Isle of Arran

The Isle of Arran
By Mark Walford
Date: Thursday September 6th 2007

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Waving off my fellow walkers was a dispiriting experience. I knew they were in for a tough day but I chafed at not being able to walk it with them. It was a bit of a let down to have planned for a whole year, saved the money, driven half the length of the UK, only to have the actual hiking curtailed by a skinned heel. I felt like a bit of a fraud to be honest but I knew my foot wouldn't have carried me over the rugged terrain the day had in store and my medical advice was to do no more walking for the week. I had to make the best of the remaining two days so I put on my happy face and dropped them off at Carradale before setting off to spend the day on the isle of Arran.
I had to drive a fair way up the eastern side of the peninsular and the road took me along pleasant groves of oak and ash and gently rolling grassland. This side of Kintyre was tamer then its western coast which faced directly out onto the Atlantic, and it was a far cry from the ruggedness of many parts of western Scotland; indeed it could have been rural England until the majestic profile of Arran presented itself through the breaks in the trees. We had enjoyed the presence of Arran as a backdrop from day one, the aspect presented to us being the mountainous northern area of the island which reared up out of Kilbrannan sound like a South Pacific atoll, the peaks of Goat Fell and Cir Mhor often swathed in ghostly cloud. I had watched the Caledonian McBrayne ferry ply its way across the grey waters of the sound and wondered what its destination might be like, promising myself a trip back one day to find out. The day had come sooner than I had imagined.
I parked my car on the access ramp at the tiny ferry port of Crossaig - our starting point for day two of the Kintyre Way - and wandered over to see what I needed to do to buy a ticket. I had about twenty minutes before the ferry docked and I could make out its tiny white speck chugging its way across the sound. As far as I could tell there was no ticket office so I presumed that the ticket was purchased onboard. I'd never been on such a small ferry before - certainly not as a motorist - so I felt a little apprehensive as to the boarding etiquette, particularly as I was at the head of a steadily growing queue of vehicles parked up behind me. I sat and watched the toy-like ferry grow ever larger until it loomed in front of me, dropping its roll-on door just before it ground gently onto the concrete of the access ramp. I needn't have worried about the process of getting aboard as a trio of highly efficient ferrymen sprang out and directed us into the large parking bay in the belly of the ship. The doors rolled back up and without any hesitation we were away again. The whole operation had taken ten minutes.
I got out to stretch my legs and watched the more experienced passengers to see what happened next - they went off in the direction of a tiny side door so I followed them nonchalantly into a small corridor where - aha! - there was a ticket office! The crossing took about 30 minutes so I went onto the observation deck and stood at the stern (my knowledge of nautical terms is about what you'd expect from a land-locked Brummie. I know the stern is the back end, the prow is the front. Ports to the left, starboard to the right and 'poop deck' is of uncertain location but remembered because it sounds so daft. What is a Poop ? And why does it need its own deck?). I gazed at the slowly dwindling skyline of the Kintyre peninsular, tracing its contours and trying to gauge where my fellow walkers might be. From this vantage point it was easy to see just how far the finger of Kintyre stretched out into the Atlantic. Its southern shores were lost in the distance and, just as last years West Highland Way had taught me, there would be a real sense of achievement in completing the walk. Forevermore you could point out the phallic shape of the peninsular on weather maps and announce to those around you "Look - see that? I walked it!" and be rewarded by a puzzled glance and the inevitable question "Why?". Some sort of RAF plane - a large twin engined affair - droned by at low altitude, heading south, drawing the attention of the ferry passengers like moths to a flame. As if sensing this it turned at the southern end of Kilbrannan Sound and headed back over us again. In true tourist fashion I snapped a few pictures that basically showed a grey plane hanging in a grey sky which was about as interesting as a picture of a slug on a wet paving slab. Still, it was a diversion.
Once we crossed the halfway point my attention began to focus on the approach to Arran. The scale of the mountains became apparent as the tiny white buildings of Lochranza began to take on shape and form. They were like breadcrumbs scattered at the feet of craggy giants. The sun broke out as we made our approach towards the access ramp and I had time to take a few snapshots before hurrying back to the car.
Again, with no fuss at all, the doors rolled outwards and down and I was the first car out of the ferry and onto the A841, the only road of any consequence on Arran, running a circular route right around the coastline - a trip of some 57 miles.

A flock of sheep were being herded down this road and vehicles mounted the grassy verge to let them through, a gesture which immediately endeared me to the place, that and the middle aged gent in a shocking pink tracksuit who jogged cheerfully along the harbour front paying no heed whatsoever to the odd looks he drew.
There is little to Lochranza except the small ferry terminal, some pretty water front properties, and the oblique ruin of Lochranza Castle . It has a declining population of some 200 and takes its name from the small sea loch of Ranza about which it is built. As a plus point it is home to the islands distillery which produces Arran Single Malt (in keeping with my previous visits to Scotland, where distilleries seem hell bent on refusing me access, the distillery was closed for the day) but also has the dubious reputation of being the village with the least hours of sunshine of any in the United Kingdom, lying as it does in a north-facing valley on an island with a particularly high level of rainfall. However, unlike most villages in the UK it has its very own poem dedicated to it by none other than Sir Walter Scott - and I quote:
Arran Pic 1

Lochranza Castle

On fair Lochranza streamed the early day,
Thin wreaths of cottage smoke are upward curl'd
From the lone hamlet, which her inland bay
From the lone hamlet, which her inland bay
And circling mountains sever from world

In fairness I saw little rain during my brief visit nor 'thin wreaths of smoke upward curl'd'. Combi-boilers have probably put paid to that image. I turned left into the grassy sward surrounding the ruined castle and decided to test my mobility. I got out, grabbed my walking pole, and tested my weight. It wasn't too bad - I wasn't going to be giving Mr. Pink Tracksuit a run for his money but I could get around ok if I used my pole as a crutch. I wandered around the base of the ruined castle and looked for something to tell me of its history, but if there was an information board then I missed it. I discovered later that it is in fact a ruin of 16th century vintage - a hunting lodge built by Scottish kings. It made a great subject for a photograph, framed against the background of the little harbour with its flotilla of yachts. I noticed spotlights had been installed at strategic places and wondered if I would be here later to see it illuminated.
I drove out of Lochranza intending to do a clockwise circuit of Arran using the A841, with a possible traverse over its centre if I could find one of the few roads on the map that seemed to allow me to do this. I climbed out of the harbour town and along the winding road that snaked through the mountains of the islands northern region. The road builders of Arran, justifiably proud of the scenery they enjoyed, incorporated regular lay-bys for people to pull in and admire the scenery, some of these even had park benches for their comfort and none of them possessed a parking meter. In fact during my whole stay in Kintyre I never once paid for the privilege of parking my car in some of the UK's most scenic locations - a stark contrast to my earlier Cornish holiday where my weekly parking budget almost ran into three figures. I was in no hurry, and the day was proving to be pleasantly sunny, so I edged my way around the coast, stopping by and by, until I reached the islands principal town of Brodick where I decided to get out and stretch my legs. Brodick is the centre for tourism on Arran but this in no way spoils its atmosphere. Even the main ferry port to mainland Ardrossan has not detracted from it's genial ambience. Brodick has its very own brewery, the Arran brewery, which produces Arran Blonde beer sold throughout the UK. There were more shops here than in Lochranza (actually there were no shops in Lochranza so the comparison is a little unfair) and I browsed along the high street peering into various windows. I found a curio shop - the sort of place that Sue loves to explore - and on impulse I decided to go inside and buy her a memento. The cool interior was practically empty of customers. I cast a quick glance over to the two female shop assistants and wondered, briefly, why they were staring at me in such an odd and wary manner until I caught sight of myself in a large mirror. I was dressed in shabby, travel stained, walking gear, a peaked cap jammed on my head, unshaven for almost a week, and walking with a sinister limp. They probably thought that the ghost of Bill Sykes had walked in. I found a large scented candle and approached them.
"May I have this please?" I said in my most cultured voice and flashed them a smile.
Relief softened their faces and they became as friendly as if I were an elderly lady shopping for doyleys. I even had a cheery "Have a nice day" offered me as I walked out. I made my way to the green verge that sloped down to the waters edge and found a bench to rest for a while. I phoned Sue and tried to describe the scene before me. The 2,867 ft. peak of Goat Fell tumbled down into pine forests which in turn ran down to the edge of the town. I sat at one end of a pleasant pebble strewn bay and not far out into the water a large grey ship lay at anchor. Behind me the high street was buzzing pleasantly with the sound of people enjoying themselves punctuated by the occasional swish of a passing car. It was a nice relaxed sort of place, was Brodick, and it encouraged the visitor to just sit and watch the world go by. It would have been rude not to oblige.
Arran Pic 2

Holy Isle at Lamlash

Eventually, and reluctantly, I returned to my car and moved on, with the sea to my left and a succession of pleasant little hamlets to my right. I pulled into one such place and went into the local post office to ask if there was a pub nearby.
"No!" replied the lady behind the counter, stepping back slightly and wondering whether to hit the alarm button. I really should have had a shave that morning.
The next town of any size was Lamlash strung out along the shoreline of the Firth of Clyde with the gaunt crag of Holy Isle standing some half a mile out to sea. I'd made up my mind to stop and explore a little but I was already driving back out of the place with no opportunity to do a U-turn as the island's only juggernaut had appeared from nowhere and was tail-gating me with dogged determination. On the outskirts of Lamlash I discovered the fire station and police station nestled together with a gleaming fire tender parked up and ready for action and, on the opposite side of the road, a small industrial estate where the huge lorry behind me turned off and left me in peace. I continued my leisurely circuit clockwise and noticed a wooden handwritten sign that said 'Viking Bay' just a few miles out of Lamlash.
On impulse I took the path that veered sharply left from the main road. For a while all was well as I trundled along a tiny country lane, passing pretty whitewashed cottages. The lane began to narrow however, and before long was merely a sort of cart track with no room to turn around. Eventually it led me into a farmyard where a truculent Jack Russell emerged from the house to the right and stood in front of the car. A large lady in an apron followed it and eyed me suspiciously. There was nothing I could do as there was nowhere to go but forward.
"Arthur!" yelled the woman."H'away"
The dog threw her a glance but didn't move.
"Arthur! Move will ye!"
The dog thrust its chin out at me.
"Arthur MOVE!"
Arthur planted his legs firmly and stared me out.
A man emerged from the barn to the left, a knotty muscled character with a weather beaten face. He merely jerked his head at Arthur who meekly trotted away back to the house. The lady (his wife I guess) threw the dog a murderous look and then glowered at her husband with an 'Oh - he'll do it for you won't he, the little shit!' expression. Feeling slightly uncomfortable I rolled gently between them, did a neat three point turn in the wider part of their yard and then rolled past them again. I tried smiling at them and shrugged but all I got in return were dark looks.
Of a bay, Viking or otherwise, there was not a trace.

As I headed off on the circuit again I noticed a track that struck off across the islands interior just a few miles further along the main road and assumed this was the road indicated on the map. As it turned out it wasn't. It was a trail imaginatively called, according to the hand written wooden sign, 'Strategic Logging Road No.2' but it was metalled and was going in the right direction so I took it anyway. It climbed steadily up and away from the coast to crest high amidst dense pine plantations. At its apex I pulled over to take photographs. From here I could see both Kilbrannan Sound on the west coast and the Firth of Clyde on the east coast with the Arran mountains framed nicely against the sky. A few sheep regarded me with mild surprise - they bleated at me continuously. I think they were saying "you should get a shave mate". The track twisted along a large and brooding glen, the silence only broken by the rattle of my wheels as I crossed cattle grids.
Eventually the track wound downwards again and I came out once more at Lamlash, named in part after Las, a fourth century Irish monk who decided that living in a cave on Holy Isle was a sane and rational lifestyle choice. Lamlash plays host to Arran's only secondary school and also has Arran's only hospital which must have come in handy for the Scottish Marines who trained near Lamlash during WW2. I found a promising looking hotel on the sea front and decided that a lunchtime pint was in order. The tiny bar was tended by a friendly guy I assumed to be the owner.
"Morning to ye", he chimed as I walked in. "What'll ye have?"
We chatted for a bit as he pulled my pint of Deuchars, I enthused about the beauty of Arran and he puffed his chest out with pride. "Oh aye - it's lovely here all right. Are ye walkin?"
"Yes. Well - I was but I've done my foot in so I'm just touring by car now."
"Oh? Well we have a few rooms free if you're lookin' for somewhere t'stay tonight."
"No it's ok. I'm already staying somewhere thanks."
"Ok. Here's your pint. Whereabouts are you staying - Brodick?"
I gave him the money. "No - I'm staying over on Kintyre actually. Have one yourself?"
His face clouded over. "No thanks. Not at lunchtime." He turned to his optics and began fiddling distractedly "Kintyre eh?"
And that was the end of the conversation. I don't know whether I had opened up an old inter-island emnity between Arran and Kintyre or he just had a personal grudge against all things Kintyre but the air temperature dropped by a few degrees. I noticed a door onto a small beer garden so I made a discreet exit to enjoy my pint in peace.
I had a great vantage point looking out across the narrow stretch of water between Lamlash and Holy Isle. The ubiquitous yachts bobbed about here and there and the local gulls wheeled overhead eyeing me speculatively to see if I had any food worth stealing. So far I hadn't seen a single place on Arran that wasn't picturesque in the extreme. The island had a rugged timelessness about it where even mainland Scotland, its eastern shores smudging the horizon across the Firth of Clyde, seemed remote and of another world. I pondered the history of Arran, what little I knew of it anyway: Often referred to as 'Scotland in miniature' it possesses both a highland and a lowland region, has been continuously occupied by man since Neolithic times, is home to three indigenous species of tree found nowhere else in the world, boasts 42 post boxes, and is Britain's seventh largest off shore island.
It has a few notable residents - Jack McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland, Robert McLellan, Scottish playwright and poet and Jackie Brambles, broadcaster. I supped my beer and wondered what it must be like to grow up in such a community where crime and traffic congestion and population pressures scarcely existed. It surely had to make you a better person - an innate mistrust of all things Kintyre notwithstanding.

Back on the road once more and I started to get hungry - I retraced my steps back over the logging road to rejoin the A841 on the southern tip of Arran where, undeterred by my Viking Bay experience, I acted again on impulse and turned off on a tiny road that led me down to a beach a little further on. I followed a sign to Knockenkelly and parked up to have a picnic on the sand. Despite the fact that it was still summer and the weather was passing fair I had the entire beach to myself. And what a beach it was. Whiting Bay - a wide crescent of clean sand, rock pools, and a bluff of sea-carved rocks forming a barrier between the beach and the houses lined along the coastal track. It occurred to me that perhaps the mysterious and elusive Viking Bay was in fact Whiting Bay I would have liked to have walked along its length and explored a few rock pools but that would have invited trouble from my gammy foot so I picked my way carefully down onto the sand and found a convenient rock to sit on to have lunch.
Arran Pic 3

Whiting (Viking?) Bay

A rough stone jetty ran out some hundred meters into the surf and a building jutted out at its end. It may have been a lighthouse of sorts. I wondered whether this was the remains of the pier that once claimed to be the longest in Scotland. I sat in peace and quiet for an hour with just a couple of tame robins to keep me company before reluctantly moving on. On a fine summers day - and I admit they may be rarer in Arran than further south in the UK - this must be a lovely place to spend your time. A million miles away from the Kiss-Me-Quick beaches of the likes of Brighton with it's heaving hordes of day trippers and jangling arcades.
After the turn off for Knockenkelly I was effectively on the homeward leg of my journey heading north up Arran with Kilbrannan sound to my left and the long sinuous line of Kintyre far out across the sea. I stopped briefly in a car-park on the edge of a gnarled and impenetrable forest whose green mossy depths invoked images of Grimm's fairy tales, to read about the Arran way, a long distant footpath of which I was unaware and which allowed a sixty mile circuit of the island by foot. Unlike the Kintyre Way the notice board pulled no punches about the tough terrain and several words like 'rugged' 'difficult' and 'scrambling' leapt out at me. For some reason I had a mental image of my three friends toiling up a rocky hillside, sweating and cursing with set faces and I wondered if they were 'scrambling' 'ruggedly' up a 'difficult' section right at that moment. I couldn't help but smile.
I drove through the tiny hamlet of Blackwaterfoot (little more than a hotel and a stone bridge built over a rushing beck whose waters did indeed look black) and its neighbouring 12 hole golf course
of international acclaim and back out onto the wildest part of the coast road. Owing to the steep rocky nature of the land on this side of Arran there were few visible settlements until I reached my journeys end at Lochranza. The way ahead was open and empty of traffic and now the pine forests tumbled down almost to the roadside only to be checked by a continuous natural wall of granite. To my left a long shale beach gave out onto Kilbrannan sound. A call of nature forced me to stop after a while to seek out a suitable bramble bush and then the hushed landscape made me seek out a flat rock to sit upon and observe the scenery before me. The late afternoon air was still and Kilbrannan Sound was like a sheet of mercury, the water having a heavy, oily consistency that rolled in a slow and deliberate manner. Iron clouds bloomed across the sound, dropping misty curtains of drizzle far out to the south, interspersed with silver shafts of sunlight that touched the water here and there like celestial searchlights. I became aware of unusual sounds - 'plink, ploosh, plash' - and realised that Gannets were out on the water diving for fish. Once you noticed one you became aware that they were, in fact, everywhere. On Monday they had teased me, denying me the glimpse of that final arrow-swift plunge into the water but today was a regular Gannet-fest. Some dived so close to me that I could observe every detail - the lazy circling followed by the sudden angled turn towards the water, the last-second folding back of their wings before their perfect entry and a plume of white water. Others were far out across the sound, and I saw the splash of their dives first before the distant 'ploosh' reached me. On a large rock in front of me stood a line of Cormorants. They looked like judges at a sporting event, giving the Gannets marks out of ten for technique (perhaps with bonus points for any fish caught). If a Gannet dived close to them they cackled at each other approvingly. Here, on an island where being far away from everything was its greatest charm, was a place that epitomised this characteristic. The road behind me carried the occasional car north or south but there were no houses or yachts or indeed people to be seen. I sat for half an hour, lost in thought, until my bum became numb with the sitting and I realised it was time to move on. I knew I had collected a memory that would always remain with me - just the Gannets and I, a September sky full of rain, and the silent waters of Kilbrannan Sound.

With such pithy prose running through my head, and my spirit uplifted, I drove the remaining few miles of my circuit, passing the fantastically named Thundergay, until the houses of Lochranza hove into view and my exploration of Arran was at an end. I parked on the access ramp at the Ferry port next to a red deer grazing the grass on the side of the road. I did a double take - yes, it really was a doe, chomping the grass right in the middle of Lochranza and in broad daylight. I got out of the car cautiously, expecting it to leap away into the nearest cover but it just acknowledged my presence with a flick of its head and moved a few feet away to continue feeding.
Arran Pic 4

Deer and Crows

A couple of bikers arrived, Germans I think, and gazed in amazement at the deer, gesturing to me as If I hadn't already seen it. They immediately fumbled for cameras.
I limped a few hundred yards down to the harbour front and killed some time watching the yachts bob about on the water (funny thing with yachts in a harbour is that you never see anyone actually on them) and waited in vain for the floodlights to be switched on at the Lochranza Castle or perhaps the glimpse of 'cottage smoke upward curl'd' or the Pink Jogger on his evening sorte. Soon, however, the white speck of the ferry could be seen ambling towards us and it was time to make my way back to the car and return to Kintyre. The red deer meantime had lain down on the crest of a grassy bank that ran down to the waters edge and was gazing out to sea. A pair of crows were hopping about it. One crow fluttered up and perched on it's head which garnered no reaction from the deer whatsoever. It looked like a contrived picture, what with the mountains and the sea as a backdrop, but it was a snapshot that just had to be taken. Later, on board the ferry, my mother rang me to see how I was spending my time. I was eulogising about Arran when the over amplified voice of the captain blared out of the Tannoy system, running through the obligatory safety announcements and drowning out my words. I may as well have been at Glasgow airport. As the ferry ploughed across Kilbrannan sound I watched the silhouette of Arran grow ever smaller and decided that I had to go back one day. The island had an allure that willed you to return. There was much that I hadn't had time to see or do; the raised beaches of the northern mountains, the climb to Goats Fell, the standing stones on Machrie Moor and the Giant's Graves above Whiting Bay. Arran is beautiful in its simplicity and the best memories I have of the place are those that cost me nothing but a little of my time and the willingness to just sit and observe. It was some considerable consolation for missing the final stages of the Kintyre Way

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