A DAY OUT WITH A DIFFERENCE
When Janet Martin took a trip to Oregon for the annual Gorse Blossom Festival, she didn’t expect it to be quite so enlightening.
“I was known as Class Cocktails or ‘the cocktail lady’ and I also made liqueurs,” Janet begins. “I won a Great Taste Award for a gorse blossom liqueur and I was invited to the festival in Bandon, Oregon. While I was there… I was looking at other producers and I came across this guy who produced The Devil’s Own Rum. His stall was so busy; his produce was flying off the shelf. All of his staff were dressed as pirates telling the story of the piracy along the coast.”
Janet had always been interested in history and the experience made her realise that not enough was being done to celebrate the history of the west coast, Ayrshire in particular.
“I’ve always enjoyed organising themed events, and I loved history and research. My previous job was a cultural coordinator for North Ayrshire Council so I’ve had the privilege of being able to visit a lot of really interesting venues.”
This led to Janet setting up Tasting Ayrshire History Tours (THATco) at the very start of 2019.
“My husband is from Ayrshire.” explains Janet. “I moved here in 1986. I’m from Woolwich, but there are so many links. I was brought up visiting the Cutty Sark at Greenwich and the Cutty Sark was actually built in Dumbarton just up the road. The plans for the Woolwich Ferry are in the collection of the Scottish Maritime Museum… I used to travel on that ferry every weekend!”
Her enthusiasm is practically fizzing down the phone line and I find myself smiling at her ‘cocktail lady’ moniker. But I can also understand why she decided to delve into the past in order to change her future, a decision that now allows her to pursue her interests as well as enjoy her work.
“I enjoy contributing to other people having a good time. A lot of people who take part in our tours are celebrating something. We might have a group celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, or people have been gifted it as an experiential present.”
THATco offers a selection of different tours of varying length and interest, including:
Maritime History Tour
Island Slice Rum Tour
Mother’s Ruin Gin Tour
Millers & Merchants Tour
Carters and Coastal Culture Tour
Hunterston Castle Tour
For some of the tours, Janet (and/or her guides) wear costumes to enhance the customer experience. For example, at Hunterston Castle, the tour guides work with Clan Hunter and Madam Pauline Hunter and dress in medieval costume.
“Of course, we have information about characters but we don’t necessarily know the fine details. We can find pictures of what they looked like and we consider how they would be and how they would act, given the facts that we’ve got. There is a bit of creative licence used for developing the characters.”
Janet enjoys nothing more than to don a costume and assume a character. But she gets just as much pleasure from seeing others doing the same.
“Tour guides… it’s all freelance work so there are a number of students, or people who just enjoy drama, people who are naturally outgoing or love entertaining or dressing up. It’s great watching people, young folk in particular, just really getting to grips with the character
and making the character their own. As time goes on you see them develop which is great.”
All of the tours are Ayrshire-based and look at significant historical characters from the past.
“Often, we look at how these people generated wealth to build the towns and villages that we live in. A lot of the time the history is lost. We have a new tour starting… about the flax to linen industry in the Garnock Valley. It looks at the Knox family who actually started producing and bleaching flax, and how farming has changed over time. We’re going to visit a local farm which totally diversified. They now produce ice-cream and chocolate but the land was originally owned by the Knoxs’ and the current farmer used to be sent as a boy to pay the rental money to Miss Knox. We’re looking at the changing local history.”
I start to wonder if Janet is reading from a card, such is her knowledge and eloquence, but also her passion. She laughs at my suggestion, not at all offended, and tells me: “That’s what it is to be a tour guide!”
Initially, Janet set up THATco to attract visitors to Ayrshire but it’s predominantly local people who attend the tours.
“It’s local people who are just fascinated to learn about the local history. The Millers & Merchants Tour looks at the lace industry in Victorian Ayrshire at MYB Textiles and Lamlash House, Newmilns. We’ve had people come back two or three times. I suppose you hear different things, and absorb different information each time.”
Janet credits the current owners of Lamlash House for their continued contributions to the tour.
“The guys at Lamlash House are absolutely brilliant. They’ve been finding out so many interesting facts about local history and we incorporate that information in the scripts.”
She uses the word “scripts” loosely, and explains why: “For example, if I have somebody playing a character… I really allow the actor just to play with that character and enjoy it. We describe the character, we look at their life and the time they were alive. We look at the kind of things they would have been doing, and where they were living. It’s when you get to that stage that you can answer questions and interact with people and talk as if you are that person.”
I ask Janet which of the tours is her favourite.
“My favourite one is the one that I’m doing at the time. I love working with people who enjoy the process. I’ve just been so fortunate to come across people who really enjoy imparting that information and who really enjoy engaging with people.”
And what about the cocktail lady, is she still experimenting with a cocktail shaker?
“I do if it’s linked with the tours,” she confirms. “I just love playing with flavours and making themed drinks and food that are linked with the storyline or the facts. I point towards food and drink, that’s where the tasting history comes in. The Millers & Merchants tour has a three-course lunch. The Maritime History tour has the rum tasting… there’s always something to tempt you. In cases where we can’t produce food or drink, we’ll point the way to local places for people to eat.”
I’m beginning to see the attraction of the Gin & Tatties experience, and the Mother’s Ruin Gin Tour! Details of these and all of the Tasting History Ayrshire Tours can be found at www.tastinghistoryscotland.com. In the meantime, Janet has these final words to say:
“I do believe that in order to enjoy yourself you need to be fully engaged and you need to have fun. We aim to be fun and informative and to provide a day out with a difference.”
Count me in!