Welcome to Ayr
"Auld Ayr wham ne'er a toun surpasses
For honest men and bonnie lasses."
by Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Ayr and Ayrshire are famous the world over as the home of Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard and a poet of international renown. It was the Ayrshire landscape which inspired some of his finest verses. And well might he have been inspired: running alongside the gently undulating fields of rural Ayrshire is the Firth of Clyde, with the awesome peaks of the Isle of Arran to the west and, in the distance, the Mull of Kyntyre. The town of Ayr is the hub of Ayrshire: for centuries the west of Scotland's most important port, it remains the largest town in southwest Scotland.
Brig O' Doon, Alloway, Ayrshire
Ayr is without doubt an old town. The street plan we see today was more or less established by 1200 AD, around about the time when Ayr River, which dissects the town, was first bridged. In 1470 the original wooden bridge was replaced by a stone bridge, which is still used by pedestrians today. The town probably grew to serve the castle founded in 1197, by William I (1143-1214), to fortify the border between the Scottish kingdom and Galloway, which was only fully incorporated into Scotland in 1234. Unfortunately the castle was demolished at the behest of Oliver Cromwell in 1645 in order to construct a citadel (the remains of the outer walls of the citadel can still be seen to the south of the mouth of Ayr River). In the 13th and 14th centuries Ayr became Scotland's most important west coast port: while early trade was coastal and with Ireland, Ayr later developed trade links with Europe and later still with the Americas. The quays and wharfs originally lined the river itself before being moved to the coast to accommodate the ever increasing traffic.
That Ayr was a town of some note by the 13th and 14th centuries is evidenced by some of the events which took place there is these centuries. During the "Wars of Independence" Ayr was a sought after prize and was to change hands several times. In 1297, Scotland's national hero, William Wallace (c1270 - 1305), is said to have been imprisoned in the town for setting fire to a barn filled with hundreds of occupying English soldiers. Wallace Tower on High Street commemorates him. In 1315 Robert I held a parliament in the Church of John the Baptist to decide on the successor to the throne. St John's Tower, the only surviving part of this 12th century church, is situated south of Sandgate, beside Bruce Terrace.
The Ayr that Robert Burns was to know in the 18th century was a lively trading town: importing such goods as Spanish salt, Eastdale slate, earthenware from England and tobacco from the Americas. This bustling environment was to prove alluring for the young poet. Robert Burns was born in Alloway, a small neighbouring town now swallowed up by Ayr's suburbs, in January 1759 in a clay cottage (or "but and ben") built by his father on a small plot of land leased from the local landowner for farming. The cottage now houses a museum dedicated to the poet which includes many original manuscripts and personal affects.
Although Burns was raised as a farmer his serious and religious father did not neglect his education, while his mother inspired the youngster with old songs and tales. Burns' tough upbringing ploughing the fields could not suppress the creative instincts of this intelligent, charismatic and handsome young man and so at an early age he began to write in his spare time. Despite his toil in the fields, by 1786 he was faced with poverty and decided, with no small measure of bitterness, to immigrate to Jamaica. However, he was delayed by various relationships with women: by the time he was 27 he had already fathered at least three children by at least two women, one of whom was the family servant (Burns would continue impregnating almost every women he came into contact with!). Eventually poverty forced him to publish some of his poems, which he did in 1786 to enormous acclaim and popular recognition. With new found celebrity status he decided to stay on in Scotland, although he was eventually forced to accept work as an exciseman to supplement his unstable poet's income.
Burns' libertarianism was radical: he supported Scottish independence (as poems such as "Scots Wha Hae" testify) and the ideas of the French Revolution of 1789; he criticised the Scottish Church; poems "A man's a man for a' that" and "Is there for Honest Poverty" tell of his concerns about social inequality. At the same time his relationships with women give us an insight into just how far he felt personal freedom could be taken. The Tam O' Shanter Inn, an old thatched pub at 230 High Street, has become a shrine to the poet, who spent many an evening here relating his adventures while indulging in legendary drinking bouts. Burns died of heart disease aged just 37 (he is buried in St Michael's Churchyard, Dumfries).
Apart from the Burns Trail Ayr and Ayrshire have a lot to offer. Ayrshire is the home of Open Golf: the first British Open tournament was held in Prestwick and the Troon and Turnberry courses have also hosted the event. Today Ayr is home to Scotland's premier racecourse, where the Scottish National is run every year. Since Victorian times Ayr has been a popular seaside resort; with miles of sandy beaches and with traditional seaside attractions and entertainment. When we include the picturesque old town itself and the area's connection with Robert Burns, it is easy to see why people are drawn here from all over the world.