William Niven
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The following article is the copyright of the author and the Alloway & Southern Ayrshire Family History Society. It is displayed on this site with their kind permission and may not be distributed in any manner without their approval. The article below appeared in issue no. 3, Spring 1999, of the Journal of the Alloway & Southern Ayrshire Family History Society.

William Niven of Maybole or, Donít Believe Every Inscription You Read.

Recently many of us have been involved in recording the Inscriptions in Alloway Churchyard. One of our members, Mr Gordon Niven of Manchester, sounds a note of caution after his own salutary experience using the dating on a gravestone to further his family research into the life of William Niven of Maybole. He writes that: -

"William Niven was a close friend of Burns while they attended Hugh Rodgerís School in Kirkoswald in 1776. In fact the three earliest recorded letters of Burns were written to him ...

Most references in books identify Niven as a different William Niven. Why? - because his gravestone records his wrong age! Taking his age from the gravestone would track him back to a son of David Niven and Jean Johnstone, born 17th February 1759. In fact, the obituary in the ĎAyr Advertiserí at the time identified him correctly as a son of John Niven and Janet Spear born 16th January 1762. A few years ago," Gordon continues, "I was able to confirm his true identity by accessing his brother Davidís will, where it referred to his parents as John Niven and Janet Spear and his brother, William of Kirkbride. The simple error on the gravestone had me tracing the completely wrong family for fifteen years!"

"William Nivenís boyhood friendship with Robert Burns is far from being his sole claim to fame. In his own right he was a colourful, forceful character and probably the most influential figure in the life of Maybole 150 years ago.

Born in Maybole, he was the fourth son of John and Janet Niven, a shopkeeper and owner of the small neighbouring farm of Kirklandhill. Thanks in part at least to "sterling and friendly patronage" from Hugh Hamilton of Pinmore, a director of the Bank of Hunters and Coy., the young Niven already a merchant in Maybole, became the bankís agent and later a partner. In 1792 he was co-opted on to the Maybole Town Council, soon becoming its leader" and around this time built himself a new house on the south side of High Street.

Nivenís genuine concern for the welfare of the town and its inhabitants resulted in many real improvements e.g. to the local streets many of which were just lanes with a gutter down the middle. (One was called, probably aptly, the Foul Vennel). He urged "that such streets should be paved and new streets formed," and for this and other practical edicts fully deserved the accolade given him by Sir James Fergusson who wrote that "the Town of Maybole has also of late been much improved.. by the exertions of Mr Niven of Kirkbride."

Unfortunately, so forceful and abrasive was Bailie Nivenís personality that he acted on the Council like a kind of one-man-band, bulldozing his way through any objection or opposition with the result that his name appeared with monotonous regularity in the Councilís business.

In 1798 he married Isabella Christian Goudie whose father had been in business in Jamaica. The following year Niven bought the farm of Kirkbride and two other small properties, borrowing £3000 from Hunters and Coy., and giving "the two markland of Kirkbride as security." The gamble paid off and Niven flourished. In 1810 he became Lord Lieutenant for Ayrshire, and before the Reform Bill of 1832 he was the only townsman in Maybole to have a vote.

But the "Lord God of Maybole and Master of the Lime Kilns in sight" was far from popular. Perhaps some of the universal dislike can be put down to envy of a man who had made good financially and enjoyed a position second to none in the town. It has to be said though that his well known miserliness and overweening, unattractive personality caused much of the antipathy.

Nothing better illustrates his aggressive, joyless nature better than the information given by John D Ross in "Whoís Who in Bums" that apparently "Niven was accustomed to complain, not however to Burns as far as is known nor till after the poetís death, that the poem "Epistle to a Young Friend" had originally been addressed to him." Far from basking in enjoyment and pride at this link with the poet, Niven appears to have been highly displeased and to have given vent to his feelings.

His wife died in 1841 and the census of that year shows him living in his house in the High Street with 3 servants and two others "of independent means." When he died in 1844 there was little mourning for him. It is reported that as the pallbearers raised his coffin onto their shoulders, someone shouted derisevely: "Hoist him up, heíll never be nearer Heaven."

Gordon Niven has the finishing words to this story: "William left much of his wealth (over £100,000) to his grand-niece Charlotte Niven Doig Hutchison, who married Thomas, the 8th Earl Montgomerie-Cunninghame of Corsehill. They lived at Kirkbride. The 12th Earl now lives at East Ibley, Oxfordshire."

Sheila Dinwoodie

View family history charts of the Nivens here.