Down the Ayrshire Coast
Largs is one of the most pleasant of the many resorts that sit on the banks of the Firth of Clyde. It retains the air of a traditional family holiday retreat with a bright and airy prospect overlooking the Clyde to the islands of Bute and Great Cumbrae. The Promenade and much of the town's attractions, new and old, are much improved but it is a pleasure just to stroll around this delightful little resort.
The last sea-going paddle steamer in the world, the Waverley, stops at Largs on its summer day trips up and down the Clyde. It also puts in at Ayr and Millport on Great Cumbrae. The ship has a self-service restaurant, buffet, bar and gift shop.
Skelmorlie Aisle is found in the burial ground of a former parish church in Largs, once the Old Kirk of Largs. This unusual building was converted into a mausoleum for the family of Sir Robert Montgomery in 1636. The church has long since been demolished but inside the remaining structure is a boarded, barrel-vaulted and finely painted ceiling adorned with signs of the Zodiac as well as the imaginary coats of arms of the tribes of Israel and various biblical figures.
On the Promanade is the Vikingar Centre, essentially a multi-media presentation that brings to life Scotland's Viking era. Adjoining it is also a swimming complex, theatre and cinema, children's play area, craft and gift shops. Those that have frequented the town through the years will have a soft spot for Nordini's Café. Largs Golf Club is found on the south side of town.
About 1 mile (2km) south of the town on Bowen Crag is the Pencil Monument, commemorating the Battle of Largs of 1263. In late August and early September, the Largs Viking Festival attracts a large number of visitors including Scandinavians.
The little, lumpy island of Great Cumbrae is ideal for a day trip taking only ten minutes to cross the strait by ferry. For those that do not take their car, a bus service links the Cumbrae terminal with the main community of Millport. There is plenty to do here especially in Millport but getting around the small island, for instance by bike, is quite easy. Cycle hire is available at Mapes of Millport in Guildford Street who also stock fishing tackle.
On the western side are views of the Island of Bute, while to the south across the Tan, is the tiny island of Little Cumbrae. The highest point is the Gladestain at 417ft (127m), an easy climb and well worth it for the panorama. There is also a pleasant 18-hole golf course on the island.
Kelburn Country Centre
Back on the mainland, follow the A78 south to the entrance to Kelburn Country Centre, just beyond the busy marina south of Largs on the left near Fairlie. The estate surrounds a thirteenth century castle, still the home of the Boyle family, Earls of Glasgow for three centuries and resident here for several more. It is a mixture of diversions for most age groups, natural woodland walks with dramatic waterfalls, secret gardens, wild flowers and leafy gorges, at certain times of the year over-run with pheasants. For the more motivated there is a Commando Assault Course. There is also a congenial cafe, a craft work-shop and a farmyard with an area where children can pet the animals.
The short run from Kelburn to the next major town of Ardrossan offers pleasant views from the coast road over to the island of Arran. There is a spacious links golf course at West Kilbride as well as a small museum containing a collection of Ayrshire lace and embroidery. Just inland on the B781 is Blackshaw Farm Park, a working hill farm overlooking the Clyde with plenty to see.
Returning by ferry to the mainland via Ardrossan then winding south on the A78, this is the gateway to Burns Country where the 'poet of the people' spent most of his life.
Irvine is sometimes referred to as a 'new town', most of it built in the post-war era although there are vestiges of the original maritime community surrounding the harbour area. It was once the main port serving the early industrial endeavours of Glasgow and goods were transported to and fro by cart.
In the centre of town, the restored Glasgow Vennel is a cobbled area where there is a museum of local antiquities and a thatched Heckling Shop. It was here that Robert Burns enjoyed his first employment as a flax dresser until his place of work burned down.
On the inner ring road that leads down to Irvine Harbour, the Magnum Centre stands like a giant aeroplane hanger and from the outside it is difficult to guess exactly what it is. This leisure facility contains an ice-rink, a bowling alley, a theatre, cinema and swimming pool complex. There are restaurants also.
Nearby the Scottish Maritime Museum gives some indication of the town's past as well as a glimpse of seafaring life on the Clyde. A collection of old vessels moored outside the dock-side museum helps to bring the era to life. The world's oldest clipper ship, the Carrick, is on display along with an old steam 'puffer', a lifeboat and others. An intriguing tenement building has been reconstructed next door to illustrate life in an Edwardian ship-workers home.
Kilmarnock, some 14 miles inland from Irvine, is more industrial in its background with less tourist facilities, but associations with Burns are quite strong. Its most famous product is Johnnie Walker Whisky, which is exported world-wide. Tours of the distillery and bottling plant are available through the summer months. The Dick Institute houses the town's museum, library and art gallery.
Dean Castle is an impressive fourteenth century stronghold with dungeon and battlements set in a 200-acre (80-hectare) country park. Ancestral home of the Boyd family, it boasts its own museum housing medieval arms and armour, early European musical instruments and a display of Burns manuscripts. The recently refurbished Burns Monument and statue can be seen in Kay Park.
The ancestral home of the Campbells of Loudoun, east of Kilmarnock off the A71, was gutted by fire in 1941 and remains a stark but impressive shell. Around it has sprung, like an invading force, Loudoun Castle Theme Park. The array or rides include Thunder Loop and Wallace Sword along with go-carts, log flumes and more gentle rides for younger children. A road-train provides around-the-park transport.
Returning to the coast on the A78, a short distance north of Troon is the broken walls of Dundonald Castle. Known as the 'Cradle of the Stewarts' it was first occupied by the Fitzalans, Lord High Stewarts, from whom the Stewart line descended.
Troon has its origins as a seaport, chiefly exporting coal from the once many Ayrshire mines to the heavy industrial cities of England. The town was served by Scotland's first passenger railway, which ran from Kilmarnock. This line is still open. Now the town of Troon is renowned as a golf Mecca with the Open Championship regularly held at Royal Troon Golf Course.
Prestwick Airport was Scotland's main international terminal until Glasgow and Edinburgh's facilities were developed. Recently it has regained popularity with carriers offering cheaper flights from London or Ireland. The airport itself is now much revamped.
Prestwick town is one of Scotland's oldest burghs, dating from around 1165. It became associated with Robert the Bruce when he gave his name to the town's well. Legend has it that he struck the ground with his lance at this point and water gushed forth to quench his thirst.
Prestwick is another golfing focus with the Prestwick Old Course hosting the first ever Open championship. There are many excellent courses along this coast. The town is well placed as a base for golfing or exploring the area and an array of accommodation is available.
Tarbolton and Mauchline
Tarbolton is a slightly dejected little village off the A719, north-east of Prestwick. Here was the venue for Burns and his crony's 'Batchelor's Club', a literary and debating society formed in 1780. The National Trust for Scotland now administers the building with a display of period furnishings within two rooms.
Further east the town of Mauchline played a major part in Burns' life and on the outskirts of town there is the National Burns Memorial Tower, opened in 1896. A small Tourist Information Office is found on the ground floor and an interpretation centre on the first and second floors.
In the centre of town, Poosie Nansie's Tavern was the inspiration for his cantata, The Jolly Beggars, and is still very much a working pub. Across the street in Mauchline Kirkyard lie the graves of four of Burns' children. Round the comer and just off the main street is the Burns House Museum where lived his mistress, Jean Armor, soon to become his wife.
Ayr and Alloway
Ayr is the most popular of Ayrshire's seaside towns and the county's largest community. It was an important seaport and trading centre through the centuries, and subsequently became a popular resort for middle class Victorians. Today, it is a busy and prosperous shopping hub serving a wide, surrounding area with its main thoroughfare recently upgraded. Its beach has remained popular for decades. Ayr Race Course is the most prestigious in Scotland. It can be difficult to find local accommodation if there is a major racing event.
Belleisle Park is just south of Ayr with colourful gardens, an animal petting centre and aviary as well as two excellent, municipal golf courses. Touring golf professionals visiting nearby Turnberry or Troon are often found on the Belleisle course, such is its reputation.
Continuing south, the outlying village of Alloway is the centre of Burns-land, now packaged as the rather imposingly titled Burns National Heritage Park. Alloway is the place of his birth on the 25th January 1759 and much of the village is closely associated with some of his most famous poetry. His cottage birthplace stands on Alloway Monument Road, a thatched 'auld clay biggin' built by his father, well signposted and easy to find. This was Robert's home until 1766 when the family moved to Mount Oliphant, a 70 acre (28 hectare) farm near Alloway.
The adjacent cottage to Burn's birthplace houses a museum and gift shop with collections or original manuscripts prepared for the Kilmarnock Edition of his poems as well as many other mementoes of the poet's life and insights into his work.
Only a few hundred yards down the road is the ancient Alloway Kirk where Burns' father William Burns lies buried, his grave standing opposite the churchyard entrance. The thirteenth century Brig o' Doon has little to do with the movie of that name, but spans the River Doon with a single arch. It is only yards from the ghoulish Alloway Kirkyard.
Between these two is the Burns Monument and Gardens, a landscaped grove overlooking the Doon River with a Grecian-style monument dedicated to the poet and splendid views from its top. One of Burns' most famous poems has been brought to life at the 'The Tam O' Shanter Experience' only a few yards from Alloway Kirk. Presented in a 120-seater auditorium the audience is transported back to the eighteenth century. An audio-visual tells the story of Burns. A restaurant overlooks the centre's gardens.
South of Ayr
To continue south there is the choice of following the coast on the A719 or taking the faster A77 route to Girvan and Stranraer, but this misses some of this region's best attractions. Wonderwest World, formerly Butlin's Holiday Camp, may not be one of them. Nevertheless it boasts Wonder Splash Water World with its blue lagoon and rushing flumes. Nearby is the Heads of Ayr Farm Park with all sorts of creatures for the kids to cozy into.
Nine miles (14km) from Ayr, Maybole is the district of Carrick's capital, passed through on route to Turnberry or Stranraer. It has a long High Street characterised by a distinctive and ancient clock tower, which stands close to the spot, rumour has it, where Robert Burns' parents first met.
Crossraguel Abbey is passed on the main road south of Maybole. Much ravished by the passage of time and stone robbers, this was a small Cluniac monastery founded in the early thirteenth century by Duncan, Earl of Carrick which was closely connected with Paisley Abbey.
Further on, the Electric Brae overlooking Culzean Bay is an optical illusion that makes a vehicle appear to be rolling downhill when it is, in fact, going up. This was first noticed when horses pulling wagons appeared to be out of breath after apparently descending the hill. It is found on the A719, 9 miles (14km) south of Ayr.
Culzean Castle, pronounced 'Culain', is one of the most dramatic and elegant of Robert Adam's eighteenth century creations and one of Ayrshire's most popular attractions. Its sensational cliff-top setting can be appreciated by walking down to the rocky shore when the tide is out.
Built between 1772 and 1792 around an ancient tower of the Kennedy family, its sumptuous interior matches the exquisite gardens that face it. The former Home Farm is now a visitor centre with restaurant, exhibitions and shop.
The gardens and walks all around the estate are marvellous especially taking in the Swan Pond and Gas House. A booklet of events taking place on the estate is published every year and can be obtained from the tourist office or by telephoning the number listed in the Further Information section.
Kirkoswald is a village straddling the main A77 route south to Stranraer. Souter Johnnie's Cottage sits unassumingly on the corner, the home of the village cobbler or soutar made famous as Tam's drinking partner in the poem, Tam O' Shanter. The A77 is the main route linking Ayr and the rest of central and northern Scotland to the ferry ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan to Northern Ireland. During the summer months it can be hectic with lorries, cars and caravans.
Girvan is the last substantial town in Ayrshire, a traditional family resort made popular following the war years. It was once a major landing site for herring. Clustered around its harbour, it offers various seaside diversions such as sea-angling or excursions to Ailsa Craig, the 114ft (35m) high granite rock with a 2 mile (3km) circumference that lies 10 miles (16km) off the coast and is now a bird sanctuary. Also known as Paddy's Milestone, it lies midway between Glasgow and Belfast and was once famous for its fine, red granite used to make curling stones.
A few miles inland is the village of Dailly, an old coal mining community, down on its luck for many years but now experiencing a resurgence. Part of the change is a new complex on its doorstep, Brunston Castle Golf Club and Brunston Castle Holiday Resort. The course, designed by Donald Steel, has to be one of the finest new parkland layouts in Scotland with excellent clubhouse and practice facilities. The holiday resort is developing and offers comfortable cottages, leisure facilities and pursuits such as fishing, pony-trekking, walking, swimming and cycling as well as golf.
Further inland, following the B741 or taking the A713
from Ayr for around 25 minutes, you arrive at Dalmellington. This area was prominent
in the iron and coals mining era and there are various attractions grouped as Doon
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