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Issue 95 - Bruce, Burns and Battles

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017

 

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Bruce, Burns and Battles

Keith Fergus walks the Ayrshire Coastal Path

Scotland is blessed with a number of superb long-distance trails, including the iconic West Highland Way. Ayrshire also has its own trail, one that offers a quite stunning walk. Striking its course for 94 miles, between Glenapp in the south and Skelmorlie in the north, the Ayrshire Coastal Path journeys across a magnificent and diverse landscape. Much of it is well off the beaten track, which enables the walker to explore and observe the rugged beauty of this hugely underrated portion of Scotland.

The route passes through several bustling towns and much magnificent countryside. There is a wealth of striking architecture ranging from instantly recognisable structures, like Culzean Castle and Turnberry Lighthouse, to smaller, hidden gems such as the Kennedy Mausoleum or Glenapp Church. Add to the mix a series of sublime beaches; secluded coves; fantastic flora, fauna, geology and historic battles; and you have all the ingredients for a wonderful walk. This is, after all, part of Scotland’s wild west coast.

The Ayrshire Coastal Path begins from the tiny settlement of Glenapp, a few miles north of Stranraer. Here stands Glenapp Church, which was built in 1850 as a chapel-of-ease for the villagers of nearby Ballantrae and is one of the smallest churches in Scotland. Nearby is Glenapp Castle, a spectacular Baronial mansion that is now a luxury hotel. From here the walk rises onto a wild and remote section of moorland, where views extend into Galloway and across the Firth of Clyde to Ailsa Craig, Arran and Kintyre.

Much of the coastline is surprisingly rugged, especially at the sheltered Currarie Port. Unreachable except on foot or by boat, this rocky cove simply emphasises the reasons for walking the Ayrshire coastline.

The moorland drops down into Ballantrae, an attractive village built along the shore. A mixture of pavement and paths then lead through Lendalfoot and onto Girvan. The town developed from the late 17th Century, when King Charles II granted a charter providing the right for a harbour and fort to be built, and added privileges such as fortnightly markets. Today, Girvan’s working harbour is still the focal point of the town and can be a busy place — particularly during the summer months.

Over the course of the next few miles, the Ayrshire Coastal Path passes three popular and intriguing buildings. Turnberry Lighthouse occupies a spectacular position above Turnberry Point. It was built to the plans of Thomas Stevenson (father of the celebrated author Robert Louis Stevenson) in 1873 on the site of Turnberry Castle where, it is argued, Robert the Bruce was born in 1274. The lighthouse stands at the edge of the world famous Turnberry golf courses. It is worth noting that Ayrshire is the only county in Britain to have three golf courses that have hosted the Open Championship. Prestwick held the first, in 1860, while many more have been held since at Turnberry's Ailsa Course and also at Royal Troon, which is just 20 miles away to the north of Ayr.

Not far away is the impressive Culzean Castle, which is the centrepiece of Culzean Country Park. The castle had inauspicious beginnings, being no more than a stone tower house in the 12th Century. Its expansion, culminating in the sumptuous building we see today, began in 1776 and was orchestrated by the great architect Robert Adam.

Just a few miles further along the Ayrshire Coastal Path is Dunure Castle, a location with a dark and violent past. In 1570 it became the scene of the infamous incident known as the ‘Roasting of Allan Stewart’. In a dispute with Gilbert, 4th Earl of Cassillis, regarding the ownership of nearby Crossraguel Abbey, Stewart (who was the abbey’s commendator) was captured and led into Dunure’s ominously titled Black Vault. Here he was stripped, bound and slowly cooked over a large open fire until he signed over the lands of Crossraguel Abbey. However, a week later — during which time Stewart, with his untreated wounds, was still imprisoned — it came to light that his first signature was invalid. Therefore Gilbert demanded he sign the deeds again before a witness. Stewart at first refused but, having been strung up and roasted once more, he eventually succumbed to his unbearable pain and suffering, and signed the lands over to the Earl.

From Dunure it is on towards Ayr. Before reaching the county town, however, the route comes to Alloway, the birthplace of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns. The village, which is now a suburb of Ayr, is home to a fascinating array of historical attractions associated with this great literary figure. These include the magnificent Burns Birthplace Museum, Burns Cottage, Brig O’ Doon (the location to the finale of the famous poem
Tam O’Shanter) and a 16th Century Kirkyard.

Ayr is another fascinating place to visit. Robert the Bruce held the first Parliament of Scotland here in 1315, while William Wallace torched an English garrison in 1297 in what became known as ‘The Burning of the Barns of Ayr’. Wool, linen and fish were all crucial in Ayr’s development and its harbour was, for centuries, one of the most important on Scotland’s west coast.

The Ayrshire Coastal Path now keeps predominantly to the shoreline as it heads through Prestwick then Troon, from where six glorious miles of beach, in full view of Arran’s magnificent outline, lead into Irvine. Today classed as one of Scotland’s New Towns, Irvine’s origins are in Roman times. The town achieved burgh status in 1140 (around the time it became Scotland’s military capital) and Royal Burgh status in 1371.

Heading inland along a series of riverside paths, Kilwinning is the next port of call. Named after St Winnin, who settled here in AD715, the town’s impressive abbey dominates the landscape, having been founded between AD1140–1191 by Tironensian monks.

Back to the coast and Arran dominates the vista as the walk meanders through Ayrshire’s ‘Three Touns’ of Stevenston, Saltcoats and Ardrossan. Coal, fishing and salt all helped these settlements develop during the 18th and 19th Centuries, before the 20th Century tourist boom when thousands of Glaswegians sailed ‘doon the watter’ for their summer holidays. Fewer numbers may visit today but the coastal location of the ‘Three Touns’ means that they are still popular and are ideal if a break is required when walking the Ayrshire Coastal Path.

The final stage of the journey is relatively straightforward. The path hugs the coast through Seamill, Portencross (home to its homonymous 14th-Century castle) and Fairlie to reach Largs, which played a momentous role in Scotland’s development. The Battle of Largs was fought on the town’s outskirts on the 2 October 1263 and was crucial in bringing to an end the Scottish-Norwegian War. The conspicuous cylindrical monument, known as ‘The Pencil’, was built in 1912 to commemorate the battle. Largs is also home to the Haylie Chambered Cairn, which houses the remains of an ancient tomb dating from around 3000BC. It is also well known for its ice-cream parlours!

Perhaps the Ayrshire Coastal Path’s finest view rises on the outskirts of Largs. The 712-foot summit of The Knock contains the remains of an Iron Age fort and a breathtaking panorama that takes in the Firth of Clyde, Bute, Cowal, Arran and the Southern Highlands. The walk culminates at Skelmorlie. The village used to be home to several of the Glasgow tea barons as well as a hydropathic foundation. Sitting beside the Firth of Clyde, this peaceful, attractive village provides an extremely satisfying end to our walk along the delightful Ayrshire Coastal Path.