Carolyn O’Hara

Over many years, I have visited numerous Scottish coastal locations, but nothing beats the Ayrshire coastline around Dunure. Whenever I revisit, I am transported to idyllic summers cemented in my childhood memory.

During the 1960s, our family holidayed in an unused shepherd’s cottage on Dunduff Farm near Fisherton. Located half a mile northeast of Dunure, above the Heads of Ayr, Fisherton is a scattered community with Dunduff Castle, the main focal point, lying above on the hillside. And so, my regular visits to this coastal area began at an impressionable age.

From there, we looked down on the roofs of the tiny fishing village of Dunure, but also over an unrivalled vista, with magnificent views over the bay and the wider expanse of the Firth of Clyde.

That view, at times dominated by the Isle of Arran with its ‘sleeping giant’, occasionally seemed close enough to touch, its buildings and fields clearly visible, with Holy Isle lying at its feet. At other times, some crafty wizard cast a magic spell vanishing the island entirely. To the south sits Ailsa Craig, the famous volcanic plug of granite from which countless curling stones have been created. On clear days, the hazy outline of Ireland could be glimpsed too. Some summers, pods of dolphins played in the bay and, later in the year, murmurations of starlings would wash the sky with waves of blackness with breathtaking beauty.

That vista was forever changing – sometimes dramatically different within a mere few minutes. One memorably hot August, a thunderstorm roared theatrically around us with stomach-churning power, accompanied by a light display to rival fireworks, the power of nature making a vivid impression on my younger self.

During holidays, expeditions were often planned for days at the beach. Sometimes we visited the picturesque Dunure harbour to watch with fascination the incoming and outgoing vessels, before we headed for the pebbly stretch of beach to the north to marvel at a natural archway carved out of the rock by the relentlessly ferocious waves.

South of the harbour, rocky outcrops form the coastline below the remnants of Dunure Castle. Exploring this stretch of the shoreline could prove hazardous: a clear and easy path south would vanish later as the tide turned, often leaving walkers stranded beneath the steep cliffs. Year on year, Dunure Castle ruins would crumble away, bit by bit, but always provided a wonderful area on which to scramble and investigate, imagining life of old.

But it was days spent at a sandy cove west of Fisherton, little-visited by other holiday makers, which were forever special and memorable.

Laden with rugs, wind breaks, toys and food, my family and I would set off down the rough farm road, running alongside our private paradise, and continue along the bending track until it joined the main road at Fisherton Primary School. Across that busy road we went, passed the police house and other homes, before turning right and making our way along Fisherton Avenue which runs parallel with the old railway cutting, the only remaining evidence of the Dunure & Maidens Light Railway which wound its way from Ayr, through Alloway, and down to Turnberry, the purpose of which was to transport more easily from Glasgow, clients and supplies to the world’s first golfing hotel. The single-track line opened in May 1906 at the cost of what has been estimated at £300,000, only to be closed after a remarkably brief period in the 1930s as car ownership soared. As a child, I had no knowledge of the fact that I was walking on the spot where early twentieth century trains had travelled, and a small station had once stood, something which today I find fascinating.

Having navigated the rail-less hollow, we cut across the fields, warily passing herds of cattle that stared us down in a menacing manner as we headed for the steep incline, down which we inched our way towards our favourite little bay and our destination, me in my jelly-shoes and towelling shorts, holding tight to my sun hat with one hand, and my drawstring bag packed with swimsuit, towel and a change of clothes in the other.

Over the years that we visited our secluded little bay, it was almost always deserted and perfect for a day’s fun. We would set up camp at the foot of the cliff face and organise ourselves for what felt like an endless day of pleasure. Rock pooling was a favourite. Crouched low over little glistening pools we would observe the sea life – and try to catch some.

Next would be building sand castles, with moats, buckets of sea water carefully carried from the waves to form a protective ring around our princely palaces. My sister and I would also vie with one another to gather the most varied shells which were used to decorate the walls of the castles, before being rescued as the waves rolled in, then safely stored to take home later.

Another competitive occupation was raft floating. It was astonishing what we found washed up on the beaches after mighty storms. But best of all was splashing in the waves. As for actual swimming, I was not confident enough to venture far and, with the water temperature always considerably colder than the air, it was usually on the chilly side. Regardless of the activity chosen, it was always with an eye out for terrifying jelly fish.

Picnic time felt like a highlight but with sand and flies to contend with, in retrospect, it was probably less fun than I remember. And then there was the pleasure of flopping flat on my back on the warm sand, beneath the dome of blue speckled with seagulls, enjoying the laughter carried on the breeze, the sound of the waves, and the warm sun on my skin.

Watching vessels on the waves proved entertaining too: tiny dots of speed boats showing off their speedy wakes, fishing trawlers chugging by, and the occasional yacht gliding past. But there was one occasion when the peace of the bay was rudely interrupted.

The distant buzz of helicopters was not unknown but on one iconic occasion, that buzz became louder and more insistent. Suddenly, the giant metal insect swung into view from behind the nearby cliff and, apparently upon spotting us, swooped low over the ground, circling the little sandy bay. Our shock must have been clear from our reaction as the pilot and co-pilot gave us a cheery wave, before laughingly soaring heavenwards and vanishing as swiftly as they had appeared.

It was only at the end of such a day that, with heavy legs and the sun still beating strongly on our backs, I realised with dismay how much of a climb it was to retrace our steps.

I like to think, however, that those experiences were the ones which changed me forever. That was the place where nature sank its hook into my human flesh, a hook which gives me an emotional tug whenever I catch sight of a magnificent sunset, sniff a harvested field, or hear the call of wild seabirds.