Ayrshire is a region in the southwest of Scotland. It's divided administratively into South, East and North Ayrshire; but for visitors the practical divisions are the coast, the islands, and the inland areas.
- 1 Ayr is the historic county town. The main attraction is the birthplace of Robert Burns in Alloway four miles south.
- Clyde coast: Ayrshire is on the coast of the broad Firth of Clyde. In the 19th century the coastal towns developed into seaside resorts, the "Glasgow Riviera", but declined again once people could reach the Med. From north to south these are:
- 2 Largs is where Viking power in Scotland was broken: see the Vikingar exhibition. Largs is the ferry port for Great Cumbrae.
- 3 West Kilbride is a small town with a nuclear power plant looming over it.
- 4 Ardrossan along with Saltcoats and Stevenston has beaches, but the prime reason to come is for the ferry to Arran.
- 5 Irvine once employed Burns, and there's a maritime museum, but the developers haven't left much of the old town.
- 6 Troon is home to the Royal Troon Golf Club, which often hosts the Open.
- 7 Prestwick has a large airport, with few passenger flights nowadays. The town has plenty of golf.
- Ayr the county town is next south, then a long rural stretch, with Culzean Castle and Turnberry golf course.
- The islands out in the Firth are:
- Just off its east coast is Holy Island, an islet that's home to Buddhist monks.
- Just south is Little Cumbrae, which is private property and has no ferry service.
- Bute, the next island north, is in Argyll and Bute not Ayrshire.
- Inland Ayrshire is low-lying farmland, with a series of small towns:
- 11 Kilbirnie has an old church, ruined castle and freshwater loch.
- 12 Kilmarnock first published the poems of Burns, and has Ayrshire family archives.
- 13 Kilwinning has a ruined abbey and castle.
- 1 Ailsa Craig, the lonely pyramid away to the south, is an uninhabited wildlife reserve. Boat trips sail from Girvan.
Ayrshire occupies a low fertile crescent of land bordering the Firth of Clyde. There are traces of human habitation going back 5000 years, but in such an intensively cultivated area, prehistoric sites on the mainland have been lost by being ploughed over or re-used as building stone - but many remain on Arran, with the best on Machrie Moor. The Romans stayed only briefly, then retreated to Hadrian's Wall, leaving the place to the people of Strathclyde, who spoke a P-Celtic language similar to Old Welsh. Around the 7th century they were supplanted by Dalradia, a kingdom spanning the channel between Northern Ireland and southwest Scotland, and bringing in the Q-Celtic forerunner to Scottish Gaelic. The Vikings also began their depradations in that era but were ousted in medieval times, with their final defeat coming at Largs in 1263. The area was then firmly part of the Kingdom of Scotland.
Ayrshire adopted modern farming methods and began to industrialise from the 17th century. Robert Burns was one who farmed hereabouts, to little profit, though he was famous for his poetry even in his short lifetime. Coal was mined in the northeast of the county in the 18th century, so this part became urbanised, and Kilmarnock outgrew Ayr. When the railways arrived fom the 1840s, the coast towns morphed into beach resorts for the city of Glasgow, and remain so today. The county boundaries and governance were regularised in 1889, lasting until a reorganisation of 1975 which made Arran and Cumbrae part of this area. Since 1996 the county has been divided into three: East Ayrshire includes Kilmarnock and Cumnock, South Ayrshire includes Troon, Ayr and Girvan, and North Ayrshre includes Irvine, Largs and Arran. These boundaries have little relevance to most travellers so it's convenient to describe the historic county as a single unit.
1 Glasgow Airport (GLA IATA) is some 30 miles north of the county but usually the best option, because of its wide choice of UK and European destinations. Take the airport bus to Glasgow Buchanan bus station then train or bus into Ayrshire as outlined below.
Prestwick Airport (PIK IATA) is central in Ayrshire and is a major centre for aviation services, air cargo and military flights, but nowadays has few passenger flights. Ryanair is the only commercial carrier, flying to 16 destinations around the Med, Canaries and Poland. So Prestwick sends Glasgow folk off on their holidays but you'd only use it to get in if you were based near one of those destinations, such as Barcelona. PIK has its own railway station and air passengers are eligible for half-price fares on their connecting rail journeys - see Prestwick for how this works.
- Wikivoyage has a guide to Rail travel in Great Britain.
Railways in Ayrshire radiate from Glasgow Central station. Trains run every 30 min through Kilwinning where the line divides: one branch curls back up the coast via Ardrossan and West Kilbride to Largs, while the other branch continues south to Irvine, Troon, Prestwick airport and town, and Ayr. Change at Ayr to continue south to Girvan and Stranraer.
The other line from Glasgow Central runs to Kilmarnock (which also has trains to Ayr and Stranraer) then south through scenic Nithsdale to Dumfries and Carlisle. You can get here from England this way but it's usually quicker to take a fast train from London Euston via Carlisle to Glasgow Central then travel out again to Ayrshire.
All the main towns have an express bus service at least hourly from Glasgow Buchanan station. The main routes are X34 / 44 to Irvine, X36 to Ardrossan, X76 to Kilmarnock and X77 to Prestwick and Ayr.
Bus 585 connects the coast every 30-60 mins between Ayr, Prestwick town and airport, Troon, Irvine, Ardrossan, Largs and Greenock.
Ferries to Ireland no longer sail from Ayrshire, you need to go to Cairnryan near Stranraer for the car ferries to Belfast and Larne. A twice-daily bus from Glasgow stops in Ayr on its way to Cairnryan and Belfast.
Ferries from Ardrossan sail to Brodick on the Isle of Arran. You can cross that island by road for the ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig, near Tarbert in Kintyre.
Just north of Ayrshire, frequent ferries sail from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. You can similarly cross Bute and take a ferry to the Cowal peninsula, then a further ferry onward to Tarbert.
There's also a ferry from Largs to the Isle of Great Cumbrae, but there's no other transport from that island so you have to come back the same way.
The main transport routes within Ayrshire are described above in "Get in". Beyond that, it's variable, see individual towns for local buses.
There's a good road network across the county.
- The Isle of Arran is the most attractive part of the entire county, because of the way pastoral lowland country rubs against stark highland scenery: the glacial valley of Glen Rosa, the screes of Goat Fell, and the lonely "String" and "Ross" roads. Ferries sail from Ardrossan to Brodick, which has a castle two miles north.
- Alloway, a village that's become a suburb of Ayr, was the birthplace of the poet Robert Burns. You can visit the thatched cottage where he was born, the church and bridge (Brig O'Doon) featured in his ballad Tam O'Shanter, and a museum celebrating his works.
- Culzean Castle, open April-Oct, is a magnificent 18th-century mansion designed by Robert Adam, set in an extensive park 12 miles south of Ayr.
- Other castles: every few miles along the coast you'll find the scrappy ruins of a medieval castle - not much to see inside (even if it's safe to enter - or even possible to distinguish what was once inside or out), you come for the coastal walk and the sea views. Those that are substantial mansions are Culzean (as above), Brodick on Arran, and wacky Kelburn near Largs. Some have been converted to luxury accommodation, such as Law Castle at West Kilbride, and Glenapp south of Girvan.
- Dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea-birds: always be on the look-out for these around the coasts and ferry routes, but the best spot is the nature reserve of Ailsa Craig, reached by boat trip from Girvan.
- Kirkoswald towards Girvan features the ruins of Turnberry Castle, the likely birthplace of Robert the Bruce.
- Scotland's Gardens opens up private gardens once a year in summer, with all proceeds going to charity. There are ten participating gardens in Ayrshire, dates staggered so there's one open most weekends.
- Golf: there are dozens of courses, constructed on the sandy machair coastal terrain, see individual town listings. The three standouts are Trump Turnberry north of Girvan, Royal Troon, and the Old Course at Prestwick. There's even a combi-package to stay for a weekend at Turnberry and play all three, a steal at £2000 a couple.
- Cycling: the coast route from Ayr to Girvan has pleasant views, but on the return route the stiff breeze should be behind you.
- Visit a distillery: the main Isle of Arran malt whisky distillery is now at Lagg in the south of the island, though the original facility at Lochranza remains open.
- Visit a nuclear power station at Hunterston, West Kilbride - you need to book at least 3 weeks in advance.
- Football: there are pro soccer teams at Kilmarnock and Ayr. Rugby union hereabouts is amateur.
- The Scottish Grand National is held on Ayr racecourse in April. This course has flat-racing in summer and National Hunt in winter.
- Ayr County Show is in May.
- Ardrossan Highland Games are held in June.
- The Viking Festival is held in Largs in the first week of September.
- All the towns have cheap and cheerful places: pizza, kebab, Chinese, tandoori, plus industrial quantities of fish & chips. Don't save it for Burns Night to try haggis, go to any chippy and order.
- The best dining is out of town. Some places that have impressed in the mid-range are Wildings in Maidens near Girvan, Sorn Inn near Mauchine above Ayr, The Vine in Prestwick, The Catch at Fins in Fairlie midway between Largs and West Kilbride, and Stags Pavilion at Lochranza on Arran. Splurge at Enterkine House near Ayr or at Trump Turnberry north of Girvan.
All the towns and many villages have pubs. They're quite traditional, serving a local clientele, and there's no outstanding place worth travelling any distance to sup at. JD Wetherspoon are the ubiquitous national chain, open from 8:00 for breakfast, and reliably clean and well-run.
There are a few nightclubs in the larger towns, but Ayrshire doesn't really do nightlife: carousers and stop-outs head into Glasgow.
Standard advice applies about dressing for a change in the weather, not leaving valuables on display in your car, and steer clear of the occasional Friday night drunk.
- You're likely to travel via Glasgow, but don't treat it as just a transport hub. It's a magnificent buzzing city, lots to see, do and eat, and it deserves a stay of several days.
- To the south, Stranraer is an eyesore but the Mull of Galloway beyond is attractive. Travel via Cairnryan near Stranraer to reach Belfast.
- Dumfries is a pleasant market town, Burns' later home, and a good base for exploring this rolling lowland region.
- The ferries to Arran create a short-cut to Tarbert on the Kintyre peninsula. Several Hebridean islands can be reached from Tarbert, and more from Oban further north.