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A Sassenach's Stravaig
Sunday, 5 April 2009 — Ayr


Craigie Gardens

After just over a week at Maybole (see the previous entry), I transferred to the Caravan Club's site at Craigie Gardens in Ayr. This is in a first-rate location within easy walking distance of the town's shops. The pitches are large, widely-spaced and grouped in bays of a dozen or so. As a result, there is plenty of privacy but, at the same time, a feeling of community. Both were lacking at Maybole.

The site is largely hidden from view by mature broadleaved trees, a reminder of the gardens after which it is named. These were a small part of the land attaching to Craigie House, a few hundred yards away.

A local baronet, Sir Thomas Wallace, built the house in 1740 as his residence. Its grounds extended eastwards along the banks of the adjoining River Ayr and north to include the present Ayr racecourse.

After just 50 years, ownership of the estate passed to another Ayrshire family, the Campbells. They had it until 1939, when Ayr Town Council bought it. Eventually, the house became part of what is now the University of the West of Scotland, where it is its management training centre.

(Little of this detail is on the Web; I have yet to find a good online source about old Scottish properties. The centre's caretaker, Gordon, kindly copied off some information sheets for me, from which I have extracted this summary.)

Near the house, only a couple of minutes from the caravan site, are some formal gardens that lead to a riverside path. This follows the river to its source 30 miles to the east, at Glenbuck. I didn't go that far, but two weeks ago I took Jenny for a stroll eastwards along the bank to the next road bridge and back along the other side.

It was a wonderfully warm day, a contrast to the cold and windy weather we had been having before. Spring was on the way, with the smell of ramsons on the air in the wooded areas, willow catkins waving their yellow dusters in the sunshine and hawthorn coming into leaf. Near an overhanging tree, I saw a salmon or large trout leap clear of the water after a flying insect. All this was within a mile of the centre of a town of over 45,000 people. On another day, even nearer the town, I saw a heron playing its usual game of statues on the riverside.

Ayr

The town itself is a mixture of the brightly new, the run-down remains of recent industry and reminders of an ancient past. Its charter dates from the early 13th century. (There's more historical information on the Undiscovered Scotland site.)

I won't go into detail about the town -- it would take ages -- but I found it jaunty, informal and upbeat. There are too many empty shops and businesses for it to be regarded as economically healthy but neither did it have the depressed, beaten look that Maybole has. Compared with Keswick, say, it is less dependent on tourism and not so middle-class.

Ayr is situated where the River Ayr meets the sea and has an excellent beach, covered in fine sand. This unfortunately blows about in high winds at the height of dog's face, so Jenny wasn't thrilled. It also has a working dock, always a winner with me, although it was pinioned behind security barriers.

One half-buried treasure is the Auld Kirk*. Tucked away on the south bank of the river, behind the high street shops, this small, squat church was built in 1654 with money partly provided by Oliver Cromwell. He gave it in recompense for annexing the real old church, built in the 12th century, of which only the tower remains. Cromwell also built a fort for himself at the harbour, from which he governed northern England and much of Scotland and Ireland.

Prominent in the church's graveyard is a white-painted tablet commemorating the deaths of six local Covenanters. These principled people were hanged -- martyred -- in 1666 for not accepting Charles II as head of their church. The things people do to each other in the name of religion.

To this day, the Church of Scotland remains separate. As one Web site neatly put it, the Queen might be head of the Church of England but she is just a member of the Church of Scotland.

*Anything of any antiquity in Scotland seems to be labelled "Auld" or "Aud". As with tea "shoppes" in England, offering traditional "fayre", modern spelling is infra dig.

Trips from Ayr

I'll mention just two. The first was to Glasgow, 35 miles to the north, to visit the Burrell Collection. I had heard good reports about it from family and friends, and it wholly justified them.

The building that houses the collection sits in a large park at Pollok, south-west of the city centre. It's undistinguished externally but shows its rightness of design inside. There, it provides a well-lit, airy space in which to show off its contents.

And such contents. Sir William Burrell was a wealthy shipowner who collected art throughout his life, from the age of 16. In 1944, aged 83, he gave all 8,000 items he'd amassed to the city of Glasgow. It took the city council until 1983 to find a suitable location and build a gallery to house the collection.

Only a small part of the bequest is on display at any time. The result is something you can go round in a couple of hours while feeling neither rushed during your visit nor saturated after.

The visitor

What lifts it above the ordinary, though, is the range and quality of what's on display. Highlights for me included a small collection of Degas paintings, a hunt scene by Cranach the Elder, an early Rembrandt self-portrait (do these ever fail to impress?) and a panel from a 15th-century triptych of the adoration of the magi, improbably set inside a Flemish house of the period.

It's not just paintings. There is sculpture, embroidery, furniture, tapestry, armour, glassware and even reconstructed wood-panelled rooms. Also, there are exquisite examples of Chinese and Egyptian art.

I visited while there was a travelling display on show from the British Museum, called "Ancient Greeks: Athletes, warriors and heroes". Much of it was vases. Apart from inspiring some lovely piano music from Satie, they do little for me. What reached across the millennia and touched my heart was a simple stone slab listing the names of fallen soldiers. The desire to memorialise those who give their lives in pursuit of some military objective, even if pointless or silly, seems so modern yet clearly is not.

To the Immortal Memory

So goes the toast at Burns suppers worldwide every January. This year, the drams would have been poured quicker and sunk swifter because it was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert ("Rabbie") Burns -- Scotland's national poet.

The Scottish heritage industry has been in overdrive for months, promoting something called "Homecoming Scotland 2009", designed to lure people back from the Jock diaspora. As you can imagine, genealogical research services feature heavily in this.

You don't have to like poetry to be familiar with some of Burns's work. If you've ever sung "Auld Lang Syne", heard someone (perhaps Kenneth McKellar) sing "My love is like a red, red rose", read the sentiment "Oh would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us", heard the tale of Tam O'Shanter or read the description of a mouse as a "Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie", then you know some Burns.

He was born in Alloway, just three miles south of Ayr and nowadays a suburb of it. There, I went to the Burns National Heritage Park. (If you think that sounds bad, there's a food shop on a farm near Maybole called The Burns Country Smokehouse. Historical authenticity guaranteed.)

The park includes the imposing Burns Monument (which could do with a lick of paint inside) and the "Tam O'Shanter Experience". The latter offers "laser-disc technology [how dated that sounds] and theatrical effects". You can't say you haven't been warned. I gave it a miss.

You can also visit two of the (real) elements of the Tam O'Shanter poem -- Kirk Alloway and Brig O’Doon. It makes for a pleasant stroll, especially on the warm, sunny day I had. All it needed to make the poem come fully to life (apart from moonlight, that is) was Malcolm Williamson's uproarious musical version of the tale.

Incidentally, the “Cutty Sark” (short skirt) that Nan the witch wore is commemorated in the name of the famous and beautiful tea clipper moored at Greenwich. That's not such a coincidence as it might appear. The ship was built in Dumbarton, on the Clyde, for a Scottish owner.

And, finally

Seen on a Web site last week....

Although being part of Great Britain, Scotland has a history and culture all of its own. Recently getting its own government the Scottish are a very proud raise, and rightly so.

The Flour of Scotland, no doubt.


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