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 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.
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.