Kilmarnock is a town in Ayrshire in southwest Scotland, with a population of 46,970 in 2020. It's industrial, though many of its historic industries have gone, such as BMK Carpets, Massey Ferguson Tractors and the Johnnie Walker whisky blending plant. It's the seat of local government for East Ayrshire, a commuter town for Glasgow, and stands astride several transport corridors. So you might break a journey at one of its edge-of-town hotels, but you're only likely to visit the centre for business or family connections.
Kilmarnock is Cill Mheàrnaig the church of St Marnock, who came from Ireland, studied in Iona then was a missionary in southwest Scotland. He died at Annadale in 625 AD and the church claimed to keep his head, for veneration and miraculous cures. It's not known where the holy head might have gone, and whether it was to the same place as the carpets, tractors and blended whisky.
Kilmarnock grew up in the 19th and early 20th centuries from a small market town into a busy industrial centre, then went into decline. One illustrative example is its best-known product, Johnnie Walker whisky.
John Walker (1805-1857) was a general grocer, and a teetotaller. Brewing and distilling were traditional farm trades in Ayrshire as elsewhere, but small scale, erratic in quality and heavily taxed, which fostered illicit stills and smuggling. The Excise Act of 1823 greatly reduced tax and facilitated legal distilling, and Scotch whisky blossomed into a profitable large scale industry. Walker's business therefore focussed on whisky. He was never a distiller himself, but blended whiskies to order for his customers, at a time when blending at source was not permitted.
The Spirits Act of 1860 legalised blending, and John's descendants ramped this up, to make Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky into a nationally-recognised brand. Blends were sweeter and more palatable and found a mass market across Britain and its global commercial empire. The Walker family introduced the square bottle (more efficient and less breakable in transit), the angled label (more visible and distinctive) and a range of products. They bought up distilleries, beginning with Cardhu in 1893, to secure the output for their blends, which require a precise, constant and commercially secret mixture. The signature "Striding Man", that dapper Regency buck, appeared in 1909.
Johnnie Walker Red Label in the 20th century dominated the budget end of the whisky market. It was the dram of the Scottish working man, followed by a half pint of ale to rinse the last drops from the glass. It was the sustenance of funeral teas and the consolation for home defeats at the fitba'. It was your Christmas present to Uncle Henry, though if he was wealthy and you had expectations, you'd upgrade him to Black Label.
That dominance was only possible by economy of scale, and by efficiency at every step of the process. Blending continued in Kilmarnock as the family business was absorbed into ever-larger corporations: Distillers Company, Guinness, Grand Metropolitan, and from 1997 Diageo. These corporations did not get to be so large by running dozens of local blending, marketing, logistic and back-office facilities. In 2012 came the inevitable: Diageo closed the Kilmarnock blending plant. There was an outcry, to no avail, and the site was demolished. The brand remains profitable, with new products from time to time, but blending and bottling are now at Shieldhall in Glasgow and Leven in Fife. So yet another traditional industry has abandoned Kilmarnock, which continues to seek new trades.
Trains from Glasgow Central run every 30 min, taking 50 min, with the last train shortly after 23:00. They continue every couple of hours to New Cumnock, Sanquhar, Dumfries, Annan, Gretna and Carlisle. (Don't use this route from England, take the fast train from London to Glasgow then change.) Trains from Troon, Prestwick and Ayr are replaced by buses until 5 Sept 2022.
The 1 railway station is central in town. There is a staffed ticket office and machines, toilets and a waiting room. There is level access to Platforms 1, 2 and 3, and a lift to Platform 4.
Stagecoach Bus X76 runs hourly from Glasgow Buchanan station, taking 40 min. The last bus is at 21:30.
Bus 10 runs hourly from Troon, taking an hour via Muirhead and Dundonald.
The 2 bus station is central, 200 yards east of the railway station.
From Glasgow follow M77 southwest, 23 miles. This continues beyond Kilmarnock as A77 to Prestwick, Ayr, Girvan, Cairnryan (for Ulster ferries) and Stranraer.
From the south follow M74 then turn onto A71 west, the old Edinburgh - Ayr road.
Bus 1 runs east every 15 min to Galston, Newmilns, Darvel and Priestland.
Bus 2 runs east to Hurlford. Bus 3 runs north to Onthank Drive. Buses 5, 6 and 7 run northeast to New Farm Loch. Bus 9 runs north to Kilmaurs and Stewarton. Bus 50 runs south to Mauchline, Auchinleck and Cumnock.
- 1 New Laigh Kirk (C of S) on John Dickie St was built in 1802. Its predecessor of 1750 carried a legend that it would collapse upon its congregation, so when in 1801 a piece of plaster happened to fall, there was a chicken-licken stampede for the exit that cost 30 lives.
- John Finnie Street in town centre has a fine parade of red sandstone Victorian buildings with few modern intrusions. Finnie was born in Kilmarnock in 1790 but left to become very rich in Brazil. His offer of funding ensured the street got built, that plus the town Provost being his nephew.
- 2 Dick Institute, Elmbank Ave KA1 3BT (off London Rd), ☏ . Tu W F Sa 10:30-15:30, Th 13:30-19:30. James Dick was born in Kilmarnock; he left for Australia but endowed this civic institute, opened in 1901. There's a museum and gallery. Free.
- 3 Burns Monument Centre, Kay Park KA3 7RU, ☏ . Monument 24 hr, Reg Office M-F 09:00-17:00. The first edition of Robert Burns' collected poems was published in Kilmarnock in 1786. Only 612 were printed, so these are prized rarities. The centennary of publication drew support for erecting a monument. It was completed in 1879 with an attached museum, in a grand mixture of every architectural style then known, as the centrepiece of Kay Park. But in 2004 the Burns Centre burned. The surviving parts were incorporated into a new Centre, opened in 2009, which houses the civil Registration Office and local history archives. It was nominated for the Carbuncle Cup, awarded annually to Britain's ugliest new building, for its "forced, clumpy monstrosity with pointlessly random rooves." (It lost out to Strata SE1, a tower block in London Southwark.) The centre isn't a museum, but you might research your Ayrshire ancestors here. Free.
- 4 Dean Castle, Dean Rd KA3 1XB. Closed until 2023. The castle was 14th century but heavily made-over in the 19th. It has a museum but is closed for rebuilding. The surrounding country park remains freely accessible.
- Rowallan Castle north and Craufurdland Castle northeast are medieval turrets re-engineered and re-imagined into modern events venues, so you can only get in if you dress up in a wedding frock. Even that didn't work for April Ashley, who in 1963 married the future 3rd Baron Rowallan. When they broke up, her claim for maintenance failed and the marriage was annulled as she was originally a man. She'd had gender re-assignment surgery in 1960 but there was no legal recognition of that status in Britain until 2004.
- 5 Caprington Castle started as a 15th century keep, over-extended into a 19th century mansion. It was just about affordable while the miners below kept busy, then in 1909 the River Irvine burst its banks and took the lives of ten of them, and washed away His Nibs fortune. The castle is private property but there are permissive paths through the grounds, and the colliery ruins still stand.
- 6 Galston is a village four miles east of Kilmarnock on A71 with several sights close by. Loudon Castle was a wannabe Alton Towers, the facade of a vastly over-extended and unaffordable mansion house, gone to rack and ruin. A theme park opened there in 1995 but folded in 2010. Barr Castle[dead link] in the village centre is a 15th century sandstone tower. The parish church (C of S) is from 1809, while St Sophia's (RC) is a Byzantine building of 1885 inspired by Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
- Cessnock Castle two miles southeast of Galston off B7037 is a 15th century keep expanded into a mansion in the 19th century. It's privately owned and you can't visit.
- Moscow is four miles east of Kilmarnock and 1597 miles / 2571 km west of its namesake, and it is difficult to overstate their lack of similarity. It's just a few houses and farms around a crossroads on A719; it was originally Moss-haw but amended in 1812 to celebrate Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Other local features were likewise renamed, such as the Volga Burn, an itsy-bitsy stream you can stride across. Moscow regularly features in pub quizzes about weird placenames.
- 7 Loudon Hill is a volcanic plug of 1037 ft / 316 m rearing up near the A71. It's a natural redoubt and Robert the Bruce twice defeated the English here in 1307. The English dead were buried nearby at Wallace's Knowe. William Wallace was an earlier Scots leader who lies in an unmarked grave in London, executed by the English. "Spirit of Scotland" is a metal sculpture of 2004, a large outline of Wallace, and true to that spirit it's been placed within 100 yards of the car park.
- Burns House Museum is in Mauchline to the south, see Ayr.
- Galleon Centre, 99 Titchfield St KA1 1QR, ☏ . M-F 06:30-22:00, Sa 06:30-18:30, Su 08:00-21:00. Leisure centre with pool, gym and ice rink.
- The Garage, 34-36 Grange St KA1 2DD, ☏ . M-W 10:00-22:00, Th-Su 10:00-02:00. Leisure complex with bowling, go-karts, wimpy, video games, bar and nightclub.
- Palace Theatre is at 9 Green Street (corner of London Rd), Box Office +44 1563 554900. It was built as a Corn Exchange in 1863, and its distinctive Italianate tower remains a city landmark. It became a theatre in 1903.
- Cinema: Odeon is on Queens Drive A735 just south of the river.
- Football: 1 Kilmarnock FC, Rugby Road KA1 2DP, ☏ . "Killie" were promoted in 2022 so they now play football in the Premiership, Scotland's top tier. Their all-seater home ground is Rugby Park (capacity 18,000), half a mile south of the railway station off Dundonald Rd A759.
- Rugby: Kilmarnock RFC play way, way down in the amateur leagues, but they are the reason the football stadium is called Rugby Park. The two games went their separate ways in 1869, and the rugby team now play at Bellsland south along Queens Drive. International rugby has been played at Rugby Park, Scotland versus Tonga in 2014 and versus Georgia in 2016, but no-one from KRFC got picked.
- Golf: the famous courses are on the coast at Troon and Turnberry. Just west of town are Annanhill and Caprington, with Rowallan Castle a few miles north and Loudon to the east. Kilmarnock Golf Club is actually on Barassie Links in Troon ten miles southwest.
- Skiing: last thing you'd expect in these low moist hills, but Newmilns Snow and Sports Complex has a 110 m artificial slope, adequate for kiddie-lessons. It's off A71 seven miles east of Kilmarnock.
- Look up your ancestors: Ayrshire Roots summarises available records. Most are from 1855 when civil registration began, and can be searched online. The Burns Centre (above) has physical records especially for the east end of the county.
- Discover stuff: Kilmarnock Academy had two pupils who won Nobel Prizes, a rare distinction. Alexander Fleming (1881-1951) discovered lysozyme (the natural antibiotic found in tears and sputum) and penicillin. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945 along with Florey and Chain. John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) worked on protein metabolism and nutrition, then on national and global nutrition, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949. The school don't mention how much he bunked off.
- King Street is the main shopping area, a pedestrianised mall. Burns Shopping Mall is north end of it by the bus station.
- Morrison's supermarket is on West Langlands St 200 yards west of the railway station, open M-Sa 07:00-22:00, Su 08:00-20:00. The filling station has similar hours.
- Glencairn Retail Park is half a mile south of town centre, and Queens' Drive Retail Park is southeast off A735.
- Wheatsheaf Inn (JD Wetherspoon), 70 Portland Street KA1 1JG, ☏ . Su-Th 08:00-00:00, F Sa 08:00-01:00. Decent Spoons for food and drink.
- The First Edition, 50 Bank Street KA1 1HA, ☏ . Su-Th 10:00-23:00, F Sa 10:00-01:00. This earns great reviews for its food and service. It's not recorded how Burns celebrated publication of his First Edition - he was broke and "wandering from one friend's house to another" around Mauchline - but he could have done worse than come here.
- Mamitas, 37 Bank Street KA1 1ER, ☏ . Tu-Sa 09:00-15:30. Friendly small cafe.
- The Longhouse, 130 Titchfield Street KA1 1PH, ☏ . Su-Th 10:00-23:00, F Sa 10:00-00:00. Modern European restaurant with good menu selection.
- The Tartan Sheep, 4A John Finnie St KA1 1DD (By railway station), ☏ . Su-W 11:00-00:00, Th-Sa 11:00-01:00. Grand wee pub handy for the bus or trains.
- Goldberry Bar, 26 Bank Street KA1 1HA, ☏ . W Th 11:00-16:00, F-Su 11:00-23:00. Mixed reviews for quality and ability to serve stuff in a timely way.
- Fanny by Gaslight, West George St KA1 1DG, ☏ . M-W 11:00-00:00, Th-Sa 11:00-01:00, Su 12:00-00:00. Lively oddball pub with karaoke.
- Johnnie Walker whisky is no longer blended here, but is a popular brand available in every pub and supermarket in Britain. The standard product is Red Label. You pay more for Black Label, which has a higher proportion of malt to grain whisky. That price and proportion increases with other label colours, and the company's inventiveness may one day exceed the visible light spectrum.
- Lochlea is a distillery at Craigie four miles south of Kilmarnock; their whisky first went on sale in 2021. No tours.
- 1 Portmann Hotel, 42 Portland Rd KA1 2DL, ☏ . Decent mid-price place west side of town centre, refurbishing is under way and the older rooms are tired and dreary. B&B double £70.
- 2 Park Hotel, 2 Dundonald Place KA1 1UR (by football ground), ☏ . Efficient modern business hotel, with Blues restaurant. No access from Rugby Road, the fences are there to keep football crowds where they ought to be. B&B double £70.
- 3 Dean Park Guest House, 27 Wellington St KA3 1DW, ☏ . Welcoming guest house just north of railway station. Excellent breakfasts. Three parking spaces available. B&B double £75.
- 4 Douglas Hotel, 62 London Rd KA3 7DD, ☏ . Friendly mid-range hotel. It's by the cemetery and the go-to place for funeral teas. B&B double £75.
- 5 Travelodge, Belfield Interchange KA1 5LQ (Jcn A76 / A77), ☏ . Clean and comfy budget chain hotel, handy for motorists. B&B double £75.
- 6 Premier Inn, Moorfield Roundabout KA1 2RS, ☏ . Reliable edge-of-town budget choice. No lift or aircon. B&B double £80.
- 7 Fenwick Hotel, Kilmaurs Road (east), Fenwick KA3 6AU (off A77 restricted jcn 7 & 8), ☏ . Okay for what you pay, only for motorists as it's out on the bypass. B&B double £75.
The police station is in the town centre on 10 St Marnock Street, KA1 1TJ.
In an emergency call 999. For non emergencies call 101 for police, or 111 for medical help.
As of July 2022, Kilmarnock and its approach roads have 4G from EE, O2 and Vodafone, and 5G from Three.
- Ardrossan has ferries to the Isle of Arran.
- Largs is the seaside town where Norwegian control over Scotland was broken. It has ferries to Great Cumbrae island.
- Ayr has the Robert Burns Heritage Area and Culzean Castle.
- East Kilbride will only delight admirers of Brutalist 20th century "New Town" architecture.
- Hamilton continues Kilmarnock's theme of grandiose mansions gone to ruin. Harry Lauder was among the miners who tunnelled so busily that the "chateau" was undermined and fell down.
|Routes through Kilmarnock|
|Irvine ←||W NE||→ Motherwell/Carluke → Edinburgh|