I HAD planned to return to Largs in September but the weekend I picked turned out to be the wettest, windiest, most miserable weekend for months. That threatened to fail the all important ‘is this fun?’ test and so I deferred to the start of October. For that weekend, the forecast was more promising but I didn’t dare raise my hopes too high; autumnal Scotland was hardly likely to offer up blue skies and sunshine. Or so I thought.
Magnus the Viking
Largs was considerably less busy this time, on account of the annual Viking Festival not being on. Paradoxically, this meant that after achieving my number one priority — purchasing a passion fruit and coconut ice cream from the one shop that sells them — I was able to see Magnus the Viking standing proud on the seafront, where he commemorates Norway’s indecisive tactical result and strategic defeat at the 1263 Battle of Largs in which Kings Alexander III and Håkon IV vied for control of the Hebrides.
Made of galvanised steel and standing 5 m tall, Magnus was presented to Largs in 2013 by North Ayrshire Council to mark the 750th anniversary of the battle.
He is named Magnus after both the festival’s two patrons so far — the first was the late broadcaster, journalist and translator of Old Norse documents Magnus Magnusson (1929-2007), who was Icelandic by birth but grew up in Scotland; the current patron is Professor Magnus Fladmark of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.
Ice cream in hand, I regarded Magnus with the neutrality appropriate to the son of a non-combatant nation (England played no part in the Scottish-Norwegian War of 1262-1266; Henry III was too busy to interfere on account of having a fully fledged rebellion — the Second Barons’ War, instigated by Simon de Montfort — on his hands). As Magnus wasn’t doing much, I quickly got bored and switched my attention to the way ahead.
Take the High Road?
My map indicated that the Ayrshire Coastal Path offered two routes: a low, coastal route and a high route. I quickly realised that the high route was essentially a detour to climb up Knock Hill and look at the view before rejoining the low one. The question was, did I want to do that? I had hitherto assumed that the answer would be ‘no’.
I looked at my map. I looked ahead to Knock Hill. I looked back at Magnus but he was no help at all.
‘Ah, what the hell,’ I said, ‘a pointless, uphill diversion sounds exactly like the way forwards.’ And so it was.
Very Nearly Victorian
I followed the path along Largs seafront and found myself thinking that if you transplanted it to Sussex, the town would not look out of place. It’d be much diminished by the lack of crinkly islands off its coast but the actual town, with its mix of old churches, Victorian hotels and 1930s buildings, would physically fit right in.
This is perhaps not that strange as Largs (An Leargaidh Ghallda) grew from a tiny village to a fully-fledged seaside resort in the nineteenth century, gaining some of its larger hotels around 1834 (strictly speaking, this means they’re not actually Victorian as Victoria didn’t inherit the throne from her uncle, William IV, until 1837).
The railway arrived in 1895, prompting an expansion of the town including a number of imposing mansions and Largs became known as somewhere pleasant to visit or — if one could afford it — live.
The seafront promenade came to an end at the mouth of a stream called Noddsdale Water, which rises in the hills about seven miles northeast of Largs. I headed inland along its southern bank, crossing over the A78 and following what was largely the northern edge of Largs.
This part of the walk was a perfect amble along a suburban stream, serene and sedate and characterised by broad, level paths, flanked by trees.
Somewhere on the far bank, presumably hidden by those trees, was Netherhall, once the home of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin. A famous physicist, Lord Kelvin later gave his name to units of absolute temperature in which a temperature of 0 K (-273°C or -460°F) is absolute zero, perhaps best thought of as the lowest temperature possible.
Brisbane Glen Road
The footpath led me upstream to the north-eastern edge of Largs, where I joined a back road heading out of the town and up Noddsdale. If I kept going along this road I would pass Loch Thom and head straight into Greenock, saving myself a number of miles. It would be the hypotenuse of a triangle of which my coastal route — when I returned to it — formed the other two sides.
I must admit I gave it brief consideration; the road was quiet and I’m always happy to walk beside a lake. But I quickly dismissed the idea and decided to stick to the plan. Well, a plan anyway. The plan had been to follow the low route and I clearly was no longer doing that.
Pressing on, I passed over a small bridge across one of the river’s tributaries and spotted beside it a squat, rectangular shape. It was a memorial cairn to Major General Sir Thomas Brisbane (1773-1860), a soldier and imperial administrator who served as governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1826 and who was born in nearby Brisbane House on the edge of Noddsdale village.
Brisbane studied astronomy at the University of Edinburgh — he later built Australia’s first astronomical observatory — but joined the army, fighting under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War.
During his time in NSW he sought a new penal site to house repeat offenders, leading to the establishment of Brisbane (both the city and the river are named after him). What is now the Australian state of Queensland was part of NSW at the time and was only legally separated, with Brisbane becoming its capital, just months before Sir Thomas died.
The cairn was erected in 1989.
The road led me past where Brisbane House had stood (it was demolished during WW2) but I left it soon after, crossing Noddsdale Water by means of a small bridge and heading up a farm track to the farmhouse of Brisbane Mains.
The farmhouse was built circa 1807 by Scottish architect James Gillespie Graham (1776-1855), who mostly specialised in country houses and churches but also laid out parts of Edinburgh and Birkenhead.
The farm track turned right at Brisbane Mains, heading down its left-hand side as seen in the picture above. The buildings were rather less impressive when seen from an angle other than the frontage but working farms are seldom pretty. Several chickens trotted nonchalantly about the path — I actually stepped over one as she wasn’t wasting any effort in getting out of my way — while a pair of goats observed my passing with disinterest.
Having been humbled by the total indifference of farm animals, I continued up the increasingly squelchy farm track until waymarks directed me up a hillside, following a trail that appeared to be made entirely out of Sphagnum peat moss. This was less muddy but altogether wetter as every step was essentially taken onto several inches’ depth of water-soaked sponge.
This trail led splashily around in an arc before spiralling up the side of Knock Hill. A shorter, steeper shortcut was also available but in the wet conditions, I figured it was nonviable. I took the slower spiral, watched warily on the way up by a flock of horned sheep.
At the top of Knock Hill I found a man already enjoying the view. We chatted for a while — he was also a keen walker it turned out — and he gave me a ton of useful advice regarding my route for the day. After he had departed I remained atop the hill, taking in the view and generally relaxing.
Knock Hill is one of those places whose name means the same thing twice, cnoc being Gaelic for a small hill or hillock. It’s not that high in the grand scheme of things — 217 m at the summit — but that didn’t stop Ayrshire’s ancient inhabitants from building a small hill fort atop it. The views are pretty good, I have to admit.
Heading for Skelmorlie
Where the Waymarks Weren’t
Getting back to the coast wasn’t too hard, especially since Knock Hill Man had warned me where the waymarks were now missing.
I headed back down the spiralling path until a sign indicated that a side path led off towards the coast. This quickly turned north then ran coastward along field boundaries beside a small stream (Blackhouse Burn). The track was almost impassibly muddy in places but soon transformed into a delightful leafy tunnel before finally emerging onto the public road.
The road in question — Routenburn Road — was narrow and leafy at this point and ran parallel to and higher than the A78. A sign pointed north to Skelmorlie, which it said was two miles away. So off I trotted…
The road soon emerged from the shelter of a copse, opening up to present views both seaward and inland. It was quiet, with almost no traffic, and gloriously warm as the sun beat down from blue skies and the only shade came from the occasional roadside tree. It was marvellous.
Routenburn Road came to an end at the hamlet of Meigle at the mouth of Skelmorlie Water. Here I had to pass alongside about 150 m of terrifyingly busy A78, crossing over the river and then climbing back up onto a high back road, this time named Skelmorlie Castle Road.
Dating to 1502, Skelmorlie Castle was built by a branch of Clan Montgomery on land previously acquired from Clan Cunningham. Other lands confiscated from the Cunninghams and given to the Montgomerys following a successful rebellion against James III in 1488 led to a bitter feud between the two families.
It was within this context that, following the murder of his clan chief (the 4th Earl of Eglinton), Sir Robert Montgomery, 6th Laird of Skelmorlie, murdered the Earl’s killer — John Cunningham of Clonbeith — in 1586. He then went on to kill Alexander Cunningham — commendator of Kilwinning Abbey and brother of the Earl of Glencairn (the chief of Clan Cunningham) — whom he regarded as the instigator of Eglinton’s murder. This, in turn, got him and his eldest son murdered by Cunningham ally Patrick Maxwell of Newark Castle. His next eldest son, also Robert, then attempted to kill Patrick Maxwell but was discovered and dissuaded from so doing.
Eventually, the feud ended and Skelmorlie Castle became direct property of the Earls of Eglinton. Today, though still privately owned, it has passed out of that family, the 18th Earl of Eglinton having sold it in the mid 1970s.
When it was most recently up for sale, in 2007, it was going for £2½ m.
I continued past the castle and along Skelmorlie Castle Road, which was much as Routenburn Road had been, only shorter. It wasn’t long before the houses of Skelmorlie village came into view.
On entering Skelmorlie I was delighted to find a shop where I bought a drink and a sandwich, which I joyfully consumed whilst sitting on a bench outside the library. What I was drinking was Ribena but for historical resonance it really should have been a nice cup of tea as, for some reason, Skelmorlie became the favourite abode of Glasgow’s nineteenth century tea barons.
Skelmorlie was pleasant enough but I needed to press on and that meant following its streets down to the busy A78, which now had a proper pedestrian pavement beside it. This conveyed me to the Kelly Burn and not only the northern limit of Skelmorlie but also the boundary of Ayrshire. On crossing the utterly unremarkable bridge I would be in the county of Renfrewshire, though today its westernmost part is the unitary authority of Inverclyde.
I crossed over.
More of the Same
On the far side of the Kelly Burn I was immediately in another village, namely that of Wemyss Bay (pronounced ‘weemz’). For all that they come under different councils, Skelmorlie and Wemyss Bay form one continuous conurbation. Wemyss Bay has something Skelmorlie lacks though, in the form of a railway station.
Wemyss Bay Railway Station
Built in 1903, the station is an elegant, stylish building, enabling passenger connections between trains to Glasgow and ferries to Rothesay on Bute.
Grade A listed, the station replaced an earlier, more conventional building and in its earlier decades was known not just for its architecture but also the spectacular floral displays that graced its concourse. These involved both potted plants and hanging baskets but were sadly discontinued in the 1970s or 80s.
Not the Largs Line
The station sits at the end of the Inverclyde Line, which follows the River Clyde from Glasgow to approach Wemyss Bay from the north. Largs, by contrast, is at the end of the Largs Branch, which curves around from Glasgow to approach it from the south.
That there isn’t a section track linking up the two lines and forming a loop looks like an obvious case of Dr Richard Beeching’s 1960s axe mania but bizarrely he didn’t chop it; it was never built in the first place. This is mainly because the two lines were built by different companies — the Inverclyde Line by the Caledonian Railway in 1865 and the Largs Branch by the Glasgow & South Western Railway in 1885.
The Caledonian Railway did have plans to continue down the coast to Largs but these never came to fruition, the link being made by steamers via the Firth of Clyde. From time to time the option of filling in what seems like an obvious gap is reconsidered but the projected costs have consistently outweighed the benefits.
The Railway Gods are Fickle and Cruel
On the day that I visited it, Wemyss Bay station was proving more ornamental than useful as engineering works had closed the line and a number of unfortunates were queuing forlornly for that dread bane of any passengers’ existence — the rail replacement bus. Such buses must, by long-standing tradition, cruelly mock the very concept of a timetable and be driven by a driver who has no idea where the stations are. Their use from time to time is a practical necessity however, for the Railway Gods are only appeased by the anguish felt by despairing travellers as their very souls are crushed.
The Actual Bay
I quickly departed Wemyss Bay station, lest the Railway Gods mistake me for a sacrifice, and headed north along the A78, which was only marginally less soul-destroying. It only required a small quantum of endurance however as the A-road soon ducked beneath the railway line and then provided me with an exit: A broad private road curved off from the A-road and followed the curve of the bay; huge, palatial houses overlooked this, many adorned with turrets and battlements in Scottish Baronial style.
I followed it round with joy in my heart, looking out across the Firth of Clyde to Bute and the Cowal Pensinula. Innellan, on the latter, was now quite close — just two and a half miles across the water — and I wondered why it has no ferry.
The answer is that in Victorian times it was a resort with a pier for steamers and grand hotels but it didn’t survive the advent of cheap foreign holidays in the late 1960s. The grandest hotel has long since burnt down and the pier, which was closed in 1972, was fully dismantled in the 1990s. Also it’s just four miles from Dunoon, which does have a ferry (to Gourock).
A Marine Village
The road curved around before passing through more an estate of conventional housing. A small shop furnished me with additional drinks and snacks before I rejoined the A78 at the northern end of the village.
Wemyss Bay village was a nineteenth century invention, designed as a ‘marine village’ by local politician and landowner Robert Wallace (1773-1855). A Whig and determined electoral reformer, Wallace also proved instrumental in the introduction of the uniform domestic postal rate. An ally of postal reformer Rowland Hill, it was Wallace’s casting vote as chairman of the committee evaluating Hill’s penny post proposal that permitted the scheme to go ahead.
Leaving Wemyss Bay
For me, going ahead from Wemyss Bay meant following a foot and cycle path alongside the A78 towards Inverkip Bay. The provision of a decent footway made this part much better than I might have feared had the man atop Knock Hill not earlier assured me that this would be the case.
Inverkip Power Station
I walked alongside the A-road for about a mile, for much of which the Firth of Clyde was screened from me by trees. Behind those trees was also the site of the former Inverkip Power Station, opened in 1976. This oil-fired power station, whose chimney was a landmark dominating the coast, was never really used except to top up the network at peak times apart from during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, when coal supplies became scarce.
Closed in 1988, the power station was officially decommissioned in 2006 and demolished in 2013. And thus, when I reached the edge of Inverkip where I could once again look out upon the firth, I saw no massive chimney looming over all. In fact the only sticky-up structure I found was a war memorial, standing beside a lay-by with a vista of the firth forming its backdrop.
Inverkip War Memorial
Origins of Inverkip
Today the village of Inverkip (Inbhir Chip) is dominated by its marina, the new development around which is practically a new village in its own right, but its origins date back to 1170 when the Sheriff of Lanark granted the land between the Kip and the Daff to Paisley Abbey. Both are fairly minor streams, today draining reservoirs in the hills to the west, and they meet just before emptying into the aforesaid marina.
Of course, when the monks took over this land there wasn’t yet a village, merely a scattering of farms, but by 1188 they had built Inverkip Auld Kirk, which in turn prompted the construction of two rows of cottages; this was the nucleus around which Inverkip developed.
By the 1600s, the area had become infamous as a centre for witchcraft and many women were burnt for that (alleged) crime.
One of the local landowners, Alexander Lindsay — known as Auld Dunrod — was said to be a practising warlock with many of his tenants witches in league with him. Auld Dunrod was the last of the Lindsay family, which had dwelt in Dunrod Castle northeast of the village, and his profligate ways reduced him to poverty by the end of his life; he died under suspicious circumstances in a barn on what had once been his land.
The alleged misdeeds of Auld Dunrod were later turned into a poem, the Ballad of Auld Dunrod, by author unknown. It has many verses, one of which describes his (literal) flight after the kirk becomes aware of his activities:
Sae Auld Dunrod he muntit his stick - His broomstick muntit he - And he flychter’t twa’r three times aboot, And syne through the air did flee.
Whatever his imagined misdeeds, Alexander Lindsay certainly squandered his inheritance to the extent that he had to sell his castle in 1619. At the end of his life, he also admitted to a murder, recounting that (having somehow become involved in the feud between the Montgomerys and Cunninghams) he shot Alexander Leckie — the brother-in-law of Patrick Maxwell — from the window of a farmhouse in 1600.
The Road to Greenock
Inverkip’s reputation for ungodliness was perhaps not helped by its relative remoteness, such roads as there were being barely worthy of the name. This changed in the nineteenth century when local landowner Sir John Shaw Stewart built first proper road to Greenock in 1803.
Formerly the MP for Renfrewshire, Sir John was a descendant of Robert III, who had granted his family the Ardgowan Estate, north of Inverkip. His ‘Sir’ came from being a baronet — essentially a hereditary knighthood — which his family got through by the noble and honourable means of buying it from Charles I.
In 1624, as a measure to raise funds for the settling of Nova Scotia without messing about with any of that parliamentary voting nonsense, Charles’s father, James VI, hit upon the idea of selling baronetcies. He then promptly died but Charles, who was all about sidelining parliaments on both sides of the border, embraced the concept with gusto. As did Archibald Stewart, Sir John’s forbear.
As if good roads were not enough, 1865 saw the arrival of the railway after which travel by broomstick was totally obsolete. Also, Inverkip started to develop into a resort. It’s had its ups and downs since but has recently redeveloped its harbour into a marina with apartments overlooking it.
My route took me through the marina development, which was fairly pleasant in a slightly anodyne sort of way and then onto a foot and cycle path leading through woodland on part of the aforementioned Ardgowan Estate. This was entirely welcome in my book — I love a leafy woodland path — but when it then emerged from the trees the view across Lunderston Bay was impressive, revealing a riot of hills across the firth.
I was not alone on the path between Inverkip and Gourock. Not only was I passed by numerous cyclists but I was also sharing the path with a plentiful supply of walkers, both of the lone variety (like myself) and periodic clusters of families. Several of the later included bored-looking children who clearly wished to be anywhere but there. I was surprised, therefore, to find several families all staring out to sea and pointing, their kids making excited ‘ooh’ noises while parents shushed them in David Attenborough-style whispers.
I decided that the seal was setting an excellent example and likewise perched on a handy rock and took a break. I ate some snacks, drank some water and listened to a succession of passing children say something like ‘but Mum, I don’t wanna; when are we going home? I want to… what are all those…. ooooh!’
Eventually I tore myself away from the strangely captivating spectacle of a seal sitting on a rock and not really doing anything; the path continued northwards along the curve of Lunderston Bay until the bay ended and the path joined the A770. This was less busy than the A78 but still a main thoroughfare and could have been somewhat dispiriting if I hadn’t had the Firth of Clyde on my left.
At Cloch Point both road and coast turned eastwards (the road had little choice) as the firth became more convincingly the estuary of the River Clyde.
Cloch Point Lighthouse
Also at Cloch Point was a lighthouse, built in 1797, which was designed by early lighthouse engineer Thomas Smith (1752–1814) and his son-in-law Robert Stevenson. Stevenson would go on to found an entire dynasty of lighthouse builders encompassing three of his sons and several of theirs (though not his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson, who took to writing stories for a living). They were sufficiently prolific in their art that I believe every single lighthouse I’ve passed since entering Scotland has been the Stevenson family’s handiwork.
Having rounded Cloch Point, I was now heading east in the direction of the River Clyde and eventually Glasgow. That city was a long way off yet however and the firth was still broad and fringed with sea lochs to the north. I knew that at some point upstream the picturesque hills and seaside-y waterfronts would give way to the industrial grimness of a river famed for shipbuilding but thus far it was all rather pretty.
I was now entering the outskirts of Gourock (Guireag), the Gaelic name of which means ‘rounded hill’.
A Victorian Resort
A small fishing village until the mid-nineteenth century, Gourock rapidly grew into a Victorian resort, which it remained for the next century. With the decline in domestic tourism during the twentieth century, it became more residential, functioning mostly as a dormitory town for the area.
Gourock sits at the terminus of a branch off the Inverclyde Line, providing rail links direct to Glasgow. The town also has ferry links to Kilcreggan and Dunoon and a ferry from the latter pulled in as I passed.
Gourock has apparently lost a lot of its old resort character as recent decades have taken their toll and new residential developments have expanded the town. If so I can only assume it must have been super-duper-resorty because I was definitely still getting a seaside vibe as I strolled along the prom, which I liked.
When I reached Gourock Station the signs appeared to indicate that the cycle route I was following (NCN 75) ran straight through the station, which was just as closed as Wemyss Bay had been. I kept to the roads, as close to the waterfront as was feasible and this seemed mostly to work.
Elderly Bemoaner of Bus Lateness
On the way, I was accosted by an indignant little old lady who demanded me to tell her why the bus was late. This seemed like an odd question to spring on a stranger but I quickly realised it was more an odd way of phrasing a rant about the lateness of the bus. It was late (she demanded of me), was it not? I was still perplexed to be randomly accosted but quickly realised that the rant was mostly bluster to hide her embarrassment at being unable to read the timetable clearly. Did it not, she quietly raged, say the bus was due at This Time? Why, yes it did. And was it not now That Time, thus making the bus half an hour late?
‘Er, no,’ I explained, as gently as I could, ‘you’ve misread your watch; the bus isn’t due for twenty minutes.’
She squinted at the watch distrustfully, then looked up in disbelief. For a moment I thought she was going to cry. But instead she rallied magnificently and decided it must be my fault:
‘Well, that’s no use,’ she snapped accusingly.
I scurried off, suitably chastised.
As the A770 passed Gourock Bay, I was able to leave it again and make my way around the edge of a park. At the far end of it I was forced to briefly rejoin the A-road before finding a turn-off for the Esplanade. This was, as it name suggested, another broad promenade and I ambled leisurely along it, enjoying the satisfied serenity peculiar to late Sunday afternoons.
The Esplanade carried me from Gourock to Greenock (Grianaig), a rather more industrial town. This became immediately evident when the Esplanade ended in sight of a modern container port, towered over by cranes.
Trade and Industry
Like Gourock, Greenock began as a fishing village. A jetty was built in 1635 and Greenock developed first into a herring port and then into a shipping one.
A proper harbour was constructed in 1710 and Greenock’s first shipyard opened in 1711. Three years later the town became a custom house port, legally considered a branch of Port Glasgow.
Once home to half a dozen shipbuilding firms plus many related industries, Greenock has seen them all shut down, outcompeted by competition, mostly in Southeast Asia. But while the shipbuilders have gone under, actual shipping remains a thriving industry, Greenock having moved with the times and switched to containerisation.
Ocean Terminal Container Port
Having reached the end of the Esplanade, my route now conveyed me down some uninviting, industrial backstreets, close by the Ocean Terminal container port. On the other side of a sturdy fence, shipping containers were piled high like building blocks.
Once I had reached the seafront on the far side of the container port, I decided it was time to find my hotel. When I did, I found it disappointing but on the way I got an excellent view of Greenock’s Municipal Buildings, built in Italianate style and topped by the 75 m high Victoria Tower, completed in 1886.
This time: 19 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,599 miles