The Fascinating Corners and Curiosities of Ardrossan’s Heritage Trail

Nigel Ward

I didn’t imagine I’d see a seal wearing a football shirt in Ardrossan. Neither did I expect to become intrigued by twenty granite balls, nor be reminded about that Nippy Sweetie, the redoubtable Miss Toner. Visiting this Ayrshire seaside town to explore its heritage trail became all of this, and more.

I thought I’d simply follow some blue plaques, garnering information as I walked. However, things ended differently. Discovering more since returning home, I’ve extended the day’s enjoyment.

Inland, wind turbines bristle the horizon as Ardrossan spreads along the north Ayrshire coastline, its two bays scalloped either side of the town’s heart and harbour.

Initially drawn to an obelisk standing proud on the prow of Castle Hill, I stood beside a monument to local Victorian philanthropist, Dr Alexander McFadzean.

On a blustery January morning, an icing sugar dusting of snow plastered Arran’s Goat Fell across the Firth of Clyde, hinting how harsh conditions can be. On more benign days, those enjoying the shorelines below might relax to the lapping of gentle waves. Hardier souls might describe my own experience as merely bracing.

Close to the monument, sadly behind padlocked fencing, are the remains of Ardrossan’s twelfth century castle. From the shoreline, crumbling walls and the keep barely break the skyline. However, from up on Castle Hill, its presence is commanding, recalling Dunure, Greenan and Portencross castles along the Ayrshire coast.

Although prevented from exploring the ruins, information boards open windows into the past. They describe links to the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland’s Privy Council of 1546, and the equestrian exploits of Fergus de Barclay, the De’il O’ Ardrossan. What might still stand had Oliver Cromwell not transported stonework down the coast to build the Fortress in Ayr?

From this vantage point, Ardrossan, like many coastal communities, is clearly based on transport and travel, focusing on what must have been a busy harbour.

Trading coal and iron, alongside fishing, ferries and packet boats, justified three basins, breakwaters and the impressive red brick Victorian hydraulic powerhouse, its Italianate tower still standing today. A preserved anchor, on gravel across the road, hints at the size of craft that berthed in its heyday.

For many, the town, and its ferry terminal, is a place to pass through, no longer a destination. The old Eglinton Basin, fringed by apartments and accommodating a flotilla of yachts is today’s Clyde Marina. A very different clientele feels the wind, hears the slap of wires on masts and the thrum of marine engines.

I was surprised to know that Ardrossan once boasted five railway stations. Town centre, South Beach, and Ardrossan Harbour, once called Winton Pier, survive. Gone are Ardrossan North and Montgomerie Pier. Seen from the site of the latter, beyond the white-cast apartments, Horse Isle beacon beckons from an uninhabited island. Half a mile offshore, now a nature reserve, its effectiveness might be questioned. At least seventeen ships are recorded as foundering on the rocks, many since its construction in 1811, one as late as 1960.

Where the old Montgomerie Pier Station stood, a curious collection of balls perch on a chequerboard plinth. In 2003, Hideo Furuta, Hiroshima-born Japanese sculptor, who made Scotland his home, installed twenty hand-carved granite spheres. Position and Appearance apparently depicts themes of elusive logic with echoes of Zen sand gardens. Contemporary art certainly makes you think.

In the town centre, nearly sixty buildings warrant Listed status for significance and architectural merit, half in Princes Street and Glasgow Street. Not all are obvious, some being obscured beneath more recent developments.

The Town Hall, battlemented with Gothic decorations and crow-stepped gables, stands proud on Glasgow Street. Other buildings expose continuous cills, cornices and parapets amidst new shopfronts or altered rooflines. Some retain original painted ashlar; others are now clad in more recent roughcast.

All sit within the town’s original grid layout, planned by Peter Nicholson for the 12th Earl of Eglinton in the early nineteenth century. Orientation towards the harbour is obvious. Missing, is the Earl’s aspiration for a canal linking the harbour through Paisley to Glasgow. Was this casualty his nineteenth century equivalent of HS2?

More architectural riches survive on Harbour Road. Scottish Baronial and battlemented parapets adorn the 1889 Old Constabulary building, now a medical centre. Nearby, the Old Customs House, from the 1840s, stands as one remaining part of the early harbour developments.

Some may say South Bay’s curve of sandy beach, promenade and wide green, displays echoes of faded seaside glory. However, South Crescent Road and Arran Place accommodate more Listed early and mid-nineteenth century villas and terraces, presenting attractive porticos, pilasters, columns, and cornices. The impressive red brick elevations of St Peter in Chains on South Crescent Road is Ardrossan’s only A Listed building, built in 1938.

Across the road, a memorial garden marks the loss of HMS Dasher. This escort carrier sank in the Clyde after an unexplained explosion in March 1943 with the loss of 379 seamen. Controversy about burials and disclosure of information continues, while the Ardrossan-Brodick ferry passes over the wreck.

Before leaving the bay, give a foot-tapping nod to an ivory painted terraced house on Arran Place. Who remembers The Majestics, and that Nippy Sweetie, Miss Toner? Featured in the 1986 television series Tutti Frutti are the lodgings used by the fictitious rock ‘n’ roll band created by John Byrne, starring Robbie Coltrane and Katy Murphy.

Now, where’s that soccer-clad seal?

A colourful mural adorns the corner of Glasgow Street and Princes Street. Created in July 2023, bold images reflect features of Ardrossan that local young people considered significant.

The castle, trains and shipping are represented, with sea life from sharks to jellyfish. The red-funnelled steamer is Lairds Isle, once connecting the Ayrshire coast with Belfast.

Two historic firsts are portrayed by a radio mast and a plane. In December 1921 the first transatlantic shortwave radio transmission was made when Connecticut communicated with Ardrossan. The plane symbolises Janet Hendry, Scotland’s first registered female pilot. Born in Ardrossan in 1906, she qualified in 1928, a year before the famous Amy Johnson.

Meanwhile, the seal swims in the corner, wearing the colours of Ardrossan Winton Rovers.

During that day, and since, I’ve learned about a town working hard to share fascinating corners and curiosities, blending history, geography and culture. Some are self-evident; some are revealed by digging and exploration. Trawls for further snippets extended my enjoyment, deepening my appreciation of a place some may know little about.

Plaques and information panels illuminate, but are also launch pads, sparking interest. Two pages can’t do this Ayrshire town justice, with many aspects receiving the briefest mentions.
Optimistic projects of many community groups point to more positive developments for both visitors and the local community.

Use North Ayrshire Council’s heritage trails as your own starting point. Find their blue plaques, and, if you’re tech-savvy, use their QR codes. Visit www.naheritagetrails.co.uk for more information, and follow Ardrossan’s trail to the end. Online, or standing with the wind in your face, explore the mystery behind the final plaque. It simply states:

Mungo Campbell
1712 – 1770
Excise officer and murderer