One of Scotland’s most fertile regions, Ayrshire has it all – from beach to pasture, hill to forest, all interspersed with echoes of an industrial past. Shoreside fields produce some of the finest early potatoes around, and clifftop pastures are home to herds of Ayrshire cattle producing excellent meat as well as the key ingredient in the famous Dunlop cheese. Once the domain of Covenanters and latterly heavy industry, outdoor pursuits – including golf at several world-class courses – now draw visitors into the countryside that inspired Robert Burns. This guide contains forty moderate walks which offer surprising variety, from sedate strolls along sandy beaches to rough heather moorland and hillwalks. Most routes begin and end at a town or village with public transport options and welcoming accommodation to enable a thorough exploration of the surrounding countryside. The routes in this book are divided into four sections, each of which is introduced by a summary giving an overview of the area and a map showing the start point of each walk.
Beneath the quiet rolling farmland of Ayrshire lies a turbulent past, with vitrified hillforts, Viking invasions, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and the relentless and bloody pursuit of Covenanters seeking sanctuary in the hills and woods of the county. Many of the walks in this guide follow in the footsteps of earls and kings, painters and poets.
Prehistoric remains such as the Dagon Stone in Darvel and the cup and ring markings beneath the Ballochmyle Viaduct in Mauchline, along with whisperings of Druidic activity, point to early habitation in the area, but permanent settlement seems to have coincided with the introduction of Christianity by St Ninian in 397AD. Scottish patriot William Wallace had many family connections in Ayrshire and Barr Castle in the town of Galston was reputed to have hosted Wallace and his men as they evaded English troops. According to legend he escaped a siege of the castle by climbing down the branches of a nearby overhanging tree. Wallace invented a kind of handball game played against the castle walls in order to keep his men fit, and this unique game was played in the area until the mid-20th century. Robert the Bruce was probably born in Turnberry Castle, and went on to carry out numerous guerilla raids against the English in the area. Several years before his triumph at Bannockburn in 1314 he employed the same tactics to win a battle at Loudoun Hill near Darvel. The area is dotted with evidence of the rule of the barons in the 13th to 15th centuries – particularly Clan Kennedy, self-proclaimed ‘Kings of Carrick’ – who erected a series of castles and peel towers in South Ayrshire. These families exerted significant influence over the population, acting as judge and jury; the Dule Trees located on their estates served as gallows and as symbols of their authority. Later grand castles such as Culzean near Maybole remain as reminders of the Kennedys’ influence over the region.
In the late 17th century the Covenanters, a Scottish Presbyterian movement resistant to the religious observance imposed by James II and then Charles II, held secret services known as conventicles in the Ayrshire countryside on pain of death if discovered by government forces. Many Covenanters were executed where they stood if they refused to swear allegiance to the King, and there are numerous memorial stones to these martyrs dotted throughout the Ayrshire hills. Textile manufacture dominated the industrial landscape of 18th- and 19th- century Ayrshire, with the Irvine Valley, in particular, renowned for a lace industry initiated by immigrant Huguenot weavers. Coal mining and iron smelting was also a big employer in the area and coal from Ayrshire’s opencast mines still makes up much of the UK’s total output. In modern times heavy industry has declined in the region, and several walks in this guide cut through the countryside on former railway tracks which fell out of use as the economic landscape altered. While some substantial plants and factories have withdrawn, the Scottish aviation industry remains centred around Glasgow Prestwick International Airport north of Ayr, famous as the only place in Britain visited by Elvis Presley on his way back from military service in 1960. Today the rural southern part of Ayrshire is the agricultural heartland of Scotland, with potatoes grown by the coast and Ayrshire cattle famed worldwide for their milk and beef. Ayrshire pork products can be found on the tables of Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the UK.
As the birthplace of Robert Burns, Ayrshire features heavily in the Bard’s works, especially the small town of Alloway which attracts many visitors drawn to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and locations from the popular poem Tam o’ Shanter.
Due to a diverse range of habitats, Ayrshire is home to a surprising variety of flora and fauna. There are many Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), from the mudflats and saltmarshes of the Irvine Estuary to the Muirkirk moorland which supports a population of hen harriers and short-eared owls. Many of the walks featured here pass through some of the finest native woodland in Scotland, particularly in river valleys such as the River Ayr Gorge in Failford – a steep ravine containing oak, ash and larch and invertebrates, plants, bats and fungi. Bright kingfishers and bobbing dippers can be seen perched on riverside rocks as the unmistakable sound of the great spotted woodpecker echoes through the forest and red squirrels leap from tree to tree. At dusk noctule and Daubenton’s bats perform a valuable service in their search for midges. Ayrshire’s woodlands are something special. The local nature reserve of Catrine Voes in East Ayrshire is a good location to view the Atlantic salmon run in spring and autumn, as well as trout, eels and mammals such as otters and water voles. Coastal walkers may be lucky enough to spot the fin of a basking shark moving slowly offshore, seemingly unperturbed by the gannets from the large colony on Ailsa Craig plunging into the sea from unfeasible heights. The coastal mudflats are a valuable habitat for wading birds such as oystercatchers and greenshank, and the distinctive ‘computer game’ call of the lapwing is a common accompaniment to walks in Ayrshire.
Although moderate, many of these walks are on unmarked paths and faint tracks that are rough underfoot. Appropriate footwear should be selected based on the route description and weather forecasts. The sketch maps provided are planning aids that should be supplemented with more detailed mapping, such as that by the Ordnance Survey. A few OS maps will be required to cover the whole county – check the information panel at the beginning of each walk. The weather on the west coast of Scotland is notoriously unpredictable and even a short walk can quickly become a major epic when the conditions change – with that in mind it is important to pack wind- and waterproof clothing and adequate warm layers to allow the walk to be completed no matter what the weather. Many of the walks are suitable for accompanied children – some are even pushchair accessible – but a few are more suited to experienced walkers and judgement should be exercised.
Most of Ayrshire is served by an excellent bus network, with the coastal A77 to the port at Stranraer particularly convenient for walkers completing stages of the Ayrshire Coastal Path. Of the walk start points in this guide, all but the most rural settlement is provided with a bus link to the nearest town, and the Glasgow to Stranraer railway runs through the county making numerous stops. Ayr forms a natural transport hub and makes a good base for exploring the area. The Traveline Scotland website is a useful planning tool (travelinescotland.com). The Isle of Arran can be accessed by ferry from Ardrossan in North Ayrshire and Great Cumbrae is linked to Largs by a regular ferry making the short journey across the Fairlie Roads. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave walkers rights of access over most of Scotland away from residential buildings, but these rights must be exercised responsibly and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code followed at all times in order to maintain cordial relationships with landowners. As much of Ayrshire is farmland, walkers should pay particular attention when crossing fields containing livestock, especially if accompanied by a dog, please see here: outdooraccess-scotland.scot.