The Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock is the home of Johnnie Walker whisky and the oldest professional football club in Scotland. Kilmarnock FC, ‘Killie’, were founded in 1869 when this then textile hub a few miles south-west of overcrowded Glasgow was an affluent community of neatly planned tree-lined avenues and spacious residential developments. This is the town that made the carpets for the Titanic.
Rugby Park, Killie’s home since 1877, still lies in one of these pleasant, genteel suburbs, rather than in a tangle of working-class housing as is the case with so many Scottish grounds. In fact, the stadium now stands alongside a modern four-star hotel, a sign that Kilmarnock is slowly emerging from serious post-war decline.
And though the football club will almost certainly never match the achievements of the Killie side that won a very strong Scottish League in 1965, of late Kilmarnock have reached two League Cup finals, winning one.
The name ‘Rugby Park’ hints at Killie’s origins. The game played in winter by local cricketers was more akin to today’s oval-ball version than football. Meeting at a hotel on Portland Road, close to Rugby Park, these sportsmen formed a club that used to play at various open spaces in the vicinity. They settled on a spot on South Hamilton Street, beside today’s stadium – and plumped for soccer over rugby after being encouraged by Glasgow’s most successful side of the day, Queen’s Park.
That same year of 1877, the Ayrshire Cup was inaugurated, long-forgotten sides including Kilmarnock Portland and Kilmarnock Athletic involved as well as Killie. First staged at Holm Quarry then Rugby Park, it became dominated by the great county rivals, Ayr United and Kilmarnock FC. In fact, one of these two sides won every trophy for 70 years until the last in 1997-98 – from 1946, only the big two competed.
In recent years, these Kilmarnock-Ayr clashes have all been in the cup competitions, Killie always at least one league above The Honest Men since Premiership promotion in 1993. The Ayrshire derby has not been short of drama, however – United have won on penalties and saved the game in the 90th minute, Killie gained a place in the Scottish League Cup final of 2012 with a solitary goal in extra-time at Hampden.
Another single strike then decided the final, Kilmarnock’s last major honour to date. The surprise victory over Celtic did not open the door to Europe, however – Killie’s only run being to the semi-final of the Fairs’ Cup in 1967.
Prestwick, the nearest airport to Kilmarnock 21km (13 miles) away, is currently used for Med and southern European routes. From the airport’s rail terminal, a train runs every 2hrs to Kilmarnock (£3.40 single) via Troon, 25min journey time. A Streamline Taxi (01292 28 45 45) to Kilmarnock should cost around £25.
Glasgow International is 35.5km (22 miles) away. From Stance 1, a Glasgow Airport Express bus No.500 runs to Bothwell Street/Hope Street by Glasgow Central station (online £7 single, £9.50 open return, journey time 15min) every 12-15min. From Glasgow Central, a direct train to Kilmarnock (every 30min, £6.40 single) takes 40min.
A local Kilmarnock Taxi (01563 840 002) quotes £45 between Glasgow International and Kilmarnock, £22 to/from Prestwick.
With its famous floral clock, Kilmarnock station is at the top of John Finnie Street close to the town centre. The bus station is nearby on Green Street, beside the Burns Shopping Mall.
Stagecoach West Scotland operates most local and regional buses.
Visit Scotland has a database of hotels in and around Kilmarnock.
Kilmarnock is one of a growing number of football destinations with a hotel integral to or alongside the stadium. In fact, the Park Hotel behind the main stand was the first of its kind in Scotland. A four-star with 50 rooms, it features fresh, local cuisine in the blues restaurant, a gym, sauna and steam room.
On nearby Portland Road, a short walk from the ground and close to where Killie were founded in 1869, are two more lodgings. With a popular bar on match days, the smart, well run Portmann has eight affordable rooms, most en-suite, while the beautifully restored Victorian-era Etruria Townhouse is run by a dedicated couple, with a cosy communal lounge, crackling fire, complimentary malt whisky and all. Included in the attractive room rate, a first-rate breakfast is taken in the large, open-plan kitchen.
Also within easy reach of the stadium but on the other side from town, close to Annanhill golf course, the Premier Inn Kilmarnock by the Moorfield roundabout is also close to Dundonald Road on the No.10 bus route to Rugby Park.
Just behind the train station, the Dean Park Guest House is a small, clean, efficient bed and breakfast with six rooms, all a 20-minute walk from the ground down John Finnie Street. Close to the prestigious but unfortunately named Dick Institute, Kilmarnock’s main attraction, the Broomhill is well respected family-run hotel with its own bar and restaurant, also a 20-minute walk from the ground.
Kilmarnock has many pub and bar options in and around the town centre – also reasonably convenient for Rugby Park.
Bank Street is a good place to start, where the First Edition is a traditional freehouse of modern design and the Goldberry Arms is a popular, family-run local. Both have TV sport – the First Edition is also good for food and outdoor drinking in the beer garden. Nearby, The Brig (24 Nelson Street) is a small, modern pub with a big choice of beers and TV sport.
By the train station, the Tackety Bit (4A John Finnie Street) is a lively, spacious bar with sport on TV, live music and regular quizzes. Opposite the station, Fanny By Gaslight is an excellent local with a clean, cosy interior and range of quality beers and food. Close by, the Wheatsheaf Inn is a roomy Wetherspoons set in a former coaching inn that was a favourite of Rabbie Burns’.