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Take a tour round North Ayrshire and you never know what's round the corner.
North Ayrshire is the smallest of the three mainland areas, but it more than makes up for its small stature by packing a huge number of things to see and do, historical tales and visitor attractions into its compact dimensions.
A good place to start is at Largs with its recently upgraded promenade and wide range of visitor attractions. Visit Skelmorlie Aisle, a Renaissance gem amongst the predominantly Victorian architecture of the town. The richly decorated Italianate ceiling is a masterpiece of the decorative arts.
The history of Largs can be explored at the Largs and District Historical Society's Museum. One particular aspect of Ayrshire's past is featured at the Christian Heritage Museum, with many fascinating insights into the 1400 years old story of monastic life in south west Scotland.
Perhaps the single most important event in Largs's history was the Battle of Largs in 1263, which brought to a close centuries of Viking rule in Western Scotland. The story is told in arresting fashion at Vikingar, but to get the most from it you'd have to dedicate a whole morning to your visit. Largs celebrates its Viking heritage in other ways too, a Viking Festival held in August and September is a great excuse for a party.
Just south of Largs is Kelburn Country Centre, set around the beautiful castle, home to the Earls of Glasgow since 1703. The Estate now houses a variety of woodland walks, pony treks, a secret forest, crocodile swamp and much more to delight the imagination of young and old alike.
Nearby stands Fairlie Castle, in the beautiful, wooded Fairlie Glen now a ruin, but none the less evocative for that, and Hunterston Castle. Constructed in the 15th century, the castle has been the property of the Hunters of Hunterston for 30 generations.You have to make an appointment to visit.
Next town along the coast is West Kilbride, home to a beautiful local museum, with large collections of lace, embroidery and historic dresses from the Hunterston Estate.
If you have children with you, a short detour to Blackshaw Farm Park will keep everyone happy for a few hours. This working farm gives you the opportunity to join in their normal routine, so activities vary depending on the season.
The Royal House of Stewart had a particular affection for Ayrshire and Arran, and they often stopped off at Portencross Castle, near Seamill on their way to the Royal palace on the Isle of Bute.
Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston are known collectively as "The Three Touns". A splendid beach runs the length of the coast affording welcome shelter on a breezy day, but fragments of a long and bloody past remain in the shape of Ardrossan Castle, one of the oldest in Ayrshire.
In the former church of Ardrossan parish - actually situated in Saltcoats, and itself a fine example of late 18th century Scottish vernacular architecture - North Ayrshire Museum traces life in the area down the centuries.
Kilwinning Abbey had stood as a centre of worship for 400 years until the Earls of Arran, Glencairn and Argyll cast it down in 1561. Wandering round the ruins today, the overwhelming sense is of tranquillity, the violence of that age washed away by rivers of time.
More reminders of the past can be found at Eglinton Castle and Country Park in Kilwinning. Only ruins remain of the 18th century castle, which has an unusual pencil-shaped tower, but the grounds now house a beautiful country park. A visitor centre tells more, and explains the history and natural history of the area.
Irvine is the biggest town in North Ayrshire. Its Beach Park is ideal for a family picnic with a natural beach, boating pond, pitch & putt and trim trails, including one suitable for disabled people. Soak up the atmosphere of the historic, cobbled street in Glasgow Vennel, where Robert Burns once lived and worked. Or make a splash at the Magnum Centre, one of Europe's biggest and best leisure complexes.
Although much of modern Irvine is new, the original port has a long history behind it, and the town's importance as a seaport is celebrated at the Scottish Maritime Museum, whilst nearby Seagate Castle is thought to have been visited by Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1533.
Between Kilwinning and Dalry we come across Dalgarven Mill, a water-driven flour mill dating back to 1620 which also houses the Ayrshire Museum of Country Life.
For a truly ancient place of worship, the nearby town of Kilbirnie boasts the Barony Church which, amazingly, is still in use after 722 years. Kilbirnie can go one better: Glengarnock Castle aged around 850 years, is thought to be one of the oldest in the west of Scotland.
Returning to Largs via Haylie Brae, we stop at Douglas Park. In the half light, the views over the Clyde to Cumbrae, Arran, Kintyre, Bute and Jura are simply stunning; then head for Nardini's and several scoops of their world famous ice cream.
The Sleeping Warrior
Mountains, Myth and Magic combine to make the Isle of Arran an unforgettable holiday destination.
Arran is 'Scotland in miniature'. As every Scottish schoolboy knows, the Highland Boundary Fault runs in a roughly north-east - south-west line from Stonehaven to Dumbarton. This massive geological fault separates the Highlands from the Lowlands and is responsible for giving the island its unique character.
It is because of the Fault that Arran manages to pack such a huge variety of scenery into its relatively small area. The island's split personality is probably best seen from the ferry as it makes its approach on the 55 minute sailing from Ardrossan. On the northern end, the high, stony peaks rise abruptly from the sea. As your eye follows the outline of the island southwards, the mountains give way to rolling foothills, undulating moor that gradually falls away to the coastal plain with its rich farm land and verdant forest.
Sailing in to Brodick Bay your eyes will be drawn to Brodick Castle. This magnificent castle started with a 13th century fortification and finished with the Victorian wing, built in the 1860's. Today, the Castle is run by the National Trust for Scotland and is open to the public.
Fine as the view on the approach to Brodick is, many would argue that the character of the mountains is seen to better effect on the alternative ferry route, which runs between Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula and Lochranza in the north of the island throughout the summer.
But it is the view from the east which is best known. From the Ayrshire coast, the island's profile is known as "The Sleeping Warrior," as it is said to resemble the effigy of a warrior laid out on his bier. Arran is littered with prehistoric monuments, many dating from the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years old. Perhaps most impressive of all are the standing stones of Machrie Moor.
The word Arran is probably derived from the (Irish) Gaelic word ard, meaning high. Yet amongst the mountains, the names of the glens sit uncomfortably: Rosa, Iorsa, Sannox, Chalmadale. And then there is the highest peak of all, Goat Fell. Why is it the only mountain on Arran to bear an English name?
In fact, Goat Fell reveals the presence of another race on the island, the Vikings. They occupied the island for centuries, and renamed places as they saw fit. Brodick, the main town, bears a name of Norse origin, from breithr vik, meaning broad bay. Goat Fell comes from Geitar-fjall, which simply means goat hill (or, more precisely, nanny goat hill). King Haakon of Norway anchored his fleet in Lamlash Before sailing on to the Battle of Largs in 1263.
Other royal visitors have left their mark on Arran. Robert the Bruce is said to have sheltered on the island while fleeing his enemies. In a cave on the coast between Blackwaterfoot and Machrie, legend has it, the fugitive king was inspired by the example of a spider which refused to admit defeat when attempting to spin a web.
Bruce's descendants, the Stewart Kings of Scotland, set up a hunting lodge on the shores of Loch Ranza. Today, Lochranza Castle is an impossibly romantic ruin, with its dramatic lochside setting backed by towering hills.
Making sense of such an extensive heritage is no easy task, but a good place to begin is at Arran Heritage Centre in Brodick, where island life is traced from the mists of time right up to the 20th century.
Arran seems a thousand miles, a thousand years from the hustle and bustle of modern life, yet is only one hour from the Ayrshire mainland. All of which adds up to a holiday destination that's as exciting as it's peaceful as it's fascinating as it's fun.
Eight Square Miles of Fun
Rediscover your childhood and the true meaning of family fun on the Isle of Cumbrae.
Cumbrae is only four miles long and two wide. The only town on the island is Millport, set on an elegant bay at the south of the island which first came to prominence as a holiday destination in the Victorian era.
Getting there couldn't be simpler: the ferry from Largs takes just 15 minutes and, though you can take your car, most people find that it's just an encumbrance on an island of this size. Buses meet the ferry to take you to town, and if you want to get about, the best, easiest and most fun way is by bike. Hire a bike in Millport, pick a direction and just go.
Millport has its share of surprises. Perhaps the biggest, metaphorically speaking, is the Cathedral of the Isles, the smallest cathedral in Europe. It's a small, but perfectly formed cathedral, designed by William Butterfield; whilst the museum of the Cumbraes in Millport charts the changing fortunres of the island, its people and visitors over the years.
The Marine Biological Station has been a research centre of the Universities of Glasgow and London for over 100 years, and has an excellent aquarium that introduces you to the local denizens of the deep. The National Watersports Centre is also situated here, and offers tuition in just about any activity involving water you care to mention.
The crocodile rock is one of Millport's most famous landmarks, and elsewhere on the island, the Indian rock and the Lion rock are also hand-painted.
Other attractions include pony rides, and when life on the beach gets too hectic, sample some of the island's unique atmosphere on the short walk to the Glaidstane, the island's highest point. At only 417 ft above sea level, the climb up to the wooded hilltop won't leave you breathless, but the views certainly will.
The Isle of Cumbrae is something of a forgotten gem. Visit it and you will be richly rewarded with the kind of memories that seem so hard to come by these days.