Everyone loves Scotland, don’t they? All those gorgeous glens and heavenly lochs – certainly worth putting up with the odd midge and spot of rain for. But Scotland’s southwest coast in winter?
This year, January (pre-lockdown) was the only time I could get away for such a visit. Well, the midges wouldn’t be there, of course, but I shuddered to think of the icy roads, bad weather and perhaps snowdrifts that I might have to encounter in the Highlands at that time of year. And everything would probably be closed.
Then I remembered that there was one part of Scotland, within easy reach of people travelling from the south like me, that tends to get forgotten about.
Sheltered in winter
I was thinking of the south-west: Dumfireds & Galloway and Ayrshire. In summer, most caravaners probably buzz right past here on the A74(M), on their way to more archetypically Scottish landscapes.
But I reckoned that because this area is sheltered by the island of Ireland from the worst the Atlantic can throw at Scotland, it might be a calmer place to spend a few days in January.
And I needn’t worry about places being closed, either, at least as far as campsites were concerned: I would be staying at Camping and Caravanning Club CSs, around half of which remain open all year round.
My first stopping point for the night, in fact, was Thomaston Farm CS.
As this is halfway up a hill just off the coast road, it has a particularly fine view of what is, in effect, the southern end of the Highlands and Islands.
There’s the Isle of Arran, behind whose snowbound peaks the sun was just dipping as we arrived. But equally as impressive – and visible from all along the coast here – was another, much smaller island, one that people rarely tell you about.
Ailsa Craig, commonly known as ‘Paddy’s Milestone’, is about halfway between Scotland and Ireland, and appears so symmetrical, it looks as though someone has plumped a Christmas pudding into the water.
It is currently uninhabited and would be completely unremarkable, save for one thing: the granite that makes up much of the island’s geology (it is in fact the volcanic plug from an extinct volcano) is of such an unusual and fine grade, it is ideal for making curling stones.
Do you remember the Scots curling team who, in 2002, came from behind to win Britain’s first Winter Olympics gold medal since Torvill and Dean? Around two-thirds of the curling stones used in their sport are made from Ailsa Craig granite. The whole landscape here is a quite remarkable interplay of water and mountain, although it can be deceptive.
Looking online for somewhere to eat that would be open at this time of year, I came across a rather interesting-looking restaurant – only to realise it was in Campbeltown, at the end of the Kintyre peninsula.
That was just visible across the water from where we were, but because of Scotland’s distinctive geography, it would have been a four-hour journey – quite a long way to go for supper! Never mind. A caravan dinner is always a good option.
Taking the Ayr
Thomaston Farm lies just outside Maybole, to the south of Ayr. Despite lending its name to the county, the town of Ayr itself is nothing out of the ordinary. I found its seafront rather sparse and a bit disappointing.
But there are at least two very significant reasons for lingering here. The first of these can be reached by taking the next turning on the coast road after the one for our CS.
Culzean Castle (which is pronounced ‘Cullyean’) was built in the late 18th century by the renowned Scottish neo-classical architect Robert Adam, for David Kennedy, 10th Earl of Cassillis.
For those who visit here in summer, exploring the 260-hectare estate could be a day-long adventure for the whole family. It’s home to more than 40 buildings and follies – including the castle, with its famous oval staircase – as well as a charming Swan Pond, and two play sections to keep the children entertained, not to mention the woodlands and the beach.
Unfortunately, much of this (including the castle) is only open to visitors between April and October; although when I was there, you could still explore the gorgeous walled garden, which even in the depths of winter, had a certain air of romance and history.
In its time, this impressive garden was one of the largest in Scotland, and introduced to the country such exotic fruits as apricots and peaches.
Nearby are said to be the ruins of a cottage belonging to Scipio, a slave brought to Culzean from Guinea, who was later freed and went on to marry and raise a family with a local woman.
The estate has ample terraced car parks where you can stop to admire the sea view. Failing that, the cafe looks out across the sea from the clifftop.
Near here is a tranquil gazebo, where it’s not difficult to imagine General Eisenhower, who stayed at Culzean during the Second World War, sitting and contemplating his plans for D-Day.
Booklovers and collectors might also enjoy a visit to Culzean’s very impressive secondhand bookshop. This is run entirely by volunteers, who can serve you coffee as you browse.
For all its many attractions, the castle isn’t the main draw for visitors here. That honour goes to a place about 10 miles further inland, towards Ayr.
Alloway today is more or less a suburb of the town. But in the time of revolutionary Europe, it was a parish in its own right and the birthplace of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, whose life is commemorated in an excellent museum. Unlike the castle, it is open all year.
A man’s a man for a’ that
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum gives you a vivid impression of a man whose rather colourful life makes Mick Jagger’s look positively tame. Burns apparently fathered at least 13 children, by several women, only one of whom he married.
He quickly took on legendary status and hist first biography was written in 1797, within just a year of his death, while the tradition of the Burns Night supper began soon after, in 1801. I particularly enjoyed the way the museum – which opening in 2010 – has much of its displays in Scots, the language Burns championed (difficult words are translated for Sassenachs).
It’s not afraid to provide a more rounded picture, too. For all his zeal for social justice, at one point, Burns nearly sailed to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation. The only reason he didn’t go was because the woman he was to travel with died shortly before they were due to set sail. Would he still have become a national hero if they had gone?
Should auld acquaintance
And ‘Auld Lang Syne’? The words of the famous song were written by Burns, but he wouldn’t have recognised the tune we know so well today, which was composed shortly after he died.
There is an excellent café and a shop in the museum. In addition, the cottage Burns was born in – which housed the museum until it moved into its new quarters – is just down the road and included in the price of the ticket, so it’s definitely worth a visit. Inside, it is decked out as it would have been then – but with sound effects.
When you go outside to the garden (which includes a willow sculpture of one of Burns’ most famous characters, Tam o’Shanter) and learn that its seven acres formed the smallholding Burns’ father owned, you realise the family weren’t too badly off. The farm at Top Withens, in West Yorkshire, said to have inspired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, is tiny by comparison.
It’s also worth taking a stroll to the bridge over the River Doon (Brig o’ Doon) – over which Tam o’ Shanter rode when he fled the witches and warlocks – and the Burns Monument and Memorial Gardens. However, if you’re not so enthralled by museums and castles, two other diversions nearby might tempt you. One, between Culzean and Alloway, is Electric Brae. This is a stretch of road where, if you’re driving in the right direction, you can stop the car, then release the handbrake and it will look to anyone watching as if you’re freewheeling uphill.
By a trick of the landscape, although you are travelling downhill, it looks as though you are going up. But this hasn’t stopped people espousing all sorts of reasons for the phenomenon, including geomagnetic forces.
Unfortunately, when I came past Electric Brae, there was nobody to watch for me, but just beyond here is the second thing worth stopping for – the glorious beach at Croy Shore. Go beyond the static caravans at the end of the main road, and you’ll find a narrower (but still passable) road that leads down to a bracing beach, with a view of Culzean Castle on the headland, and beyond that, Arran and Ailsa Craig. It’s perfect for a picnic.
Heading down the coast
Fed and watered, and with little else in the area open at this time of year, I decided it was time to drive down the coast. The shortest ferry route between Britain and Ireland is Stranraer to Larne, and following the success of the Channel Tunnel, I have always thought it would only be a matter of time before a tunnel is built here.
In fact, I often wondered why they hadn’t started making the road from central Scotland to Stranraer at least a dual carriageway in preparation for this. But now I’ve driven that road, I understand why neither of these plans is likely to happen any time soon.
Yes, you can stop on the peaceful harbour at Maidens, where Robert the Bruce landed to reclaim Scotland from the English in 1307. He was apparently disappointed at the small number of people who turned up to join him.
South of the harbour town of Girvan, the A77 becomes rather dramatic, with steep slopes on one side and the sea on the other. You need to keep your wits about you, as there are several bends that seem almost to head out over the waves. There are hardly any beaches along here – just miles and miles of rocks. If your children enjoy rock pooling, this would be heaven.
South of Lendalfoot, you’ll find another monument worth stopping to see. This marks the spot where the Russian cruiser Varyag ran aground in 1920. The ship, which had played a part in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, happened to be in Liverpool for a refit in 1917, at the outbreak of the October Revolution.
The crew raised the Red Flag, refusing to return to their home country, and the British seized the vessel. The interesting thing about this dramatic monument is that it’s almost entirely in Russian. I wondered how local schoolteachers explained this strange anomaly to their students at the height of the Cold War.
After this, the road heads into the hills for a few miles, before coming down past beautiful Loch Ryan (including Cairnryan, the ferry port) to Stranraer.
But the A77 doesn’t end there, and I recommend carrying on to where it does – Portpatrick, with its incredible natural harbour, across the hammer-shaped peninsula known as the Rhins of Galloway.
In summer, this little fishing port is well known for its live-music venues. However, when I arrived, it was all looking a bit bleak. But the friendly attendant at the public toilets gave me all of the local gossip (even today, this seemed to involve the ‘young laird’ a great deal) and recommended the short clifftop walk to see the ruined 12th-century castle of Dunskey. This was good advice: from here, you have a great view right over to Ireland.
But I wouldn’t recommend the walk if you have young children, or dogs. All the way, it’s a straight drop down to the waves, and in places there isn’t even a railing.
Back at Thomaston Farm, the snow had started to settle. But I was kept snug in the van for another night, and then it was time to meet a photographer friend. Our first stop was Portencross, a fine picnic spot (with more great rock pools), from where you can enjoy stunning views across the Isle of Arran, in particular to the peak that was the site of one of Scotland’s most famous Victorian trials, the Goatfell murder. In essence, two men went up a mountain, but only one came down.
Sunshine and ice cream
However, our destination was the pretty harbour town of Largs, at the mouth of the Clyde. Surprisingly, by the time we arrived, the sun was shining and one keen sailor was out in a dinghy.
Largs is famous in the area for Nardini’s, the art deco ice cream parlour that graces the waterfront. Do you recall This Life, a 1990s TV series about young things sharing a house in London? One of the group, Anna, was played by Daniela Nardini, daughter of the owners. I duly tried two of the sorbets – pleasant, if a little sweet.
While you are here, do take a walk along the seafront, past the statue of Magnus the Viking, which marks the 750th anniversary of the last time that the Vikings bothered Scotland.
The next day, it was time to head south into Galloway, for our final day. This time, we were taking the more mountainous A714, and although the weather was improving, parts of this route were not unlike towing through Narnia, with snow-covered forests on both sides. There was a strong wind blowing, too.
At one point, the road weaves under two arches of the same viaduct. In these weather conditions, we decided not to go up the road to Loch Trool. But as this site of one of Robert the Bruce’s victories also claims to be the darkest place in the UK, in summer it would be well worth a stargazing trip.
We passed through Wigtown. This austere but neat little town, with a large central square set around fine memorial gardens, has in recent years taken on the mantle of Scotland’s National Book Town, with at least a dozen secondhand bookshops to be found in just a couple of streets.
The following day we had an enjoyable browse around The Old Bank Bookshop, whose owner freely admits the town’s developments has been hugely influenced by the success of Hay-on-Wye. But it’s none the worse for that.
It’s far less touristy, for one thing, which is possibly why I found a couple of real bargains. For another, unlike Hay, Wigtown is close to a coastline that’s strewn with rock pools. We followed the road along this to reach our destination for the evening, Garlieston Lodge CS.
This popular CS is just a short walk from Garlieston harbour, which was used as an assembly point for the famous Mulberry temporary portable harbours that contributed so much to the success of D-Day in World War II. I wondered if Eisenhower had come here on a visit from Culzean Castle.
In the summertime, Garlieston should be a hive of activity; from here, you can take a kayak out onto the Solway Firth with a guide, or go mountain biking on more than 400km of trails. You can get advice on cycling here from one of the 7stanes mountain biking centres.
In Garlieston itself, you’ll find Galloway Tanks, where you can hire a tank to drive for an hour or two. In cold and dark January, however, it was good to know the CS is only a short walk away from The Harbour Inn.
This welcoming pub faces straight onto the harbour, but inside, there’s a roaring fire that you can sit by, while they serve you wholesome fare such as liver and onions. The locals come in here of an evening to play dominoes; I found the place enchanting. And when it comes to dark skies, I walked back from the pub to the campsite by the light of the whole of Orion – not just his belt.
Pause for thought
Next day, having resisted the temptation to return to The Harbour Inn for breakfast – yes, they serve that, if you give them notice – I braced myself for the trip north on another Narnia-esque road (the A712 and A713).
But there was just time to make a quick drive to the Isle of Whithorn, a peninsula dotted with medieval and prehistoric relics, including standing stones.
In summer, you can visit a reconstructed Iron Age house in Whithorn. But one ruin here is open to visitors all year. St Ninian’s Chapel is reckoned to have been built in the 1200s for pilgrims to the saint shrine in Whithorn. It overlooks a small cove and pilgrims were said to come ashore here and give thanks in the chapel for their safe delivery.
On the way back to the car park is a memorial to the seven men who died in the Solway Harvester tragedy near here, in the very early days of this century. Three were only teenagers, and none was older than 40.
Reading about his made me very grateful that even in the snow, I could still enjoy the best of this dramatic coastline from the safety and warmth of a tow car.
Your trip planner to Ayrshire
Way to go
One of the many plus points about the Ayrshire region – apart from the fact that this is a relatively untouristy part of the world – is that for most people coming up from the south, it is really easy to reach. It’s just an hour or so from the M74, the continuation in Scotland of England’s M6.
For those of you travelling to Ayrshire from further north, it’s not going to be too difficult, either, being only about an hour south of Glasgow.
And in fact, if you want to combine your visit with a trip around the southern Highlands and Islands, that should be perfectly possible, too. Ferries go from Ardrossan to the Isle of Arran and then on to Kintyre and beyond.
When to go
January might not seem the most obvious time to visit Scotland, especially because many of the major tourist attractions are only open from early March to late September or October. There is one huge bonus, however: we were guaranteed no midges!
If you do happen to travel in the midge season, which conventionally runs from early June to mid-September, it’s worth knowing that midges are far less likely to be a problem if it’s a sunny or windy day.
But if you are touring in the Highlands during the summer months, it’s essential to take a few sensible precautions.
Make sure you have a supply of insect repellent with you, and dress suitably when you’re out and about – apparently, light-coloured clothing is less appealing to these biting pests, and a good hat is important, too. Some intrepid explorers favour a net head covering, which might not look that stylish, but is very effective!
Where we stayed
Thomaston Farm CS
- Culzean Road, by Maybole, KA19 8JH
- 01655 760217
- Open All year
- Pitch+2+hook-up £10
- A Camping and Caravanning Club CS on a working farm close to Clean Castle, with a fine view of the sea, the Isle of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre.
Garlieston Lodge CS
- Burnside Lane, Garlieston, Newton Stewart, DG8 8BP
- 01988 600 641
- Open All year
- Pitch+2+hook-up £20
- This adults-only Camping and Caravanning Club CS is very close to Garlieston harbour, with its own fishing lake and rare-breed pigs.
Food and drink
The Harbour Inn
- 18 South crescent, Garlieston, Newton Stewart, DG8 8BQ
- 01988 600 685
- A cosy pub on the quayside, where you can sit by a roaring fire and enjoy a hearty meal. They have guest rooms, too, if you have friends coming to meet up with you.
- 2 Agnew Crescent, Wigtown, Newton Stewart, DG8 9DS
- 01988 402 074
- You’ll find this a welcoming and popular place to have a good lunch, or simply enjoy tea and homemade cake, after strolling around this bookish town.
Find out more
- Culzean Castle & Country Park
- Robert Burns Birthplace
- Portpatrick Visitor Guide
- Largs Visitor Centre
- Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town
- Wigtown Book Festival
- Whithorn Timescape
- Galloway Tanks
- 7stanes Mountain Biking
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Drive past Electric Brae to the glorious beach at Croy Shore