The rolling hills and rich soil of Ayrshire are not really at the top of most visitors’ Scottish itinerary. Ayr, the county town and birthplace of Robert Burns, won’t distract you for long. Most folk stick to the coastline, attracted by the wide, flat sandy beaches and the vast number of golf courses. South of Ayr, the most obvious points of interest are Culzean Castle, with its Robert Adam interior and extensive wooded grounds, and the offshore islands of Ailsa Craig, while to the east is fascinating Dumfries House. North of Ayr is Irvine, home to the Scottish Maritime Museum.
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AYR is by far the largest town on the Firth of Clyde coast. It was an important seaport and trading centre for many centuries, and rivalled Glasgow in size and significance right up until the late seventeenth century. Nowadays, it pulls in the crowds for the Scottish Grand National and the Scottish Derby, and for the fact that Robbie Burns was born in the neighbouring village of Alloway.
The town centre, wedged between Sandgate and the south bank of the River Ayr, is busy most days with shoppers from all over the county. East of the High Street, the medieval Auld Brig is one of the oldest stone bridges in Scotland, built during the reign of James IV (1488–1513). A short stroll upstream brings you to the much-restored Auld Kirk, the church funded by Cromwell as recompense for the one he incorporated into the town’s fortress. The dark and gloomy interior retains the original pulpit (ask at the tourist office about access). All you can see of Cromwell’s zigzag Citadel, built to the west of the town centre in the 1650s, is a small section of the old walls.
The opening of the Glasgow–Ayr train line in 1840 brought the first major influx of holiday-makers to the town, but today, only a few hardy visitors and local dog-walkers take a stroll along Ayr’s bleak, long Esplanade and beach, which look out to the Isle of Arran.
ALLOWAY, formerly a small village but now on the southern outskirts of Ayr, is the birthplace of Robert Burns (1759–96), Scotland’s national poet. The several places associated with him have been linked as the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
Burns Cottage and Museum
Burns was born in what is now the Burns Cottage and Museum: a low, whitewashed, single-room thatched cottage where animals and people lived under the same roof. The museum shows original manuscripts and personal belongings with a good dash of technology and interactive elements.
Other Burns sights
Ten minutes’ walk down the road from the cottage are the plain, roofless ruins of Alloway Kirk, where Robert’s father William is buried, and where Burns set much of Tam o’ Shanter. Down the road from the church, the Brig o’ Doon, the picturesque thirteenth-century humpback bridge over which Tam is forced to flee for his life, still stands, curving gracefully over the river. High above the river and bridge, towers the Burns Monument (daily: April–Sept 9am–5pm; Oct–March 10am–4pm; free), a striking Neoclassical temple in a small, carefully manicured garden.
Sitting on the edge of a sheer cliff, looking out over the Firth of Clyde to Arran, Culzean Castle (pronounced “Cullane”) couldn’t want for a more impressive situation. The current castle is actually a grand, late eighteenth-century stately home, designed by Scottish Neoclassical architect Robert Adam. Adam’s most brilliantly conceived work is the Oval Staircase, where tiers of classical columns lead up to a huge glazed cupola. Other highlights include a portrait of Napoleon by Lefèvre, a superb Chippendale four-poster bed and a boat-shaped cradle. Many folk come here purely to stroll and picnic in the castle’s 500-acre country park, mess about by the beach, or have tea and cakes.
The handsome Palladian villa of Dumfries House is an essential stop for anyone with an interest in domestic architecture. Lively tours illuminate the beauty of the furnishings: the house was built and decked out swiftly – between 1756 and 1760 – meaning its Rococo decorative scheme is in perfect harmony with the graceful sandstone exterior. Chief among the treasures is a huge collection of Chippendale furniture. Throughout the house, the family symbols of the wyvern (small dragon) and the thistle recur in inventive and playful touches, and exotic Oriental motifs crop up in the fanciful plasterwork ceilings and gilded pierglasses.
The eldest of seven, Robert Burns was born in Alloway on January 25, 1759. His tenant farmer father’s bankruptcy had a profound effect on the boy, leaving him with an antipathy towards authority. After the death of his father, Robert, now head of the family, moved them to a farm at Mossgiel where he began to write in earnest: his first volume, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786. The book proved immensely popular with ordinary Scots and Edinburgh literati alike, with Holy Willie’s Prayer attracting particular attention. The object of Burns’ poetic scorn was the kirk, whose ministers had condemned him for fornication.
Burns spent the winter of 1786–87 in the capital, but despite his success he felt financially trapped, unable to leave farming. His radical views also landed him in a political snare, his recourse being to play the unlettered ploughman-poet who might be excused impetuous outbursts and hectic womanizing. He made useful contacts in Edinburgh, however, and was recruited to write songs set to traditional Scottish tunes: works including Auld Lang Syne and Green Grow the Rushes, O. At this time, too, he produced Tam o’ Shanter and a republican tract, A Man’s a Man for a’ That.
Burns fathered several illegitimate children, but in 1788 married Jean Armour, a stonemason’s daughter with whom he already had two children, and moved to Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries. The following year he was appointed excise officer and could leave farming. But his years of labour, allied to a rheumatic fever, damaged his heart, and he died in Dumfries in 1796, aged 37.
Burns’s work, inspired by romantic nationalism and tinged with wry wit, has made him a potent symbol of “Scottishness”. Today, Burns Clubs all over the world mark the poet’s birthday with the Burns’ Supper, complete with haggis, piper and whisky – and a ritual recital of Ode to a Haggis.
If the weather’s half decent, it’s impossible to miss Ailsa Craig, ten miles off the south Ayrshire coast in the middle of the Firth of Clyde. The island’s name means “Fairy Rock” in Gaelic, though it actually looks more like an enormous muffin. It would certainly have been less than enchanting for the persecuted Catholics who escaped here during the Reformation. The island’s granite has long been used for making curling stones, and in the late nineteenth century 29 people lived here, either working in the quarry or at the Stevenson lighthouse. With its volcanic, columnar cliffs and 1114ft summit, Ailsa Craig is now a bird sanctuary – home to some 40,000 gannets. The best time to make the trip is at the end of May and in June when the fledglings are learning to fly. Several companies in the town of GIRVAN offer cruises round the island, but only Mark McCrindle, who also organizes sea-angling trips, is licensed to land. It takes about an hour to reach the island. Timings and prices depend on the length of trip, tides and weather; booking ahead is essential.