Saturday, 14 January 2017

Muirkirk's winter wonderland

Having coughed myself silly all week with a chest infection, humans and dogs alike were bouncing off the walls by lunchtime and ready to get wrapped up and out for a wee stroll in the country. I'd wanted to go to Muirkirk during the holidays but we never quite made it (the extra few miles to the east of Cumnock a drive too far...)

One thing I remembered about Muirkirk as we drove along the A70 through Lugar was that the OS map I keep in the car stops around Cronberry, and as I hadn't got around to buying the one that actually covers Muirkirk, today's walk was a bit of a wing and a prayer. I *had* looked up the relevant section of the River Ayr walkway as it starts at neighbouring Glenbuck, and I had a vague notion that we needed to turn towards the campsite, but beyond that... As we neared the village Mrs A sensed my uncertainty so I parked the car and marched confidently along the footpath towards, um, a signpost.

Fate intervened and the signpost turned out to say "walker's carpark", the starting point for several fantastically well signed paths.

Muirkirk is a long way inland - it's pretty much the last bit of Ayrshire before you reach the desert badlands of Lanarkshire - and it's high up, so it has had quite a bit of snow in the last few days. The dogs were delighted, especially Mac.

 We didn't get a chance to go far (see comments above re map...) but we had enough daylight to enjoy a stunning walk. Passing a ruined house and an empty field, information signs told us that this was the home and HQ of John Loudoun MacAdam's tar works - a hub of invention back in the late 18th century. In fact, that muddy track may lay claim to have been the first 'tarmacked' road in the world! A cairn a few yards further on commemorates MacAdam (using the stones from his factory - hence the now empty field).

Following the path further onto the moorland and we could have been anywhere - Cairngorm, the Highlands - but with the complete absence of other people. It's a stunningly beautiful and easily accessible wilderness (and a good trip if you're thinking about getting a taste of Ayrshire from the East - just about an hour and a half from Edinburgh, down the A70)

Of course, being Ayrshire, the wilderness is never quite as wild as it looks - there are signs of man's poking around at every turn. The land around Muirkirk is boggy, and Kames was the site of at least one pit working. In several places, the ground has given way into soggy holes, and there are multiple warning signs advising that you stick to the path (I'm not sure that the sheep in the neighbouring field can read, perhaps they are just naturally wary of holes that weren't there before...)

So enjoy, take a map, and don't fall down the "industrial archaeology"...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017


Another walk as the holidays draw to a close - the weather was a more typical overcast and chilly January day today, and by the time we'd been to the shops in Cumnock we'd abandoned the original plan of a walk from Muirkirk and headed instead for New Cumnock.

I'd been keen to revisit New Cumnock (see here for a previous post about the swimming pool, now demolished and being rebuilt by Prince Charles!). I'd cycled to the village and came across the intriguingly named Knockshinnoch Lagoons last summer, but hadn't had time to investigate - I had a vague notion that Knockshinnoch had been a pit and that there'd been a disaster there. Then later last year I came across Ian McMurdo's Knockshinnoch: The Greatest Mines Rescue in History . You know how people say 'oh, I couldn't put it down?' Well, this was literally an 'I cannot put it down' read, Mrs A had to drive the car that weekend so I could continue reading en route to Tescos.

I won't spoil the story too much, but the basic facts are that geology combined with a series of human errors - and the drive to have a profitable pit - meant that the miners at Knockshinnoch were working dangerously close to the surface. A period of exceptionally bad weather in 1950 led to the collapse of the peat bog above them, with disastrous results - 129 men trapped, 13 of whom died. The men who got out did so after an incredible three day effort to rescue them, using incredibly heavy breathing apparatus which was never designed for underground use. The book is a testament not only to the bravery of the miners but also to the dedication and heroism of the Mines Rescue Brigades.

There is a memorial to the disaster on the edge of New Cumnock - a path leads off to the right beyond the cemetery, and this path eventually rejoins the road close to the Knockshinnoch Lagoons. It's such a desolate and moving place that it put me in mind of Culloden.

 Walking back along a rather muddy path (part of the excellent New Cumnock pathways) you come out onto the main road at Leggate, and the Knockshinnoch Lagoons. This is a nature reserve shaped out of the old bing and - I think - the old pit head, atlhough there's very little to indicate this now. There's a fascinating information board which does tell you about the bird life and the 'lagoons' - the area is a flood plain for the River Nith, drained in the 19th century for agricultural use, but quickly taken over as coal mining reached the area.

An unintentional consequence of mining was that ponds and wetlands were created through subsidence, coal washing and water being pumped out of the pits, and the area became hugely important for wild birds. With the loss of industry in the 1980s the habitat was lost - so it's now been recreated artificially, with an excellent network of well signposted paths and even a bird hide.

Another wonderful Ayrshire winter walk!

Monday, 2 January 2017

New Year walks...

Barony A-frameWith a run of sunny, crisp days over the festive break, what better than to get out for a few hours fresh air and a walk? We have four dogs – two greyhounds, one elderly greyhound-saluki cross and one Pomeranian, and they do love a walk in the country…

Our favourite spot has to be the Barony A-frame at Auchlineck – a place so special that it needs a blog entry of its own, and will get one (eventually).

The restored pit-head is probably the most photogenic piece of industrial history in Scotland and the site has been cleverly landscaped to incorporate information boards, a very touching memorial board, woodland walks and a BMX track! There are 0.5 km (I measured it as we also run there sometimes!) of accessible paths, and if you continue down the paved area to the rear, it takes you on a (muddy) but enjoyable walk past the old bing and eventually through the grounds of Dumfries House and back on to the main road (around an 8 km circuit).

We’ve used the holidays to venture further afield and we’ve found some interesting new walks though. Mrs A picked up a leaflet on ‘Sorn walks’ at the award winning Sorn Inn when we visited for our anniversary dinner (three years!), and we went back the following day to walk off some of the delicious grub. Parking near the cemetery, we picked up the Woodland Walk which took us up above the village, coming back down to join the River Ayr Way. We followed this for another 45 mins or so before impending darkness brought us back – a beautiful and well maintained path, and I intend to explore this further at a better time of year.

My absolute favourite walk (I only found it last week, with the wee dug, and returned today with Mrs A and the tribe) has to be up to Lethanhill in the Doon Valley. Park at the road end - easily missed as you reach Patna from Ayr, it’s the very first road on the left as you enter the village, before you reach the cake-shop-garage (if you need to ask, you’ve never been to Patna…) From there, it’s around a 5 km round walk to the abandoned village, most of it on a reasonably tarmacked road. The road is still used, so be careful not to block it when you park!

Following the road up the hill, you get stunning views of the valley and of the village of Patna down below. You pass an electricity substation, some sheep, and then, unexpectedly – a house. This is the old schoolmaster’s house for the villages of Lethanhill and Burnfoothill, known collectively as ‘The Hill’. 

Long live the 'hill

Ayrshire's Lost Villages
Read this!
I’d known of this village for a while but hadn’t had the chance to visit, and when Mrs A bought me Dane Love’s ‘Lost Ayrshire Villages’ for Christmas, I knew I needed to see for myself. The first houses in Lethanhill were built by the Dalmellington Iron Co in 1848 for ironstone miners (replaced by coal mining as the ironstone pits were exhausted and the Ironworks at Dunaskin closed in 1921), and the last inhabitants moved to council housing in Patna in 1954. Conditions in the village were incredibly harsh – stone miners’ rows with dry closets, no running water (and a notoriously bad water supply, with villagers in the 19th century relying at times on water pumped from a nearby pit) and until the 1920s, no road links to the outside world – children walked along the railway line to school at Waterside.

The village is gone now, but the war memorial still stands, along with a stone that reads ‘Long Live the ‘Hill’. Looking carefully into the tree planation on the site of the old settlement, you can see walls and ruins, and two walls of the old school house still stand on the hill. It’s an incredibly evocative site, and stunningly beautiful. Walking the length of the old village, a neat grass roadway unexpectedly opens up – this is the old mineral train line. It once ran to Corbie Craigs and Benquhat (Benwhat) before going down into Dunaskin, but open cast mining has obliterated much of the hillside. We’re planning a future walk from Dalmellington up towards Benwhat, and will report back on whether it’s possible to walk right along. In the meantime, get your wellies on and get out there!