THE sky was blue and the sun blazing fiercely when I returned to Girvan late in August. Doused head to toe in my own bodyweight of sunscreen, I strolled back towards the harbour ready to continue from more-or-less where I left off. This would be the first of three days of walking, covering the sixty-odd miles or so between Girvan and Largs. Day one’s objective was Ayr, Ayrshire’s historic county town, where I would stay overnight.
‘Ayr today and gone tomorrow,’ you might say.
Water of Girvan
Near Girvan’s harbour I intercepted the Ayrshire Coastal Path and allowed it to lead me over a bridge and north of the Water of Girvan. The banks of the river were essentially industrial though they seemed quiet and deserted. Well, deserted anyway — the ringing sound of some sort of alarm was echoing down the waterside streets and alleys; I assumed this must be a burglar alarm as nothing appeared to be on fire.
The coastal path waymarks led me onto the sea front, where houses and hotels faced the islet of Ailsa Craig across a swathe of freshly mown grass. The mower — a large, ride-on-top affair — was being busily driven up and down a few dozen yards further on but the driver generously paused in his mowing to allow me to photograph a hazy shape on the horizon.
Golf Course Road
The street down which I was walking came to an end a little further on, becoming the driveway for a house. I needed to nip down an alley to the next road over but first a low hillside gave me a view across the fields of South Ayrshire.
The next road over turned out to be a curving country lane that led me away from Girvan along the valley of the Water of Girvan. This was quite pleasant but relatively short-lived as, within half a mile of leaving Girvan, it connected with the busy A77. At this point, I almost missed the path and set off along the A-road but spotted a waymark just before it was too late.
The waymark directed me into the courtyard of a nearby farm (Girvan Mains) where I had to ask for directions onwards from a man who clearly thought I was an idiot.
In his defence, there was another really obvious waymark to guide me on my way. In my own defence, he was sitting right in front of it. In fact he was sitting right in front of it in the cab of an industrial road roller. But the latter added some considerable weight to his opinion and I felt no need to issue a flat denial. Accepting my attributed idiocy, I quickly moved on.
The path led me through the farm and past a shed full of curious cows, who watched me intently with their big, brown eyes as I ambled slowly past.
From Girvan Mains, an access road led along the coast but before I could traverse it I had to wait for traffic. A tractor rumbled up it first, followed by a supermarket delivery lorry to whom the tractor driver made emphatic hand signals to direct him safely through the farm. God knows how the lorry ended up there, the only things the road accessed were Girvan Mains farm and a water works and he clearly wasn’t going to either. I guess his satnav developed self-awareness and decided to play a little joke. This is how the Robot Revolution begins, not with a bang but electronic snickering.
With the vehicles out of the way, I left Girvan Mains and passed the water works, whereupon the road and I parted company. At the site of the former Dikeneuk Quarry, it turned away to reconnect with the A77, while I followed a path flanked with dune grass as it skirted the edge of a beach.
The path continued in much the same vein for a short while and then, inevitably, directed me onto the beach. Parts of the beach were quite pebbly, other parts were firm sand. And dotted across it at irregular intervals were rocks of a suitable size and shape to sit down on, should I want a rest.
I hopped across a stream called the Lady Burn at Dipple, a tiny hamlet dominated by an alginate factory belonging to FMC Corporation, a US-owned chemical company. Despite comprising just a smattering of houses, in the past this minute settlement had another industry in the form of a tile and brick works between 1840 and 1918.
Historically, Dipple also played host to a goods siding on the Maidens and Dunure Light Railway, which ran between Girvan and Ayr. The light railway opened in 1906, the brainchild of Archibald Kennedy, third Marquess of Ailsa who basically wanted to make it easier to get produce from his lands (which stretched along the coast) to their various markets. His family owned the brickworks, for instance. The line mostly closed in 1933, though one small part survived until 1968.
I followed the beach north for a couple of miles, splashing across the Milton Burn within a stone’s throw of Turnberry. This village is famous for its golf course, which has hosted the Open Championship on several occasions.
The golf course and its attendant hotel were another pet project of the third Marquess of Ailsa, who had not only become a golf enthusiast himself but saw an ideal business opportunity, given that he was planning to open up the area with his light railway. The golf course was laid out in 1902 and the hotel opened in 1906. It has had several owners in the intervening years, having been most recently purchased by US businessman and aspiring politician Donald Trump in 2014.
The golf course sits upon Turnberry Point at the end of Turnberry Bay. The end of the bay meant the end of the beach and so the path headed inland, threading its way through the golf course and beneath Turnberry Lighthouse, which has stood upon the headland since long before the gold course was dreamt of.
Built in 1873, the lighthouse was commissioned by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) and designed by David and Thomas Stevenson, both members of a prominent lighthouse-building family. It began operation in 1878 and was automated in 1986. The NLB has since sold off the keeper’s accommodation, which now forms part of Trump’s golf resort, but the board still retains the lighthouse itself, which remains fully operational.
The foundations of the lighthouse stand in what was once the moat of Turnberry Castle, thought to be the birthplace of Robert the Bruce in 1274. His mother, Marjorie, was the widowed Countess of Carrick whom local legend insists kept Robert’s father (also Robert) prisoner until he agreed to marry her.
In 1307, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, the younger Robert —now King Robert I — would fight a battle at Turnberry to wrest his castle from English occupation. While the attack was not outright successful, the English garrison later withdrew. Three years later Robert had the castle razed, rather than risk the English recapturing it; little of it thus remains.
Turnberry was used as an airfield in WW1 and near to both castle and lighthouse stands a monument to fallen airmen of the Royal Flying Corps. This was quite clearly visible from the path as it led me out of the golf resort and onto the A719. A milestone at the side of it gave me some guide to my progress: Ayr 16, Girvan 6. A little way still to go, then.
Entering the Village
I followed the A-road for about a mile, where it led to the village of Maidens.
If the Village of Maidens sounds like a stop-off on a third rate fantasy quest of some sort, the reality is altogether different. It’s pleasant enough, as small fishing settlements go, and takes its name from the Maidens of Turnberry, which are actually a series of rocks. The Maidens form a natural harbour.
An actual harbour was developed in the nineteenth century and Maidens’ signs as you enter the village somewhat desperately claim that it is picturesque.
Whilst making my way through the village, I espied a small shop, at which I could purchase a much-needed drink (my water supply had long since been consumed).
I headed for its door at the same time as an elderly couple and I wondered if I should let them get there first or race to beat them inside (it was very small). As it happened, before any of us could reach the door a white van pulled up and disgorged half a dozen guys dressed like construction workers. These dashed inside, cramming themselves into the tiny shop space, where they dithered indecisively over what to buy for lunch and competed to chat up
a maiden the shop girl, whose patience and good humour were no less than exemplary.
Once I was able to actually buy it, that cold drink was like the nectar of the gods.
I sat on a bench overlooking a beach and enjoyed both my drink and a sandwich. When I was done I followed the road through the village, running roughly parallel to the shore of Maidenhead Bay. The road proper soon curved away inland but I headed through a caravan park at Ardlochan, beyond which the path plunged into woodland.
Culzean Castle Country Park
The woodland in question was that of Culzean Country Park, which for complicated reasons concerning obsolete Middle English letters is actually pronounced ‘cuh-LAIN’. Having passed through its gates, a long, straight, sun-dappled drive conveyed me north.
Partway along this leafy path I passed a small pavilion and a sign pointing to the Swan Pond. Another sign promised that ice cream was available and I totally fell victim to the lure of its advertising power. I didn’t actually need another rest yet but I took one anyway, sitting beside the aforementioned swan pond with a large strawberry ice cream.
A family with young children were excitedly feeding a small flotilla of almost-grown ducklings but actual swans were nowhere to be seen, at least at first. Before long a pen and her cygnets glided majestically into view exuding a mix of quiet grace and menace. The ducklings quickly scattered.
The pond was created by architect and designer Robert Adam (1728-1792), who had been engaged by David Kennedy, tenth Earl of Cassilis, to improve the fabric and grounds of Culzean Castle.
The Earls of Cassilis (pronounced ‘CASS-els’) were the chiefs of Clan Kennedy and their descendants would be raised higher in the peerage, becoming Marquesses of Ailsa (such as the railway-building, golf-loving third marquess I mentioned earlier).
Today, the castle and its grounds belong to the National Trust for Scotland and the Kennedys live elsewhere. The ninth Marquess of Ailsa is still the chief of Clan Kennedy though. He’s also looking to sell Ailsa Craig, if you have a spare £1½m to spend.
The actual castle, which appears on the back of a Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note, was constructed between 1777 and 1792 by heavily modifying a much more modest, pre-existing country residence.
When the fifth Marquess handed it over to the trust, he included a slightly unexpected stipulation, namely that the topmost apartment be given to General Dwight D Eisenhower in recognition of his role in WW2. The general subsequently visited his apartment in 1946 and stayed there three further times including one visit during his 1953-1961 US presidency.
To the right of the castle in the photo above, steps lead down the coastal slope towards the sea. There, just above the beach, stands the castle’s gas works, which for about a century (from the 1840s to 1940) manufactured coal gas for the earl and his household.
The coast path led on from just beside the gas house, although it quickly stopped being a path and dropped down onto the beach. For the next couple of miles I would be marching across the sands of Culzean Bay, overlooked by wooded hills and low stone cliffs.
The ensuing stroll along the beach was peaceful and relaxing. To my left I could make out the Isle of Arran lurking indistinctly in the haze.
Eventually, as before, I ran out of beach and the path took to the cliff top. I had actually been tempted to head inland earlier and take the A719, simply because of a hill called Electric Brae.
A gravity hill, the gentle gradient of Electric Brae, in concert with an occluded horizon and the lie of the land around it, creates an optical illusion: the road appears to be sloping the opposite way to it actually is. A ball released to roll by gravity thus looks like it’s somehow rolling up. This was once thought to be a real phenomenon caused by then-poorly understood forces, hence the ‘electric’ in its name.
Electric Brae was tempting but I wasn’t ready to abandon a perfectly good coast path for the roads just yet — there would be time for that later. I thus stuck to the route of the Ayrshire Coastal Path, edging my way around fields and crossing a tiny burn by a narrow bridge. Ahead a shape on the horizon looked at first like it might be a ruined castle but as I drew closer it proved to be smaller and more recent than that.
The path continued onwards across the cliff tops until it eventually emerged into a park. During this time, the blue skies clouded right over and darkened, threatening rain.
Standing in what is now Kennedy Park, Dunure Castle dates back to at least 1256 although no part of the extant ruins is older than the fifteenth century.
The castle is the ancient seat of the Kennedys of Carrick, long predating their elevation to the Earldom of Cassilis and Marquessate of Ailsa or their move to Culzean. Its most famous (or infamous) inhabitant is probably Gilbert Kennedy, the fourth earl, who entertained Mary Queen of Scots there in 1563. That’s not the reason for his infamy though. I have mentioned Gilbert before in connection with a feud against his own kinsman and namesake, Gilbert Kennedy, Laird of Bargany.
It began in 1570 as a dispute between the earl and Allan Stewart, Commendator of Crossraguel Abbey, over the ownership (and thus rental income) of some of the abbey lands. A commendator was someone entrusted with a church benefice but who wasn’t actually a religious official, thus Stewart was a layman holding the abbey in trust. The last actual abbot had been the earl’s uncle, Quintin Kennedy, and the earl had confidently expected that he was a shoe-in for commendator.
Having been politically outmanoeuvred by Stewart, he decided on a bold but dubious strategy: the earl simply kidnapped him and tortured him by roasting him alive until he signed over the deeds of the lands. This did not go down well with the laird of Bargany who was Stewart’s brother-in-law and whom Stewart had actually been visiting at the time of his kidnap.
Bargany rescued Stewart with a band of armed men (Stewart never walked again, though) but this only got the laird murdered soon after. One of his friends and relations then murdered the earl’s uncle, only to be arrested and executed along with his son. The earl was never legally held to account for his actions.
The Castle Today
The castle has been a ruin since the mid seventeenth century, when it was purchased by a member of another Kennedy branch, Sir Thomas Kennedy of Kirkhill. His descendents still own it today.
Leaving Kennedy Park, I found myself on the main road passing through the village of Dunure (Dùn Iùbhair ‘yew hill’). A handy shop furnished me with drinks and snacks and I made my way along to Dunure’s harbour.
Square in shape and more picturesque than Maidens’, Dunure Harbour was improved in 1811 on the orders of Archibald Kennedy, twelfth Earl of Cassilis. It cost him £50k, then a tremendous sum of money, but once it was completed the rest of the village developed around it.
Pausing for Precipitation
I sat beside the harbour, cold drink in hand, and felt the first few spots of rain. As the heavens opened, I rummaged in my bag to discover that I’d failed to pack my Gore-Tex jacket. Ah well, I’d be getting wet then.
However, as things turned out, all I really got was damp as the rain, whilst keen, lacked endurance. The shower was over within a few minutes and the skies cleared up shortly thereafter.
A sign at the quayside offered further exciting opportunities to get soaked however but I decided not to take them:
Basically, one of the path sections was tidal and the sign included instructions to gauge its passability before actually getting there: If a rising tide covered the tenth rung of a certain harbour ladder, then the path would be underwater for at least the next four hours. Or to put it another way, it was no-go two hours each way from high tide.
A quick check of the tide tables confirmed that it was two hours to high tide. This was hardly unexpected — I had suspected things might turn out this way, hence my reluctance to lose time diverting to Electric Brae, earlier — but it did mean I’d now be taking the roads instead of the coastal path.
The road out of Dunure led across an iron bridge that had once spanned the light railway. A mesh section in the centre of the otherwise solid-walled bridge betrayed where steps had once led to the island platform of Dunure’s long vanished station. A few yards further on the road joined the A719 and I followed this, dodging traffic as necessary, as it curved from northwards to eastwards.
Avoiding the Tide
Heads of Ayr
The road led me past farms with names like Fisherton, Lagg and Old Lagg whereupon I looked down from the hillside towards the cliffs of the Heads of Ayr. The Heads comprise the rocks and cliffs of a headland (Bower Hill) that rises above an otherwise low-lying coast.
Had I stuck to the coast path, I’d have been walking along its cliff edge. That would have been nice, but I’d never have got this view to put it all into context.
Heads of Ayr became home to a Butlin’s holiday camp in 1946, with a hotel added in 1947. The same year a station was opened to serve them by the London Midland & Scottish Railway, sitting on the line of the former light railway (which had been closed to passengers back in the 30s). This station and its track heading north to Alloway Junction survived until 1968 when the Beeching Axe finally cut it.
The A719 led me past the gates of the former Butlin’s — now owned by Haven Holidays — which has been known as Craig Tara since 1999. It also led me past a farm full of llamas, which watched me incuriously as I passed by.
Before too long, I was approaching Doonfoot, a southern suburb of Ayr, but rather than continue straight into the town I took a cycle route east to Alloway.
Birthplace of Burns
Alloway (Allmhaigh) is a former village, now absorbed into the outskirts of Ayr, that is known for being the birthplace of Robert Burns (1759-1796). Indeed, given Burns’s status as Scotland’s national poet and Alloway’s lack of other major claims to fame, one might say that the village is keen that you don’t forget him for even a fleeting second.
Not being a misty-eyed Scot full of patriotic appreciation, I’m largely indifferent to Burns but I’d probably have diverted into Alloway anyway given his national importance. There was however something else drawing me to Alloway, though that too was referred to in a Burns poem.
Auld Brig o’ Doon
The Auld Brig o’ Doon is exactly what the name suggests, an old bridge over the River Doon. The photo above was taken from the New Bridge of Doon, which replaced it in 1816. The Auld Brig was built in the early fifteenth century, possibly on the orders of James Kennedy, Bishop of St Andrews. It was already ruinous by 1593 and has been repaired repeatedly, the last significant work being carried out in 1978.
Its Burns link is its inclusion in the final verse of Tam o’ Shanter when the eponymous Tam is fleeing from the Devil and his witches and fiends, whose revelry he has disturbed, having spied on them as they partied in the ruins of Alloway Auld Kirk.
Knowing that they can’t cross running water, he spurs his horse, Meg, to cross the keystone of the bridge. They make it but only just, one of the witches managing to snatch off Meg’s tail as she crosses.
The Brig o’ Doon later gave its name (as Brigadoon) to a 1947 Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner about two American tourists who get lost and discover a village of that name that does not appear upon their maps. It turns out that the village appears for just one day every hundred years, which becomes important when, in Broadway musical style amid all the singing and dancing, one of the tourists falls in love with a Brigadoon girl.
In 1954 it was made into a film starring Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. It was critically panned and made Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a $1½m loss but was later remade as a 1966 TV movie starring Peter Falk.
I saw the 1954 film in one of its television outings when I was young and while the Broadway musical thing hardly appealed to me, I found the idea of the village that appears once a century a fascinating one. And so, when I looked to my map and saw that the Auld Brig o’ Doon was a genuine thing — tenuously linked as it may be — I knew I had to go and stand on it. And stand upon it I did.
More-or-less overlooking the Auld Brig o’ Doon is the Burns Monument, which stands in its own memorial garden, while a statue of Tam o’ Shanter stands nearby in the garden. The monument was completed in 1823, less than three decades after his death. Paid for by public subscription, it cost £3,350 and the foundation stone was apparently laid with full masonic honours.
Burns’s childhood home was a thatched cottage which still stands in the village. Built in 1757 by his father William (whose remains lie in the churchyard of Alloway Auld Kirk), it has been lovingly restored by Burns aficionados to become part of a museum dedicated to the man.
I took a road west out of Alloway to rejoin the A719 directly north of where it crossed the Doon. The A-road then carried me north into Ayr, where it soon became Racecourse Road.
Ayr has had horse races since at least 1576 though its first official course wasn’t opened until 1771 in the part of the town known as Seafield. Eventually, the races outgrew the small racecourse and racing events moved to a new, larger one in 1907. The old course has since been reused as playing fields and part of a golf course and the old pavilion building still stands, now used as changing rooms.
Another fine building, close to racecourse, was the mansion built for engineer and politician Sir William Arrol in 1888.
Born into poverty in Renfrewshire, Sir William had worked in a mill from age nine before becoming apprenticed to a blacksmith at fourteen. Ten years later he was a foreman for the firm of Laidlaw & Sons, which built piers in Deal and Brighton (the West Pier).
Having saved up the not inconsiderable sum of £85, he went on to found his own business in Glasgow — which built, amongst other things, the Tay Bridge, the Forth Rail Bridge, and Tower Bridge — and invented the hydraulic riveter. His mansion, Seafield House, became a hospital from 1921 to 1991 and was used as NHS offices until 2005.
NHS Ayrshire and Arran then attempted to demolish it (thwarted on account of it being listed) and instead let it deteriorate. It became a roofless shell, having suffered a fire, but was sold last year to a property developer who intends to convert it into flats.
Racecourse Road led me right into Ayr’s heart, where I knew my hotel could be found. It turned out to be overlooking a statue of Robert Burns. Because what isn’t, round there?
This time: 23½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,540 miles