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Cairnryan is a linear settlement looking across the main A77 road to Loch Ryan. It was established as Lochryan by 1701 when Lochryan House was built at the northern end of today's village. The house was remodelled in the 1820s and the imposing structure just visible from the main road today was the result.
Until the 1800s Cairnryan was an important staging post on the coach route to Ayr, with half a dozen inns along this short stretch of coast. It also achieved a less desirable reputation as a haunt of highwaymen preying on that same passing traffic.
Today it appears to approaching ferry passengers as a long low line of mainly white-harled cottages and houses, set against a beautiful green hillside. With the Merchant's House restaurant and coffee shop (open from March to November) and the year-round Homestead Shop & Takeaway, plus a number of accommodation providers, Cairnryan retains a range of services for residents and passing ferry passengers.
In the 1860s the railway came to south west Scotland and nearly terminated at Cairnryan, which would have turned it into the main port for passenger services to Northern Ireland. But the railway went instead to Stranraer, swiftly followed by the ferry traffic wishing to connect with it.
In the 1940s Cairnryan was turned into a military port by the Americans, and it still has the 700m long jetty built at the time. Its main role was to allow the construction of the Mulberry Harbours, the floating ports on which the allies depended after D-Day. And for a short time Cairnryan was also served by a railway, albeit 80 years late.
In the 1960s the military railway was dismantled, but the WWII port allowed the growth of a new industry, shipbreaking. This culminated with the dismantling here of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in the late 1970s.
Being significantly closer by sea to Northern Ireland than Stranraer, the attractions of Cairnryan as a ferry port led to the building by P&O of a roll-on roll-off terminus here in the 1970s, offering a shorter crossing to Larne. In late 2011 the other main ferry operator, Stena, also moved its services from Stranraer to Cairnryan.