Caravan County: Ayrshire
Lets get the ‘basic facts’ of Ayrshire out of the way first. A large, relatively sparsely populated county in the South West of Scotland, located alongside the Firth of Clyde. Those who ‘know their onions’ will recognise the small bird sanctuary island of Ailsa Craig just off the coast, the larger, 430 square mile mountainous massif of Arran, (linked via ferry from Brodick to Ardrossan on the Ayrshire mainland) and the Cumbrae Islands, west of Largs, to the north. To the northeast, via Stewarton and Beith, we approach Paisley, Renfrew and the environs of greater Glasgow.
We are in ‘Burns Country’ here. Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) lived just thirty-seven years, yet endures as both a national favourite and world famous poet. The Robert Burns Cottage Museum and Poet’s Monument can be found at Alloway, to the south of Ayr. Along with Prestwick International Airport and the famous Royal Troon, Birkdale and Turnberry golf courses, they remain responsible for the majority of tourist visitors to this part of Scotland.
Notwithstanding such ‘honeypots’, Ayrshire contains modest, welcoming and unpretentious towns, such as Irvine, Maybole, Girvan and Kilmarnock, whilst, beyond them, the countryside is rolling, spacious and open. In the south, Kilmein Hill reaches 429 metres, whilst, above West Kilbride, Irish Law goes to 483 metres. Within the Islands, Goat Fell on Arran, exceeds them all – its jagged, sharp-peaked profile tending to exaggerate its 874 metres. There are seven golf courses on Arran alone, complementing the many more ‘grand’ and ‘everyday’ ones found on the County mainland.
With in excess of forty castles throughout Ayrshire - the majority welcoming visitors - those wanting local history are spoilt for choice. The National Trust for Scotland manages five prominent properties here; Culzean Castle, Maybole, Brodick Castle, Souter Johnnie’s Cottage in Kirkoswald and the rather sexist-sounding ‘Batchelors’ Club’ in Tarbolton. Mel Gibson will tell you that it was here in Ayrshire, that William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace first discovered the ‘attractive alternative’ of nationalistic attacks on the English, rather than merely robbing the resident population - thereby embarking on his route-to-infamy whilst working as a local outlaw in the late thirteenth century. Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), a contemporary of Wallace, was born at Turnberry Castle, near the golf links south of Ayr. Ayrshire is the home of ‘Johnnie Walker’ whisky, which followed the establishment of John Walker’s grocery business in 1820 and the brand continues to be blended in Kilmarnock.
Famous people and popular places aside, there is still plenty of scope to do some ‘bespoke exploration’ in Ayrshire… to get off-the-beaten-track, find miles of unspoilt attractive coastline… and uncover local places of interest on your own - by car, rail, ferry, bicycle or foot. So, what about ‘lesser known Ayrshire’ - especially for the Sassenachs!?
Have a go at the very informal (and certainly less commercialised) Robert Burns House Museum at Mauchline. It was here that the poet set up home after marrying Jean Armour in the mid-1780’s. In a clear demonstration that he was prolific in more than just words, she bore him nine children in all - the last arriving on the very day of Burns’ funeral in 1796.
Just under five miles from here are the attractive River Ayr Gorge Woodlands, in a steep ravine providing habitat for otters, kingfishers and uncommon plants such as Dutch Rush and Wood Fescue. Located near Failford village, this is one of Scottish Wildlife Trust’s fifteen Nature Reserves in Ayrshire and, as with the other Reserves, open to the public all year, free of charge. Grey Hill Grasslands Wildlife Reserve near Girvan - a popular caravanning destination – suits fitter walkers, who are rewarded by rich wildflower swards and spectacular views across to Ailsa Craig and Arran. A longer distance (66 km) walking option is offered by the River Ayr Way - ‘from source to sea’ via Glenbuck to Ayr. The Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume, located at Dalgarvan Mill in Kilwinning, ‘does what it says on the tin’, as does the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, for visitors interested in a history of seafaring.
Over on the islands, try out Glasgow University’s Robertson Museum and Aquarium in Millport, Gt. Cumbrae : ‘user-friendly science’ at your own pace, housed in a unique venue. The annual Isle of Arran Wildlife Festival runs from 14th to 21st May 2008. This event is certainly not ‘just for tourists’ - far more important than that. There’s a great deal to offer everyone who values and respects nature conservation in principle and in practice. Only red squirrels occur on the island and the surrounding waters are regularly visited by basking sharks. Further information via C.O.A.S.T. – the local community Arran Seabed Trust, which can explain more about why the Firth of Clyde equates favourably with many of Scotland’s finest marine areas of biological diversity.
Far from being ‘a bit of Scotland’ that you have to pass through to get to the real McCoy take time to target Ayrshire. Its 1,139 square miles and over sixty miles of coastline really are well worth sampling. More a region in its own right than just a county, (especially when one also considers those fascinating offshore islands), for the visitor prepared to investigate and attune to its hidden treasures, this unique part of the UK will not disappoint.
For more tourism information visit: www.visitscotland.com/destinations-maps/ayrshire-arran/