Top Things to do in Ayrshire
In the latest in my series of regional “weekend in…” blogs, this weekend I’m having myself a summertime exploration of Ayrshire. A close neighbour to my home city of Glasgow it is often overlooked for the charge north. Given some of its historical and creative assets, that’s more than just a bit of a shame. Here’s my pick of the bunch and, just you watch, I’m not even going to mention golf.
For me Ayrshire has but one place to start. Culzean Castle is one of the most visually spectacular to be found in all of Scotland. Opulence at its most unapologetic, the flagship of the National Trust offers not only a stunning 18th Century structure but a vast country park that could take up a full day in itself. Perfect for a picnic on a sunny day or even a beach wander along the hidden coastline beneath the clifftop fortress it’s constantly a popular spot for all ages. See if you can spot the distinctive island mound of Ailsa Craig, where our curling stones come from. For those that do take a nosey into the interior of the castle look out for the stunning oval staircase designed by the legendary architect Robert Adam. And the arsenal at the entranceway. Not entirely sure what apocalyptic event was being anticipated that required that many guns in your front porch but, hey, better to have them and not need them I suppose. The mysterious Culzean Castle caves are also well worth exploring if you can reserve yourself a space on one of their fortnightly tours.
I can’t get enough of the historic remains found in southern Scotland and Ayrshire has more than just Culzean putting it on the map. Chief among them is Dundonald Castle near Troon. Boasting an atmospheric main hall and some wonderful views over much of Ayrshire, I don’t think this place gets anywhere near the amount of attention it deserves. Well placed hovering protectively over Dundonald, the 14th Century fortification was once a royal residence for Robert II and Robert III. Presumably they had designs on some of those fine stretches of fairway off to the west that would eventually develop into world class golf courses……(OK so I mentioned it once, think I got away with it).
Next up for the history lovers is delicate Crossraguel Abbey. Going even further back than Dundonald Castle – this time to the 13th Century – these ruins are hanging on impressively in the face of all that west coast weather and make for a reflective half hour of exploration. Having survived the destruction brought by Edward I (the baddie from Braveheart) back in the Wars of Independence it somehow managed to maintain an active religious presence right up to 1601 when the last monk died. Its proximity to Culzean make it an ideal companion to its distinctly flashier neighbour.
History, culture and tradition come together nicely with the mention of Robert Burns. The Bard, the Ploughman Poet and sometimes just Rabbie his is maybe the most famous Scottish face of them all. I’m halfway through an Ayrshire blog and only just now mentioning him! Bloody cheek. But yes, this is where Burns fans will feel right at home. The little town of Alloway (his birthplace) is the epicentre of all connected with the legendary poet and the visitor museum puts a modern slant on his incredible legacy. You might be interested to know that I was spectacularly half decent at Burns recitals in my school days when we were all forced, yes forced, in front of classmates to meticulously enunciate every syllable of his work. You’d be amazed at just how wee that timorous wee beastie could really be you know.
Aside from the Birthplace Museum, a visit to Burns Cottage is a must. The walk between the cottage and museum is thoughtfully accompanied by some lovely waymarker images inspired by his words that make for a nice appetiser to the thatched roofed cottage and the stories within. Wonderfully maintained to create an authentic experience this is where the man was born and raised. Tours are available but there are no words needed to appreciate the simplicity – and snugness – of life in the mid 1700’s. Also on the trail is the spooky Alloway Auld Kirk that was the setting for Tam O’Shanter and his intoxicated encounter with the dancing witches that were nearly the death of him. On a less chilling note, the beautiful gardens beside the Burns monument are a stone’s throw away across the street and offer some lovely views over to the medieval Brig O’Doon. All of the Burns attractions in Alloway can be done in half a day.
With Burns and several centuries worth of history behind you, some balance is now required. Few things bring balance quite like ice cream. Ice cream at the coast no less. The town of Largs is at the end of a well-trodden road from Glasgow where the city dwellers descent on sunny weekends for some sea air and a visit to retro-tastic Nardini’s. Offering a range of food options, it’s really just all about the ice cream to be honest. And with a bit of a dearth of whisky based activities in Ayrshire, it will just have to do won’t it? Largs also hosts an annual Viking Festival in September remembering the Battle of Largs and the ushering out of the Vikings from these parts in the 13th Century. Note the chap below sporting the obligatory west of Scotland headgear. Although not a visually spectacular location, I find Largs to be a strangely unique place that’s familiarly enjoyable. He said ponderously as he tucked into his third cone….The bizarre but impressive Kelburn Castle makes for an additional attraction just outside the town. Subjected to some Brazilian graffiti it is for some horrifying, for others an incrediblly creative meeting of ancient and modern. It is undeniably distinctive and a wander around the grounds make for a relaxing end to a busy weekend.
A boat trip from Largs over to the Isle to Cumbrae is another excellent idea but requires more time than my weekend will allow….it will be getting a blog all to itself. For all of the above, though, you can use the map below to identify the spots and help plan out your own Ayrshire travel route.
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