The River Irvine at Irvine has been used by shipping for many centuries. Despite recurring problems with silting, and despite the difficult sand-bar at the mouth of the river, the number and size of ships visiting Irvine increased steadily, leading to the construction of a new harbour in deeper water nearer the mouth of the River Irvine in 1677.
For a time after 1760, Irvine was the third busiest port in Scotland. Large quantities of coal were being exported to Ireland, and by 1807 the 50 Irvine-owned vessels were trading as far afield as North America.
Shipbuilding grew significantly from the late 1800s, but ceased in 1928: and coal exports declined steadily from the 1930s until the eventual closure of the Ayrshire coalfields. Like many other traditional ports, Irvine was left with a great deal of derelict or under-used land looking for new uses.
The transformation of Irvine Harbourside that started in the 1970s is one of the most complete and most impressive of the many such redevelopments across the UK.
You can think of Irvine Harbourside as three distinct but complementary areas. South of the River Irvine and bordering the coast is Irvine Beach Park. In 1976 this became home to the massive Magnum Centre.
This includes an indoor and an outdoor heated swimming pool, a 1,200 seat concert hall, and a 350 seat cinema/theatre. At the end of the 1980s it was Scotland's single most popular attraction with over a million visitors per year. It remains hugely successful today.
At the south side of the actual mouth of the river is the Automatic Tide Marker Station, built in 1906. This was designed to measure the depth of water over the sand bar in the entrance to the channel and signal the results to ships approaching the harbour.
The core of Irvine Riverside contains some of the most attractive modern housing you are likely to see anywhere, much of it built by the Irvine Development Corporation from the 1980s. Intermixed with it are older cottages and houses, and elements of the Scottish Maritime Museum. The most striking of these is the vast Linthouse Engine Shop, rebuilt here as recently as 1991 after relocation from a shipyard in Govan.
The harbourside itself is home to other elements of the Maritime Museum, plus more housing. Here, too, you will find the many small leisure craft which are now the main users of the harbour: plus a number of attractive pubs designed to appeal to users of the boats and residents alike.
Until September 2003 Irvine Harbourside was also home to the Big Idea, a Millennium Project devoted to the history of invention. Sadly this is no longer open, and the bridge over the River Irvine leading to it has been partly dismantled.