Well, I've made it to Scotland at last. I've been here three weeks, transferring from Keswick, in Northumbria, on a beautiful day. Getting north was smooth and easy, thanks to the M6 motorway, and traffic was light.
Once I was off the motorway, progress was far from smooth. I left the M6 just north of the border, at Gretna, and headed west on the A74. This has the worst-maintained surface of any 'A' road I have travelled on Britain.
Admittedly, a big and well-laden van like a motorhome soon tells you about imperfections in the road but even a chauffeured limousine would have been pitched about by the endless ruts, pots and patches on this route. The authorities in Ayrshire seem not to spend money much money on keeping their roads in trim.
I've been to Scotland before on holiday and business, and enjoyed it every time, but have not been here in the van. Except for the road surfaces, the experience so far has been very pleasant.
These are the Lowlands and the countryside is open and rolling, a contrast to the ruggedness of the Lake District. Where there are drystone walls in the south, here there are wire fences.
Meet the locals, and others
Some of the towns and villages are looking tired and shabby. It's more than the present recession that's done for them but, despite this, the people are friendly, helpful and cheerful, always ready with and for a joke.
The accent is sharp and strong but intelligible to this Southerner but it's not always locals you meet. I fell into conversation one evening with a fellow dog owner from further north. I understood about one word in five of what he said. Lots of nodding and smiling from me.
I met him again the next night. "Stella wee nap", he said. It took me a while but I finally got it -- "Still a wee nip [in the air]". More nodding and smiling.
There are plenty of Irish people here, too, the links being historical. (I'll spare you the local geology and history lessons. The former is simple; the latter is as knotted, tribal and contentious as that of any Balkan state.)
My new optician is Irish, for example. My spectacles had been in an wobbly state for some time and gave up the struggle a couple of weeks ago, soon after I arrived at my last stop, Ayr.
I was exploring the town that evening and noticed that the local branch of Specsavers was open, so I went in. Gareth, the assistant manager, was happy to meet my dog and happier still to sort out my ocular accoutrements. I chose the frame that evening and went back the next day for testing. (Eye tests are free for anyone of any age in Scotland, even the English. How civilized.) I picked up the new pair a fortnight later. All is sharp again.
The staff in the shop impressed me with their helpfulness and efficiency. I also like Specsaver's prices, which are at least a third less than I'd pay back home. One for the recommended list.
My first stop in Ayrshire was at Maybole, about 10 miles south of Ayr. Another Irishman, Thomas McAuley, runs the site. He owns the place and did much of the work on it himself, including building a new toilet block. There is hot and cold water on tap and also tepid running radio. The local commercial station's effluvium is piped into the building, with no escape possible. I now know by heart the special offers at "Ayr's premier carpet showroom".
The site is just outside the town of Maybole, which has come down terribly in the world. It was once the capital of the earldom of Carrick, home to the Bruce family. This included King Robert I of Scotland, better known as Robert the Bruce, the famous arachnologist.
There is a 16th-century castle, formerly the town house of the Earls of Cassillis. Their main residence was four miles away at Culzean Castle ("Cullane"), a stately pile designed by Robert Adam and now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
The castle at Maybole is an unattractive turreted building that looks as though some mediaeval tourist pulled off a piece of Carcassonne and brought it home, squashed, in his luggage. It sits incongruously in the high street, opposite the post office. Like many buildings in Scotland, it's covered in pebbledash, which doesn't help it look appealing. (The official term is "harled", which means the same thing but doesn't sound so plebeian.)
Maybole was also once famous for shoe making. In the late 19th century, large factories filled and surrounded the town, producing tens of thousands of shoes a week. The factories have now all gone and there is little visible evidence of their existence. This Web page tells you more. Like the page on the castle, it's from an admirable local Web site.
Today, Maybole is notable mainly for the number of shuttered shops you see there. It's a sad come-down but not unusual hereabouts. There are some interesting-looking ruined castles and abbeys nearby but you couldn't get into them until April. It's the same with many museums.
Excursing from Maybole
Maybole is only four miles from the coast and the Firth of Clyde. A dozen miles away, to its south, is the fishing village of Girvan. This has a fine sandy beach, some working docks and a boatyard, so there was enjoyable walking to be had.
I went to Girvan mainly to be near enough the uninhabited island of Ailsa Craig to get some good pictures of it. My luck was out, as it was obscured by haze, but I had seen it from a greater distance from several other points on the coast. The island is now an RSPB bird sanctuary, notable for its gannet population.
A few days later, acting on a tip from an online friend, I went to Kelburn Castle, about 40 miles to the north. It's next to Largs, which sounds like an ailment of livestock involving the overproduction of phlegm but is actually from the Gaelic for grassy slope. Ayrshire must have been short of these at the time.
The reason for my trip was harling, i.e. pebbledash for the posh. Two years ago, it was discovered that the concrete skim put over part of the castle's walls was damaging the structure underneath. Historic Scotland, the Caledonian equivalent of English Heritage, said the concrete should be removed in the next two years. This was in 2007.
Short of money and keen for publicity, its owner, the Earl of Glasgow, decided to recruit some Brazilian graffiti artists to brighten the place up. The bureaucrats agreed and the result is as you see left. (Why Brazilian? Because their graffiti artists make ours look like constipated infants.)
There was a dismissive documentary on the BBC at the time. (Your browser might need some extra software to show it.)
I've no idea whether the scheme made any money but it was worth doing. It's audacious, astonishing and utterly brilliant. The walls are due to be stripped next month -- the two years are up then -- so I'm glad I saw this remarkable work in time.
There's not much about it on the Web, unfortunately. The Graffiti Project's own Web site is these days nothing but adverts. Its search tool doesn't even recognise "kelburn". A sell-out. There is, though, this speeded-up video of the artists at work. By the time I got to the end, I was half-expecting to see Benny Hill scuttling around the castle grounds pursued by scantily-clad lovelies waving aerosol cans of paint.
[2010 update -- the castle's Web site now has a brief description of the project.]
My final outing from Maybole was to the Dunaskin Industrial Heritage Centre. This is 10 miles to the east, in the Doon Valley near Dalmellington (not to be confused with the Doone Valley in Exmoor). It's a former iron works that was later converted to brick making. The larger structures remain but in an unsafe condition. There is also some rolling stock standing forlornly on view.
I say 'forlornly' because the museum closed down three years ago, having run out of money. You might say its operators had done askin' for support. (Sorry!) I was able to get in because the gates were unlocked for a local brass band that was practising in one of engine sheds. (No, I'm not making this up.)
In effect, I had the place to myself and, in some welcome sunshine, was able to fossick about contentedly. The sound of the band occasionally wafting my way added a surreal touch. It was one of those rare afternoons when time slowed down and you could step off life's merry-go-round for an instant. Lovely.
Next time, it's Ayr.