Cross Keys Inn


The Cross Keys Inn sits at the toll at Pathhead at the junction of the Mansfield Road and the road to the Castle the main thoroughfare through New Cumnock.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald March 2, 1883

A RELIC OF THE PAST – The beginning of this week witnessed the falling in of an old landmark in the history of the place. We refer to the old Cross Keys Inn the roof of which has given way. The building was erected in 1770 by Mr John Crichton, grandfather of Mr George McKnight, late of the Crown Inn. It will thus be seen at that time of its decay it had reached its 113th year. For many years the Cross Keys was the leading inn and hostelry of the place. Many an hour was spent under its roof by our Immortal Bard as he journeyed between Dumfries and Ayrshire; and it may not be generally known that the imperishable song dedicated to Jean Armour, “O’ a the airts the wind can blaw”, is generally supposed to have been written under the roof of the old inn, though the stranger to our village might find some difficulty in believing as he gazes on the old and time-worn building. For years it has been little better than an eyesore to the villagers, and it is hoped that the proprietor may see his way to rebuild it.  Meanwhile in the words of Lady Nairn, as addressed to the old house of Esk  –

  • “The auld hoose, the auld hoose,
  • Deserted though ye be;
  • There ne’er can be a new hoose,
  • Half sae dear to me.”


O’ A’ The Airts The Wind Can Blaw

Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo’e best:

There’s wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between:
But day and night my fancys’ flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There’s not a bonie flower that springs,
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There’s not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o’ my Jean.

Old Cross Keys Pub.JPG
Cross Keys Inn (1960s) – Courtesy of Alex Jess

Crichtons and McKnights

The Old Parish baptism records for New Cumnock reveal that John Crichton and his wife Margaret Baird had four children – William (b. 1769), John (b.1771),  George (b.1773) and Agnes (b. 1775). Their daughter Agnes married William McKnight, son of George McKnight and Betty Mitchell of the Old Mill.

In 1804 William and Agnes took over the running of the Castle Inn. Following William’s death in 1831, his widow had the wisdom to have the Crown Inn built adjacent to the new parish church a few years later and their daughter Catherine remained there until the 1890’s, before retiring to Cumnock.

Cross Keys Inn

In 1883, when the roof of old Cross Keys Inn collapsed, it was owned by Mr James Gray, coalmaster and owner of Pathhead Colliery, The innkeeper at the time was Mrs Jane McKnight (nee Wallace), widow of James McKnight.

Born in Kirkconnel James was the son of William McKnight, gamekeeper and Agnes Steel. It is unclear if this McKnight family were related to the McKnights of the Old Mill. In 1859 James married Jane Wallace the daughter of John Wallace, grocer at Craigbank and Sarah Begg, at which time Jane already had a 2-year-old daughter, Margaret.

James McKnight worked as a mineral borer at the ill-fated New Cumnock Ironworks and together he and Jane had three children Sarah, Agnes and John. By 1864, when son John was born the family were living at the Cross Keys Inn, with James working as innkeeper and spirit merchant. James McKnight died in 1869 and his widow continued as innkeeper with daughters Sarah and Agnes working as barmaids. in 1890 Jane died at the Cross Keys Inn, aged 56 years old.

By that time eldest daughter Sarah had married William Reid Downie, tailor and clothier at the Castle, New Cumnock. He was the son of Robert Downie, blacksmith and Isabella Reid.  William bought the Cross Keys Inn and took on the tasks of spirit merchant and innkeeper. He died in 1935, aged 80 years old and Sarah died two years later, aged 77 years , they lie together in the Auld Kirkyard within the ruins of the Auld Kirk.