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Issue 68 - Poets, castles & the blacksmith's anvil

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Poets, castles & the blacksmith's anvil

We explore Ayrshire and Dumfries in the final instalment of our exploration of the Scottish coast

Once you have extricated yourself from Glasgow’s industrial fringes, the road south extends into the gentle landscape of Ayrshire. This is a region of Scotland with a very distinct personality and a reputation for a hearty welcome. Like many areas, it has been defined by its landscape: which over the years has cultivated Ayrshire’s reputation for tourism, golf, fishing, farming – with distinctive brown and white cattle grazing the rolling hills of the Southern Uplands – and, of course, to Robert Burns who drew his inspiration from Ayrshire’s breathtaking scenery.

The main town is Ayr, whose main streets date back to the 1200s. The medieval period was a defining time for Scotland, and was frontier-country back then.

St John’s Tower in Citadel Place is one such landmark, becoming famous in 1315 after King Robert the Bruce convened the first ever Scottish parliament here following the Battle of Bannockburn.

By the 18th century, the town became Scotland's largest west coast port and more than 300 ships were sailing in and out each year, bringing tobacco from America, pottery from England and salt from Spain, and distributing it to all parts of Scotland’s western seaboard. The North side of Ayr Harbour still operates as a commercial port today, though greatly reduced and exporting mainly coal.

Scotland’s National Poet was born in Alloway, an isolated village two miles south of Ayr. This quiet village began to attract visitors almost immediately after Burns’ death in 1796, aged 37, and today you won’t travel far in the region without stumbling into a museum or memorial of some kind. For many, it is the sole reason to visit the area.

The excellent Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is the best place to start. On arrival at the museum visitors are given a map drawing all the elements together; these include Burns Cottage as well as Alloway Auld Kirk, the Burns Monument and Memorial Garden, and the Brig o' Doon.

The roofless ruin of Alloway Auld Kirk is particularly splendid: this eerie church featured in Tam O Shanter, where poor Tam saw the witches dance before they gave chase. Within the church itself is a mortsafe – a cast iron shield temporarily buried with a coffin to discourage body-snatchers, who supplied fresh corpses to anatomists.

The life of the great bard is celebrated all year round in Ayrshire with a myriad of cultural and historical activities, but the two biggest celebrations take place on 'Burns Night' (25th January) and a week long festival in May/June called 'Burns an' a' that!' which is a celebration not only of Rabbie himself but of life and contemporary Scottish culture.

Heading south, the A719 continues along the coast with some fantastic views out to Arran and Ailsa Craig, the famous island whose blue hone granite was quarried to make curling stones.

As the road turns inland south of Dunure, you may come across a queue of slow moving traffic on a quarter mile stretch known as the Croy Brae. Put your car in neutral, take your foot off the brake and you too can experience the powerful and rather unusual sensation of coasting uphill. Also known as the Electric Brae, it was so called because there was a time when people believed that an electric or magnetic forcefield was the cause of the phenomenon.

In reality it can be explained by the natural topography of the area: the inland end of the road is actually 17 feet higher than the coastal end, yet because of the way the surrounding landscape slopes, the road appears to incline the opposite way.

The Brae proved popular with the Yanks who were stationed at Prestwick during the war, particularly one General Dwight D. Eisenhower who used to bring visitors here when he stayed nearby at Culzean Castle.

Standing atop sheer cliffs that drop into the Firth of Clyde is a castle regarded by many as one of the finest example of architecture in Scotland. This Georgian masterpiece was built by famous architect Robert Adam between 1772 and 1790 for David, 10th Earl of Cassillis. It is a superb example of high-class living, 18th-century style. The 600 acre Estate offers many spectacular features, including the Round Drawing Room with its panoramic view of the Clyde; the Armoury, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of swords and pistols; and the grand Oval Staircase.

Culzean Castle was used as a film location in
The Wicker Man with Edward Woodward and more recently The Queen starring Helen Mirren.

In 1945, when the castle was passed to the National Trust for Scotland, the top floor was converted into a flat for use by General Eisenhower, as a gesture for America’s support during the Second World War. General Eisenhower visited on four occasions including while president of the United States of America. Today, these same rooms function as a country house-style hotel and are available to hire either as a single room, or as an entire suite.

Our final stop is Dumfries and Galloway, a region of Scotland neighbouring England that has been contested for centuries. Today, it is Scotland’s creative and romantic heartland.

Kircudbright is a pretty harbour town that has acquired the title of Artists’ Town. Once, it was home to an artists’ colony which included Edward Hornel, who introduced several of the Glasgow Boys to the town, and to distinguished illustrator Jessie M King and Charles Oppenheimer, an artist who settled in the town and for 52 years painted views of the local landscape.

These days Kircudbright boasts a thriving artistic community with galleries, workshops and studios to visit and special events held throughout the year including the regional event, Spring Fling, held in May.

A little further west, Wigtown is also sure to appeal to visitors looking to soak up some culture. At any one time, there are an amazing 250,000 books for sale in Scotland’s National Book Town. The Wigtown Book Festival takes place from September to October.

Dumfries is the largest town in the region, and the nucleus for the rural communities in the area.

It is a busy, attractive market town known as the Queen of the South, its residents as ‘Doonhamers’; terms that belie the town’s unsettled beginnings. Founded as a Royal Burgh in the 12th century, Dumfries suffered a turbulent history for the first 500 years. Because of its proximity to the border, the town was a target during the conflicts with England in the 14th and 15th centuries and was sacked and burned several times.

In 1306, in Greyfriar’s Church, Robert the Bruce famously murdered a rival for the Scottish crown, John III Comyn, "the Red Comyn." Bruce was excommunicated, less for the murder than for its hallowed location, but nonetheless went on to become King of Scotland. The church was rebuilt in 1868 on the opposite side of Castle Street, but a plaque marks the original site of the murder. Also in Dumfries in that year, the last public hanging in Scotland took place, bringing to an end Dumfries’ rather violent history.

Today, there are many excellent museums and places to visit, some connected to Robert Burns, who came to live near the town in 1791.

A few miles south of the town is the exemplary Caeverlock Castle. A 13th century triangular fortress, complete with a moat and battlements, it is truly a wonder to explore. Visitors can enjoy a siege warfare exhibition, a children’s adventure park and a nature trail.

Weddings are big business in Dumfries and Galloway, and nowhere more so than around Gretna Green – the beating heart of the region’s romantic history. This small village in the east of the region, just on the Scottish side of the border, is famous for the weddings that have been held here since the 1770s.

In Scotland it was possible for boys to marry at 14 and girls at 12 years old without parental consent, and many couples from England eloped over the border to take advantage of the law. Scottish law also allowed for "irregular marriages", meaning that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anybody had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony.

It remains one of the world’s most popular wedding destinations, hosting more than 5000 a year and one in six of all Scottish weddings. Since 1929 both parties in Scotland have had to be at least 16 years old, but they can still marry without parental consent.

Where to stay

Lovely friendly bed and breakfast.
Tel: +44 (0)1387 266 178

Culzean Castle, Maybole
Luxurious presidential apartment available for hire.
Tel: + 44 (0)1655 884 455

Ayr Small hotel with excellent restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1292 262 846

Castle Douglas
Lovely stylish bed and breakfast in a 19th century town house.
Tel: +44 (0)1556 503 262