Our Ayrshire coast is simply stunning and I don’t explore it often enough. So it was time to revisit Culzean Castle and Country Park (pronounced Culane).
This 18th century castle sits high on its dramatic cliff looking out across the Firth of Clyde to Ailsa Craig and the Isle of Arran. It was designed by Robert Adam and was the home of the Kennedy family for hundreds of years.
The National Trust for Scotland now look after the castle and country park and what a wonderful place it is. If you’re a member of the Trust entry is free. I totally recommend becoming a member. I love that I’m helping the Trust protect and conserve our castles and landscapes. In return I get to enjoy visiting as often as I like as part of my membership.
We’ve been here many times over the years with my children and explored the castle, play park, woodlands and pretty beaches. I knew about the caves below the castle but as they’re a scheduled ancient monument the gate is locked and can only be seen by booking a guided tour.
We arrived a little confused as the entrance looked different to the last time we’d visited. It was beautifully landscaped with colourful shrubs including a new car park at the Visitor Centre (Home Farm). Parking was so easy, look at all the spaces!
We wandered into the Visitor Centre to have a look around. I was drawn to the arch and the little picnic bench. As I approached the arch it started to resemble a picture frame holding a photo of the Isle of Arran surrounded by ocean and clouds.
I walked through the arch and sat at the picnic table for a few minutes. Gazing across the ocean to the Isle of Arran I was thinking with a happy sigh that I’d be visiting there soon. My legs will carry me all around the island as I’m walking the Arran Coastal Way (65 miles). You can’t see the island very well in the photo above, but it is there, I promise!
Tour of the caves
Our tour was starting at 12.30pm so we made our way to the meeting point where a few of us were already gathering. Ian and Mhairi were our wonderful guides. We were given hard helmets with headlights before we even started walking to the caves. The walk there and back is around 2km (1.2 miles) and involves crossing over a rocky beach which can be slippery with seaweed.
After our introduction and safety briefing from Ian we started walking towards the castle. We made our way downwards towards the beach and the gas house. This was used to create gas for the castle back in the days, but it was only used for lighting.
The tide was out so it was easy enough to walk along the rocky beach. Sturdy walking shoes or boots are a must though! I should mention that these guided walks are scheduled with the tide, so tour times can change.
I looked up from the beach at the cliff and its castle. I was taken aback at how high and spectacular it looked.
We reached the caves beneath the castle fairly quickly. I didn’t know what to expect so the unknown was really making me feel like an excited child. It was another first time for me. I’m starting to really enjoy all these new challenges!
The caves’ fortifications are around 15th/16th century, being much older than the present day castle we see today. There was an older tower house on top of the cliff that dates back to the same year as the caves. The new Culzean Castle was built around this.
Ian, the keyholder, opened the iron gate. We all turned on our LED lights attached to our helmets as he guided us into the dark abyss.
First cave chamber
It took a little while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and I was glad for the glow of my headlight. I looked back at the entrance … daylight was peeking through.
The caves were known to have been used for storing smuggled goods that arrived from the Isle of Man. A lot of broken glass from brandy bottles has been found dating to around 1740. The whole Ayrshire coast seems to be linked to the smuggling trade. I recently read about Troon being a drop off point where smugglers would also carry goods to Dundonald Castle.
Ian shone his torch on the roof of the cave to show us cave straws that were developing. I’d never seen these before. They will eventually become stalactites (an icicle-shaped formation). I wonder how long it will take?
While we were standing in the first chamber Alan noticed some daylight shining through from another part of the cave. Little did I know that this was a second chamber and we would be visiting here too.
We all walked towards the light and then all of a sudden I could see the walk way and door into the second chamber. This was so amazing!
Second cave chamber
This cave chamber was well-lit as it had windows. The pillars were man-made in the 1770s. We didn’t need to worry too much as they weren’t holding the weight of the castle above. They were thought to be indicator columns to monitor movement, phew!
This amazing room felt less damp and gloomy than the one below and I thought to myself that it would be fun to camp here overnight.
Mmm, maybe a sleepover would be a bit more challenging than I thought. We only saw this wee spider because Ian shone his torch down through a hole in the rock. I don’t think he lives alone either!
The second chamber really surprised me with its size and habitable look. There were two doors that caught my eye on entrance. This door on the right led me to a loo with a spectacular view! This was starting to look like glamping to me.
After the toilet break it was time for some ghostly stories. It was believed that evil spirits lived in the caves. One day a piper with his dog tried to scare them away by playing his bagpipes. The piper was never seen again but his dog came back out two days later losing all its fur with fright!
One of the kids that was on the tour made us laugh out loud. He asked: “it was naked?” We couldn’t disagree with him at all on that one!
There are many other ghostly tales and superstitions around the caves. Who knows, they could be true, or more likely to be stories told to keep people away. I’d like to believe them though. There is an element of truth in everything, right?
Another door that caught my eye when I entered the chamber was an Alice in Wonderland like door to the left. I was really drawn to this one as I like to explore places that look more difficult to get to. I wondered if I could shrink myself to fit through it and explore the other side.
Before I knew it, we were heading that way to actually go through it! There was no magic ‘drink me’ potion but the smiley face beside the door gave me some hope. It would have been more worrying if it was a perhaps a skull!
Looking back at these photos I can see more clearly the cave infill. This door would have been taller than it is now, so who knows what lies beneath the surface of caves.
One by one, everyone took their turn crouching down to get through the door. I glanced back at the empty chamber and it strangely looked homely to me.
I followed the others and crouched down to get through the door. It was a little wet and muddy but I wasn’t bothered at all about that. The strange thing was that the shape of the door frame suggested that it could be locked from the inside of the chamber. It is thought that there might have been access from the caves to the old castle.
The third chamber was narrow and wet with lots of rock fall and a possible blocked passageway. We walked in single file by headlight to the back of the cave like miners looking for gold.
When we reached the top there was water dripping through the rocks from above, creating a natural pool of mineral water. This glamping idea just got better, an inside water supply too!
Then I started to imagine the creature Gollum from Lord of the Rings crouching beside this pool of dripping water chanting ‘my precious’.
We were quite high up in the caves and only around 12 feet below the ladies toilet in the basement of the castle. Maybe that water wasn’t as precious as I thought…
This is cave coral, caused by water with calcium carbonate dripping from the cave ceiling and flowing onto the rocks below.
We made our way back out towards the light in second chamber where Ian talked about archaeological digs that have taken place here. This included a team from Extreme Archaeology that was led by Professor Alice Roberts who specialises in human bones. Another dig will be happening soon which is quite exciting. If you want to know more about the digs and findings, the rangers’ office at the Visitor Centre will have more information. I’ll certainly be popping in again soon.
When it was time to leave we walked back into the first chamber and out onto the rocky beach.
As I stepped back out outside I felt like I had time travelled back to the present time. Being inside these caves felt like such a different world to me. My eyes quickly adjusted to the bright light and I was rewarded with a view of this magnificent castle!
I could now see the Isle of Arran a little clearer. I told you it really was there! The island likes to appear and disappear and it was back, cheekily peeking out to say hello.
The stables cave
As we walked back along the beach we stopped by to look inside the stables cave that sits below what used to be the stables.
In small groups we entered a little side chamber and found some colourful herald moths that live there in the colder weather. Most of them have left home now with only two still hibernating. It’s summer time guys, get out there and have fun!
Another little doorway took us back out onto the beach and we made our way along the beach back to the Visitor Centre.
I thoroughly enjoyed my two hour cave experience and would definitely like to explore again. There’s so much more I learned on the guided tour that I haven’t written about in this post. If you ever visit I’d recommend experiencing it for yourself if you can.
360 photos of the castle and caves
Walk around the park
After our tour we walked around the park for a little while. I was hoping to visit the sandy beaches but it was getting late. There are so many trails all around the park and you definitely need more than a day to explore.
We reached the pretty swan pond and my mouth was watering for something cold like ice cream. We just made it in time before the swan house closed.
Walk to the cat gates
A short walk to the cat gates was very peaceful. There was hardly anyone around probably because it was after 5pm on a Saturday.
I noticed these trees looked strange. A single branch was joining them together like they were holding hands. I took a few photos wondering how this had happened. There must be a way that you can graft the branches together as it couldn’t happen naturally.
I then felt the need to look at the other side of the trees and I’m so glad I did. Names were carved into each tree with dates beside them. Possibly a couple that is no longer with us, but bounded together, always. I had a tear in my eye. I wouldn’t have known about this if I hadn’t stepped off the path.
As I approached the cat gates I thought how regal they looked but the cats that guard them looked a little sad.
Beside the cat gates I found a magical wooded area next to a rippling burn. Wild garlic and large fern was everywhere. This would be a beautiful place to set up camp for the night I thought.
As I walked through the cat gates I was in awe of the avenue of trees that appeared right before my eyes. This photo doesn’t do it justice. I think they are beech trees.
They all leaned towards each other with unique twisted shapes creating so much character.
I turned around to look back at the cat gates and thought if I could ride a horse, I’d canter under the trees, through the gates to the castle. Mind you, at this angle the trees look a bit spooky too!
360 photo of the trees
We both had such a lovely day but still didn’t get time to see everything in the country park. We’ll go back and create another story soon though.
Thanks for reading!