“Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonnie lassies”
I’ve long been a fan of Burns and his epic poem Tam O’Shanter, as a kid I was mesmerised by this tale of brownyis & bogillis when they taught us it at school. Then a family trip to Alloway, where I visited the ‘haunted kirk’ before standing on the bridge where Meg lost her tail escaping the witches, had me fascinated with Rabbie’s greatest work. As an adult my habit of staying too long in the pub of an evening, just like Tam himself, made me love it all the more as I began to understand the meaning of being “planted unco right”. Although thankfully I’ve never passed Tillicoultry Congregational on the way home to find The Devil blasting away on the bagpipes at an unholy celidh (thus far). Finally I adore Tam O’Shanter because the line quoted above gave this afternoon’s hosts Ayr United perhaps the best nickname in world football; ‘The Honest Men’.
Founded in 1910 The Honest Men are the only club in Scotland who can say they were created through the merger of two pre-existing Scottish Football League sides. The First of these was Ayr FC, themselves an amalgamation of Ayr Thistle & Ayr Academicals in 1879, who were the first residents of current ground Somerset Park. In their red & amber hooped shirts Ayr played thirteen seasons of Division Two fitba and were noted for the number of exhibition matches they took part in, specifically against the likes of Cliftonville, Sunderland, Bolton or Aston Villa. In 1888 they even faced the Canadian national team and thumped them 4-0. The other partner this union was Ayr Parkhouse, who took their name from a farm near where they trained. Founded in 1886 The Parkies were an amateur set-up for most of their history, before going pro to have a second crack at the league in 1906. With neither local side able to gain promotion to Division One both clubs eventually decided to join forces and pool resources, thus Ayr United came into being and the rest as they say is history.
However popular this union was with fans of the former rivals at the time, the move quickly justified itself when the new club gained promotion to the top flight at the second attempt. The first campaign saw them finish runners up, four points behind winners Dumbarton, but the 1911/12 season saw them clinch the title after winning sixteen of their twenty two games, with only three defeats recorded. In the sixty eight years after the club’s formation they spent exactly half of their time in the top flight, even finishing fourth on a couple of occasions, the last Premier League campaign coming in 1977/78. Since then they have largely been a solid second tier side and while there have been no further dalliances with the top division the club has reached two Scottish Cup semis and played in the final of the 2002 League Cup, where Rangers skelped them 4-0 in front of 50,000 fans. They have never even flirted with the bottom tier of the SPFL and today remain a full time club, amongst the pantheon of Scottish fitba Ayr United can probably be considered one of our nation’s ‘big clubs’.
Looking back at some former Honest Men, a couple of old favourites of mine stand out and James Grady is definitely one of them. The prolific striker and Clydebank legend, scored goals at both Dundee sides, Partick Thistle, the original Gretna and Hamilton Accies. Grady won First Division titles with three different clubs and played the full ninety minutes in our host’s League Cup Final defeat. Another member of the squad that day is now the manager of this afternoon’s opponents Dunfermline Athletic; John Hughes. More famous for his time at Falkirk, ‘Big Yogi’ also starred for Celtic and Hibernian before becoming gaffer at a whole host of clubs. My personal preferences aside, perhaps Ayr United’s most famous alumni is the legendary Ally MacLeod. He only played seventeen league games for the Somerset Park side but was manager of the club three times, both before and after promising to lead Scotland to victory at the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Incidentally MacLeod was not the only United player & boss to manage the national team, Ipswich Town icon George Burley holds the same distinction too.
Ayr is a new one on me, if it was part of the trip to Alloway years ago I’ve long forgotten. The temptation with a new town might be to explore, but since “the wind blew as ‘twad was blawn its last; the rattling showers rose on the blast” I decided to head straight for the first pub on my list. This town doesn’t have a BrewDog bar, however in its stead is a craft beer palace clearly inspired by the Ellon based firm. The Growler (named after the American term for a container of takeaway ale, not the slang for vagina popularised by the comedy show Bo’ Selecta) not only has great beer from the likes of Beavertown, Northern Monk & Fierce, they have the BrewDog bar aesthetic too. The beer is advertised on cinema light box, the ceiling is exposed concrete, lighting industrial and there is even a neon sign with seemingly random words upon it. Not a copy but certainly a homage.
Sitting in a tiny two man booth with my belly taking a bite out of the table I am politely & quickly served a half of Snake Oil, followed by a Hazy Jane and an absolutely spectacular all day breakfast. The scran coming out of the kitchen looks amazing, with the post brunch menu having an outstanding range of dishes. Food is decently priced, which is good when the quality craft beer requires the standard second mortgage to consume. Beautiful, immaculate, excellent service and top end drink. Well worth the visit.
Next up was the dramatically different, but no less excellent whisky bar The Twa Dugs. Allegedly owned by the journalist & author Bob Shields, a sign makes the proud boast that ‘Robert Burns would have drank here’ and you know what, he probably would. A narrow shoap, it extends way back into the building with the bar being half way down and an epic whisky list is writ large opposite it. Prices are good too, especially when you consider it is a 35ml nip boozer. Sitting down with half a Tennents & a dram, I see signed chefs whites from Gordon Ramsey, a promise from Rod Stewart to perform in the place and some Ayr United & Prestwick Golf Club momentos. Across from me Ayr fans discuss the team’s season in very intellectual & in depth terms as I drink away. A venue for live music, my only regret is not coming at night and seeing this place in her pomp.
Finally we went from a pub Burns might have opted to drink in to one that he probably did, The Tam O’Shanter Inn, one of two places I saw in the town that claims to be the oldest and the only one that states it was the location where Tam got pished in that fateful night. While I have no opinion on what pub is the oldest, the idea Mr O’Shanter did spend time there seems particularly fanciful when one considers the fictional nature of his being. Regardless this place is a stunner, undulating walls, black flagstone flooring, a replica of Alexander Nasmyth’s famous portrait of The Bard and quotes from the poem stencilled on every wall. The Inn is no simple tourist trap either, regulars perch at the bar and sit at tables just as they would have 200 years or so ago and I couldn’t help wondering if the chap along from me in a cowboy hat was some decendent of Souter Johnie himself.
Sitting with a pint of Corona, which must be catching on as it is the second time I’ve seen it in as many weeks after never noticing it before, I soak in the atmosphere. Amongst the traditional beery fayre we have quite the selection of whiskies (including the local Arran ones) surrounding a bust of Rabbie bedecked in sunglasses. Each table has a laminated menu heavy on traditional guid Scottish stuff like mince & tatties, steak pie and cullen skink with the through the week two course lunch menu being very reasonably priced. As said it is no tourist trap, but it could easily be, god bless the owners for not making it an extravagant place for rich visitors. The Tam O’Shanter could be all expensive malts, smoked salmon and venison but the owners have retained her soul rather than cashing in. I wanted to stay, drink too much and feast on haggis baws, but “Nae man can tether time or tide; the hour approaches Nomad maun ride…”
Oh Somerset Park you beautiful, beautiful bastard you. What a stunning blast from the past, the ground hoppers dream that guys like me fall instantly in love with. A trip to the new Cameron’s Bar next to the ground was planned but was full when I arrived, so thus headed into the ground and it was an actual joy to get an extra few minutes to savour her. Essentially, like Gayfield, we a have concrete terracing bowl round three sides of the pitch, on one touchline it is open to the elements and behind each goal covered with pitched roofs (the black & white paint job on the away end making it look remarkably like Pollok‘s Newlandsfield Park).The only nod towards modernity is a box of a building bolted on to the exposed terrace, today it acts as a changing room for the visitors, but prior to covid this carbuncle was the hospitality suite.
Finally on the southern touchline we have the ancient main stand that is fully seated, wooden floored and raised above the field of play much like its equivalent at Dens Park but without the kink in the middle. Originally it ran two thirds of the pitch, but at a later date it was extended the full length and this addition is pretty obvious on the eye. Inside the stand the corridors are small and cramped, but the old girl is well looked after, as is the pitch which looks grand despite the February weather.
As games go this was a weird one, that was in some part affected by the weather. After a minute’s silence for the recently passed Ayr legend Alex ‘Dixie’ Ingram, the opening ten were a midfield tussle until Dunfermline went ahead as Coll Donaldson slotted an easy one away. Then seven minutes later a Pars man scored again, this time for Ayr with the most ludicrous of own goals. With the ball fired high into the Dunfermline box Lewis Martin looked to clear with his head only for it to loop over his goalie from seventeen yards and land in the net. Martin must have felt like a massive walloper, but the wind gave a good assist and the keeper should have been better placed. That said, all in the United ends pished themselves laughing as they cheered the unexpected equaliser.
That was to be the last goal of the game and while both sides played some lovely fitba in adverse conditions, this writer believes the home team were the better side. In both halves they had plenty of chances, with my only issue being the waste of many a hard earned corner. Kerr McInroy, freshly on loan from Celtic, was rightly named Man of the Match after a performance that saw him make and take a good few chances to win the game. This former Scotland U21 player may be one to watch as he was a cut above many of his peers on the field of play. All that said Dunfermline had their chances too and if the shot that rattled off the bar late on had gone in this would all be a very different story. Good game if not a thriller, in front of a big crowd despite the wind, rain and it being Calcutta Cup day.
With “match-day wearing late, folk began to tak the gate” I headed off to Newton-on-Ayr unmolested by any supernatural evil and looked back on a fine day in the land of Burns. Three pubs today and three corkers. The Growler is the destination in town for any craft beer fanatic, quality ale and food available in the most relaxed surroundings, however if you are north of a forty inch waste perhaps you best avoid a booth. With The Twa Dugs & Tam O’Shanter we have a place that Rabbie would have loved and another that he very likely did. Both were highly convivial shoaps that could easily become my local if I moved into the area. What’s better is that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the Ayr bar scene, a return to see Whitletts Victoria is now a must so I can get round a few more of them. Honest Men and Bonnie Lassies I’ll be back.
As for Ayr United, a visit to Somerset Park without the match would have been enough. Like Greenock Morton’s Cappielow, here we see history and realise what so many other clubs have lost. The large crowd & full Cameron’s Bar (on a bloody awful day) back my theory that I visited a big club in the overall scheme of Scottish football. As for the action on the pitch, the press were calling it a relegation battle and it was one the home side were unlucky not to win. Keep playing like that and with a bit of luck into the mix survival might not be an issue, however if they do go down its happened before and they’ve always come back. This was my most southernly adventure in Scotland yet, three hours each way on a variety of public transport, was it worth it? Absolutely, although I’d probably pick a nice spring day next time.
“Whene’er to clear you are inclin’d, or defending the goal runs in your mind, think ye may buy the joys o’er dear, remember Lewis Martin’s heider”