Stuck on the extreme south-western tip of Scotland at the end of a windswept sea loch, the location of Stranraer has both given the town its livelihood and made it a challenging football outpost.
Remarkably, its flagship club Stranraer FC has been riding these challenges since 1870, making it the third oldest in the Scottish League.
Trade across the 20-mile stretch of choppy Irish Sea sealed Stranraer’s fate centuries ago as a port for passenger ferries and cargo ships from Ulster. This wild, untamed coastline, celebrated by folk punk heroes The Men They Couldn’t Hang in their ‘Smuggler’s Song’, hid many a rugged local sneaking rum and contraband in and out of Scotland.
Sadly, in terms of football, Stranraer’s remote position has meant the local team has traditionally struggled to attract players – and supporters. The Blues didn’t even gain full league status until its restructure in 1955.
Though hosting a loyal local following, Stranraer’s Stair Park ground has usually been bypassed by the thousands of Old Firm fans making the journey from Northern Ireland up to Glasgow.
Until 2011, followers of Celtic or Rangers would have seen Stair Park flash by the window a couple of minutes after their train set off from Stranraer’s dockside terminal. Nowadays, Stena Line operates from a new ferry terminal alongside the existing one run by rivals P&O a few miles up the loch at Cairnryan. A bus connects port and station.
Its windswept port now forgotten, Stranraer half a mile away has managed to retain a busy feel. With plans for waterfront redevelopment, there’s an optimistic air around what is one of the more atmospheric of Scotland’s football outposts.
Glasgow Prestwick airport is 93km (58 miles) north of Stranraer, connected by train (every 2hrs, 1hr 40min with one change at Ayr, £11.20/half-price for Prestwick passengers with proof of flight). From Glasgow Central, a train to Stranraer (£12.80) is about 2hr 30min, most changing at Ayr.
Stranraer’s train station is down by the old harbour, about half-a-mile from town.
Bus connections from Prestwick to Stranraer are also via Ayr (Stagecoach No.4/No.358) but usually involve two changes and a journey of over 2hr 30min.
Streamline Taxis (01292 28 45 45) should charge around £90-£100 from Prestwick to Stranraer.
From Belfast port, six Stena Line ferries a day run to Cairnryan 10km (six miles) from Stranraer. Crossings take 2hr 15min and cost from around £100 for a standard car, £24-£28 for a foot passenger. P&O runs from Larne (2hrs).
Infrequent McLeans Bus No.350 runs the 15min from either Stena or P&O terminal to Stranraer harbour/station then onto Charlotte Street in Stranraer. It’s otherwise about a 10min walk from the harbour/station to town.
McLeans also runs the local taxi firm (01776 705 555), fare around £14 for the journey from Cairnryan to Stranraer.
The Visit Scotland Stranraer Information Centre has limited local accommodation information.
Handy for the ground a ten-minute walk away, the Royal Hotel was put up for sale in November 2015 but otherwise comprises five en-suite guestrooms above a popular pre-match bar.
Close to the ground is the smart Craignelder with a dozen guestrooms and restaurant in an elevated setting on Cairnryan Road overlooking the bay. It’s a five-minute walk to Stair Park, turning right up Stair Drive then left at London Road.
Alongside is Stranraer’s finest establishment, the hogh-quality North West Castle Hotel, former home of Arctic explorer Sir John Ross. Set in extensive grounds on Port Rodie just above the town centre, it has its own pool, sauna, spa, gym and Alpine Restaurant & Grill. Uniquely, it also contains a curling rink, making the hotel a key destination for this popular local sport.
Hotels and guesthouses line nearby Agnew Crescent parallel to the waterfront around Stranraer harbour. All are about 15-20min from Stair Park, heading for the Craignelder then up Stair Drive and London Road. Bus Nos.365, 407, 416, 430 and 500 make the same journey from second roundabout along.
Neptune’s Rest comprises seven comfortable rooms, six en-suite, while Marine House has a more modern feel. The Lakeview Guest House is a superior, three-star B&B with ten tasteful rooms, two singles. The pleasant, family-run Harbour Lights Guest House is equally welcoming, with five rooms.
On adjoining Market Street, the Harbour Guest House is also friendly and family-run, and particularly welcoming to golfers.
The many pubs and bars that dot the central streets behind the harbour are some 10min walk from Stranraer station and 15min from the stadium.
The Commercial Inn dates back to 1895 has been a port of call for many a ferry traveller – today it’s handy for the hotels and guesthouses also on Agnew Crescent.
At the other end of Agnew Park, the family-run Swan Inn is also traditional, with 3D Sky Sports, pool, darts and live music on Saturdays. It does B&B as well. Facing the harbour on Agnew Crescent, the Marina Bar is modern and well fitted-out.
On George Street, the Golden Cross is a traditional corner boozer, a big darts and drinking den, while the Bar Pazzarello (‘Bar Pazz’) is a spacious modern bar and grill with a keen pool and darts team.
On North Strand Street you’ll find the smart, modern, family-friendly Custom House, offering TV football, quizzes, pub food and a range of ales. The neighbouring presence of the Stranraer FC Fitba’ Bar (see Stranraer FC) means that the Custom House is also a pre- and post-match favourite.
Alongside, small, modern Chasers gets a regular crowd of locals.