Often tourists, on their trip around Scotland, by-pass Ayrshire, in the south-west of the country, but they are missing a veritable feast of historic places, stunning scenery and enough golf to satisfy the enthusiast. The rich green farmland rolls down to the Firth of Clyde where the coastal towns of Ayr, Troon, Prestwick and Saltcoats were a mecca for holidaymakers from Glasgow before the days of cheap flights abroad took over. Ayr recently celebrated 800 years of settlement while Troon is a golfer’s paradise having hosted the Open Championship no less than eight times. Further up the coast, Largs, the site of a battle in 1263, is noted for its Viking history and Art Deco ice-cream parlour, as well as the ferry across to the Isle of Cumbrae. To the south of the county, the village of Ballantrae has recently inaugurated its smuggling festival, with more than a nod to its somewhat disreputable past.
Whatever your interests, there is something for everyone in Ayrshire – and the weather is usually kinder too! Here are 5 must-sees should you find yourself in this beautiful part of Scotland.
The jewel in the National Trust for Scotland’s crown, it stands imposingly on the cliffs above the Firth of Clyde looking out across to the Isle of Arran and Ailsa Craig, a volcanic plug known to many as Paddy’s Milestone. On a clear day, the Mull of Kintyre and even the Irish coast can be seen.
Designed by Robert Adam for the tenth Earl of Cassilis at the end of the eighteenth century, it is famed for its magnificent oval staircase and the round drawing room overlooking the firth. On the top floor, the Eisenhower Apartments, so called because they were gifted to him by the people of Scotland after World War II, are now a boutique luxury hotel.
There are extensive grounds including a walled garden and a vinery, an adventure playground for children, the Swan Pond which is home to many wildfowl, and experienced rangers who will take you to some of the most interesting and scenic parts on a guided walk.
The Burns Trail
Ayrshire is perhaps best known as the birthplace and home for much of his life of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. The cottage where he was born, the ‘auld clay biggin’ has been restored as a museum to life as Burns knew it in the 1750s and 60s. The trail continues along a path with Alloway Church, which featured in his epic poem, Tam o’ Shanter, and where Burns’ father is buried, on the right, while the Burns Monument stands high on the left.
The recently built Burns Museum is at the end of the short trail and examines various aspects of Burns’ life in a very interactive way. So not only can you hear his songs and poems but you can have your silhouette taken, play various games around his life and marvel at the way his fame has spread around the world.
And of course at the very end of the trail, is the bridge where Tam o’ Shanter crossed in his attempt to escape the witches and where his poor horse, Meg, lost her tail to the witch, Cutty Sark.
In the last few years, Dumfries House has been restored and opened to the public, thanks to the efforts of Prince Charles. Ten per cent of all existing Chippendale furniture is found here, including a bookcase reputed to be worth in the region of £24 million. Guided tours take you through the house to admire the pink dining room with its magnificent Murano glass chandelier or the drawing room where the sofas and chairs are covered in bright yellow Dumfries pattern damask, and of course, the priceless rosewood bookcase.
In the extensive grounds, there is the newly restored walled garden opened in July 2014 by the Queen, a visitor centre and hospitality training centre, a drawing school linked to the Glasgow School of Art, and on the edge of the estate, Knockroon, a small village of houses designed with green credentials.
The oldest sea-going paddle steamer in the world plies the waters off the Ayrshire coast in the summer months. She’s a dignified old lady and sails from Ayr to the various islands and small towns in the Firth of Clyde. You can take a short trip on her across to the Isle of Arran or spend a day sailing up to Loch Goil and Loch Long. Many engineering aficionados disappear into the bowels of the ship to watch the pistons powering the steam engine in action while other visitors prefer to admire the passing glorious scenery from the decks or from the comfort of the restaurant if the wind is too brisk.
There are over 50 golf courses in Ayrshire and Arran, including two Open Championship courses at Turnberry and Royal Troon. The first Open Championship was held in 1860 in Prestwick and the competition will return to Royal Troon in 2016. But there are many other courses to play; Glasgow Gailes, Western Gailes, Kilmarnock Barassie and Dundonald Links are all within a few miles of each other. Or take a trip across the Firth of Clyde and play some of the island courses, the island of Arran itself boasts 7 courses. Whatever level you play at, there is a course to suit you.
And always, the scenery is there to stop you in your tracks, whether it’s the sun setting over the Firth of Clyde or the fertile open farmland with the distinctive Ayrshire cattle, or a glimpse of one of the many ruined castles to be found here.