still in use - had been constructed by the partnership. The bank vault seems to be a continuation of this underground space. Academy Street appears to have been largely rebuilt once the cellars were complete - many of the buildings in it today date from around this time. David McLure certainly stayed in Academy Street, and his associates probably also had residences in the area.
With the collapse of the bank, the wine company partners all suffered financially and had to sell the business, which continued under new management. Most of them had invested in land, and David McLure had bought property in Tarbolton parish. This included the farm of Lochlee, and McLure became the landlord of the family of Robert Burns when they moved there in 1776. McLure (like many affected by the bank crash) was struggling to avoid total ruin, and took Burns's father William to court over alleged arrears of rent. William won the case, but died soon after, and so David McLure gets the blame for hounding Robert's father to an early grave.
In 1789, the government brought in a number of measures to remove the incentives for smuggling, and this included reducing the duty on imported spirits. To make up for the resulting loss of revenue, the excise duty on whisky distilling was increased. While large-scale smuggling of overseas goods now largely ceased, whisky smuggling became common, and continued well into the nineteenth century. Histories of the town in that period tell of boats coming over from Arran (where there were many illicit stills) to Ayr harbour with fish and other commodities and with concealed whisky casks which were sneaked ashore.
Many tales have been handed down in Ayr of secret passages beneath the town, and of linked underground chambers enabling smugglers and others to move considerable distances without having to come to the surface. There is no confirmation of any of this in historical records. Certainly, there are many basements and cellars beneath old properties in the town centre (the wine cellars under Academy Street being the most remarkable) and some would have been used at times to hide contraband goods.