With its artisans’ studios and a new arts and crafts centre, this coastal community is a haven for traditional craftspeople. Words: Tina Walsh
Not so long ago, West Kilbride was a town on the skids. Once a thriving weaving and agricultural community in North Ayrshire, 30 miles south west of Glasgow, the village’s decline mirrored that of its two main industries. But its fortunes began to reverse in the 1990s after a community initiative to restore the church and old weavers’ cottages led to a new identity as Craft Town Scotland, the only one of its kind in the country. The cottages were converted into artisans’ studios and the church underwent a multi-million-pound conversion. Now called The Barony Centre, the impressive building hosts arts and crafts exhibitions and has a year-round programme of educational and cultural activities.
Maggie Broadley, a ceramicist who graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1997, is director of the centre, which she runs together with 40 volunteers. ‘There are very few venues of this size left in Scotland that concentrate on crafts and contemporary crafts,’ she tells me, over coffee in The Barony Centre’s café. West Kilbride now has 11 studios that make and sell everything from exclusive silverware (Marion Kane) to hand-dye yarns (Old Maiden Aunt Yarns) and hand-stitched Scottish textiles (Chookiebirdie). Most of the artists also hold workshops and demonstrations.
‘We’re very careful about who we choose to rent the studios to,’ says Maggie. ‘We don’t want it to become an artificially themed town, so we’re looking for proper craftspeople rather than those selling mass-produced products.’
10AM LIFE’S A BEACH
I’m staying at the Seamill Hydro and after a breakfast of Scottish smoked salmon and scrambled eggs I walk through the gardens, past the gazebo, to Seamill’s magnificent beach. The wide sandy expanse stretches out 500 metres to the waters of the Firth of Clyde, with the Isle of Arran in the distance. Afterwards I take a walk into West Kilbride, about a mile inland from the hotel, through the leafy residential streets.
12PM ART OF GLASS
There’s an exquisitely crafted glass figurine in the window of Louise Nelson’s studio at 86 Main Street and I wish I had enough money to buy it. Louise makes her collection – jewellery, bottles, ornaments and birds – using colourful Murano glass beads and copper wire to ‘capture the simple beauty of everyday scenes in nature’.
Over the road, at Studio 99B, Debbie Halliday is at work in her studio. A commercial artist and designer, whose work is inspired by the influential Scottish artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Debbie uses straw silk to cover glassware, tealights and lamps, which she then paints with intricate designs.
2PM ICE ICE, BABY
I hop on the bus to Largs, a lively seaside resort about seven miles from West Kilbride. The scenic drive takes half an hour. I’ve already heard good things about the ice cream at Nardini, Scotland’s most famous café. The shop opened in 1938 and its Art-Deco facade is one of the town’s most distinctive landmarks.
After deliberating for five minutes – there are at least 20 flavours to choose from – I decide on a pistachio crunch. It has to be one of most mouth-watering things I’ve ever eaten.
4PM ART THERAPY
I finish up my ice cream on Largs’ pebbly beach, and head off back into the town to The Galleries, which consists of an art gallery, workshop spaces and alternative therapy rooms. Around 20 artists, some local, some from farther afield, exhibit and sell their work here. I’m especially taken by the delicate raku ceramics (a type of Japanese pottery traditionally used in tea ceremonies) made by Ann Brooks, a ceramicist and painter. Ann also sells her work from her own studio, The Old Stable Studio at Fairlie, a couple of miles down the road.
6PM YACHTING HEAVEN
A 20-minute walk from the centre of town is Largs Yacht Haven, a picturesque marina set in a sheltered spot on the Firth of Clyde, with more than 700 sailing boats. Scotts Bar and Restaurant, a smart, modern restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor terrace, is situated right on the water’s edge. As a warm autumn day turns into a sultry evening, it’s the perfect place to kick back and soak up the atmosphere with a glass of something long, cold and fizzy.
10AM IRON AGE SETTLEMENT
I hop in a taxi to Portencross, a small hamlet two miles from the hotel, with more fabulous views over the Isle of Arran. Famous for its castle of the same name, there has been a settlement here since the Iron Age. The castle was started in around 1360 and underwent major conservation work in 2010. Audrey Kolon and her husband Walter, together with visiting artists, run drawing and painting weekends from their beautiful rambling 17th-century house at Portencross. Walter and Audrey belong to Friends of Portencross Castle, a charity formed by local residents to protect the monument, and all proceeds from the art weekends go towards its upkeep.
12PM ISLAND DELIGHT
The weather is good so I decide to take a ferry over to the Isle of Cumbrae. Sometimes called Great Cumbrae, it’s known as Scotland’s ‘most accessible island’ and is just four miles long and two miles wide. The ferry from Largs takes about 10 minutes, causing barely a ripple in the still, deep blue water.
A bus takes you from the harbour into Millport, Cumbrae’s only town. It’s a laid-back kind of place, with handsome Scottish houses, a harbour curving round the bay and views of the islands of Ailsa Craig and Bute and the Cowal Peninsula.
1PM A SENSORY ADVENTURE
I take a stroll along the promenade and stop for an alfresco coffee at Elwood’s Easy Diner. Most visitors to Cumbrae never venture farther than Millport but there are some non-taxing walking and cycle trails, such as the Cumbrae Sensory Trail, which takes you round 11 miles of coastline. The island’s main claim to fame is its tiny cathedral, the smallest in Britain. Designed in 1851 by William Butterfield, an architect and leading Gothic revivalist of the day, it looks more like the fancy home of a country laird.
3PM FAIRYTALE CASTLE
Time to take the ferry back to the mainland and pay a visit to Kelburn Castle. The 13th-century castle, halfway between Largs and West Kilbride, is the seat of the Earl of Glasgow and looks like no other I’ve ever seen: it’s covered in brightly painted murals – giant faces, weird-looking animals, a huge iris – the work of a group of prominent Brazilian graffiti artists who came here in 2007. The artists and organisers lived together in the castle for a month, ‘culminating in a one-off, giant piece of collaborative art’. However, it looks like the mural’s days might be numbered and there is talk of it coming down. The gardens are gorgeous though, full of trees, ferns and wild flowers, with a glen that rises 800ft at the back of the castle.
5PM SUNDAY NIGHT FISH FRY
Apart from the salmon at breakfast, I haven’t eaten any seafood yet, even though I’m surrounded by water. Someone at the hotel told me that The Catch at Fins Restaurant, just outside Fairlie, serves some of the best seafood for miles. It takes me half an hour to walk down the main Irvine Road. By the time I arrive I’ve more than worked up an appetite and opt for the mussels and seafood gratin. The person at the hotel wasn’t wrong.
NEED TO KNOW
SEAMILL HYDRO HOTEL & RESORT This family-orientated hotel overlooking the Firth of Clyde has lovely gardens and views of the Isle of Arran. There’s a lounge bar and restaurant, a large outdoor terrace, a spa and a gym. Doubles from £58 including breakfast (01294 822217, seamillhydro.co.uk).
SOUTH BANKS HOUSE Accommodation at Audrey and Walter Kolon’s home consists of three double and three single rooms, two large bathrooms and two shower rooms. A three-day art course, including breakfast, dinner with soft drinks and afternoon tea, costs £265 (01294 823949, artaquarius.co.uk).
KELBURN CASTLE CAMPSITE The castle’s new campsite features modern bathrooms and pre-erected Bell tents. Best of all are the incredible views of the Firth of Clyde and Arran. Prices from £10 per tent (01475 568685).
HOW TO GET THERE
Flybe (flybe.com) operates flights to Glasgow from 20 UK airports. There’s a regular shuttle bus from the airport to Glasgow Central train station. ScotRail runs trains from there to West Kilbride. The 585 bus between Greenock and Ayr goes via Seamill Hydro, Largs and West Kilbride. For details on the area, see visitscotland.com.