Numerous castles, rugged countryside and plenty of links to Scotland's cultural heritage are all highlights of a visit to Ayrshire
How can one describe Ayrshire? It is historical, picturesque and even inspirational. The spectacular rugged coastline and green rolling hills have drawn visitors from all over the world. Many people visit due to the region's links with Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, who was born and lived in the region. However, Ayrshire also has links with other historical figures, namely Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. Those interested in castles will be spoilt for choice, as there are over 30 within the region's borders.
Without a doubt, Ayrshire is the land of Robert Burns. There is nowhere else on earth that can claim such a close affinity with the writer and poet. The area provided a wealth of inspiration to Burns and many parts of the region have been immortalised in his poetry.
First stop on the Burns trail is Alloway, and the little cottage where it all began. What is now known as Burns Cottage was built by the poet’s father in 1757. Now, it's one of the most visited buildings in Scotland, and adorns the face of many postcards. As well as touring the small abode, visitors can view a magnificent collection of Burns' original manuscripts and artefacts.
The cottage is one of a collection of buildings that comprise the Burns National Heritage Park. Not too far down the road from here, visitors can wander into the ruins of the Auld Kirk, and, after viewing the gravestone of Burns' father and some of his contemporaries, recount the story of Tam O’Shanter who, in a story by Burns, witnessed witches dancing around the churchyard. For the complete story, the Tam O’Shanter Experience presents an audiovisual interpretation of the poem. Close by, the picturesque Burns Monument overlooks the other main showpiece of the Heritage area, the Brig O’Doon.
Whilst the area around Alloway is synonymous with the poet, he did leave his mark on various other places in the region. The Burns House in Mauchline is where Robert and his new wife Jean Armour, made their first home. He was also a regular visitor at the Bachelors Club in Tarbolton and Souter Johnnies cottage in Kirkoswald.
Whilst the Burns connection is virtually unavoidable, there are many other attractions and historic houses in the area. Culzean Castle is one of the most majestic buildings in Scotland, described by the National Trust for Scotland as its’ “jewel in the crown”. The clifftop setting has attracted world leaders, as well as tourists: the castle was once a favoured haunt of Dwight D Eisenhower. Indeed, rumour has it that it still is...
In Kilmarnock, Dean Castle is renowned for its collection of arms, armour and musical instruments. Families also have a choice of attractions to choose from, ranging from the excellent Heads of Ayr Farm Park to Loudon Castle Theme Park in Galston to Vikingar in Largs.
The Ayrshire coastline runs along the Firth of Clyde, and rising dramatically from the waters is the Isle of Arran, dominated by the profile of Goat Fell. Arran is known as ‘Scotland in miniature’, with a varied range of landscapes covering the whole spectrum of Scottish scenery in one compact package. Numerous prehistoric monuments, dating from the Bronze Age and including stone circles and burial chambers, show the significance of the island as an historic settlement. It was also notably inhabited by Vikings for centuries.
In more recent times, Arran has excelled itself in the diversity and quality of its locally produced foodstuffs and crafts. Whether your taste is for whisky, beer, cheese, mustard, ice cream or chocolate, you will be entranced by the island. Many of the producers welcome visitors to watch the goods being made and can usually be persuaded to part with some samples! If you have a love of the outdoors, Arran is well worth a visit: horse-riding, cycling, walking and off-road driving are just some of the activities on offer. And if golf is your favourite pastime, you can literally play a different course each day for a week.
For the historically-minded, Brodick Castle and Country Park are a must. Part of the castle is open to the public, but most visitors make their way to the spectacular gardens to see the renowned show of rhododendrons in bloom. To the north of Brodick is Lochranza, where the village is set alongside the ruin of Lochranza Castle. The area is said to have been the landing place of Robert the Bruce on his return from Rathlin Island in 1307, before he started the campaign that eventually achieved Scottish independence.
Back on the mainland, the county town of Ayr is a commercial port and popular shopping centre. It, too, of course, has links with Robert Burns. The poet was baptised in the town’s Auld Kirk, situated just off the main street, and regularly worshipped there as he grew up. The town’s harbour is also a main port for the paddle steamer Waverley, the world's last ocean-going paddle steamer. For some, a trip to Ayrshire is not complete unless a trip on the Waverley is on the itinerary.
As the birthplace of the Open Golf Championship, Ayrshire has a proud golfing heritage. The number of courses within the region's borders can be counted by the dozen. One of the best-known has to be Turnberry, recognised as one of the best championship links golf courses in the world. The names Royal Troon, Prestwick and Westin Gardens will also be recognised by those interested in the sport.
As a region, Ayrshire welcomes visitors from all over the world, and many return again and again. To some, indeed, it has become a home from home.