WITH wonderful synchronicity my one hundred and fiftieth walk also included my two thousand five hundredth mile. The objective for the day was to walk from Cairnryan to Girvan, which I made to be twenty-three miles.
A Distasteful Breakfast
My walk began with a home-cooked breakfast, served with a side of incidental racism, courtesy of my B&B’s proprietor. Once she had established to her evident surprise that I was British — I don’t know why this was surprising, my accent clearly places me as hailing from southern England — she regaled me conspiratorially with the many appalling and irredeemable faults shown by the Chinese and Australian guests that were also staying there. The Chinese, to be fair, were experiencing something of a culture clash but her withering contempt for the Australians was based purely on their origin overseas. I have no doubt that when they eventually surfaced for breakfast (insufficient promptness was one of their foul crimes), the Aussies were treated to an equally conspiratorial tirade about this jumped-up Sassenach and his evil, English ways.
I had planned to take my time with breakfast but as it was I wolfed it down and fled outside for fresh air, just as she was beginning on a ‘too many foreigners coming over here’ rant. Quite aside from all other arguments, this seems to me an odd stance to take when you own a bed & breakfast. Pfft. Whatever.
P&O Ferry Terminal
Before setting off properly, I paid a quick visit to P&O’s ferry passenger terminal, where I was able to buy a bottle of water for my walk. Though it was cloudy, the weather was warm and humid and opportunities to purchase refreshments would be few and far between. Thus equipped, I was ready to set off…
Cairnryan, as I mentioned last time, dates from 1701, when it was built to house workers on the Lochryan Estate. It sits on what is now the A77 but was, in part at least, the old coach road to Ayrshire.
The lighthouse (visible on the left of the photo) was built in 1847 by Alan Stevenson, uncle of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and member of a whole family of lighthouse-builders.
In WW2, a large military port was constructed with deep-water piers near to where the lighthouse still stands. One of three piers was damaged by an ammunition train explosion in 1946 and it and another have since been demolished.
Stena’s new Belfast ferry terminal, opened in 2011, was built slightly to the north of where the lighthouse stands.
Old Coach Road
I would not be following the coast as far as the terminal but would instead be turning very slightly inland at Cairnryan’s northern edge. There, the A77 clings to the shoreline, passing at the foot of Laird’s Hill. Whereas I would ascend the old coach road, traversing hill and moor.
The road climbed up past Bonny Braes (the lower house in the photo) and on to Laird’s Hill (the upper house), where it ceased being surfaced with tarmac and became a stone track instead.
Little Laight Hill Anti-Aircraft Battery
It climbed again, opening out onto Laight Moor, where the track became a grassy path. On my left a collection of low, blocky buildings watched over the hazy loch below. These once formed an anti-aircraft emplacement, defending No. 2 Military Port with its four 3.7 inch guns. It was one of four such batteries guarding Cairnryan and is arranged as a central, rectangular building with four circular gun emplacements arranged around it in a semicircle.
The guns have long since been removed, and the buildings are now often used as animal pens. The only ones watching Loch Ryan from here are now sheep.
The Taxing Stane
Next to the AA emplacement is something altogether older, which has almost but not quite been incorporated into a wall. Known as the Taxing Stane, it is locally said to commemorate the burial of Alpin, King of the Scots of Dalriada, allegedly murdered in nearby Glenapp. The year 741 is given in some accounts, which is a remarkably precise death for a king whose existence is largely unsubstantiated.
At any rate, the stone forms a traditional boundary marker between Galloway and Carrick and may have been used as a toll point on the coach road.
I paid no toll and the road promptly dwindled into nothing. That’ll teach me. Seriously though, the course of the coach road — which was the main road between Stranraer and Ayrshire throughout the eighteenth century —simply reduced to a narrow foot track and then got lost in knee-deep marsh grass.
I lost the path on Laight Moor and had to take a wide detour around a particularly boggy part. I eventually rediscovered a narrow foot trail, which in turn led me to Galloway Burn, where modern Dumfries & Galloway stops and South Ayrshire begins.
On the basis that there probably was a stream under there somewhere, I crossed the narrow bridge and looked up into a wall of ferns. Somewhere above me and to my left I saw a waymark poking out above them but the way up was steep and treacherous and hidden by shoulder-height ferns. I don’t think anyone else had walked up there in a while.
Where Whidana Wood Wasn’t
Having forced my way through the ferns, I found myself back in open, pathless moorland, navigating from one waymark to the next. Admittedly the footpath was not on my Ordnance Survey map but the map still suggested that I should be amongst trees. Or if not in a forestry plantation, I should at least be near one. I saw no trees.
I made my way across the moor, somehow avoiding sight of Whidana Wood and a vast expanse of plantation — I suspect that a section had been deforested — until the valley of Glen App came into view. There were trees on the far side and some purple-headed, heathery hills (sadly the haze made for poor photographs) and suddenly on my side there was a road.
An Unexpected Road
Now, I expected to find a forestry track at some point but this road was new and heavy duty, the sort of robust stone chip road one builds to get plant machinery to a building site. And so it was. I dodged a huge construction lorry, driven by the most miserable-looking man I’ve ever seen behind a wheel, and found myself a short while later talking to a chap in a high-vis jacket who was waving other lorries past.
‘Are you going out that way?’ he asked me, indicating a road behind him.
I replied that I was taking the coastal path.
‘Ah, in that case, you want to go up there…’ He pointed up another track, down which a lorry was rumbling, and told me that a gate would lead me across a field towards the woods (which I could now finally see). I thanked him for his directions and assured him that I would beware of the lorries.
Glen App Wind Farm
Curious, I asked him why the lorries were there.
‘They’re building wind turbines,’ he answered, then glanced at the walking poles protruding from my bag. ‘It keeps us in work,’ he added defensively, clearly expecting me to be the sort of self-righteous walker who gets red in the face about my precious scenery being ruined.
I’m not generally that sort of walker and find wind turbines fairly elegant, certainly more so than a power station would be. And I don’t mind power stations that much either. If we have to build a thing, we have to build it.
Of course, if they were building wind turbines, that would explain why the trees went. No point in building a windmill deep in a wood.
Anyway, I set off up the track, which was my first mistake. In retrospect I should have gone out ‘that way’, which was the works exit to the A77.
I dodged another lorry, headed through the gate and started following a marshy track across Haggstone Moor towards the edge of the wood. From there I knew, I would skirt the wood, cross March Burn and follow another track down to the A-road. Or would I?
The track petered out halfway across the moor. I have no doubt it started up again further on but I didn’t find where. The going was alternately bumpy and marshy and I knew what I should do was just make for the trees as best I could.
What I actually did was find another path and thought to myself ‘well, it’s clearly heading down to the road.’ And it was. In an overgrown, muddy, sometimes a path and sometimes a stream sort of way. Basically, I was following the burn before March Burn using a local, unofficial path. This eventually deposited me beside a locked gate. I climbed over that and another and found myself on the A77, which had turned inland to run up Glen App.
See, if I’d just taken ‘that way’, I’d just have strolled down the road.
I made my way up the A77, keeping to the grass verge on account of the lorry traffic to and from Cairnryan. I soon came to where the coast path actually emerged and noted with satisfaction that the official path was ankle-deep in water. Nearby stood Glenapp Kirk, said to be one of the smallest in Scotland, and I sat beside it for a while, taking a rest and drinking some water.
The skies had blued since I set off, so I took the chance to cover myself in sunscreen. This felt like a challenge to the sky to rain upon me but I figured better that than rampant sunburn.
I sat and idly watched a Royal Mail van go past. When it came back the other way I figured I’d dallied long enough. Crossing the A77, I left the Loch Ryan Coastal Path behind and joined the Ayrshire Coastal Path instead. Hoorah!
Ayrshire Coastal Path
The Path Begins…
The Ayrshire Coastal Path is described as a practical route rather than a formal path, and that’s by the people that made it (the local Rotary Club), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
It started well enough, taking a road above the northern bank of the Water of App, which I believe to have been the route of the old road. It soon branched off, quickly becoming a stony track and, as it climbed, it gave me a view down Glen App into Finnarts Bay and Loch Ryan.
A Pheasant Experience
The track turned north, passing between the hills of Finnarts and Sandloch, whereupon it snaked across a moorland plateau. Standing stones lurked half-hidden in the vegetation, as did several of these:
Actually, I was surprised quite a lot. Not because there were a great many pheasants, though there were, but because unlike this rather chilled young lady — who merely strolled out, looked at me and ambled off again — most of her fellow pheasants chose to explode from the undergrowth, flapping and honking and trying to scare me to death. I reckon they’ve been practising in self-defence, the better to take out a shooting party with heart murmurs.
Sneaky Terror Pheasants or no, I really enjoyed this part of the walk, surrounded by open moorland but able to walk on a clearly-defined stony track. Except, that is, when I couldn’t.
A Pair of Puddles
The path can become flooded after rain, it seems, and though it hadn’t rained since the previous morning, in a couple of places it was underwater. Both times it was easy enough to go around and I was watched on the second occasion by a herd of anxious cows and their wide-eyed calves.
‘What’s that?!’ I imagine they wondered. ‘And why doesn’t it splash through the puddles?’ The answer is that they were deep enough that I’d have taken some away in my boots.
The hills had blocked my view of the sea for a while but, as I progressed, the terrain opened out and a vista of islands and headlands unfolded. Off to my left, almost lost in the haze, was Northern Ireland. Before me was the rocky islet of Ailsa Craig, and behind that Arran and the peninsula of Kintyre.
Ailsa Craig takes its name from the Gaelic aillse creag, meaning ‘fairy island’. It is a granite volcanic plug, though the volcano it once plugged has long since eroded away. Inhabited in the past, today it is home to an automated lighthouse (built by Thomas Stevenson, brother of Alan) a bird sanctuary and a quarry, which was recently reopened.
Something that was recently closed, by contrast, was an upcoming section of the Ayrshire Coastal Path.
The track I was following became a fully metalled road and snaked its way along the hills until it came to a junction, where the coast path turns off to head along Shallochwreck Burn and follow the edge of the coast. But the junction sported a ‘path closed’ sign, along with a map and the first of a set of diversionary waymarks. I would be staying on minor roads all the way to Ballantrae and adding an extra two miles as I did so.
A Blooming Nuisance
I plodded along the leafy lanes, admiring the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) that was flowering pinkly in the hedgerows. It’s a pretty plant but invasive and its presence in the UK is entirely down to keen horticulturists introducing it as an ornamental plant in 1839. Two other invasive species, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed were introduced at the same time and together were lauded for their abundant growth. It should be perhaps no surprise that they promptly escaped and grew everywhere.
‘Everywhere’ seemed to be where the roads were heading as they meandered east and west. The overall direction tended to north though and eventually I started to get glimpses of Ballantrae in the distance.
I kept plodding along, one foot in front of the other, and Ballantrae drew slowly closer. Before I knew it, I was passing through the hamlet of Garleffin and rejoining the A77 just in time to cross the River Stinchar.
Old Stinchar Brig
The A-road crosses on the newer of two bridges, built to replace its elder in 1964. The ‘Old Stinchar Brig’ dates back to 1776, when it was completed (after unanticipated delay and expense) for the 5th Earl of Stair. The coast path used to enter Ballantrae on the old bridge but sadly it is currently closed on account of its dangerous condition.
Ballantrae (Baile na Tràgha – ‘town by the beach’) is a coastal village that grew from a fishing community to also be a small resort. It is overlooked by the ruins of Ardstinchar Castle, once home to the Kennedys of Bargany, a branch of Clan Kennedy.
The castle was built in 1421 by Hugh Kennedy, who had made his fortune fighting for the Dauphin of France during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). After defending a bridge at the Battle of Baugé, the newly knighted Sir Hugh returned to Scotland a rich man and bought the site for £10. His castle was four storeys high and could garrison twenty-four men.
Sir Hugh took to retirement like a duck to decorative carpentry. By 1428, he was back in France, commanding the Scots mercernaries who fought for Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans.
A century and a half later, the Kennedys of Bargany managed to develop a violent feud with their kinsman, the Earl of Cassillis, over the latter’s headship of the clan. In fairness, the Earl had roasted a man alive in order to extort Church land and that man, Alan Stewart, was the brother-in-law of Gilbert Kennedy, Laird of Bargany.
The feud quickly escalated, which was bad for the Barganys because the Earl was supported not only by his branch of the family but also by Clan Fergusson. The Laird of Bargany was soon murdered in Maybole. But of course it didn’t end there, as vendettas are horribly self-perpetuating.
One of Gilbert’s friends and relations duly murdered the Earl’s uncle, only to be arrested and executed along with his son. Only then did the feud end and the slaying cease.
King’s Arms Hotel
Not being a Kennedy, the only thing that I planned to slay was a wicked thirst (I had run out of water while en route). I did battle with the beast in a hotel bar and quenched it with mighty gin and tonic.
The landlord/hotelier was having a bad day as he’d discovered a leak in his cellar right above where he stored old paperwork. The advisability or otherwise of storing your paperwork in a cellar could be argued but it was way too late for such advice. Should the taxman wish to check his records, he said glumly, they’ll have to be given a solid block of papier maché.
Having had a much-needed drink, I nipped to a nearby shop to buy a sandwich and more water. I discovered as I did so that the sky had finally realised that I had put on sunscreen and so was flinging water from on high. Well, either that, or the hotel leak was on a larger scale than we’d imagined.
It was only light rain and my spirits — unlike my t-shirt — remained undampened as I wandered along Ballantrae’s waterfront. This comprised a grassy promenade with seats and I sat on one and quietly ate my sandwich.
A nearby sign informed of how much worse the weather could get by recounting the tale of Johnny Hood, an Irish ferryman in the 1930s.
In 1933, Johnny set off in his small ferry — a 30 foot open boat — from Islandmagee to Larne, both of which are in County Antrim. Sadly for Johnny, his propeller broke amid driving rain and heavy seas. He drifted at the mercy of the winds for thirty-eight hours before being wrecked on rocks just south of Ballantrae. He staggered, exhausted, up to the door of the first farm he found and beseeched the farmer for help (which he got).
My sandwich finished, I headed along the seafront only to find that that quickly finished too. The next two miles would be a slow trudge along the beach of Ballantrae Bay. This was hardly unpleasant, even with the rain, but the sand was soft underfoot, which made arduous going.
At the far end of the beach was Bennane Head, a tapering headland containing a cave 200 m deep. This is claimed to be the cave in which the infamous fifteenth century cannibal Sawney Bean lived with his wife, children and grandchildren. His clan were said to hide in the cave by day and prey on others by night, ambushing, robbing and murdering them before eating them back in the cave. On account of their cannibalistic, troglodyte lifestyle there was little chance for meeting eligible new cave-mates so Sawney’s grandchildren were born out of incest.
Eventually, the Beans were discovered, captured and executed. Where they were executed varies (as do various other details) on account of the whole lurid tale being entirely made up. It appeared in the Newgate Calendar, a periodical relating to London’s Newgate Prison, and is entirely unsubstantiated by any evidence. Still, it makes for a ripping yarn and the tourist industry is happy to milk it for every penny it’s worth.
Along the A77
Rejoining the Road
At Bennane Head, the coast path rejoined the A77 as it gently climbed up the headland’s reverse slope. I had rather assumed that this would mean that a path was provided beside the A-road but I had forgotten that bit about it being just a ‘practical route’. The coast path here meant the grass verge, which was ankle deep in grass and other foliage, all of which had been freshly wettened by the rain (the rain, clearly feeling its job was well done, chose this moment to cease).
Looking at the map, I could probably have followed the old road around the seaward face of Bennane Head but that’s not where the coast path went so I didn’t. Instead, I ambled along beside the A77 as it climbed, peaked and then started to descend. A lay-by above ‘Sawney Bean’s Cave’ promised awesome views but the post-rain visibility was poor.
But, if I couldn’t now see the islands, I could see the next two and a half miles laid out in front of me, all of which would involve the A77 as it conveyed me to Lendalfoot. Balsalloch Hill, which looms over the hamlet, sat off to the right of it, while Pinbain Hill lay dead ahead.
On the outskirts of the tiny village of Lendalfoot there was a holiday centre containing a bistro where I could have eaten had I wanted. I contemplated this but time was pressing and I felt more inclined to press on. Lendalfoot turned out to be just a handful of houses, although the village did provide me with a handy bench on which to take a brief rest.
I duly rested, then set off apace, passing as I did so a lay-by containing a memorial. A nearby sign called this the Varyag memorial, which it also spelled using Cyrillic: ‘Варяг.’
Varyag was an American-built warship of the Imperial Russian Navy. Fighting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, she was captured at the Battle of Chemulpo after taking on an overwhelming Japanese force. The Japanese were so impressed with this show of bloody-minded defiance that they later awarded her commander, Vsevolod Rudnev, the Order of the Rising Sun. The Japanese renamed the ship Soya and kept her until WW1, during which Japan and Russia were allies, when the Japanese returned her.
Sent to Liverpool for an overhaul in 1917, her sailors hoisted the red flag following the October Revolution and refused to sail. Varyag was seized by Britain and mostly used as a hulk until sold for scrap in 1920. While being towed to her new owners in Germany, she ran aground on rocks off Lendalfoot and was dismantled by 1925. The monument was unveiled in 2006, attended by senior Russian naval officers.
Another roadside monument, not far away, was ‘erected to the memory of Archibald Hamilton and crew, natives of King’s Cross, Arran, who were drowned near this place, September 11, 1711.’ It included this verse:
Ye passengers, whoe'er ye are, As ye pass on this way, Disturb ye not this small respect That's paid to sailors' clay.
Another Bit of Old Coach Road
As I headed (non-disturbingly) north from Lendalfoot, Pinbain Hill was shrouded in low cloud. This was less than ideal as I knew the path would leave the A77 at its foot at climb partly up to traverse along its flank.
The path along the hillside was mostly farm track and I strongly suspected that it used to be the old road. A little research reveals that I am correct, and the lower coastal route followed by the A77 — Kennedy’s Pass — was made in 1831 and opened by Thomas F Kennedy (1788-1879), Whig politician and local MP.
The old road was fairly easy going, although it started with a bit of a climb. Early on I crossed a cattle grid into a field where numerous bovines were milling about on the path. They were cows with calves and we looked at each other for a moment, each trying to decide what best to do. I could, I realised, easily go back to the A-road if they wanted to be difficult. They wanted no such thing. Moving as one, they turned and trotted calmly away, removing their calves from the vicinity of the Dangerous Beardy Man.
The rest of the old road was a doddle. Or should have been. It led me up to the ruined farmhouse of Kilranny, where the waymarked coast path insisted on going through two nettle-filled kissing gates instead of through the courtyard of the deserted farm. I played nicely and waded through the nettles. On the ground, on the far side of the first one, a piece of timber was lying discarded.
‘Someone might trip over that,’ I thought to myself, then: ‘Why am I suddenly lying down?’
Yes, I tripped right over it while looking at it and noting it as a tripping hazard. I’m special, me.
I picked myself up and did a quick check. Body intact, dignity in tatters. Okay then.
The path descended fairly gently from Kilranny and I ambled down it under the watchful eyes of some sheep who would no doubt have found my falling over near-incomprehensible.
At the bottom, the old road rejoined the A77 and, thanks to the bay’s gentle curve, I could see Girvan ahead. It was two miles away.
The first half mile was another stint of wading through the long grass on the A-road’s verge but after that I passed one of Girvan’s outlying holiday parks, Ardmillan Castle. There actually was a castle, or at least a fortified mansion, built in the late sixteenth century but that was gutted by fire in 1973.
For me, its principle point of interest was the pedestrian pavement that joined its entrance to Girvan — clearly they didn’t want holidaymakers to do the verge-trampling thing.
Having a hard surface to walk on sped things up admirably and as my pace quickened, my spirits lightened and so did the sky. The clouds began to part again, letting rays of sunshine through so that Girvan, as I approached it, was bathed in a warm yellow glow.
Girvan (Inbhir Gharbhain – ‘mouth of the River Girvan’) is a small resort, developed since the 1850s with the coming of the railways, prior to which it was a fishing port. It hasn’t forgotten.
My hotel was naturally right at the far end of Girvan, necessitating a slow plod through the town. On my way I passed Doune Cemetery, which contains 39 Commonwealth war graves, 21 from WW1 and 18 from WW2.
When I eventually made it to the door of my hotel, I was ready for another gin & tonic, followed by a bath and a good sit down.
The following morning brought bright, blazing sunshine of the sort that would have burnt me to a crisp had I been walking in it. It did make for pleasant weather in which to amble aimlessly, killing time before my train — Time that could be told me by the town’s clock tower, which rejoices in the nickname of Auld Stumpy.
Opened in 1827 as the town’s new jail, Auld Stumpy served as such until the 1870s. It was built to replace the previous jail (built in 1789), the thatched roof of which had enabled several prisoners to escape.
I also wandered down to the beach to see if it looked any better at low tide than it had at high tide the evening before. The answer was a resounding yes but I think a spotted a slight problem with Girvan’s tourist trade.
This time: 25 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,516½ miles