The royal burghs established by Scottish monarchs had a monopoly of foreign trade, and the merchant community of the Royal Burgh of Ayr, with a long tradition of trading with continental Europe, took a leading part in establishing commercial links between Scotland and the English colonies in the Americas in the 1640s. (Various subterfuges were used to evade English legislation excluding non-English ships and merchants.) At first the return cargoes consisted of tobacco from the West Indies, but later sugar was added, and then the high-quality tobacco of Virginia. Exports consisted of cloth, shoes and barrels of salted fish and meat, but also included indentured servants. In the early years of English settlement in the West Indies, the workers in the tobacco plantations there were indentured servants from Britain and Ireland. Many were transported criminals, prisoners of war and rebels, or destitute persons who chose servitude to escape starvation. Many others, however, were coerced - in 1647 the mariners of Ayr confessed to the minister that they had profited by 'alluring and carrying of children to the West Indies'. Indentured servants were bound to serve their masters for, usually, seven years in conditions little better than slavery. However, in theory they had some legal rights, and if they survived to the end of their indenture term they were entitled to receive either a small piece of land, a sum of money, or goods of equivalent value. The change-over in the West Indies to the more lucrative cultivation of sugar required large plantations worked by intensive labour, and the planters followed the Spanish and Dutch in purchasing African slaves who were regarded in law as items of property with no human rights - this was 'chattel slavery'. It was extended to the tobacco plantations of Virginia.
The 1707 Treaty of Union gave the Scots free commercial access to England's colonies. The leading merchants of Glasgow, the 'tobacco lords', with their deep-water harbour at Port Glasgow, rose to dominate Britain's importation of Virginia tobacco. Ayr, due to its long involvement in transatlantic commerce, was one of the small number of ports authorised to import tobacco. Its leading merchants, with limited capital and a small tidal harbour, took as large a share as they could of this lucrative trade. Many transatlantic trading voyages, especially from Liverpool and Bristol, took a triangular route - to the West African coast to collect slaves, across the Atlantic to deliver them, and then home with tobacco or sugar. Voyages from Ayr to America appear always to have been direct to the colonies, with no involvement in the transportation of slaves. However, the tobacco carried back was produced by slave labour. West Indian trade also continued, and this resulted in some Ayr merchants, and members of the Ayrshire nobility and gentry with whom they were connected, acquiring ownership of Jamaica sugar plantations and their slave work force.
The Scottish cotton industry was founded in the 1780s, and until the 1861-65 American Civil War most of Britain's cotton imports came from slave plantations in the southern states of the USA. Until the invention of power-driven weaving machinery, thread produced in cotton mills was distributed to hand loom weavers working in their cottages, the cloth they wove being returned to the mill owners for finishing and marketing.
There were many hand loom weavers in Ayrshire's towns, and there was a concentration of them in Newton-on-Ayr and Wallacetown.