In 1815, William Kirkland went out to leave his mark on the world.
Of course, he didn’t know it at the time.
A successful merchant in Hillsborough, the native of Scotland hired an architect to build something of an unorthodox house for this time and place on his family’s 500-acre property east of town. With a dozen children underfoot, the Kirklands kept busy, overseeing their estate and mingling in with the local folk, all from the comforts of what became known as Ayr Mount.
“It’s an 1815 house; the Kirkland family lived here for four generations, 170 years, so they definitely put their mark on it,” said Schatzie Crowther with Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which now owns the property. “The cemetery has four generations, as well. … Knowing this family like I do, it wasn’t like they moved in and said, ‘Oh, you know what? I bet it’s going to be a house museum in 200 years, so let’s make sure we document everything, never sell furniture, sketch where pieces of furniture are and list our daily life.’
“They came; they moved in; they lived here.”
William Kirkland came over from Ayr, Scotland, to seek better fortune in the land of opportunity. He became a merchant in the bustling Hillsborough, situated along a Native American trading path.
“Of course, it took a while for him to get established,” Crowther said. “He and his wife, Margaret, started having children, and then they decided, ‘OK, we want a house.’ It’s not the typical house if you think about buildings; brick was really unusual for a private home.”
The tiny plantation did encompass a few slaves to look after the livestock and family garden, but most of the 500 acres went unattended. The house itself, located at what is now 376 St. Mary’s Road, boasts a quarter of a million bricks, far surpassing the standard 10,000 to 20,000 most buildings would use. The thick interior walls comprise solid brick covered in plaster, giving the structure its strong frame. A long hallway spans the front, bookended by a sitting room and music lounge. The upstairs bedrooms offer ample space for the family’s many children, and an attic space once housed dances as well as hams strung up to dry.
One of the most remarkable things about Ayr Mount in some respects is how unremarkable the Kirklands were. William Kirkland’s sons didn’t go on to establish any great local foundations or serve in high-ranking government positions. The family members lived their lives as any other at the time would, granting people nowadays a unique glimpse into the everyday existence of the early 1800s.
The Kirklands did, however, leave something of a mark on Hillsborough in a subtle way.
“If you follow just this vertical line to William to [his son] John to [his son] John Jr. and then their seven children, you don’t see this huge mark,” Crowther said. “If you follow that line horizontally, you see that.”
The historian pointed out that if tracing the lineage of Kirkland’s daughters, the impressions those descendents made on the world begin to emerge.
One daughter, Annie, for example, married Thomas Ruffin, who proposed on the site that is now St. Matthew’s Episcopal church.
“They said that was the only impetuous thing he ever did in his life; you know, he’s very staid,” Crowther said. “He’s a Supreme Court justice of the North Carolina courts—twice; he was an amazing attorney. But she said yes on the property that he owned, and he donated it to the church so the church could be built.”
Another daughter married Paul Carrington Cameron, regarded as the state’s wealthiest man at the time. Out of that line comes the Ruffin family, which marries into the Roulhacs to form the Ruffin-Roulhac line. One of the Roulhacs spent a great deal of time promoting the preservation of state history at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“When you think of that, it’s like, oh great,” Crowther said. “But now had that line come through Kirkland, Kirkland, Kirkland, you would see where this family had an impact. But because it’s girl, girl, girl, you don’t see that. It’s not so obvious until you know how this family interworked with other families.”
But the Kirkland women themselves must have made impressions on the wider community, the historian said. All of William Kirkland’s daughters went to The Burwell School in town, and one went on to teach at the Nash-Kollock school before moving to Peace College and then eventually becoming the dean of women at the school that is now known as UNC-Greensboro.
“They did have an impact, but it’s not an apparent, obvious impact,” Crowther said. “… You see those daughters that marry so well; there has to be something there to have that. So impact on Hillsborough, that’s kind of open to discussion, but it’s certainly there.”
It’s a small world
The Kirkland influence has stretched far beyond Hillsborough’s and even North Carolina’s borders. William Kirkland had 57 grandchildren, two of whom fought during the Civil War—on opposite sides.
Crowther said one of her favorite parts of working at Ayr Mount is meeting the many descendents who have traced their lineage back to Hillsborough.
“They’re all around the world,” Crowther said. “We’ve met descendents that live in Austria, Australia, Canada, Scotland, England, Uruguay. And then all over the U.S., so Hillsborough impact but then if you think, bam, they had so many kids. The guy who became an admiral who fought for the Northern states, he traveled all around the world because he was in the Navy, so he met a woman and married, so his children were all over.”
One woman even donated a small silver teaspoon that belonged to William Kirkland’s mother.
“I love having these personal items,” Crowther said. “To me it seems just a nice connection. … You see this overlapping of extraordinary people who fan out from this one guy. … It’s interesting how this guy comes from a son and grandson of a butcher, and these amazing things happen.”
In 1985, Richard Jenrette bought Ayr Mount from the last surviving Kirkland. He lived in the house for a while before donating it to his foundation, Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, to keep the memory of the Kirklands and their homestead alive for future generations.
“2015 is proving to be an exciting year for Hillsborough, and it is an important anniversary for one of our town’s treasured sites, Ayr Mount,” Sarah DeGennaro, director of the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, said via email. “Built in 1815 by William Kirkland, this home tells many stories and provides a wonderful space for people to learn about the past and explore the outdoors. Whether you are intrigued by the home’s personal history, inspired by the spectacular grounds or captivated by the collection of decorative arts, Ayr Mount does not disappoint.
“It is an incredible asset to Hillsborough, and we are lucky that so many people have invested in the site’s care and preservation. Happy 200th, Ayr Mount.”