On a recent trip to Scotland we ended up in Ayrshire quite by accident. Intending to visit the Highlands, a last minute mix-up meant we ended up going to Ayrshire instead. The birthplace of famous sons like Robert the Bruce, Sir Alexander Fleming and Robert Burns, the county of Ayrshire is a region of contrasts. Lying on the southwest coast of Scotland it spans 84 miles of coastline overlooking the sea of Arran. Driving through it the views were ever-changing. We saw rocky beaches nestled against stretches of rugged cliff. Tiny, tranquil fishing villages splayed at the feet of historic castles and ruins. The tilled terrain of fertile agricultural lands sat alongside fields of wildflowers. So tranquil, so open, it invited introspection and reflection.
Ayrshire was not our first choice but it proved to be anything but a second-hand substitute. Here are a few of my favourite bits on a memorable day out on the Scottish coast.
A ruin for the past three hundred years or so, Dunure Castle was once the main fortress of the powerful Kennedy family, the Earls of Cassilis. The castle’s origin dates back to the 1200s and it was built at what was a strategic and easily defensible location. It started off as a tower which was extended over the centuries. In it’s hey day it was the site of many important gatherings including a visit in 1563 by Mary Queen of Scots. This was during the tenure of Gilbert Kennedy, 4th Earl of Cassilis.
Gilbert Kennedy by all accounts was an unscrupulous man consumed by power and greed and is linked to stories of theft, fraud, torture and murder. He is alleged to have gained control of abbey lands by paying a monk to forge deeds and then had the monk killed by a paid assassin, who in turn he hung on a false charge of theft. In a bid to take control of lands owned by the monks of nearby Crossraguel Abbey he kidnapped the Commendator of the abbey and ‘convinced’ him to sign the deeds over by roasting him over a spit until he gave in.
Looking out at the Firth of Clyde that day, it was hard to believe that such a peaceful place was once the site of such bloodshed and mayhem.
Ailsa Craig (Paddy’s Milestone).
Barely visible through the fog, about 10 miles off the coast, Ailsa Craig is an island believed to be a ‘plug’ left in the wake of an extinct volcano. Sitting in the Firth of Clyde, the 220 acre site has a lighthouse, ruined castle and is home to Europe’s biggest gannet colonies. The tiny island served as a haven for Roman Catholics during the 15th century Scottish Reformation .
The island’s nickname, ‘Paddy’s Milestone’ is said to be directly linked to the ‘Derry Boat‘ which carried goods, cattle and passengers between Donegal and Glasgow, this included seasonal farm labourers who would travel over to Scotland looking for work.
The service started in the early 1800s and would peak in the years during and immediately following the Irish potato famine in 1848 when thousands from Donegal sailed to Glasgow. The name ‘Paddy’s Milestone’ was apparently coined because the Derry Boat would be roughly half-way between Derry and Glasgow once it got to that point. An interesting bit of history linked to that tiny rock in the sea.
Ailsa Craig went on sale a few years ago and is now managed by a conservation trust.
Standing atop a dramatic cliff with views across the Firth of Clyde, Culzean Castle is a grand and imposing structure.The castle has been associated with the Kennedy family since the 14th century and was converted from what was a traditional Scottish house over a period of 15 years. Architect Robert Adam’s masterpiece now boasts elements of the gothic with painted ceilings, turrets and towers.
Add to that 600 acres of stunning countryside, ponds, woodlands, cliff walks, beaches and even a deer park, Culzean is simply amazing. We spent a few hours there but could easily have stayed days. A truly beautiful and tranquil location.
No trip to Ayrshire would be complete without a mention of Robert Burns. Voted the greatest Scot of all time by the Scottish people, he was born on 25 January 1759 in the village of Alloway. Burns passion for poetry, women and booze (not necessarily in that order) would provide rich fodder for his creative mind and he became a success at quite a young age. He died at the age of 37 but his poetry and songs live on. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is probably one of the most popular of his songs which millions sing each New Year. The Burns Birthplace Museum pays homage to the man and allows visitors to interactively explore his work and life.
And that rounds up our time in Ayrshire. A day of dramatic cliffs and castles, bloodcurdling tales of murder and mayhem and that sense of freedom that comes from being out in wild, beautiful, wide open spaces. The wind, the rain, the sea, the peace, the tranquility, our day in Ayrshire was a day to remember.