Discover the stunning Isle of Arran with a Cicerone guidebook
Walking on the Isle of Arran
Low level walks to high mountain routes by Paddy Dillon
This handy, pocket-sized guidebook offers a selection of 45 walks. Many of them are interlinked and there are ample opportunities to create longer walks that traverse the length and breadth of the island. The walks range from easy low-level trails to more challenging, high mountain routes so they are suitable for a range of abilities. More...
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The Isle of Arran rises proudly from the Firth of Clyde between Ayrshire and Kintyre. Its mountainous form dominates the open waters of the Clyde and its jagged peaks present a great challenge to walkers. People first came to the island some 5500 years ago, though some periods of its history are but dimly recorded. Tourism has been important for little more than the past century. The Isle of Arran has much to offer the visitor and is often described as Scotland in Miniature. Roads are very few, but opportunities to explore the island on foot are many and varied. This guidebook offers a selection of forty-five walks, and as many of them are inter-linked, there are opportunities to create longer walks traversing the length and breadth of the island.
Getting to the Isle of Arran
Although some people imagine it is more difficult to travel to an island than it is to travel to a mainland destination, travel to the Isle of Arran is remarkably easy. The island is close to Glasgow; a very important transport hub with busy road and rail services and nearby international airports. Onward connections to the Isle of Arran are swift and frequent.
By Air: The nearest practical airports are Glasgow International Airport and Prestwick International Airport; the latter handling budget flights from around Europe and enjoying good bus and rail services into Glasgow for onward connections. There is no airport on the Isle of Arran, but there is the option of chartering a helicopter flight from Glasgow or Prestwick airports to the Isle of Arran. Contact Arran Heli-Tours for a quote, tel 01770-860526 or 860326.
By Rail: Comfortable long-distance Virgin Trains services start from points as distant as London Euston, Birmingham, Brighton, Bournemouth and Penzance, then run northwards through Britain to converge on Glasgow Central Station. Timetables and fares can be checked, and bookings made, at www.virgintrains.co.uk. SPT runs trains from Glasgow Central Station to Ardrossan Harbour, taking 55 minutes and linking with ferries to the Isle of Arran. Check train timetables at www.spt.co.uk. When you buy rail tickets, the ferry journey to Brodick on the Isle of Arran can be included in the price.
By Bus: National Express coaches, www.nationalexpress.co.uk, run from many points around Britain, along with Scottish Citylink coaches, www.citylink.co.uk, to converge on Buchanan Street bus station in Glasgow. Stagecoach Western Scotland buses operate from Buchanan Street bus station to Ardrossan, and the same company also operates bus services around the Isle of Arran, www.stagecoachbus.com/western.
By Car: Driving from Glasgow, the following roads could be used to reach Ardrossan: the coastal A78 via Largs; the A737 via Beith; or the A736 via Irvine. Drivers from Northern Ireland who arrive at Stranraer simply follow the A77 and A78 main coastal road. Drivers from England should leave the M6 and follow the A75 and A76 for a scenic approach to Ardrossan through the Southern Uplands. Drivers coming from Western Scotland can avoid travelling through Glasgow by following the A83 road onto Kintyre, then use the summer ferry service from Claonaig to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran.
By Ferry: Caledonian MacBrayne, www.calmac.co.uk, operate four, five or six sailings per day between Ardrossan Harbour and Brodick throughout the year, with a typical journey time of 55 minutes. There is also a summer ferry service between Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula, and Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, taking only 30 minutes. Both ferries carry vehicles.
Getting around the Isle of Arran
All public transport services on the Isle of Arran, including bus services and ferries, with some mainland connections, are contained in a single timetable booklet specially produced for use on the island. Take note of the slight variations in services between schooldays and school holidays, as well as Saturdays and Sundays. It is worth mentioning that this entire book was researched and updated exclusively using local bus services. Walkers should realise that there is no need to take a vehicle onto the Isle of Arran, and that almost every place that could be reached by car is also served by buses. Walking clubs from the mainland are regular weekend users of the buses.
By Stagecoach Bus: Starting from the ferry terminal at Brodick, Stagecoach Western Scottish buses, www.stagecoachbus.com/western, run around the Isle of Arran from early in the morning until late at night. Typically, buses start soon after 0600 and run until 2100, with some services running almost to 2330 on Fridays. There are slight seasonal variations, and Sunday services are less frequent than weekdays. Several buses run between Brodick, Lamlash and Whiting Bay, which are the three largest villages on Arran. Buses also run back and forth along the B880 String Road, between Brodick and Blackwaterfoot. A service running round the northern half of the island is complimented by another service running round the southern half of the island. Together, these buses cover a complete circuit around the coastal A841 road, linking all the villages. Arran Rural Rover tickets are remarkably cheap and offer a whole day’s unlimited travel around the island. In the summer months, Stagecoach operate a number of special services, including an open-top bus between Brodick and Whiting Bay, and a veteran coach service from Brodick to Brodick Castle. There are also half-day and full-day Island Tours, which don’t need to be booked, but run with whatever passengers turn up each day.
By Postbus: The only road not served by Stagecoach buses is The Ross; a minor road running from Lamlash to Sliddery via Glenscorrodale. This road has a twice daily Postbus service, except Sundays. There are also two Postbus services each day, except Sundays, around the northern and southern halves of the Isle of Arran. The Postbus services operate to and from Brodick Post Office, collecting mail from roadside postboxes and village post offices along the way. Four or seven seats are availalble for passengers.
By Car: While cars can be brought onto the Isle of Arran by ferry, it is an extra expense when the road use is so limited. Walkers who 'think green' are assured that there is no need to take a car to Arran. Bus services on the island are perfectly adequate and reach the starting points of all the walking routes in this guidebook, with the exception of the short road into Glen Rosa. Anyone taking a car to the island should bear in mind that roads are often narrow and winding, with sheep and deer sometimes wandering across them.
By Ferry: The only 'internal' ferry service is the little Holy Isle Ferry that runs between Lamlash and Holy Isle. This ferry is subject to seasonal and tidal variations and it is always best to check the sailing schedule in advance, tel 01770-600998 or 600349, mobile 079327-86524.
By Helicopter: There is an opportunity to charter a helicopter flight around the Isle of Arran. Arran Heli-Tour flights operate from the Balmichael Visitor Centre, and you can enjoy anything from a simple ten-minute flight to a complete exploratory tour around the island, tel 01770-860526 or 860326.
Traveline Scotland: Visitors to the Isle of Arran, or anywhere else in Scotland, can obtain up-to-date information about any kind of public transport from Traveline Scotland. Either tel 0870-6082608 or check the website www.travelinescotland.com. Services in the region between Arran and Glasgow could also be checked on the SPT website at www.spt.co.uk.
Familiarisation with the Isle of Arran
Visitors arriving at the ferry terminal at Brodick are confronted by a sign offering only three directions: North, South and West. East is the ferry back to the Ardrossan! There is one main road encircling the Isle of Arran, the A841, which links practically all of the villages on the island. In a clockwise order these include: Brodick, Lamlash, Whiting Bay, Kildonan, Kilmory, Sliddery, Blackwaterfoot, Machrie, Pirnmill, Catacol, Lochranza, Sannox, Corrie and so back to Brodick. There are two roads running across the island. The String, or the B880, runs from Brodick to Blackwaterfoot via Shiskine, with a minor road spur to Machrie. The Ross is a minor road running from Lamlash to Sliddery. All the roads around the Isle of Arran are equipped with distinctive red sandstone milestones. The road system is so simple that it is virtually impossible to get lost, and there are comprehensive bus services along them. Newcomers to the island should consider taking the full-day Island Tour offered by Stagecoach buses, so that they can see all the villages on the island and take note of the access points for most of the walking routes.
On a few rare occasions the last surviving Clyde paddle steamer, the Waverley, offers visitors the chance to circumnavigate the Isle of Arran. Walkers who plan to complete the Arran Coastal Way might enjoy a cruise around the island to check the nature of the terrain in advance of their trek.
A Geology Classroom
The Isle of Arran is one of the most varied geological areas in the British Isles. A wag once noted that while some people write to The Times when they hear the first cuckoo of spring, others write to the Arran Banner newspaper when they hear the chipping of the first geologist of spring! The island is like a huge geological classroom and groups of students will often be seen in careful study.
James Hutton, the redoubtable scientist from Edinburgh, visited the Isle of Arran in August 1787. He was the first person to identify an unconformity; where rocks of widely differing ages rest together at different angles. In fact, an unconformity on the coast north of Lochranza is known to this day as Hutton's Unconformity. Hutton expounded his ‘Theory of the Earth’ in which mountains were continually being uplifted and eroded, although few took the great man seriously. Geologists of Hutton's day were divided into the ‘Vulcanists’ and ‘Neptunists’ according to whether they believed rocks were formed by volcanic action or by deposition as sediments. Hutton's theory embraced both concepts and today he is widely regarded as the ‘Father of Geology’.
The study of the Isle of Arran's geology is very much a specialist subject, but there are a few notes worth bearing in mind. The oldest rocks occur on the northern half of the island. Cambrian strata, originally marine muds and sands, have been altered by tremendous heat and pressure into slates and sparkling schists, often streaked with veins of white quartz. In a semi-circle around this base rock are Devonian strata, composed originally of desert sand dunes, being revealed in an arc from Sannox to Dougarie. A more disjointed arc of Carboniferous strata stretches from Lochranza to Sannox and from Corrie to the String Road. These include limestones, sandstones and workable coal measures, all formed in shallow seas or on a swampy delta. Permian strata again indicate desert conditions with sand dunes, and these sandstones take up much of the central and southern parts of the island. Triassic strata stretch across the southernmost part of the island, from Blackwaterfoot to Kildonan, and are composed of muds and sands laid down in a lake or delta system.
Into this basic layered rock succession were intruded masses of molten rock under great heat and pressure, which had the effect pushing existing layers into a dome, baking the surrounding strata and altering its mineral structures and appearance. The granite peaks of northern Arran were formed from a massive intrusive ‘boss’ of granite. Around southern Arran, molten rock was squeezed into bedding planes and joints to create resistant sills and dykes. Some splendid igneous dykes stand out as obvious linear walls of rock, especially around the southern coast, where they are termed ‘dyke swarms’.
On a geological time-scale, the final act in the shaping of the Isle of Arran occurred during the Ice Age. The island was prominent enough to support its own ice cap, grinding corries and 'U' shaped valleys quite independent of the massive Highland glaciers scouring out the troughs of the Clyde and Kilbrannan Sound. The power of the ice inexorably grinding into the rocky mountains was one thing, but the weight of the ice was also important. As the Ice Age drew to a close, melt-water raised the sea levels, but as the weight of the ice was lifted from the Earth's crust, there was a corresponding uplift of part of the Earth’s surface. This can be noted all around the Isle of Arran, and all around the Scottish coast, where cobbly raised beaches, marooned sea stacks and marine caves some distance from the sea can be identified.
Walkers with a special interest in geology should use a specific field guide to the geology of the island, such as Macgregor's Excursion Guide to the Geology of Arran, edited and revised by J.G. MacDonald and A. Herriot, published by the Geological Society of Glasgow.
A Turbulent History
The first hunter-gatherers approaching the Isle of Arran in simple canoes found a forested island with only the highest peaks protruding above the tree canopy. Evidence of this former forest can be seen in some peat bogs, where the trunks, branches and root systems of trees have been preserved. Neolithic hunters and farmers left few discernible traces of their settlements, but they did leave massive chambered burial cairns, most notably around the southern half of the island.
Bronze Age communities left traces of hut circles, stone circles and smaller burial cairns. The best examples are found around Machrie Moor and Blackwaterfoot. The remains point to the development of settled, well-organised communities. The Iron Age is characterised by the construction of small, fortified hill forts, suggesting a measure of insecurity or strife, and again these are to be found mainly around the southern half of the island. The early language forms are unknown, with no written or spoken elements surviving. The Gaelic language of the later Celtic peoples, however, has survived in the Western Isles, although it is not commonly spoken or written on the Isle of Arran today.
St. Ninian is credited with bringing Christianity into Scotland from his base at Whithorn. He and other missionaries sailed around the coastline, visiting small communities and hopping from island to island. Ninian is known to have visited Bute and Sanda, both near Arran, and he died in the year 424. The most notable saint on Arran was St. Molaise, born in the year 566, who lived as a hermit in a cave on Holy Isle and later became the Abbot of Leithglinn in Ireland. He died in the year 639. King's Cave near Blackwaterfoot is thought to have been occupied by early missionaries on inter-island expeditions. The scattered island kingdom was known as Dalriada and was a great Gaelic stronghold.
Viking raiding parties hit Iona in the year 759, and later harrassed the Isle of Arran, surrounding islands and coastal areas. Later waves of settlers left traces of farmsteads and Norse placenames; including Goat Fell. The Isle of Arran became, along with neighbouring territories, very much a property of the Norsemen. The great Somerled, originally from Ireland and progenitor of the great clans MacDonald and Ranald, led a force against the Norse in 1156 and became ruler of old Dalriada, although the islands were still nominally under Norse sovereignty.
The emergence of Scotland as an independent state was enhanced following the defeat of the Norse at the Battle of Largs, on the mainland east of the Isle of Arran, in 1263. When Norway sold the islands to Scotland in 1266, Alexander III granted the Isle of Arran to Walter Stewart. Much energy and strife accompanied Robert the Bruce's bitter campaign to secure the Scottish throne, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. For centuries Scottish history was wrought in terms of bitter border disputes with England. The islands, meanwhile, largely continued to exist as Gaelic strongholds with their own clearly defined culture and traditions.
What little is known of the Isle of Arran's history at certain periods, it is clear that many farmsteads were granted by Scottish kings, who claimed a rent on them. The few stout castles on the island were at some time controlled by the Stewarts before coming into the hands of the Hamiltons. The first Marquis of Hamilton was appointed to administer peace and justice on Arran in 1609. The name Hamilton is strongly associated with the later development of the island. A succession of them held the title of Dukes of Hamilton, Brandon and Chatelherault, with Brodick Castle as their chief base.
The population of the island increased to the point where many were living in poor ‘clachans’, or farming settlements, at a time of tremendous social changes. Much has been written about the Arran Clearances of the early 19th century, when people were displaced in favour of sheep, and the population was either re-settled in purpose-built cottages, or forced to emigrate to the New World; most notably Canada. Immediately following the clearances, tourism began to develop and has continued apace, with walking and the enjoyment of the outdoors being a prime pursuit. The Arran Heritage Museum near Brodick offers an insight into the last century of life on the Isle of Arran; a century which has been fairly well documented.
For further details of the Isle of Arran's history, read Exploring Arran's Past, by Horace Fairhurst, published by Kilbrannan Publishing.