NOTE: A much improved updated version of the Monumental Inscriptions for this cemetery has been completed by Cumnock History Group. This can be accessed for free here. An enhanced version with photographs of every monument is also available for purchase too.
A feature of the old cemetery is a fenced off section where a number of covenanters are buried, (No’s 527-534), the most notable of which is the Rev Alexander Peden. He was born at Auchincloich, parish of Sorn in 1626, was minister at New Luce 1660 - 1663 when, like many other ministers he was discharged. For the next ten years he preached in Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and Ireland, until he was arrested and imprisoned on the Bass Rock. This exile lasted for 5 years, after which he went on trial and was sentenced to banishment in America for life.
But the sentence was never carried out, Peden and his fellow prisoners were released at Gravesend. He returned to Ayrshire shortly afterwards and continued to preach, all the time pursued by troops, until his natural death in his brothers house near Sorn in 1686. He was interred in Auchinleck churchyard but so hated was he by the troopers that a group of them dug up the corpse six weeks later with the intention of hanging it on the gallows-tree at Cumnock. The intervention of the Earl of Dumfries preventing this from happening and instead the body was finally buried at the foot of the tree.
In time this place came to be the public burial ground of Cumnock as the people expressed the wish to be buried near him. A large grey granite monument to his memory was erected in 1891. Three other covenanters David Dunn, Simon Peterson and Thomas Richard were all hanged and buried at the same spot the year previously. For the inscription on Peden's memorial and Richard's gravestone see Cumnock Old Cemetery inscriptions.
Also buried here is William Simpson ('Winsome Willie') the friend of Burns, (Cumnock Old Cemetery No. 297) who was a schoolteacher for a time in Cumnock. As is James Taylor 'the inventor of steam navigation' (Cumnock Old Cemetery No. 308). In fact there is considerable doubt over Taylors claim to the invention. What is certain is that three men were involved, Taylor, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton and William Symington. Miller, (who employed Taylor as tutor to his two sons) had already begun a series of experiments on the possibility of propelling boats using paddle-wheels, when Taylor introduced him to William Symington who had already patented an improved steam engine. Miller at first seems to have opposed the idea of the steam engine being applied to navigation, in a patent taken out on 3rd May 1796 (patent No. 2106), no mention of steam power is made, but Taylor seems to have won him over. Even so, with the paddle-wheel experiments being the work of Miller and the steam engine belonging to Symington, the best that can be said for Taylor is that he acted as middleman bringing the two together. There seems little evidence to support claims of any actual 'invention' on Taylor’s part.
The old cemetery is also host to a number of people who had been active in community affairs during their lifetime:-
John McCowan (No. 16) who was a signatory to the successfull petition to the sheriff at Ayr to have Cumnock declared a 'populous place' under the General Police and Improvement (Scotland) Act, 1872. He was subsequently elected to the first council and later became Provost. For a list of councillors and provosts see John Strawhorn, ‘The New History of Cumnock’.
John Baird (No. 485) a draper, who bequeathed the money for the Baird Museum, which opened in 1891 three YC3PS after his death.
In February of 1857 five men were drowned in an accident in No. 19 Pit at Lugar. James Scott and James Gillespie (No. 376) and three others, Ebenezer Murphy, his son also Ebenezer and John Vickers. [‘Ayr Advertiser’, Feb 1857]
Trafalgar veteran John Johnston (No. 30) achieved a certain amount of success with a poem published in 1874 about the battles on the Nile and at Trafalgar. It is an excellent example of the kind of gushing poem about ‘great men’ that was prevalent at the time.
'Vain were th' attempts, his actions to run o'er
His toils severe on many foreign shore, Where Polar frosts congeal eternal snows, Or where the Tropic's scorching sunbeam glows,
Through every clime his glorious fame was known,
Had braved the hardships great of every zone;
These hardships to enumerate were vain, His wonderous perils on the raging main, One instance here his arduous labours show, And make his fame in vivid colours glow, In torrid climes where nature pants for breath,
And tainted gales bring pestilence and death;
Nelson had sought, hut long had sought in vain,
The still retreating fleets of France and Spain,
When found at last he crushed them on the flood,
And sealed the awful conquest with his blood.'
A medical practitioner who met his death in unusual circumstances was Dr Douglas Wills (No. 39), [‘Ayr Advertiser’, 30th September 1848]. It appears that during an operation to amputate the leg of a railway worker he inadvertently cut his hand with a surgical instrument, and died in great pain within a week. We begin our list of the more interesting inscriptions with a eulogy to him.
No. 39 - wills “Victim of his zeal in the cause of humanity. 'His extensive knowledge of medical science, his unremitting attention to the welfare of those placed under his care, his disinterested services and kindness to the poor, and the uprightness and integrity of his private character, secured for him the entire confidence of those who required his aid, and the respect and esteem of all them who knew him.”
No. 142 - Herbert “Peace to his ashes! may his bed of rest/ With tears of pure affection of the blest/ A spot where mortals to immortals soar/ Now may his soul have reached that shore/ Where tears, where death, where parting is no more.”
No. 246 - Frazer “Erected by the congregation and a few other friends in Remembrance of his personal coolness, his pervading charity, his self-sacrificing spirit, his Christian faithfulness, his sympathetic Corbeance, his unassuming courage, his prayerful tenderness, his ministerial assiduity and his large share of the meekness and tenderness of Christ.
No. 251 - Crawford “A man who possessed superior attainments and purity of character in his humble life, he did what he could to elevate his fellow men morally and polltically. He was tolerant in religious belief and a lover of liberty.”
No. 297 - Simson “Here Winsome Willie lies whose Worth/ In Burns woke equal I love/ And death when wrenched the ties on earth/ Has knit them now above”
No. 301 -Menzies For goodness of heart, free of all guilt, for sincere honesty as a friend, for faithful affection as a wife for preferring domestic happiness and decent economy to dissipated profusion equalled by few, surpassed by none, in justice to her worthy character, from the constant experience of eleven years this conclusive testimony is inscribed by her afflicted husband as the last pledge of his heartfelt duty and most tender regard.
No. 501 - Clark “Death like an overflowing stream/ Sweeps us away; our life's dream/ An empty tale; a morning flower/ Cut down and withered in an hour.”
No. 529 - Richard “Who was shot by Colonel James Douglas for his adherence to the covenant work of reformation on the fifth day of April A.D. 1685. 'Halt passenger, this stone doth show to thee, for what by whom and how, I here did die. Because I always in my station adhered to Scotland's reformation and to our sacred 'Covenants and Laws. Establishing the same which was the cause, In time of prayer I was by Douglas shot. Ah! cruelty to be forgot.”
No. 531 - Peden “That faithful minister of Christ who for his unflinching adherence to the covenanted reformation in Scotland was expelled by tyrant rulers from his parish in New Luce, imprisoned for years on the Bass Rock by his persecutors and hunted for his life on the surrounding mountains and moors till his death on 26 January 1686 in the 60th year of his age, and here, at last his dust reposes in peace awaiting the resurrection of the just. 'Such were the men those hills who trod/ Strong in the love and fear of God/ Defying through a long dark hour/Alike the craft and rage of power.”