Ailsa Craig

Written by Chris Thornton | 9th of January 2024
Ailsa Craig

Ailsa Craig is a small, uninhabited island located in the outer Firth of Clyde, approximately 16 km west of the Scottish mainland on the Ayrshire Coast. The island is known for its microgranite, quarried for centuries to make curling stones. Ailsa Craig is also a popular destination for birdwatchers and tourists, thanks to its unique flora, fauna, and stunning natural beauty.

At over 1,100 feet tall, Ailsa Craig is an imposing presence in the Firth of Clyde. The island takes up around 240 acres of the sea and is home to various bird species, including puffins, guillemots, and gannets. Visitors can take boat trips to the island to explore its rugged coastline, hike to the top of the island, or enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding area.

While touring Ayr this year, my family and I stopped at Girvan to grab a picnic and visit the beachfront. Ailsa Craig absolutely dominates the horizon from the shore and looks quite imposing. The main image above is one I took from Girvan Beach.

Geological Origins and Features

Ailsa Craig is a testament to the dynamic forces that have shaped the Earth's crust. Rising from the waters of the Firth of Clyde, this 240-acre island is a beautiful sight and a geologist's dream, providing a window into the planet's tumultuous past.

Volcanic Birth

Ailsa Craig originates from volcanic activities from over 60 million years ago. It's essentially the eroded remnant of a volcanic plug formed when magma hardened within a vent of an active volcano. Over time, as the surrounding softer rocks eroded, the resilient core remained, giving Ailsa Craig its distinct profile today.

Ailsa Craig Granite

Its blue hone granite is one of the island's most significant geological treasures. This particular variety of granite is aesthetically pleasing and possesses a unique combination of density, porosity, and durability. It has become primarily known for its use in curling stones. The old quarry manager's house is one of the remaining functional buildings on the island.

Erosional Features

The island also boasts an array of interesting landforms shaped by erosion. From dramatic cliffs to mysterious caves, these features are carved out by the relentless action of the sea, wind, and rain. Among them, the Giant's Causeway – not to be confused with the famous landmark in Northern Ireland – is a particular point of interest, with its series of hexagonal columns formed from cooling lava.

Hexagonal columns on Ailsa Craig.
Hexagonal columns.
Ailsa Craig - a long extinct volcano. A conspicuous landmark.
Ailsa Craig has a magical quality.

Curling stones

Curling is a sport that originated in Scotland as early as 1540, but the first proper rules were not drawn up until 1838 by the Grand Caledonian Curling Club. Today, Curling is an Olympic sport at the Winter Olympics.

For centuries, the fine granite from Ailsa Craig has been the prime choice for crafting curling stones. The island is the source of two types of granite: blue hone and common green. The blue hone is used for the running surface of the stone due to its resistance to water absorption, while the common green is often used for the body of the stone. This makes Ailsa Craig integral to the sport's history and tradition.

A curling stone made from Ailsa Craig granite.
A Kays of Scotland curling stone. Image: David Smith

Ailsa Castle

The remains of a three-storey castle, rising to a height of 12 meters, are located on the island's eastern flank. Constructed in the late 16th century by the Hamilton Family, it served as a defence against potential invasions by King Philip II of Spain.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, this fortress was repurposed as a prison. The castle's design includes two vaulted floors, a basement with an oven, and remnants of a spiral staircase that once led to the tower's peak. A 'V'-shaped trio of cinquefoils on the tower can be seen, hinting at the Hamilton family's association with the building.

Aisla Castle is a popular destination for those visiting the island, with fantastic views of the lighthouse far below.

Ailsa castle and lighthouse.
The remnants of the castle on Ailsa Craig with the lighthouse below.

Ailsa Craig Lighthouse

From Girvan, you can make out the Lighthouse on Ailsa Craig. Built-in 1886 by Thomas Stevenson, it is owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board but is no longer manned after being automated in 1990.

The lighthouse and surrounding area are fascinating, with many remnants of Victorian structures scattered around the site, including fog horns and even part of the defunct railway.

The Ailsa Craig Lighthouse as seen from a boat.
Ailsa Craig Lighthouse.
Ailsa Craig Lighthouse.
Another view of the Ailsa Craig Lighthouse.
Ailsa Craig railway system.
Part of the old railway system.

Bird sanctuary

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Ailsa Craig is its role as a crucial habitat for seabirds. Given its relative isolation and lack of human interference, the island serves as a sanctuary for a diverse population of bird species, making it an important ecological site in Scotland.

Bird flying at sunset at Ailsa Craig.
Birds near Ailsa Craig.

Notable species

Among the birds that call Ailsa Craig home are gannets, puffins, and guillemots. Each species occupies a specific niche on the island. For instance, gannets prefer the steep cliffs, while puffins are often found in burrowed nests on the grassy terrains. Guillemots, on the other hand, are commonly seen in large colonies on the rocky outcrops.

The island has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) primarily because of its bird populations.

Birds nesting on Ailsa Craig.
The nesting birds are well hidden on the rocks.

A short history of Ailsa Craig:

Late 1500s: The Hamilton Family built a 3-storey castle on the eastern side of Ailsa Craig to protect the island from King Philip II of Spain.

1580: Sir James Balfour first mentioned the island's chapel and castle.

1587: During the Scottish Reformation, Lord Maxwell, a Catholic, landed on Ailsa Craig to escape his pursuers.

1590: Highland pirates disrupted shipping around Ailsa Craig.

1597: Hugh Barclay of Ladyland took possession of Ailsa Craig to use it as a safe haven for Catholics and as a stopping-off point for a planned Spanish invasion. Bishop Andrew Knox accidentally caused the death of Hugh Barclay, but he was pardoned by parliament.

1772: Thomas Pennant visited Ailsa Craig and recorded the ruins of a small chapel near the landing place.

18th and 19th Centuries: Ailsa Craig was used as a prison.

1831-1907: Lifetime of The Rev. Roderick Lawson, who speculated about the identity of bones found in a cave on the island.

1866: Two foghorns with concrete housings were built.

1883-1886: A lighthouse was constructed by Thomas Stevenson.

1909: The Ailsa Craig Granite Company built a mineral railway line.

1911: Oil-powered engines were installed at the lighthouse, making the gas works redundant.

1928: The Ailsa Craig Granite Company effectively closed.

1966: Both original foghorns were decommissioned.

1987: Tyfon fog signal became redundant due to improvements in ship navigation.

1990: The lighthouse was automated, and the island became uninhabited.

2001: The lighthouse was converted to solar electric power.

The far side of Ailsa Craig.
A view of the far side of the island.

Interesting facts on Ailsa Craig

  • Two railways used to exist on the island to transport lighthouse supplies and quarried rock.

  • No one lives on the island; the lighthouse has been automated since 1990.

  • The island is 1100ft tall and takes up 240 acres of sea.

  • A hotel was once planned for the island but was nixed by planning regulations.

  • Ailsa Craig is sometimes known as "Paddy's Milestone" as it is the halfway point between Belfast and Glasgow via sea journey. Other names include Alasan, Alisdair's Rock, Fairy Rock and simply "The Rock".

  • It was once used as a prison.

  • Named "Creag Ealasaid" in Scottish Gaelic.

FAQs on Ailsa Craig

Here are a few frequently asked questions about Ailsa Craig:

Who currently owns Ailsa Craig?

Ailsa Craig is privately owned by David Kennedy, 9th Marquess of Ailsa, who inherited the island from his father, Charles Kennedy. Kays of Scotland are currently responsible for making curling stones.

What is Ailsa Craig famous for besides its quarry?

Aside from its quarry, Ailsa Craig is known for its abundant birdlife, particularly its large population of gannets. The island is also home to several other seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, and razorbills.

The island is also known for its lighthouse and castle ruins.

Is Ailsa Craig accessible to the public?

Ailsa Craig is accessible to the public, but only by boat. Visitors can take a guided tour of the island, which includes a climb to the top of the hill for stunning views of the surrounding area.

Does anyone live on Ailsa Craig?

No one currently lives on Ailsa Craig. However, several buildings on the island include a lighthouse and cottages, which are used for maintenance and as holiday homes.

Is Ailsa Craig an extinct volcano?

Yes, Ailsa Craig is an extinct volcano. The island is made up of microgranite, formed by volcanic activity around 500 million years ago.

Is Ailsa Craig the same island as Bass Rock?

No, Bass Rock is on the east coast near North Berwick, and Ailsa Craig is on the southwest coast directly west of Girvan.

Visitor Information

Craig Ailsa is not easily accessed and requires a boat trip to reach it. The closest you can get from the mainland is Girvan Beach; you can get a fairly good view of it on a clear day, especially with a good camera lens.

A boat can be chartered from "Ailsa Craig Trips" in Girvan:
Telephone: 01465 713219

Ailsa Craig on Google Maps
What3words: ///sensual.hack.goggle
OS grid reference: NX019997

The sun setting behind the island of Ailsa Craig.
Ailsa Craig sunset.

Key information on Ailsa Craig

  • Ailsa Craig is a small, uninhabited island in the outer Firth of Clyde, approximately 16 km west of mainland Scotland.

  • The island is known for its microgranite, which has been quarried for centuries to make curling stones.

  • Ailsa Craig is also a popular destination for birdwatchers and tourists, thanks to its unique flora, fauna, and stunning natural beauty.

  • Attractions to the island are the old lighthouse with Victorian buildings, the castle, and the summit's views.

  • The island is only accessible via boat. Tours are available to the island from Girvan.


Ailsa Craig is a fascinating place to visit in South Ayrshire, even if you only view it from Girvan Beach. If you're feeling more adventurous, a boat trip to the island will reward you with the fascinating Victorian lighthouse with support buildings, the castle, wildlife photography and some of the most amazing views in west Scotland.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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