Secret walking gem: The River Ayr Way

Walking the River Ayr Way

Have you discovered the River Ayr Way in the gorgeous countryside of Ayrshire?

It never fails to surprise me how few people know about the beauty and walking opportunities in Ayrshire. While the region is only a hop and a skip from the Central Belt, it seems that it is too often overlooked for the northern mountains of the Highlands or the southern attractions of Dumfries & Galloway.  On the other hand, perhaps I like walking in Ayrshire because I meet so few people!

One secret gem of a walk is the River Ayr Way. I have walked sections of the 44-mile long-distance trail on many occasions and rarely bumped into another soul. Yet the route, wherever you choose to start and finish is very accessible. It also boasts many civilised comforts, such as village shops, cafes and restaurants, just a short stroll from the route itself.

The route of the River Ayr Way

The sublimely peaceful trail hugs the winding River Ayr from its source to the sea. Opened in 2006, this trail joined a stable of official long-distance Scottish routes including the West Highland Way and the Speyside Way, yet it remains one of a kind because it heads from river source at Glenbuck to the Atlantic sea at the seaside town of Ayr.

The trail crosses moorlands and farmland, wanders into wonderful woodland and cuts through stunning rocky gorges. It boasts historical intrigue and plenty of wildlife.

For keen walkers, the 44-mile route can be walked over a weekend or long weekend. I have chosen to walk (and run) it in sections, non-continuously, of between six and 10 miles choosing a start point to suit my energy levels and that of friends. Because I live in Glasgow, the River Ayr Way is only a 45 to 60-minute drive, so the route is perfect for an afternoon or day or walking whenever I choose.

The start of the River Ayr Way

One of the remotest parts of the walk is at the startpoint, Glenbuck, which is an almost deserted village in the Muirkirk Hills. Best known as the birthplace of Bill Shankly, one of Britain’s most respected football managers, the once bustling coal mining town is now the scene of an sprawling open-cast mine and a small fishing loch.

The loch has a lovely tree-fringed tranquility and fittingly provides the source of the River Ayr. While only a stream at this stage, the sound of burbling water as it pushes over rocks and twists round tight corners in rough grassland reminds the walker of its presence as the signposted route tracks the slightly raised line of a dismantled railway.

Reaching the southern outskirts of the historical village of Muirkirk, the River Ayr begins to widen and slowly increase its pace. For a stretch, the signposted walk strays further south taking hikers through the specially protected Muirkirk Uplands, designated for its diverse mix of upland birds. If you have the time, detour into Muirkirk to take advantage of an innovative audio tour, which tells of the village’s industrial and social history including its links to the Covenant rebellion in the 17th century.

West of Muirkirk the River Ayr again enters a site of natural beauty. Airds Moss, an RSPB reserve, boasts rare low-altitude blanket bogs, the ideal habitat for a variety of moorland birds such as hen harrier, black and red grouse, curlew, skylark and merlin. Though difficult to imagine now, the site was also the scene in 1680 of a bloody battle between the Covenanters and the King’s men.

For much of the following two hours, the walkway clings closely to the banks of the river as it winds an ever-changing course through pleasantly rolling lowlands and along the edge of small woodlands. Around every bend there is a surprise, from a waterfall to a large, tree-covered pool, so serene it beckons you to stop and stare into its depths for a while.

‘A chance for wild solitude’

I met a local walker John on this stretch of the River Ayr Way. He describes the River Ayr Way as “a rare chance of wild solitude”. He says: “It’s not often that you can truly feel as though you’re getting away from everything but here there are only the views and the noise of the river for company.

“I’ve walked other long-distance routes, which in comparison felt more like a Saturday on Sauchiehall Street. This walk is nothing like that.”

A fit walker like John is happy to walk the 16-mile journey from Glenbuck to Sorn in one day, followed by a second day of 11 miles to Stair and a third outing of 13 miles to complete the route at Ayr Esplanade. For others, the entire route can be divided into four, five, six and even seven separate walks.

Walking the River Ayr Way 2

Signposting along the River Ayr Way

It is possible to mostly rely on the waymarkings although it’s wise to take a GPS download and/or a map in case you lose sight of the signs. There is, and has been since the opening, a “temporary” detour along the way that infuriatingly takes walkers along a section of road west of Catrine village instead of overland. Rumour has it that this issue has never been resolved with the local council and landowner but it doesn’t spoil the rest of the route, especially as it’s recommended that walkers rejoin the River Ayr Way at Failford, where there is the perfect place for a lunch stop at the Failford Inn.

Walking from Failford to Stair

From Failford the walk follows a leaf-crunching trail – I walked the section in autumn – through Ayr Gorge and the surrounding 40 hectares of Scottish Wildlife Trust woodlands. While the path is often undulating, several sections have helpful wooden steps that ease the ascent and descent. High boardwalk platforms also offer an excuse for a breather as you take in jaw-dropping views of the river valley way below.

An interesting feature at Ayr Gorge is the steps cut into the sandstone centuries ago that lead to a place called Peden’s Cove. Here the Covenanter Alexander Peden preached to his congregation on the other side of the river. The gorge is also the place where poet Rabbie Burns, who had a home in the nearby village of Mauchline, and Highland Mary met in 1786 to make their arrangements for leaving Scotland together. Where the Water of Fail meets the River Ayr, Burns is believed to have presented Mary with an inscribed Bible telling of his love for her.

Walking from Stair to Ayr

From Stair to Ayr is 12 miles and this section of the route sees the River Ayr begin to build in width and momentum. In centuries past, the water’s force was harnessed to power numerous mills scattered along the river’s banks, first for grinding corn and later as part of the Scottish textiles industry.

It was to the banks of the River Ayr near Annbank that William Wallace fled in the 12th century following clashes with the English army. Staying with a relative at Auchincruive Estate, Wallace spent much time in hiding at Leglen woods. Some 500 years later, a young hero worshipper called Robert Burns walked from Mount Oliphant, near Alloway, to the woods, treading in the footsteps of Wallace. Today a cairn on the south bank of the River Ayr at Oswald Bridge commemorates the two great Scots men.

Now the scent of the sea and the bustling streets of Ayr draws the walker along the last few miles of the walkway and through the pretty Craigie Estate. Just close to Ayr College there’s a dramatic weir, before the River Ayr makes its way finally into the mightier Firth of Clyde. The walk comes to an end at the pier in Ayr harbour, and on a clear day offers a fantastic panorama across to Ailsa Craig and Arran.

I am hoping that I have inspired you to go to Ayrshire to walk the route, although I half hope you don’t because I love the tranquility of this long-distance Scottish trail!

For route details see River Ayr Way and Walk Highlands.

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