River Ayr Way
East Ayrshire/South Ayrshire, Scotland
Start: Glenbuck Loch
Distance: 41 miles (66 km)
Time: 3 days
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Surface: Forest Trails
The River Ayr Way, Scotland’s First ‘sea to source’ trail, was opened in 2006. Within a year, in excess of 10,000 people had come to walk all or part of it. The path begins as an overflow out of Glenbuck Loch, an artificial reservoir on the Lanarkshire/Ayrshire border created in the late 1780s to provide a source of water for a series of cotton mills at nearby Catrine. A popular river for anglers who come here looking for salmon, sea trout, brown trout, grayling and stickleback, it flows westwards through moorlands and past various relics to the Industrial Age as it steadily grows in strength beside you, picking up the waters of Greenock Water, the Lugar Water, the Water of Fail and the Water of Coyle, until it reaches the coastal town of Ayr, and empties into the Firth of Clyde.
There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you trace the entire course of a river, from an often innocuous source and on past its adjoining streams and tributaries, all the way to its inevitable merging with the sea. Walked over two or three stages on an easy waymarked path the River Ayr Way is short enough to complete over a long weekend or even on a two-day weekend if you get early starts. Leaving Glenbuck Loch the trail leads on to a section of the old Caledonian Railway, past the abandoned Glenbuck Station railway platform and past a still operating open-cut mine into Karnes, where a circuit to the summit of Cairn Table (1,945 ft) is an option if you feel like adding a moderate ascent to an otherwise easy, flat ramble.
A highlight on the trail are the woodlands of the Ayr Gorge in the Ayr Gorge Wildlife Refuge, a mix of steep ravines and sandstone cliffs covered in beech, larch and oak and one of Ayrshire’s most precious ancient woodland environments. Declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest Ayr Gorge is home to a wealth of invertebrates including spiders and beetles, and five species of bats. Birdlife includes warblers, Spotted Flycatchers and Bullfinches. Replanted birch trees here have done so well they’ve had to be thinned to provide enough light and space for other species. Airds Moss is another ecological treat, an area of blanket or ‘featherbed’ bogs, a designated Special Area of Conservation and home to grouse, hen harriers and peregrine falcons. It’s also where, in 1680, Richard Cameron, the leader of the militant Presbyterian group known as the Covenanters opposed to Stuart attempts to control the Church of Scotland, was killed by English dragoons.
The path is never too far away from remnants, ruins, and still intact structures that echo the region’s industrial – and inventive – past. Just outside Karnes the path runs right over an early 18th-century attempt at road surfacing by a local man, John MacAdam. After leaving Catrine on the way to Mauchline the path rises above the river and passes through a lovely wooded valley before passing underneath the Ballochrnyle Railway Viaduct, a masterpiece of engineering and a designated National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark which possesses the world’s largest masonry arch (181 ft) and which is still in use – a rare example of a heritage structure built right the first time and still able to be adapted and utilized.
Ayrshire’s valleys conceal an interesting human history too. William Wallace hid from English troops along the trail at a viewpoint above the river now called Wallace’s Seat, while the Ayrshire scenery helped inspire the poems of Robert Burns, who was born in Alloway in Ayrshire in 1759 and who bade a sad farewell (in Ayr Gorge) to his darling Highland Mary, in 1786.
The path contains a lovely assortment of all the things one expects on a river walk. There are footbridges and stepping stones, perilous-looking suspension bridges and the sturdy early 18th-century sandstone bridge at Sorn. The path tends to bypass cliffs and ridges rather than climb them, and always there is the river, that constant companion, always showing the way. There’s no need for topographic maps and compasses here. Entering Ayrat the end of your walk you make your way towards Ayr Harbour and to the lighthouse at the end of South Pier – where you now have the choice of setting off either to the north or to the south on the fabulous 147-km-long Ayrshire Coastal Path which runs almost in its entirety along either sandy or rock-strewn beaches of this lovely Scottish county.