Let there be smugglers travelling through our woodlands … a place where it wasn’t safe to explore back in the days …
I so love walking in the woods and getting lost. Do you? Many years ago people would never venture into the woods for fear of the unknown. What could the unknown be? Wild animals, highwaymen or scary tales of ghosts and witches told over the centuries.
The Smugglers’ Trail is a 8-10km walk in Ayrshire, Scotland, from the Troon coast to Dundonald Castle. It can take around two hours one way. You can also walk the trail in reverse. I’ve walked parts of this trail many times with friends, but this year was the first time I’d walked the official route from coast to castle.
The trail starts at south beach car park in Troon and passes through the interesting places below. My friend and I walked the trail in September 2016.
- Royal Troon Golf Course
- The Wrack Road
- Crosbie Kirk
- Crosbie Castle
- Fullarton House
- Collennan Reservoir
- Merkland Loch
- Dundonald Wood
- Dundonald Castle and Visitor Centre
It’s well signposted but I do feel the signs should be painted a bright colour to catch your eye! At some points of the trail it was like a new game ‘find the post’.
The official path at the start is slightly over grown so we had to walk down on to the beach at some points.
It looks like someone thought they were stranded on a desert island. It was a great wee creative den but the beach looked messy with the junk that was lying around.
We seemed to be walking along the beach for a while and I couldn’t see the next signpost. I thought we’d missed the exit.
Eventually we spied the shape of another signpost that took us away from the coast and crossed through the Royal Troon Golf Course.
I know you can’t read this signpost, but I love how this photo has turned out. It looks like we were taking the path to the clouds!
We stopped a few times when we were crossing the golf course. We didn’t want to interrupt the golfers taking their important shots. It was a little confusing what way to go. I always think if in doubt, go straight on. That usually works for me.
Enjoy some photos of the first half of the trail.
I didn’t take many photos of the first half of the trail and missed some important places of interest such as the Crosbie Kirk and Crosbie Castle ruin. How could I! I think too much talking was going on.
After walking through Fullarton woods we came to the footpath that takes you to the village of Loans. There is an old map on the Loans website that shows a small settlement being called Lons. It dates back to 1654.
If you feel like a rest and your tummy is rumbling for some food the Old Loans Inn is a great place for something to eat and drink. Although very tempting, just remember not stay there all day, there’s smuggling to be done!
We walked through and out of the village. The path alongside the road was narrow with traffic driving past us really fast. At some points we had to walk in single file.
It wasn’t long until we spotted the now familiar signpost. It was standing tall beside a bus stop. Now this doesn’t mean you jump on the next bus home by the way … the best of the walk has yet to come!
We arrived at my favourite part of the trail, Dundonald woods. This designated ancient woodlands is covered in elm, ash and larch. It has been a Site of Special Scientific Interest since 1975.
On both sides of the trail, although you can’t see them, there are operating quarries. Sometimes this can interrupt the peacefulness that you would expect when you are deep in the woods. I’ve taken photos of this area in all seasons. It’s a beautiful walk.
After a small incline we reached Collennan Reservoir. The reservoir used to supply water to the houses of Troon until the 1960s. It’s now used by Troon Angling Club.
There’s a bench where you can rest for a while if you want. On a clear day you can enjoy views across the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Arran. The water in the reservoir was so still casting reflections of the clouds above. It’s so quiet and peaceful here, I love it.
Moss covered drystone walls are plentiful walking through this part of the trail. I wonder how old they are?
Most of them seem to be standing the test of time. It really impresses me how people carried these heavy rocks and placed them on top of each other like a jigsaw puzzle.
The next part of our adventure was a curious one indeed. We heard a rustling noise and then thought we’d seen some suspicious looking figures hiding behind a huge tree!
We both started to walk a bit faster keen to pass these strange characters lurking around. Then I was curious … so we walked back to the tree to check what was really going on. I seen something in the nook of the tree shimmering in the sunlight. It was treasure!
Wow! What an amazing find … maybe smugglers did carry gold to the castle after all …
The 18th century smuggling trade in Ayrshire was the most successful in Scotland. It was organised by David Dunlop, Loans Smuggling Company.
The years before 1765, tea, brandy, wine, rum and tobacco were bought in from the Isle of Man and shipped to Troon by wherry. After this time goods came from Europe. 16 small boats were anchored on the beach at all times to unload the cargo. When news travelled that a wherry was arriving at Troon local men with up to 500 horses would be waiting on the beach to carry the goods inland as quickly as possible. One route was through the Dundonald Glen, known as the Smugglers’ Trail.
If you’re interested in finding out more you can purchase the Smugglers of Kyle booklet by Frances Wilkins for only £3 at the Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre.
Phew! We survived to tell the tale and carried on with our journey.
Back to the trail
Merkland loch is off the main trail, I’ve only been once. Don’t be fooled, this might look like a field of long lush grass but there is water in there and these are reeds. In winter it was used by locals for curling.
Now imagine your feet crunching through the fallen autumn leaves … enjoy the sounds of gold, yellow, orange and brown.
Ahh, there it was hiding on the hill, the castle. I could only just see the Scotland flag blowing in the wind. We were almost there. There was no visible path this way though …
We reached the castle and stunning it was. We sat outside the cafe and enjoyed a coffee and a scone. A snack and view fit for a queen.
Our journey didn’t end there though as we had to walk another 5-6k to pick up my car. We’d left my friend’s car at Troon and I was going to drive her back to get it. We walked almost 18km that day!
The trail in spring
The woodlands are a must visit near the end of May with an abundance of bluebells and wild garlic perfuming the air. I’ve only ever captured the full bloom of the bluebells once. It’s really difficult to judge when to visit. I often explore too early or too late!
Back to the castle
I came back to Dundonald on my own in October 2016 to take a tour of the castle and walk through the woods again.
The 14th century castle is looked after by Historic Scotland and the charity Friends of Dundonald Castle who are the keyholders.
The tour guide Colin was very knowledgeable about the castle and its history. He showed me round the outside of the castle and inside. I loved being up on the open roof and looked out of the west window across to the Isle of Arran. I couldn’t remember all the history, so I bought the official souvenir guide book at the Visitor Centre.
Over the centuries, three medieval castles have lived at this site in Dundonald. The first one was built from timber around 1160. The second from stone in the late 13th century and was destroyed possibly by Robert the Bruce to deny it to the English. Then third time lucky the stone castle we see today was built around the 14th century by Robert II. The Visitor Centre has fabulous models on display showing you what they would have looked like.
The west wall of the castle has five shields carved from sandstone. One of the shields bears the lion rampant, a symbol of Scottish Royalty. You can see recreations of the shields at the Visitor Centre.
The clouds above the castle in this photo are stunning. I love a dramatic sky!
Sunsets at the castle are pretty spectacular too and sometimes you can see across the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Arran. Sadly though, modern life slips into the picture with steam from the paper factory escaping into our air.
Woodlands in autumn
I also enjoyed another walk through the woods and I took more photos of the changing trees. I really enjoyed being on my own, taking my time and going where I wanted to go. Whilst it was fairly silent in the woods, I could occasionally hear the noise of the quarries that surrounded what’s left of the woodlands.
I stepped off the trodden path a few times that day … and found some amazing fairy magic!
As I was dilly dallying along the path I couldn’t believe my eyes what I seen next. An autumn leaf was floating in front of my eyes!
The inner child came out in me. I wanted to believe it was magic but of course my sensible head knew that a strand of spider silk must have been clinging on to it. It was dangling from quite a height and I couldn’t see anything visibly attached.
I walked round the leaf and stood for a while watching it twist and turn in the wind. It was going to fall soon … right?
I walked on reluctantly, but with a smile on my face. I really didn’t want to see it fall and kept the magical feelings inside me.
Old Auchans House
Yet again, the castle and the woods were calling me. I knew autumn was almost at an end and I wanted to soak it up before it said farewell. Old Auchans House, close to the castle, was my next adventure.
I knew of a different path that would take me to the ruin and I was excited to walk this way. The autumn leaves were more plentiful in just one week.
There are two paths you can take to get there. The high path or the low path. The high path was calling me … so off I went. It was an emotional adventure.
Golden leaves spread out in front of me. This bendy old tree really had character.
As I walked further up the hill and deeper into the trees the carpet of golden leaves were more breathtaking than ground level. Straying off the normal path brings so much beauty.
The sound of the wind blowing through the trees made me feel happy. It was raining autumn leaves.
I lost my way a little as the path wasn’t too obvious, but I eventually came to the quarry area. I felt sad that the landscape was being carved away like this, but a lady at the Visitor Centre told me that once the quarry company are finished digging an area they plant new native trees. I was pleased to hear that eventually the land will return back to its natural state. Perhaps our future generations will never know the quarry existed.
I was standing quite high up on a hill and I could see my favourite island, the Isle of Arran. I can now look at the island’s highest peak, Goat Fell, and say to myself: “I’ve slept overnight on top of that peak!”
Walking downhill, I knew that I’d soon be approaching Old Auchans House. Having never walked from this direction I wasn’t sure where the house was. Then all of a sudden when I was looking for the path I glanced over to my right.
I don’t know why, but I was overcome with emotion when I was surprised by the ruin peeking through the trees in the autumn colours. I wasn’t expecting it. It was like finding a hidden treasure, even though I had seen it before.
I did actually record my reaction on my phone by mistake. I thought I was taking photos and must have hit the video recording instead! I’m too embarrassed to show you it …
It must have been a beautiful house in its days. Over the years it belonged to three Ayrshire families, the Wallaces, the Cochranes and the Montgomeries. To help build this grand 16th/17th century house stone was taken from Dundonald Castle. Possibly from the roof and the courtyard walls which are now gone. Hundreds of years later my tiny feet have possibly followed the same path of the castle stones.
I wanted to touch the walls of Old Auchans and looked inside, but a high fence surrounds the house as it’s very unstable.
I walked around taking photos for a wee while then I headed back to the castle.
As I was sitting outside in the crisp fresh air, looking up at the castle, I felt like I was in a different time. The emotion and strange feeling I had when I seen the old house really got to me. I took a bite of my soft crumbling scone and a sip of tea … I was back again.
Back to Auchans and finding the old farm ruins
One week later I was back again! Another friend wanted to see Old Auchans House so I was happy to help.
Whilst we were there we looked for the old farm ruins that fellow blogger Paul Wilkinson told me about. I wasn’t sure where to look as I didn’t check a map before I left. With a bit of exploring off the path we found the ruins deeper in the woods towards the quarry. I’m so glad we walked up here as this was an even more beautiful area.
The ruins were fenced off and sat right next to the quarry.
My friend’s handsome Fox Red Labrador dog really enjoyed his walk too. He certainly blended in with the autumn colours!
I did ask his permission to use these photos of him. Woof, woof, bark was his reply … I think that was a yes.
Another treasure! Look what we found hanging around amongst the trees. Yes, we did … really great fun and we didn’t even break it!
What a great adventure I’ve had exploring this area over the last few years. I love that my friends have also enjoyed their time here too.
My life will be forever autumn … until next year.
Thanks for reading.