I will lift up mine eyes

by Nigel Ward

How do we describe the environments in which we live and work? Beyond our urban centres a lexicon of adjectives jostle for position when depicting characteristics and conveying positive impressions.

Multi-coloured quayside cottages evoke picturesque or colourful. Market towns are vernacular, conjuring nostalgic bygone images. Twee and rustic are associated with some villages, while others are agricultural at best. Turf-roofed black houses and crofts are hunkered-down and rugged. A thatched cottage has chocolate-box connotations.

Yet, could residents of Ayr, this once-proud county town, use such descriptions to reclaim a unique elegance? How might curious visitors to the High Street and Sandgate see beyond the uniformity of chains, brands and logos? Could they achieve a greater understanding of the town and a more intriguing impression of its qualities than nay-sayers suggest?

Few would attach the epithet of beauty to urban fringes nationwide. Uniform estates of roughcast, render and UPVC invite more negative insinuations. New town creations exhibit the same intrinsically suburban essence of soul-less geometry, roundabouts and concrete precincts. However, maybe the view of one particular new town is where salvation lies.

New Towns are not a product of the 1960s. Neither are they solely rooted in the English Garden City movement of the early 1900s, which gave rise to Welwyn Garden City. From the 1760s, elegant Georgian townhouses changed the face of Scotland’s capital. Amidst a new layout of expansive civic spaces, neo-classical columns, friezes and fenestrations decorated the facades of George Street and Charlotte Square: Edinburgh’s own New Town was born.

Imposing and dignified, the architecture incites anyone to raise their gaze. Rooflines and cornices, balustrades and parapets combine with columns, statement doorways and fine windows to exclaim the city’s aspirations. Crane the neck and barely seen details from almost hidden craftsmanship can still be appreciated. Masonry was sculpted and placed for its own sake. World Heritage Site status allows the city to proclaim the beauty it exudes.

Today, these buildings exhort anyone to follow the psalmist’s advice, ‘I will lift up mine eyes…’ This perspective should allow residents of Ayr, like other towns and cities, to restore a faith in their own surroundings.

Anyone walking down Ayr’s High Street, watching where they step, or with eyes fixed on retail offers, will experience the same as they would in towns across the country: Boots, Burger King, W H Smith, Tesco, Superdrug, before reaching the retail heights of M&S. After peeping into Robbie’s Drams and Willie Wastle’s on the Sandgate, an equally low-level view might glimpse RBS, BetFred or the Co-op.

Nevertheless, along both streets, the view above the succession of generic shop-fronts tells a different tale. Many buildings warrant official listed status for the features that can still be seen, if only we looked.

Scrolled Flemish gables, a fluted Ionic colonnade, corbelled mullions, finialled wall-head balustrades, parapets, spandrels and tripartite lunettes: the language alone radiates a sense of beauty. Greek revival stands by Italian Renaissance. Close-by, stepped gables of Scottish Baronial and hints of art-deco meld with Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mansard windows allude to a faded French elegance evoking the Auld Alliance.

Torch-bearing gryphons, cherubs and sword-wielding Wallace all look down. Gables and facades display friezes, cartouches and the intricate work of stonemasons long gone. The buildings’ own tattoos, proudly declare age or ownership. Even occasional tram cable brackets still adorn a wall, forgotten curiosities left for the more observant to spot.

Like town halls countrywide, Ayr’s civic leaders declared pride in their achievements and aspirations. Swagged laurel garlands and sculpted fruit adorn Doric columns like an Emperor’s reward. An ornate octagonal belfry supports a cloud-piercing spire, its missing Triton a lost beauty of yesteryear adding mystery to the view.

Polished red sandstone ashlar may be stained, but its ubiquity declares Ayr’s identity. From pebbles on a suburban drive, through sturdy harbour-side cottages, to the frontage of once-solid local banks. It is Ayr. Just as honey-coloured limestone is the Cotswolds and granite is Aberdeen. Occasional tufts of vegetation may sprout from a roan pipe like an untrimmed whisker on the chin of a geriatric dowager, but ageing beauties stand the test of time. The sporadic blemish can be overlooked with discretion.

From a seventeenth century lady’s house, through Enlightenment and Empire to an optimistic sundial embellishing an early twentieth century emporium, eras, fashions and periods combine. Contrasting styles present the narrative of an evolving aesthetic, one melding with the next.

Only in an urban environment can these juxtapositions create synergy and avoid monotony. In villages such variety would clash, invoking NIMBY reactions under the guise of being out-of-character. Across stone and steel, and between brick and glass, individual creations may be disliked, some pigeonholed as carbuncles. But a townscape’s skyline isn’t one-dimensional, it has depth, it shows growth, it accommodates, becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

Again, as Ayr’s undulating rooflines and serried chimney stacks attest, intriguing contrasts abound. On the Sandgate, the 17th century Lady Cathcart’s House and the early 19th century Ayrshire Bank reflect dramatically different eras. Sitting comfortably alongside their Georgian neighbours, differences are highlighted not denied. On Mill Street, behind the High Street’s Wallace Tower, a handful of stone mullioned windows are reminiscent of Oxford colleges, a world away in time and place. And that’s before the Tam O’Shanter’s thatch is seen between tiles and slate that hem it in on either side.

These fascinating architectural variations may not match the spectacle of the controversial Scottish Parliament buildings, adjacent to Holyrood Palace and the Royal Mile. Neither do they compare in scale to Glasgow’s Merchant City, seen in reflection through the glass of modern city centre office blocks. The newly opened riverscape by The Cutty-Sark Centre may not yet have the visual spice generated by Clyde-side cranes, squinty bridges, and an Armadillo. However, together, they elicit an essential curiosity about what lies beneath and reveal a visual history about which the Honest Men and Bonnie Lasses of Ayr should be proud.

While a distinguished urban dignity may struggle to shine through, it is there. In places it may be faded, showing signs of strain or age. But, with our eyes raised well above pavement and shop front levels, Ayr’s is there to be seen and wants to tell its story in a language rich with echoes of the past.