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Issue 95 - Gang Doon the Watter (Ayrshire, Arran & Bute)

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


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Gang Doon the Watter (Ayrshire, Arran & Bute)

Charles Douglas travels through Inverclyde, down the Ayrshire coast and hops over the water to the Isles of Bute and Arran

In the Glasgow vernacular there is the old saying: ‘Gang doon the watter’. It is associated with the townsfolk annually embarking on Clyde steamers to take day trips or holidays to the islands of Bute, Great Cumbrae and Arran — all of which are off Scotland’s western coastline. Today, the tradition continues. There are regular trains to Wemyss Bay from Glasgow Central Station and a bus service that takes about an hour and a half, including a change at Greenock.

By car it takes approximately 50 minutes to drive to Wemyss Bay. To cross over to Bute the best route is by car and passenger ferry from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay. The crossing takes 35 minutes with sailings every 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the time of day. There is also a ferry from Rhubodach on Bute to Colintraive on the mainland which takes five minutes.

Bute is divided by the Highland Boundary Fault, a geographical phenomenon that created the hilly north of the island. The island's highest point, Windy Hill, stands at 278 metres (912 feet) high, while the highly cultivated south is generally more low lying (although in the far south there is the rugged Glen Callum). The freshwater Loch Fad occupies the central fault line and to the north the island is separated from the mainland Cowal peninsula by the Kyles of Bute.

Occupied from prehistoric times, Bute was part of the ancient Dál Riata kingdom but fell under Norse control and was subsumed into the ancient Kingdom of the Isles. At the turn of the 13th Century it became a possession of the High Steward of Scotland.

Rothesay remains the county town and during the Victorian era it became the home of one of Scotland’s many popular hydropathic establishments (now the Glenburn Hotel) and was transformed into a hugely popular tourism destination. Visitor attractions today include St Blane’s Chapel, which dates from the 12th Century, and the ruins of Rothesay Castle, which was built by the Stewart family in the 13th Century.

A major landmark on the seafront is the Rothesay Pavilion, designed by James Carrick in 1938. The island has three golf courses and every year hosts the High School of Glasgow Rugby Camp. The striking 1922 World War One memorial was designed by Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson. During World War Two Rothesay Bay was home to
HMS Cyclops, the depot ship for the 7th Submarine Flotilla. The Bute Museum in Stuart Street houses a heritage exhibition from Mesolithic and Neolithic times to the 20th Century.

Mount Stuart House, the home of the Stuart earls and marquesses of Bute, illegitimate offspring of the Royal House of Stewart, is one of the most impressive neo-Gothic mansions to be found anywhere in the world. It was designed by Sir Rowand Anderson for the 3rd Marquess of Bute in the late 1870s. Replacing an older house from 1719, the enormously wealthy 3rd Marquess had already completed Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in South Wales. Botanist, occultist, and author on a wide range of topics, Lord Bute was a phenomenally generous patron of the arts, all of which are reflected in the interior design and décor of Mount Stuart. Principal features are a colonnaded marble hall and marble chapel with an elaborate tower. A devout Catholic, the 3rd Marquess is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The estate is today owned by his descendant, the 7th Marquess of Bute, and is open to the public.

Back on the mainland, four miles to the south of Greenock is Inverkip, where the parish church dates back to 1707 and where there is now a large marina. The Greenock Cut Visitor Centre is three miles to the east and falls into part of the Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park. To the north is the imposing Ardgowan House; built by Sir John Shaw Stewart in the late 18th Century, it is still occupied by the family. Guided tours are available and the house can be hired for events and private dining. A £17million funding drive to create a Scotch whisky distillery with visitor centre on the estate is well underway. An original Ardgowan Distillery, founded in 1896, was based in Greenock but has long since closed.

Wemyss Bay sits in the traditional county of Renfrewshire and is separated from Skelmorlie in North Ayrshire by the Kelly Burn. These lands of Kelly were granted to the Bannatyne family by James III in the 15th Century and they built the original Kelly Castle that was destroyed by fire in 1740. It was replaced in 1792 and thereafter unsuccessful plans were introduced to build a marine village. Wemyss Bay had a steamboat pier which was created in the early 19th Century but was destroyed by a hurricane in 1856. It was the opening of the railway connection to Glasgow in 1865 that finally encouraged the burgeoning wealth of Glasgow to spill down the coastline, earning the area the sobriquet of ‘Little Glasgow’.

James ‘Paraffin’ Young, the inventor of kerosene, owned the re-built Kelly House and is buried in the churchyard at Inverkip. He was a contemporary and friend of the minister, the Reverend Alexander Macquisten. Young was also a close friend of the explorer David Livingstone and, in his memory, he erected a replica of Livingstone's Victoria Falls hut in the grounds of Kelly House. Between the 15th and 20th Centuries, Kelly House was destroyed three times by fire — the last time allegedly by the Suffragette movement. A caravan site now occupies the grounds.

Offshore lie the two Cumbrae islands, large and small. Great Cumbrae, also known as Muckle Cumbrae, is the larger and home to the National Watersports Centre, the Cathedral of the Isles and the University of Marine Biology station at Millport. The Cathedral of the Isles and Collegiate Church of the Holy Spirit belongs to the Scottish Episcopal Church. Built by William Butterfield, one of the great architects of Gothic revival, it opened its doors in 1851. Caledonian MacBrayne operate a 10 minute ferry trip from Largs to Millport. Little or ‘Wee’ Cumrae is currently privately owned and operates as a yoga and meditation centre.

However, before setting off to island hop, it is tempting to explore some of the attractions to be found along the coast of North Ayrshire and the 108-square-mile Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park, which contains Castle Semple Loch — long ago owned by Clan Sempill and the McDowalls of Garthland.

From Skelmorlie, the A78 coastal road streams through Largs where, in 1263, the Vikings attempted to invade Scotland. An annual festival with a re-enactment of the battle takes place in early September. The ‘pencil’ monument which commemorates the event stands on a promontory a mile south of the town centre.

The lands at Fairlie were gifted by King David I of Scotland in the 12th century to the Norman Sir Richard de Morville, Lord of Cunninghame, Largs and Lauderdale. However, they were subsequently divided up among his descendants: the Rosses of Tarbert, the Sempills and the Boyles. Although the Rosses and Sempills moved on, Kelburn Castle (See: p.3) remains the ancestral home of the earls of Glasgow, chiefs of the Boyle family. Dating from the 13th Century, Kelburn Castle has the appearance of a French château and in 1977 both house and grounds were opened to the public as a country park with secret forests, pets corners and children’s’ play areas. By 2007 it had become apparent that Kelburn Castle’s concrete exteriors badly needed a very substantial facelift. Before embarking upon this, however, Lord Glasgow invited a group of Brazilian graffiti artists to decorate the walls. Such was the astonishing impact of this initiative that he has subsequently sought permission from Historic Environment Scotland to retain the graffiti.

The Hunterston Estate, ancestral stronghold of Clan Hunter, is on the coast to the west of North Kilbride. However, in 1965 the peninsula on which it sits was subject to a Compulsory Purchase Order by the South of Scotland Electricity Board and two adjacent nuclear power stations were built. Hunterston ‘A’ was closed in 1989 and Hunterston ‘B’ in 2016. The future is uncertain but Clan Hunter members are welcomed to the castle and its walled garden by prior appointment.

Ardrossan’s origins lie in the construction of a castle in 1140 by Simon de Moreville, brother of the aforementioned Sir Richard. This castle passed to the Barclay family and eventually to the Montgomeries of Eglinton, but was destroyed during Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of 1648. Passenger services from Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran began in 1834.

The Isle of Arran is the largest island in the Firth of Clyde and, like Bute, is divided into Highland and Lowland areas by the Highland Boundary Fault. Until the 13th Century it was ruled by Norsemen, before being absorbed into the Scottish Crown. Two Caledonian MacBrayne ferries cross from the mainland to Arran. The crossing from Ardrossan to Brodick takes 55 minutes. In addition, there is another ferry service from Claonaig in Kintyre that lands at Lochranza at the north end of Arran. However, it should be noted that during the winter months this Lochranza crossing only operates from Tarbert on Loch Fyne.

Brodick, which in the Norse language means ‘Broad Bay’, sits on Brodick Bay below Goat Fell, Arran’s tallest mountain. As the largest town on the island, Brodick serves as the ferry hub. Catering for tourism provides the major source of income for the community, along with a number of arts, food, and craft businesses.

For those not intent on hill walking, climbing, pony trekking, sailing or bird watching, the major visitor attraction is Brodick Castle, a former seat of the dukes of Hamilton which passed through marriage to the dukes of Montrose. A castle existed here in the 12th Century but was rebuilt as a tower house in 1510, then extended in 1650 by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads when they occupied Scotland. In 1844, following the 11th
Duke of Hamilton’s marriage to Princess Marie of Baden, Brodick Castle was greatly enlarged by the architect James Gillespie Graham. With the death of the 13th Duke, however, it was bequeathed to his only daughter, Lady Mary Louise Douglas-Hamilton, the wife of the 6th Duke of Montrose. The castle and gardens are now in the portfolio of the National Trust for Scotland. Although currently closed for renovation, the castle is scheduled to open to the public again in 2018.

The largest village on the island is Lamlash, which has a population of over one thousand. However, there are flourishing businesses all over the island such as the Arran Distillery, which opened in 1995 at Lochranza; the Arran Brewery at Cladach; and Arran Aromatics, which produces a range of toiletries. There is also a local cheese company. Particularly impressive is the Auchrannie Resort, which comprises two luxury hotels, 30 five star self-catering lodges, three restaurants, bars, a spa and many other leisure facilities.

For many years Arran has been a particular magnet for geologists, who are drawn by the variety of its landforms and rock formations. It’s also popular with golfers as there are no less than seven golf courses, which can be found at Brodick, Lamlash, Whiting Bay, Lochranza, Machrie, Shiskine/Blackwaterfoot and Corrie. The Arran Golf Pass allows for a trial on each of them.

Back on the mainland again, Saltcoats, with its fine sandy beach, leads on to Kilwinning, which is acclaimed for having hosted Scotland’s first Lodge of Freemasonry. Just to the south of Kilwinning stand the remains of the once magnificent Eglinton Castle, the ancestral seat of the Montgomerie earls of Eglinton & Winton. In 1838, this was the scene of a celebrated medieval jousting tournament attended by the future Emperor of the French, Napoleon III. Once a centre for coal mining, iron smelting and textile manufacturing, the local economy here now largely focuses on plastics, engineering and, of course, the ever-important flow of tourists.

The town of Irvine, which has New Town status, has a long and proud history. During the 12th Century, in the reign of David I of Scotland, this was the seat of Hugh de Moreville, brother of the aforementioned Richard de Moreville and his successor as Lord High Constable of Scotland. Hugh and his successors occupied Seagate Castle. Now a ruin, a plaque on the wall tells us that Mary, Queen of Scots stayed here in 1563 and was accompanied by her ‘Four Maries’ (her ladies-in-waiting Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Flemming and Mary Livingstone).

Irvine was once one of Glasgow’s principal trading ports and, after years of delapidation, a major regeneration of the bay area has taken place. A visit to the Shipyard Workers Tenement Flat in the Maritime Museum at the Linthouse Engine Shop is a must.

From Irvine, the A77 leads to Kilmarnock, the A76 thereafter heading off to Cumnock and into the Galloway hills. At Cumnock stands Dumfries House, a splendid Palladian country house built for William Dalrymple, 5th Earl of Dumfries, and inherited by the family of the marquesses of Bute, with whom it remained until 2007.

Notable for its collection of furniture designed by Thomas Chippendale, the house and 2000-acre estate was purchased by The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust, a consortium of charities led by Charles, Prince of Wales (who is known in Scotland as the Duke of Rothesay). The estate has since been dramatically regenerated with a wealth of educational buildings (which host stone masonry, art, and horticultural classes) and visitor attractions.

At Ochiltree, in the same neighbourhood, is Auchnleck House, the exquisitely beautiful home of James Boswell, Dr Samuel Johnson’s friend and biographer. Still owned by his family, it can be leased via the Landmark Trust.

Kilmarnock, on the River Irvine, is the largest town in this region with traditional industries such as engineering and textiles largely depleted. Among the important features of the town is the Dick Institute, which was founded in 1901 and houses an art gallery, library and museum. The Burns Monument Centre in Kay Park was restored after a fire in 2004 and today provides a genealogy centre with a marriage suite, registration and archive service.

The first collection of work by the Ayrshire-born poet Robert Burns —
Poems, Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect — was published here in 1786. Dean Castle, for four hundred years the stronghold of the Boyd lords of Kilmarnock, is located in its own country park. In 1975 the estate was gifted to the people of Kilmarnock by the 9th Lord Howard de Walden, along with his father’s collections of arms and armour, and his grandfather’s collection of musical instruments.

From Irvine, the A78 heads south to Troon, encountering the A77 which continues on to Prestwick (and its International Airport) and Ayr, thereafter to Maybole, Turnberry, Girvan and down to Ballantrae.

Troon is the most northerly of South Ayrshire’s seaside towns and has a busy port with freight and passenger ferry services to Larne in Northern Ireland. The Troon Yacht Haven Marina is one of the Firth of Clyde’s most prestigious sailing centres. There are also six quality golf courses and the Royal Troon championship links last hosted The Open Championship in 2016.

South Ayrshire is a golfer’s paradise and The Open was first played at Prestwick Old Course in 1860. The town has a mile-long esplanade alongside Prestwick Bay with expansive views across the water towards Arran and the shores of Kintyre beyond. Heading south, the A79 arrives at Maybole, which is centred on its ancient castle — the oldest inhabited house in the town. This area is very much Kennedy country, with Culzean Castle, the family’s clifftop fortress, at its heart. Culzean’s oval staircase and the saloon with windows 150 feet above the Firth of Clyde are numbered among the finest achievements of the Scottish architect Robert Adam. The Kennedys, who became earls of Cassilis and marquesses of Ailsa, were a stormy dynasty. One led the Scottish army at the Siege of Orléans against Joan of Arc and another roasted alive the Comendator of the nearby Crossraguel Abbey to force him to hand over abbey lands. Today, Culzean Castle is considered to be the 'jewel in the crown' in the portfolio of the National Trust for Scotland. Paying guests are allowed to stay in the Eisenhower Apartment, which is named so as, after the Second World War, it was opened up to America’s 34th president in grateful recognition of his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe.

The town of Ayr has enjoyed Royal Burgh status since 1205 and is the administrative centre of South Ayrshire. It was here, in 1315, that Robert the Bruce held his first Parliament of Scotland, following his great victory the year before at Bannockburn. The north side of Ayr Harbour still operates as a commercial port and the celebrated Ayr Racecourse hosts both National Hunt and flat racing. For generations, holidaymakers flocked to the Gaiety Theatre which, although forced to close, has re-opened as Scotland’s first Learning Theatre — a centre for education. Here students may train in stage management and theatre production. Close to Ayr is the fishing village of Dunure with its romantic ruined castle, which, prior to the building of Culzean, was the Clan Kennedy stronghold.

At Turnberry the five-star Trump Turberry Hotel, with it three links golf courses and golf academy, has achieved an ongoing celebrity status. Used as an air base in WWI and WWII, the Ailsa and Arran courses were created in the early 20th Century, while the King Robert The Bruce Course (which before its recent overhaul was known as the Kintyre Course) was added later. The Ailsa hosted the first of its four Open Championships in 1977 and, after a 15-year absence, the prestigious tournament returned one again most recently in 2009.

Finally we reach Girvan, which began as a small fishing port and today is a major tourist resort with a car ferry crossing to Northern Ireland. It was at Girvan in 1968 that William Grant & Sons, encouraged by the escalating sales of their Scotch whisky, chose to build what was then the most modern grain whisky distillery in Europe. More recently, in 2007, a malt distillery named Ailsa Bay was also built there. Although neither is open to the public, one may now find Ailsa Bay single malt on the shelves of specialist whisky retailers.