THE UK’s ambitious New Town programme aimed to radically transform insignificant patches of rural British territory into modern residential and infrastructural wannabe-utopias, but things got seriously icky in 1966 when one of medieval Scotland’s oldest towns became Britain’s newest.

According to New Town developers and promoters, the Royal Burgh of Irvine was little more than a late 14th century afterthought on the neglected periphery of medieval civilization. If Irvine was ever anything, it was “just a small port town” or (at best) a late-medieval “baronial burgh” with little to offer future citizens or historians.

After being momentarily propped up by some marginal contact with the later industrial revolution, and the presence of a disproportionately massive 1970s leisure centre, Irvine’s main claim to fame was a brief but troubling encounter with the poet Robert Burns.

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Irvine isn’t particularly old. It wasn’t terribly important. And it’s never been very interesting. So they say. So they keep saying. But they’re wrong. It’s not true.

Britain’s urban experiment tragically misunderstood the importance of this (particularly old and terribly important) “Ancient Royal Burgh”.

When first attempting to explain this unique situation more than 20 years ago, it was clear that any journey into Irvine’s past could only begin well beyond the meagre resources and downplayed revisions of the New Town’s spectacularly underwhelmed ahistorical gatekeepers.

It’s always impossible to condense all material into one short article, but a few critical and surprising moments in Irvine’s history are well worth repeating in 2022.

According to some of Scotland’s oldest royal charters, King David I and his court were at Irvine in 1124 (or 1128) directing the men of Dunfermline to “render … all the customary services … and co-operate in the work begun there without any delay”.

In 1128 (or 1136) the King was back in Irvine granting the tenants of Dunfermline “free[dom] from all labour service on castles, bridges and other works”.

These are remarkable charters. They confirm that the King of Scotland was able to maintain the country and issue legislation from somewhere in or around Irvine in the early 12th century.

Before Edinburgh’s ascension as formal capital, Scotland’s capitals were wherever the Scottish King and court could formally (and comfortably) issue charters to the rest of the country.

Perth, Scone, Stirling, Dundee, and St Andrews are widely celebrated as medieval administrative centres, along with many other Royal Burghs across Scotland.

Though Irvine’s administrative record is still routinely uncelebrated today, King David I issued more charters from Irvine than from Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St Andrews. King Robert II issued five charters from Irvine in the first two years of his reign.

He would sign four more, and award a section of his “King’s Highway” (in the centre of Irvine) for the development of a new Irvine court house, before his death (at Dundonald, overlooking the Irvine Valley) in 1390. His son, Robert III, issued more charters from Irvine than from Scone, Edinburgh, Linlithgow, and Stirling.

Irvine Town Centre

If Irvine was insignificant until the 1960s, its new corporate supervisors would’ve struggled to explain how multiple medieval kings could manage national affairs from the town between the 12th and 15th centuries. It would be impossible for kings to hold royal courts in Irvine in the 1100s if there was nowhere to stay until the late 14th century.

If Irvine had no national or international appeal until the late 20th century, people like James Boswell, Edgar Allan Poe, Napoleon III, and Daniel Defoe would’ve had nowhere to sleep when they came to town in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead of explaining or even acknowledging the paradox, the New Town programme simply decided that the best way to focus on Irvine’s future was to ignore Scotland’s past.

If Irvine’s already untapped history could be further downplayed in public and print, the New Town vision would flourish. Old is boring. New is cool. Or so they thought. It didn’t work. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth, and Stirling have all been granted City Status. The once “Very Ancient Royal Burgh of Irvine” is among the poorest and most deprived areas of Scotland. It doesn’t seem fair.