MORNING in Kilwinning was heralded by the light pitter-patter of drizzle upon the window, which did little to compel me to leave my nice warm bed. Summoning every ounce of available willpower, I forced myself up and into the bathroom where the cold, tiled floor leached out my body heat in seconds. This was clearly a situation in need of a remedy and that remedy came in the form of as much cooked breakfast as I could physically shove into my face. Right, now I was set for a full day’s walking; drizzle be damned!
I had diverted off the Ayrshire Coastal Path the evening before (in order to make a bee-line for the B&B) so I began by picking it up again and then following a cycle route that led into the centre of Kilwinning. This was also something of a diversion but, given that I’d spent the night on that town’s edge, it seemed only right to go take a proper look.
A leafy-bordered cycle path soon met up with a backstreet and then I was passing through the town’s pedestrianised heart where, to my surprise, I appeared to be following a yellow brick road.
There are to the best of my knowledge no wizards in Kilwinning although it did once have a witch.
The town grew up around an abbey and both were named for its 7th century founder, St Winning. Except the saint may actually have been St Finnian, or possibly St Ninian or maybe they’re all the same person; mediaeval hagiography can be frustratingly uncertain.
At any rate, a Benedictine abbey was founded on the site of Winning’s church in the late 12th century and became locally important but not particularly wealthy or prestigious. Following the Reformation, the abbey became a simple parish church and most of its buildings fell into ruin at which point their stones were reused elsewhere. Today what remains of the ruins form a tourist attraction.
The Abbey Tower in the photo above is a relatively recent addition, completed in 1816 at a cost of £1590. It was designed by Glaswegian architect David Hamilton (1768-1843) and replaced a previous tower that was damaged by lightning in 1809.
The old tower had been used as a prison and in 1649 it held Bessie Graham, the aforementioned witch. Bessie had had a drunken argument with her neighbour, Mrs Rankin, during which she said things that witnesses took to be a curse. Mrs Rankin died a few weeks later and a witchfinder, Alexander Bogs, was summoned from Irvine to interrogate Bessie Graham. Following his examination, he declared her a witch in league with the Devil and Bessie was taken out to Corsehill Moor, where she was burnt to death at the stake.
Robert Service Memorial
While the tower serves to some extent as Bessie’s ironic memorial, not far from the abbey stands a memorial to some other late residents of Kilwinning. Having initially skimmed some notes and seen it was a ‘service memorial’, I had blithely assumed that it must be for the fallen of the world wars but no: it’s actually the Robert Service Memorial, erected by poet Robert William Service (1874-1958) in honour of his grandparents.
Popularly known as the Bard of the Yukon, Robert came from a Kilwinning family and followed his father into the banking business. Bored with this career choice, he soon emigrated to the New World where he drifted for a while before becoming a bank clerk in Vancouver. While there, he wrote poetry and ballads — The Shooting of Dan McGrew was his most popular— which made him rich and famous and changed his life. In 1930, he returned to Kilwinning to build this:
Freemasons’ Lodge № 0
Of course those are actually blocks of stone, not bricks. Ever since the abbey was built in the 12th century, Kilwinning has had an association with building things from stone. Today, it still has a society figuratively concerned with the same for Kilwinning is the home of Scottish freemasonry’s mother lodge, Number 0 in the register of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Whether it has any claim to continuity from the masons that built the abbey is uncertain but it is certainly one of Scotland’s oldest lodges of speculative freemasons.
As I wandered through Kilwinning amid the drizzle, I envied those freemasons their ceremonial aprons, for I figured an apron might also serve as an impromptu rain hat. Alas, I no more had one of those in my bag than I had my coat, which I had somehow neglected to pack. Fortunately, the rain was light and intermittent and it ceased altogether as I exited Kilwinning along the northern part of the B779.
Circle of Life
I mentioned last time that this particular B-road is barely worthy of that name, an old, mostly-forgotten route bifurcated by the A78. It remained thus as I headed south, being at first a quiet residential road and then an industrial backstreet. Partway along it I passed an open green space, in which stood this:
The sculpture above is actually called Circle of Life and was sculpted by David Annand (also responsible for The Carter and his Horse in Irvine). Erected in 1989, it apparently represents the past and future of Kilwinning, as represented by an historic steelworker and a bunch of modern children. And a really big hoop (because: circle).
Near the edge of Kilwinning, I branched off from the B779 onto another road that had clearly once joined onto the A78 but now had its junction blocked. A minor road leading off to the right was the only way onwards and this soon became a narrow, winding country lane snaking its way towards Stevenston. As it passed under road and rail bridges and weaved its way between fields of sheep and horses, I realised to my surprise that this was the old western end of the B779 before it was declassified in the 1930s; it wasn’t that much wider than a cycle path.
The Three Towns
On the edge of Stevenston — which together with Ardrossan and Saltcoats forms the continuous conurbation of the Three Towns — the Ayrshire Coastal Path crossed another B-road and became an actual cycle path for a short distance. This soon opened up into a park, dominated a large pond (actually a flooded ex-quarry).
My route didn’t actually take me alongside the pond but I thought that was clearly a terrible oversight and so strode over to take a little break and watch the ducks.
Stevenston is named for Stephen Lockhart, whose father was granted the land on which it stands sometime around 1170. The town itself isn’t mentioned in the historical record until named in a charter of 1240.
In addition to quarrying, its past industries included mining and ironworking and the manufacture of explosives. This last occurred in what is now the Ardeer Peninsula — flanked by the sea on one side and the River Garnock on the other — but which was historically once an island. It was there that Alfred Nobel built his original dynamite factory, later taken over by British chemical giant ICI. It was also the site of the Big Idea, a museum of inventions, which operated for just three years before going under, proving that big ideas are not necessarily sound business decisions.
From the park, the path nipped down an urban side street to emerge onto one of Stevenston’s main roads. My progress along the latter was soon halted at a level crossing as I timed my approach to perfectly coincide with the passing of a train. If only I could achieve that when trying to catch one.
Once the crossing was clear and the barriers had lifted, I followed the path south out of Stevenston proper and onto a grassy seaside area where the path quickly ran out, depositing me onto a beach. It wasn’t a bad beach, a bit stony perhaps but broad and level and I ambled along it until such time as the path climbed off it again. When it duly did so, it was in order to mount a concrete promenade, which would then convey me beside the railway into the port town of Saltcoats.
The name Saltcoats (Baile an t-Salainn) genuinely does come from salt collection, albeit as a commercial operation in times past. Salt was boiled from sea water in kettles housed in small cottages (cots) along the shore, hence the English name (originally Salt-cots).
For much of the seventeenth century, the cots formed a tiny hamlet, growing into a village when a harbour was built in 1811 by James Jardine (1776-1858) — he would go on to build several other harbours and become the first person to determine mean sea level.
Now able to service the coal trade from nearby mines, Saltcoats duly grew into a small town, ultimately coalescing with neighbouring Ardrossan and Stevenston.
I made my way around Jardine’s harbour, which looked much like any other harbour, and soon found myself overlooking South Bay, which lies between Saltcoats and Ardrossan. A concrete watchtower at the waterside offered the promise of better views and I merrily trotted up to experience them.
I truly don’t know if the view was better or not as my eyes were watering when I reached the top of it and my nose was drowning out all other senses, which were pleading with it to please stop. It smelt as if the Devil’s own busload of incontinent demons, all suffering from hideous urinary infections, had camped atop it for forty days and forty nights creating their own yellow flood. Small flies, drawn to the stink from afar, were spiralling out of the air, stunned by its terrifying intensity. It was horrendous.
I mean, I understand that sometimes people are caught short inconveniently distant from any so-called conveniences. I accept that when you have to go, you have to go. I’m not sure I see why you’d choose the top of a viewing tower for your emergency peeing, though I’m sure there are reasons. But what I really don’t understand, what really perplexes me is this — how did the concrete not simply dissolve beneath the onslaught of this malodorous devil urine? How?
Reeling and shell-shocked, I staggered traumatised along the seafront, too locked in my own internal reverie of horror to notice when it started raining again. This was perhaps a shame because as I made my way long the curve of South Bay the seafront became quite pleasant, taking on much more of a ‘seaside promenade’ feel. Eventually, I recovered my senses, detected that water was falling liberally from the sky and took shelter under an ornamental bandstand until it passed.
Ardrossan (Àird Rosain — headland of the deer/oxen) grew up around a castle built in 1140 by Simon de Morville. It later passed to the Barclay family — one of whom, Sir Fergus Barclay, was said to be in league with the Devil; no wonder Saltcoats was marred by noxious piss-demons — and then the Earls of Eglinton.
Oliver Cromwell had the castle torn down in 1648 so that he could reuse the stones for his citadel in Ayr and today there is just a stubby ruin standing over the town. I passed beneath its stumpy remains, crossed another level crossing and soon reached the edge of Ardrossan’s historic harbour.
At one time, Ardrossan Harbour would have seen trading vessels heading to Europe and North America plus local ferries. In 1841, Ardrossan was part of the London to Glasgow rail/sail route (a train from London to Fleetwood, then a ship to Ardrossan and a second train to Glasgow) but a direct rail link in 1848 made this short-lived.
Ferries to Arran, which began in 1834, still run today but the freight traffic has long gone and today Ardrossan’s harbour has a clientele whose pursuits are entirely more leisurely.
I found a café close by the marina and enjoyed my own leisurely pursuit in the form of a cup of tea and some lunch. It didn’t need much pursuing; they brought it directly to my table.
Having loaded myself up with tea and tasty foods, I emerged from the café to witness the Arran ferry similarly loading herself with vehicles for the crossing. With her bow raised she looked like she was indeed eating them.
Horse Ilse Beacon
From the gleaming quays of the marina, the path edged around the contrastingly derelict remnants of a different part of Ardrossan’s docks before meeting with a roadside promenade along the shores of North Bay. I’ll leave where that sits in relation to Ardrossan as an exercise for the reader1. From it I could see out across a grassy bank and beach, to Horse Isle, an uninhabited islet managed as a nature reserve by the RSPB. At its southern end stands Horse Isle Beacon, erected in 1811 as a navigational aid and commissioned by the 12th Earl of Eglinton.
It wasn’t long before I ran out of promenade and found myself walking beside the A738. Glancing inland I saw a large building painted in a colour that — thanks to infancy in the 1970s — I always think of as ‘Germolene pink’.
While Germolene is made today by Bayer (who bought the brand in 1999); Seafield House stands empty and vandalised.
It was built in 1820 for a Mr Bartlemore but substantially rebuilt in 1858 by architect Thomas Gildard (for new owner Mr Borron) to convert it to the Scottish Baronial style. In 1881, another new owner, Archibald Douglas, had it enlarged and a tower added. It remained in much the same form for the remainder of existence, passing through various hands until it entered the 21st century as a residential school run by Scottish social charity Quarriers.
Falling demand and rising costs led Quarriers to close the school in 2014, since when it has sat empty a tempting target for vandals. An attempt by thieves this August to strip copper from pipes flooded the basement and damaged the electrics, also shutting off power to the neighbours. Boarded up and empty, it presents a sad sight.
Sad or not, Seafield House was to be my last really interesting sight for a while. On the outskirts of Ardrossan, the A738 became the A78 and I followed this busy A-road up the coast, making use of the footway and cycle path provided.
That’s not to say it was horrible; Arran remained hazily visible across the silver-grey sea while on the landward side were gentle green hills. But there was no singular thing to stop and go ‘ooh’ at and you can’t just go ‘ooh’ at everything; if nothing else, you have to breathe in at some point.
West Kilbride, Seamill & Portencross
About two miles along the A78 I entered the village of Seamill. Glancing at my map, I found that I’d diverted from the coast path half a mile back without noticing.
What Seamill takes its name from is right there in the name, although the actual mill no longer functions as such. The differing lines of the coast and the A-road meant that I didn’t notice the mill but I did pass Seamill Hydro Hotel, a late-Victorian ‘hydropathic’ health spa. When first built, the hydro provided a safe, private way to take invigorating sea baths without showing an improper ankle.
My ankles, being male, were automatically proper but I felt no need to dip them in the sea on such a grey day. Instead I let them carry me northwards along the A78 and through the outskirts of West Kilbride (Cille Bhrìghde an Iar).
West Kilbride is a larger village than Seamill and is named for St Brigid (aka St Bride), an Irish missionary in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. The village is older than that though, there having been a settlement on site in 82 when Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Roman governor of Britannia, garrisoned troops there as part of his northern campaign.
I only passed through its outer edges, about half a mile from the village centre. A road to the centre was signed but it pointed steeply up hill, while a street opposite led down towards the sea. I took the latter.
On reaching a broad, sandy beach, I picked up the coastal path again, which ran along a grassy bank abutting the beach. This quickly left West Kilbride behind and I strode happily along it enjoying the sounds and smells of the sea.
Encountering a handy bench, I took a break overlooking Ardneil Bay. My knees thanked me for the rest and I felt myself relaxing. Even the discovery that I’d run out of water hardly dented my state of serene calm. Nor did the seemingly bizarre questions asked of me by a couple out walking their dog: I was asked if I’d taken enough inspiration yet and whether I did it here or waited until I got home?
Neither Rhyme nor Reason
The conversation continued to get increasingly weird until it became clear that Mr Dog Walker had, for reasons that never actually existed, decided that I was a poet. Because that’s a natural assumption. See a bloke with walking boots and a map, taking a photo of the beach? Poet. Sitting on a bench? Definitely a poet. No other possible explanation, right?
No I don’t understand it either.
‘it’s a pity you’re not a poet,’ he said when I’d denied such a calling. ‘The next bit is, well, you’ll see.’
Poet or not, I could hardly ignore that kind of build-up. I picked up my stuff and went to find out.
At Farland Head, the coast, which had hitherto curved westwards, made a right-angled turn to the north. This meant that the path turned around a blind corner and emerged onto a road in the tiny hamlet of Portencross (Port na Crois) comprising a handful of cottages. And this:
Portencross Castle was built in the 14th century, a rebuilding of Ardneil Castle, which had previously stood on nearby Auld Hill. The castle was the stronghold of the Boyd family, who lived in it until 1660, when they moved to a new mansion house in Portencross. The roof blew off during a storm in 1739 and, despite sporadic repair work, the castle was allowed to moulder.
In 1900, it was acquired by a man named William Adams, who carried out some repairs and passed it to his son in 1940. After WW2, it, and much of the surrounding area, was compulsorily purchased when Hunterston nuclear power station was constructed. In 2005, it passed to Friends of Portencross Castle, a charity set up purely to look after it.
I paid my money to look around inside the castle, which was small, cramped and offered excellent opportunities for concussion. Feeling quite thirsty now, I asked the attendant where the nearest place was that I might purchase a cold drink. Naturally, his reply was ‘West Kilbride.’
Near to the castle stood a wooden pier from which people were fishing and, looking past them, I could see what the Random Poetry Accuser had meant. I was looking across waters busy with islands, with Bute and both Great and Little Cumbrae now becoming visible.
Resigning myself to my thirst, I headed off along the path, which lay between the sea and the rocky bulk of Goldenberry Hill. Off to my left, across Fairlie Roads, I could see the town of Millport and I bitterly thought to myself that I could probably buy a drink there. But Millport was on Great Cumbrae, a 2½ mile swim from where I was walking. Frustrated, I turned to look inland instead.
After the house, the path became boggier and altogether more nominal for about half a mile until it joined the end of another road beside a second pier. This seemed like a good spot to pause again. I might not have a drink but I’d remembered that I did have a sandwich buried in the bottom of my bag and I took this opportunity to fish it out and eat it.
When my sandwich-scoffing was complete I set off down the dead straight road. Periodic signs warned against trespass on any of the adjoining land. This was Hunterston A nuclear power station, opened in 1964 and closed in 1990. It is currently being decommissioned.
At the end of the road, adjacent to the Hunterston A site, lay Hunterston B — a second nuclear power plant opened in 1976.
It is similar in design and appearance to Hinkley Point B in Somerset and both are operated by EDF Energy, a subsidiary of French state-owned power company Électricité de France. I find it not a little odd that while privatisation removes British power stations from HM Government’s ownership, other countries’ governments can own them just fine. A similar situation pertains to train franchises. To me it smacks heavily of failing to think things through. But I digress…
I headed past the gates of Hunterston B and along the coast beside Hunterston Sands. Initially hot and dusty beneath an increasing blue and sunny sky, the road became flanked by leafy trees and brambles further along. This was an absolute godsend as the brambles were covered in blackberries, which are essentially tiny tasty bags of flavoured water. I was very happy.
Before long the road joined up with the A78, above which a tall bridge-like structure loomed. Unremarkable in appearance, this was actually an overhead conveyor carrying coal from the quay of Hunterston Terminal (its cranes can be seen between the wind turbines above) to a nearby goods railhead. I passed under this and headed north alongside the A78.
In some places, the foot and cycle path ran directly alongside the carriageway while in others they were some distance apart with the footpath flanked by further bountiful brambles. In any event, I only had a mile or so to go before it carried me to the outskirts of Fairlie.
Fairlie is a mostly linear settlement that once supported the fishing and weaving industries but today is mostly a commuter village.
The Ayrshire Coastal Path skirted along its shoreline but I decided to stick with the A78 as it seemed more likely that I’d find a shop that way. What I actually found was a garage but it had a shop on its forecourt, so that’s a success; I quickly stocked up on cold drinks.
Watered and refreshed, I reacquired the coastal path and headed northwards from Fairlie, passing a sizeable marina. On its far side, the path was flanked with enormous anchors, decoratively bordering a car park. The anchors had been donated from a now-closed NATO base at Fairlie Quay.
While there’s no record of the Kraken being sighted in those waters, the sailors who frequented then would once have been familiar with its Scandinavian tales.
From 1098 to 1264, the Hebrides and parts of Scotland’s west coast were under Norwegian rule, having been signed over to Magnus III of Norway by king Edgar of Scotland. Edgar’s successors felt this to be something of a mistake and sought to recover the territory with Alexander II seeking to buy them back from Håkon IV in the 1240s. King Håkon had no intention of parting with them.
Then, in 1262, Alexander II died and his son Alexander III succeeded to the Scottish throne. This younger Alexander decided that asking to purchase the islands was a waste of time and that he’d simply take them back by force. Håkon sailed to defend them with a fleet of 120 warships and the Scottish-Norwegian War began. It wasn’t much really of a war, mostly comprising indecisive skirmishes. There was only one major battle and that was pretty indecisive too; it was at Largs.
Battle of Largs
In 1263, Håkon was anchoring his fleet off the Cumbraes when stormy weather drove several ships ashore at Largs. The Scots arrived and attacked the Norwegians while they were trying to salvage their vessels.
Despite fierce fighting, neither side really won the battle and both sides held the available high ground at various points. Eventually, the Scots withdrew and the Norwegians, able to do likewise, sailed off in their ships. Despite both sides later claiming victory, the battle was quite inconclusive. Except…
Tactical Draw, Strategic Victory
Håkon’s force was disillusioned and demoralised, the Scots having proved a tougher foe than they’d hoped. And with deteriorating weather threatening the safety of the fleet, Håkon turned and headed for Orkney, where he planned to overwinter. Instead, he died there. His successor, Magnus VI, had plenty of reasons to discontinue fighting and thus Alexander III got his territory after all.
Largs likes to make a great deal of its one famous battle; though you’d be forgiving for thinking it a kerb-stomp victory, based on the way its portrayed.
Largs Viking Festival
Largs was enjoying an annual Viking Festival when I arrived, which happens every September and includes a re-enactment of the battle, burning of a long ship and fireworks display.
The re-enactors set up a Viking Village the authenticity of which is only slightly impaired by the flashing lights and electronic noises of the whacking great funfair next door. The Viking Village had closed just before I got there — a refreshing change from missing a café — but the revellers of Largs remained out in force and I barged and elbowed my way through happy crowds.
On the way, I acquired an excellent ice cream — passion fruit and coconut flavour — and somehow managed to miss Magnus the Viking, a 5 m tall steel Viking statue erected in 2013 by North Ayrshire Council to mark the Battle of Largs’ 750th anniversary. I did, however, find his colleague (shown here the following morning):
This time: 23½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,580 miles
1 Nah, it’s actually to the west