On 26th February 1890 William Arrol was presented with the freedom of the Burgh of Ayr at a ceremonial dinner in Ayr Town Hall. Provost Ferguson who made the presentation said that the Town Council had resolved to give this honour in recognition of the great works and worldwide fame William Arrol had achieved with the Tay and Forth Bridges. The resolution had been supported unanimously by the general public showing the esteem in which they held the eminent man who had come to reside amongst them. He went on to say that William Arrol was worthy of the honour conferred on him in acknowledgement of his energy, ability and genius, and that they were bound to look upon him with admiration at his great achievements. But that the more they got to know William Arrol, the greater their esteem for him, his generous nature, the kindness he had shown to everyone with whom he came in contact, and his retiring disposition which brought them to respect him “quite as much for his goodness of heart as his hardness of head”.
The Burgess Ticket was enclosed in a silver casket bearing the inscription:
The Royal Burgh of Ayr.
The certificate of which is contained herein,
was conferred upon
WILLIAM ARROL, Esq. of Seafield,
in recognition of
His conspicuous skill and notable achievements as an Engineer
Ayr, 26 February 1890
In returning his thanks William Arrol said
” I have faced a good many difficult things in my day, but to address an audience is the worst. I am sure anything I have got to say you will not appreciate very much. (Applause.) I daresay you would be all at a loss, as I was myself, to know why the Provost and Magistrates should have proposed to grant to me the freedom of the burgh of Ayr. I could not at all what I had done to justify that honoured being conferred upon me. I thought once or twice that it might be due to a little jealousy on their part. (Laughter.) I have got the credit of doing something. I daresay I have had a good deal to do with the building of two bridges – the one over the Tay and the other over the Forth. (Applause.) Now in Ayr you claim the right to ‘Twa Brigs’. (Laughter.) I think the Magistrates must have wanted to join partnership and let all go together. (Laughter.) Well, I could not quite reason that out. Indeed, I thought there was hardly that much in it. Another thing struck me as explaining why they should make me a burgess of Ayr. I bought a little property in the south end of the town (Seafield) and I have all the rights and privileges of paying the taxes and everything else. (Laughter.) So that in that respect I am a citizen of Ayr already; but perhaps they thought I was left out, and so they made me a full burgess. (Applause.) Then the next thing that struck me was that they wished to do me this honour more in my representative character as representative of the working classes of Scotland; as one of those who had been able to raise themselves by their own energy and industry. (Applause.) That is the only reason that I can see for the freedom of the burgh of Ayr being presented to me. (Applause.) The first time I was in Ayr was thirty years ago. I remember travelling through it looking for work as a journeyman blacksmith. (Applause.) I had a fancy to get work in Ayr, as I greatly wished to see Ayrshire. I thought the best way to gratify that desire was to seek work in Ayr, but, unfortunately, I did not succeed in getting employment. That was my first connection with Ayr. I did not see it again for a great many years, and eventually I had a notion to get a nice quiet place to live down here from Saturday to Monday when I was able. Therefore I have come down to settle in Ayr, and, being a nice pleasant place, I am glad to say I do not regret it. The place is quite up to my expectations. I like the town and all the people about it. (Applause.)
‘But speaking as a representative of the working classes and of the honour which the Provost and Magistrates have done me to-night in presenting me with the freedom of the burgh, I should like to say a few words about our working men at the present moment. I am afraid they are apt to do what some of us here say when a horse gets the bit in its mouth, they run away. I fear that the working classes have got the bit of a good trade in their mouths, and are going to run away with it. I saw at least a dozen of gentlemen to-day, and every one was complaining about the prospects of this coming year. I am sorry to think that our working classes will soon run away with the great prospects of the trade of the country, and of the great boom of two years ago. I fear that at the end of twelve months the thing will be at a dead stand. The cause of that is simply the present state of trade unions and the Stock Exchange. Our trade cannot settle down to any quiet, steady trade, the same as we had some years ago. No person can safely go into any contracts that will last over a few months. I know I have been asked to offer for work to the extent of a million of money, but I would not look at it, and incur the very great risk in the present state of business. There is no safety in anybody going outside our own country, for you no sooner have settled down than the trade unions are down ion the top of you for an increase of wages. There is another thing I should like to mention, and perhaps it will be as much in the ladies’ as the gentlemen’s way. I refer to the education of our younger members. We do a great deal so that the best of our young men may get a good education and be raised to a higher and better position socially. I am sorry to say that our tradesmen are not benefiting by that, because most people now seem to think their sons are getting a better education than their fathers, and therefore they must be gentlemen and not tradesmen, so that our better young men have learned to be clerks and to follow other light employment. They result is that in the inside of a few years the country is getting overstocked with that class, and I believe thousands and thousands of them would be glad to get half the wages paid to working men. I hold it is altogether wrong that so many young men are not learning trades. Give them certainly the best education you possibly can, but at the same time give them a trade which they could follow, and by which they could earn a living. Our trade has got into the hands of a few, and you cannot get so many decent steady tradesmen. If you advertise for a tradesman you will not perhaps get a single application; whereas, if you advertise for a clerk, you will get 400 or 500. (Laughter.) If our legislators, therefore, instead of advocating the system of eight hours day and that sort of thing would try to get some Act whereby our younger members would be forced to learn a trade along with their education, it would do a great deal of good. (Applause.) There would be some of you astonished if you knew how little some of these tradesmen work. Why, it is quite common for some of them to come in on a Thursday morning and go away on a Saturday, taking £5 or £6. Now, how many electors are there in the county who never feel the advantage of the rise in trade? It is only a few men who feel the advantage of an advance in trade. Take the case of the coal industry. The colliers struck for a rise in their wages, with the result that the prices rose 100 per cent. How many poor people had to suffer from this great advance in the price of coal? The fact is that trade has got into so few hands that the only remedy is for respectable young men to learn trades, so that they may get a share of our industrial prosperity, and be able to keep our trade going on steadily as it used to be. (Applause.) I do not think there is much more I can say to you, ladies and gentlemen. I daresay there are some gentlemen here able to speak on the subject better than I can. I thank you for your presence here to-night, and I thank the Provost and Magistrates for the great honour they have done me in making me a burgess of their ancient town. (Applause.)”
Account of the presentation and William Arrol’s speech is from The Glasgow Herald article of 27 February 1890, “Presentation of the Freedom of Ayr to Mr Wm. Arrol”.