I have to admit I had expected to travel a bit more after coming here, and I can’t blame it all on one of the wettest summers on record. Last year I only visited Falkirk and Dunkeld and this year Rouken Glen, Dumbarton – and in August Kilmarnock.
For years, Kilmarnock was rather special for me. I’d never been there and it isn’t one of the biggest towns or most usual tourist destinations; yet I wouldn’t mistake it for another and felt reasonably sure where to look for it on a map ever since I exclaimed, when exploring the first roll slitter I ever operated (a Sapphire from ASHE in Ipswich) and finding out that the sensor governing the unwind shaft came from some Kilmarnock firm, “Kilmarnock? hey, that’s where Johnnie Walker’s from!”
I knew the factory had closed since then – in fact, my going was partly prompted by fears that they might tear it down before I’ve seen it. I also prepared myself by looking up Kilmarnock landmarks in the ‘pedia and printing an OS copy of its centre. Still, the trip wasn’t without surprises.
Not that there was anything surprising in me leaving Glasgow at a time when others were flocking into it to see the Glasgow Live piping festival. Or in getting nostalgic in the train when smelling the summer fields, even though the smell reminded me more of my hop-picking days in Bohemia than of my strawberry-picking job in England. The first surprise was that to begin with Kilmarnock reminded me of York. Both their town centres are such irregular mazes of streets that I was lost in less than a couple of minutes – and loved them all the same.
Having the map, however, helped me to find all the sights I wanted to see: Laigh Kirk, Kilmarnock Cross, the railway viaduct, Palace Theatre, War Memorial and Dick Institute – by which time I realized that the town was much smaller than I imagined it from the map. I strolled through Kay Park, past the Burns Monument and the pond, at a more leisurely pace.
Later on, having crossed the Lauder (Foot)Bridge, I pondered which way to Dean Castle to take. I decided on the path by the Kilmarnock Water, a pleasant one among trees, and once again found myself at my goal much quicker than I’d anticipated. Approaching the castle’s front it occurred to me that I wouldn’t know whether to call it a hrad or a zámek in Czech (both are used for the English word “castle”, but while the former implies something ostentatiously defensive like Stirling, the latter implies something ostentatiously posh like Balmoral) – until I found out the left part to be just the Dower House and entered the courtyard. Definitely a hrad.
Entering the Keep was a good way to get an impression of how little space the lesser nobility used to have in their dwellings, and the attached animal park (or whatever it’s called) was another good feature I wasn’t prepared for. For all I know such subsidiary attractions may be fairly typical, but I don’t think I’ve seen too many. Flower gardens and arboreta, sure, but when there was a zoo, it usually took over from the castle the role of the primary sight.
Leaving the park by the Dean Road entrance I was for the last time taken aback by my misconception of my map’s distances when I noticed the footbridge just a stone’s throw away, and with a few digressions to churches I was passing I finally got to the former Johnnie Walker distillery. Which was possibly the biggest surprise of all. I knew it wouldn’t just consist of a few tiny buildings like Edradour, but man, the complex was apparently at least as large as the Budweiser Budvar brewery one!
I was naturally returning in a fairly good mood, regretting only my unnecessary hurry at the beginning. The last surprise awaited me on Buchanan Street – the piper and two drummers I saw there when leaving were still (or again) at it, and with as much verve as before.
By the way, does anybody know who’s supposed to be able to tell the time from the Kilmarnock railway station clock?