On Friday 15 October 1830, Ayr’s fine new municipal buildings were opened with a grand ball and supper in the ballroom within the new edifice. It had been designed in the neoclassical style – inspired by the buildings of Ancient Greece and Rome – by the Glasgow-born architect Thomas Hamilton. His work in Edinburgh in this style had earned him distinction, and he was already well known in Ayr as the designer of the Burns Monument at nearby Alloway. With the demolition in 1825-26 of the old Sandgate Tolbooth and its clock tower, Ayr had been shorn of the monumental structure which had previously symbolised its civic pride. The new building restored that pride in fulsome measure by incorporating a replacement clock tower surmounted by a magnificent steeple 225 feet high.
The next week’s edition of the Ayr Advertiser contained a description of the building, including the soaring spire, ‘being, it is believed, higher than any steeple in Scotland’ and ‘surmounted by a gigantic figure of Triton’. The huge gilded copper figure of fish-tailed Triton, an Ancient Greek god of the sea with the power to calm the waves, was mounted so as to revolve freely on top of the steeple. He acted as a highly visible weather vane, providing valuable assistance to the town’s mariners at a time when steamships were still in their infancy and seafaring depended mostly on the wind. However, the elevation of the sea god to serve as an appropriately classical protector of Ayr’s maritime commerce seems to have met with considerable disapproval from the inhabitants. This may have been partly on aesthetic grounds, but also partly due to concerns about his potential for attracting lightning. Indeed, devout churchgoers may have felt that having a pagan deity presiding over the town was positively inviting such a manifestation of divine wrath, and that what came to pass a few years later was only to be expected.
Around four o’clock in the morning of Thursday 28 January 1836, following several days of strong gales, a heavy thunderstorm coming up from the south west passed over Ayr. It was publication day for the Ayr Advertiser, and when the newspaper went on sale that afternoon it reported the storm in terms of the way in which electricity was then believed to act, commencing as follows:
‘We regret much to say that the elegant Steeple on our Town’s Buildings, which is the chief ornament of our town, has been considerably damaged by the lightning. It was built, by the advice of eminent architects, without a conductor; but an iron rod, on the upper end of which the triton revolves, seems to have received the electric fluid, which passed down the building, dislodging some ornamental slabs, and causing one or two visible cracks and chinks in the spire.’
One large stone slab had smashed through the roof of the ballroom, and the shock effect of the lightning strike had broken all the windows in the vicinity. During the morning, crowds gathered in the streets to see if the steeple would collapse, and an emergency meeting of the Town Council resolved that an immediate inspection should be made ‘by a person properly qualified’.
The qualified person who stepped forward to perform this task was the learned and energetic Dr John Memes, rector of Ayr Academy 1826-1844. He had acquired a detailed knowledge of an impressively wide range of subjects, including architecture. The spire incorporated the usual attachments for steeplejacks’ ladders, and the intrepid Dr Memes ascended its exterior along with a builder and a joiner. He reported to the Council that the lightning appeared to have struck the outside of the steeple about 25 feet from its top, and that the stability of the building was not affected.
The Council summoned Thomas Hamilton to Ayr, and on arrival he inspected the steeple inside and out. He concurred with Dr Memes in concluding that ‘the cloud which contained the electric fluid had passed across the town lower than the summit of the spire’ and that the lightning had struck the outside of it some way down from the top, below the point where the iron rod supporting the figure of Triton terminated. Triton himself showed no sign of having received a lightning strike. Hamilton was confident that it would not be necessary to dismantle any part of the building, although he could not be certain of this until summer arrived and scaffolding could be erected to permit further inspection and repairs. This would also be an opportunity for the removal of Triton – Hamilton was informed that although the sea god had been exonerated of the charge of drawing down a lightning strike, his dislodgement would be in accordance with ‘the public taste’.
When good weather eventually arrived, the necessary repairs were carried out, and Triton was brought down from his lofty perch. He was eventually replaced by a more austere weather vane of Hamilton’s design. It would not be until the late 1850s that a lightning conductor would be fitted to the steeple. An 1881 extension of the building included a concert hall (rebuilt after a fire in 1897) and the whole structure is now better known as Ayr Town Hall.