“Girvan is about so much more than just being the ideal gateway to Ailsa Craig and the home of a world famous gin,” smiles Susanne Arbuckle, Media and Marketing Officer at Go Girvan, a community-led tourism organisation passionate about promoting and regenerating this South Ayrshire resort town. “We’ve got sweeping sandy beaches, remarkable walking routes and independent shops on our improving High Street. Then there are the plans for the new Ailsa Craig Visitor Centre and the project that has cemented our reputation as one of the most dog-friendly places in Scotland.”
Not Just A Place to Pass Through
Having visited Girvan many times, I’m with Susanne on the town’s appeal. Even Girvan’s setting is sublime, wedged between the widening waters of the Firth of Clyde, with a natural amphitheatre provided by the Carrick Hills in the background, two miles of beckoning beach and, of course, that rock. Girvan is most definitely not just a place to pass through.
Let’s come to the elephant in the Girvan room first with Ailsa Craig. This soaring rock sentinel is unmistakable, a giant leviathan hulking between Scotland and Ireland that is deservedly a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its unique birdlife, geology and human history. And, yes, Olympic curling stones do still hail from Ailsa Craig. It’s a remarkable place – I’ve landed on 100 Scottish islands and Ailsa Craig is beguilingly unique.
Not everyone, of course, fancies the often bumpy boat ride out to Ailsa Craig and the weather can sometimes play its part in thwarting boat trips. Sometimes boat trippers just want to know more, too post-visit. That is where the Ailsa Craig Visitor Centre comes in. Susanne explains the ambition behind the new centre: “Our ambition is to build a top-class tourist attraction with community benefits. The project has passed the feasibility stage and is currently out for public consultation.” The signs are that the community feedback – with every home leafleted and presentations in the town - is almost universally positive, with initial building surveying the next step for a project that has been in the pipeline for decades.
Community is at its Beating Heart
The new visitor centre will undoubtedly be a huge attraction and a very welcome string to Girvan’s bow, but it’s by no means the only one. Susanne describes some people “seeing Girvan as an island” out on its own that is sometimes unfairly ignored. Go Girvan emerged from a steering group set up in 2021 to counter this. It is a community-led tourism organisation focused on regenerating, developing and promoting tourism in Girvan. Community is at its beating heart; in everything they do. They work developing capital projects, events and marketing strategies that improve Girvan as a tourist destination and positively – and directly - impact the local economy.
I can feel Susanne’s passion for Girvan shining through. It is a personal passion. “When I was a wee girl, I came to Girvan and loved it. That stayed with me,” she beams. “As an adult, I just had to come back and make it my home. We’ve got it all here, from those beaches through to hills to rival Perthshire, Perthshire with a coastline, as it were. And a real strength of community.” This personal, town-focused drive powers the Go Girvan SCIO and its 10 volunteer trustees and two part-time funded employees.
Delving deeper into Girvan, it’s not just a case of a community group making positive waves. The ripples are spreading, as Susanne recognises: “Without much external support, people realised in Girvan that they would have to take action if they wanted things to improve and develop. We’re seeing more and more small projects set up and apply for funding, and this autumn sees the establishment of a local business association as confidence grows.”
One exciting project is the is Girvan Tourist Information Point. After the old Visit Scotland information centre closed, the community jumped in. “We directly support the Girvan Tourist Information Point, which is a volunteer-run service and a valuable visitor resource with information, as well as local arts and crafts for sale.” Indeed nowhere else in Girvan boasts such a wide range of arts and crafts, helping local artists and also ploughing any profits back into the community. The TIP also provides equipment for litter picking and beach cleaning, with tourists from as far afield as the USA taking one of the bags and coming back with photographic proof of their good deed to be rewarded with a wee cuppa. This initiative helped Girvan Beach snare a Keep Scotland Beautiful award this year.
“We are also creating a business plan that would allow us to take over an empty shop on the High Street to house our Tourist Information Point”, continues Susanne. “This would become a community asset and we would be hoping to create at least one paid position for an employee.” Reopening a currently empty shops would have the added benefit of attracting more visitors to the High Street as part of a wider regeneration initiative of the town centre.
Another rich information source is the new town ambassadors, courtesy of Go Girvan. The pilot programme this year has seen volunteer ambassadors on hand around Girvan with useful information for visitors and, indeed, the community. “It’s proved a really important role, ensuring ‘temporary locals’ both get a very warm welcome to Girvan and also that they go away with a very positive impression of our town.”
Dogs Are Welcome!
The dog-friendly project is another drive of Go Girvan, emerging out of a desire to be one of Scotland's most dog friendly towns. Indeed Girvan is currently faring well in a UK-wide competition to find dog friendly destinations. No wonder as Go Girvan has put together a list of 30 great places to take your dog, using a sticker scheme with businesses and attractions. Dogs are welcome at weekend live music events in the family-friendly Community Garden too. Susanne adds, “We are working with South Ayrshire Council to devise strategies to deal with the practical impacts too, such as dog fouling. We also fund and give out free poop bags through the TIP and our ambassadors. It is always important to take into account both the community and our ‘temporary locals’, addressing the potential pros and cons of tourism in a positive way.”
Positivity is something you find throughout Girvan at the Girvan Arts Festival, which is in its second year this year, events in the Community Garden, which Susanne calls “Girvan’s wee Glastonbury”, and the brilliant work of CRAG Community Arts. The latter is an arts charity who lay on a collage of illuminated art installations to really brighten up Girvan at Hogmanay. They are also looking to bring back a winter Lantern Procession in 2023, and run regular workshops and events throughout the year.
What Else Can You Do?
The more I find out about Girvan, the more there is to see and do. If you’re a watersports enthusiast, Girvan-based Adventure Carrick offers the likes of paddle boarding and kayaking. The outdoor activities are superb. Susanne suggests I wild swim at the promenade before cake and a coffee, then hike up a hill right from the town centre to the site of an Iron Age fort. Maybe a wee picnic and more glorious walking with a view of Girvan and Ailsa Craig? Yes, please! Or I could even tackle a section of the Ayrshire Coastal Path or the Whithorn Way.
Then there are the myriad two-wheeled adventures. Susanne tells me of a historic cycle event simply called The Girvan, which has recently been resurrected. Then there is Biosphere Bikes, whose name comes from the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere that Girvan is a key part of. They offer bike repair, bike workshops, cycle hire for tourists, and a hub at the harbour where you can hire beach wheelchairs and strollers. They have also just taken over an old mill and are looking at setting up much-needed accommodation. The Biking Explorers are on hand, too, with bespoke bike tours, from half-day adventures, though to multi-day bikepacking epics.
There is only one place to end here with Girvan. No, not with Ailsa Craig, but the brilliant 'Tattie Fest'. This festival was first held last year to celebrate the local Ayrshire Epicure. They’ve just received funding to run the festival for another five years, with the chance to sample free local tattie dishes, live music, a tattie trail, craft workshops, photography sessions and alpaca trekking. The latter, because, er, “tatties originated from Peru”. There is Tattie Fest merchandise to help raise funds for the community and their own mascot, Tattie-Anna, who meets and greets visitors. Temporary locals are welcome. As, of course, are dogs. Very Girvan.