Robert Burns was a regular visitor, and his first edition of poems was produced here in 1786. The population expanded and grew wealthy on the back of the coal trade, and lavish buildings and a fine church stood testament to everything the people of Kilmarnock believed they had achieved - although the church was also the scene of the town's greatest disaster.
Now primary school children can take a voyage of discovery around the historic sites of their town - absorbing its colourful history while improving their literacy, numeracy and language skills - after a physics teacher and five primary teachers worked in their spare time to create a history trail.
The Town Trail for primary schools, a 13-stop walking trail around the town, was funded by the Kilmarnock Townscape Heritage Initiative and launched this month. Students are given a map and are able to link their local history with Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes in subjects ranging from social studies to technologies, languages and mathematics.
The project was the brainchild of Graham Boyd, a physics teacher at Grange Academy and member of the Kilmarnock and District History Group. He felt that students would be more inspired by local history if they walked around the town.
"Kilmarnock has many historic buildings in a part of the town centre that has been designated an outstanding conservation area," he says.
"But we asked children what their perceptions of Kilmarnock were and some were rather negative. We checked again after they'd been on the trail - and in almost every case they had a greater appreciation of the town and how it had been shaped."
There is a 45-page brochure for the trail, which features historic photographs and has flashcards in English and Scots, quizzes and old maps. There is also a CD containing electronic versions of all the material. The trail is aimed at Primary 6 and 7 in the 12 local schools of Kilmarnock. But the resource is also available to any school in the local authority.
The walking tour starts at the New Laigh Kirk - a new church but one that features exceptional stained glass windows and a graveyard containing the graves of those executed in the Covenanters' rebellion. (The original church was demolished after the death of 29 people in 1801 who were caught up in a stampede as people tried to escape the building when they thought it was collapsing.) The accompanying resources suggest students could write an eyewitness account of the stampede at the original church after the congregation heard the sounds of the building crack. Or they could make their own stained glass windows or rubbings of headstones in the graveyard.
Next stop is the Opera House, a magnificent red sandstone building erected in 1874, designed by James Ingram at a time when local industry was booming and people wanted to show off their wealth. When the town went into decline, the building became a church, an auction room, a hotel and then a nightclub, before being restored to its former glory in 2011.
The tour highlights photographs of the building throughout the eras. But the resource could also introduce children to opera. A link suggests they listen to Puccini's Madam Butterfly and describe the emotions conveyed in the music.
Children are most likely to be fascinated, though, by the execution stone, where the Covenanters - those who resisted King James 1 and his Catholicism - were slain for their Presbyterian beliefs.
Then there is the Sandbed Bridge - the oldest in the town - and the subject of one of Burns' many poems that immortalises the "crooked path" that leads to it. Here, children are encouraged to consider the merits of symmetry and produce their own drawings.
After so many hours finessing the trails and its links to the national curriculum, Mr Boyd is delighted.
"The aim is to create a legacy and make the students more aware of Kilmarnock's rich history - make them see it as more than just shops and buildings," he says. "My hope is that every Primary 6 and 7 student in Kilmarnock can experience this and have a greater appreciation of their town.
"We are providing students with an outdoor classroom. But it is also engaging them in their local community and improving their health and well-being."
Shona Lawson, a Gargieston Primary teacher who helped to create the resource, says the working group tried to make the brochure as user- friendly and flexible as possible.
"We made up a series of individual lessons so people know exactly which Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes they will hit," she says. "They can dip in and out and choose what they need.
"Our P6 students tried five of the lessons earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the boys said he now sees Kilmarnock differently. We found it brought everything to life."
The material also includes a number of local stories, and teachers and historians feel it is vital that these should be preserved and passed on to future generations, she says.
Ryan McDowall, a P5 student who went on the trail, says: "It was really fun. I liked the architecture and everything. Some of the things I learned I could tell my dad and he didn't know them. I liked going to the Burns Mall and looking at the execution stone."
Mr Boyd now hopes that the resource will inspire other teachers and historians in other parts of Scotland to create similar history trails of their towns for their primary students.
"There is no reason why other areas of Scotland can't replicate this," he says.
Photo credit: Getty