Ayrshire was at one time Scotland’s largest Lowland county. Facing the Firth of Clyde, it is ringed by moorland and hills, which slope down to a rich agricultural patchwork of small fields, country lanes, woodland and picturesque villages. The poet Keats, when he made his pilgrimage in 1818 to the birthplace of Robert Burns in Alloway, compared its scenery to that of Devon. Indeed, in places you almost feel you are in an English rural landscape.
The county was formerly divided into three parts. Carrick is the most southerly, and owes a lot to neighbouring Galloway. It is separated from Kyle, a rich dairying area where the native Ayrshire cattle can be seen dotting the fields, by the River Doon. To the north, beyond the River Irvine, is Cunninghame, which at one time was the most industrialised of the three, though it managed this without losing too much of its rural aspect.
Kyle itself was divided by the River Ayr into Kyle Regal and Kyle Stewart, reflecting the fact that one section was ruled directly by the king, while the other was ruled by high stewards of Scotland, who eventually went on to be kings in their own right.
Ayrshire and Robert Burns, known to all Scottish people as Rabbie (never, ever Robbie!) are inextricably linked. He was born in Alloway, which nowadays is a prosperous suburb of Ayr, and spent the first 29 years of his life in the county before moving south to Dumfriesshire. We know a lot about the man, and all the places in Ayrshire where he lived, drank, courted and caroused are well signposted. A full week could easily be spent meandering along the main roads and narrow lanes of the county, visiting such towns and villages as Tarbolton, Mauchline, Ayr, Kilmarnock, Irvine, Failford and Kirkoswald. Every year in May, the Burns an’ a’ That Festival takes place throughout Ayrshire to celebrate his life and work. Venues include pubs, concert halls, theatres, museums and churches. The most spectacular concert is held out of doors at Culzean Castle.
There are three main towns in the county - Ayr, Kilmarnock and Irvine. Irvine is the largest, though it was not always so. In the 1960s, it was designated a new town, and took an overspill population from Glasgow. Industrial estates were built, factories were opened and new housing established. However, its central core is still worth exploring. Kilmarnock is traditionally the industrial centre, though it is an ancient town, and Ayr was the administrative and commercial capital before Ayrshire ceased to exist as a local government unit in the 1970s.
Up until the 1960s, when more exotic places took over, the Ayrshire coast was Glasgow’s holiday playground. Known as the Costa del Clyde, it attracted thousands of people each year who flocked to such holiday resorts as Troon, Largs, Prestwick, Girvan and Ayr itself. Those halcyon days are gone, though it is still a popular place for day trips and for people to retire to, giving it a new nickname - the Costa Geriatrica. The coastline is also famous for golf. The first British Open Golf Championship was held at Prestwick in 1860, and both Troon and Turnberry have regularly hosted the tournament in modern times.
Ayrshire is also a county of castles, from the spectacular Culzean (pronounced Cull- ane) perched on a cliff top above the sea, to Kelburn near Largs or Dean Castle in Kilmarnock, with its collection of rare musical instruments.