Arran – The isle for all ages
By Robin McKelvie
Working as a travel writer for over two decades I’ve been to over 100 countries, but there is one island I return to every year. And that island is Arran, right here in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. I have family on Arran and as a wee boy my parents used to bring me ‘doon the watter’ every summer. Now I take my own wee girls to a glorious island that somehow manages to get better with each visit. Join me as I let you in on why Arran is so deeply special, with a very personal tour.
The tourist epithet ‘Scotland in Miniature’ really rings dramatically true. The Highland Boundary Fault surges right through Arran, forging a northern half alive with soaring mountains, tumbling glens and gushing burns and rivers. The gentler Lowland south reclines with rolling hills, thick forest and the sort of sweeping sandy beaches that just scream holiday!
Both halves are also alive with wildlife. Indeed this is the only island where you can see all of Scotland’s Big Five – red squirrels, harbour seals, otters, golden eagles and the mighty red deer. Swirl in dolphins, whales and basking sharks, and the island is like one spectacular nature documentary. Every time we visit we head out on ‘safari’ with my girls (Tara and Emma) aiming to tick off as much wildlife as possible in their notepads.
Rolling off the ferry at the island capital of Brodick we are straight into the heart of the action. After an ice cream at the new The Parlour (Arran milk, in both cheese and ice cream, is rightly renowned) you can visit the base of ARRAN Sense of Scotland. It may be a name in health and beauty with a global reach, but their large shop is charmingly welcoming. After my girls get stuck in making soap and candles, we always snap up a few treats, before heading next door to Brodick Castle.
Arran swims in history and legend. Standing surveying the Clyde from this grand fortress you can imagine Robert the Bruce bashing through Arran inspired by that spider and Viking longships sailing by. The castle and grounds have just been brilliantly revamped. My girls love the new Isle Be Wild playground, high up in the forest canopy. The fascinating castle interior is now accessible to all and we found the new set-up very family-friendly too.
Cutting south now we ease down into Lamlash, which reclines on another broad bay, with the hulking Holy Isle just offshore. You can drive here, cycle (Arran is ideal for cyclists) or hike in on the 65-mile Arran Coastal Way. Recently recognised as one of Scotland’s Great Trails, this rewarding route sweeps all the way around Arran. It is a walking adventure, set up so that you can easily tackle a stretch or two. It’s on my bucket list to do the whole epic in one trip.
Further south we keep Holy Isle to our left as we arrive in Whiting Bay. Once a bustling Victorian resort with Scotland’s longest pier it’s much more relaxed these days. We never miss the Arran Art Gallery. You can tell we don’t as we’ve got a few of their pieces brightening up our walls at home. The gallery is part of the Arran Art Trail, with over a dozen creative studios, workshops and other venues.
Delving down towards the southern reaches of Arran we come into what we call the ‘Twin Ks’ – Kilmory and Kildonan. The beaches around these villages are jaw-dropping. Think not only sandcastles, but paddling with seals and enjoying views out to Pladda and Ailsa Craig. Kildonan Castle and Torrylin Cairn add historical intrigue. Arran after all boasts no fewer than eight Historic Scotland sites.
Scooping up the west coast now we run with the Kilbrannan Sound to our left, with raised beaches and hills on our right flank. This is the land my family hails from. I’ve taken my girls to see the old homestead at Kilpatrick, little more than rubble these days, but for me it’s still an important link to a not forgotten past. In Arran heritage, tradition and family are still very much valued.
That strength of family and history surfaced on our last visit at Bellevue Farm. I knew it for its world beating blue cheese. This time I discovered the cheesemaker is pioneering a new Swiss hard cheese, but also that I’m related to the Curries who own the farm. They are an industrious lot, opening up their farm for tours, with accommodation too and plans for more visitor facilities.
Arran is blessed with a glorious choice of accommodation, a great example being the Best Western Kinloch Hotel in Blackwaterfoot, just to the north. It’s hard to beat sitting in your bedroom gazing out over the Kilbrannan Sound looking for our marine mammal cousins and savouring lingering sunsets. They’ve got a swimming pool too. As have the Auchrannie Resort, the only real resort in the Scottish isles. On the fringes of Brodick they in fact boast two pools, the ASPA spa, a leisure centre, the Play Barn for kids, the Arran Adventure activities centre and multiple accommodation options.
Also in Brodick is the Douglas Hotel. This striking sandstone gem has been brilliantly brought back to its best. The views of Brodick Bay and the mountain of Goatfell are spirit soaring. It has got a lovely boutique feel too, ideal for couples. I’m just scratching the surface with these places I’ve stayed at. Get on The Coig website and check out the myriad options, from the cosy glamping pods of Balmichael Glamping (they’ve got alpacas here too you can take for a walk!), through to a sweep of self-catering options in some truly memorable spots.
You are spoiled for choice when it comes to eating out too on clean, green, sustainable Arran. The local produce – from cheese (pick that up at the well-stocked Arran Cheese Shop) and meat (Pirnmill lamb is amazing!), through to seafood and those famous Arran oaties. The Auchrannie Resort remarkably boasts a trio of great places to dine – the relaxed Cruize Bar Brasserie, Eighteen69 Scottish Tapas and Brambles Seafood Grill. The Kinloch’s Kilbrannan Restaurant sees the chance to savour scallops from the waters you are gazing over. Other favourites of ours include family-friendly bar and bistro Crofters in Brodick and the lively Pierhead Tavern in Lamlash, who sport a rooftop terrace with serious views.
Our whole family are huge fans of the Old Byre Visitor Centre, which we reach as we continue our tour up the west coast. The lovely Turkish-Scottish couple behind this oasis have put real thought in, from the superb kids playground, to their Café Thyme. Here you can try traditional Turkish pizzas (pides). Arran fusion comes with Arran cheese and haggis pides! Afterwards you can shop for top notch knitwear.
We breeze now through the postcard perfect villages of Pirnmill and Catacol, then arrive in the heart of Highland Arran. Lochranza sits dramatically framed between a waterfront castle and looming mountain massifs in Arran’s northern extremities. It’s a great place to throw pebbles in the water as you take in the scenery. For whisky too. Lochranza Distillery offers tours and a great café, not to mention a range of single malts. The people behind it recently opened a spectacular new distillery at Lagg, which has state-of-the-art tours and another spot on café. I suggest visiting both as they each have their own charms.
As our journey reaches its end heading back south we follow the red deer and golden eagles (you usually see them even from the car here) down to Sannox. The Viking name gives away its heritage. Skipping across the stepping stones and eking through the dunes to reach the sands is all very Swallows and Amazons. I used to swim here as a boy. Sannox is also home to a golf course (the island remarkably boasts seven spectacular courses) and a cricket club. Arran is an island constantly full of surprises!
Our last stop is just outside Brodick at Arran Botanical Drinks. It’s a symbolic place to end. As I sat on the beach on my most recent visit, outside the hip new gin (and kir) den, I spotted a statue of a dinosaur. My girls were fascinated and clambered over. I remembered it from the days when I played here as a kid. Whether you are nine or ninety Arran is a special island and one whose appeal transcends the generations year-round in so many life affirming ways.