Scotland in Miniature: 5 Days on the Isle of Arran

The Isle of Arran is often referred to as “Scotland in Miniature”, and for good reason. The Highland Boundary Fault runs right through the middle of it, splitting the island into two distinct landscapes: the quintessentially rolling hills of the Scottish Lowlands in the south, and the dramatic mountains and glens akin to those in the Scottish Highlands in the north.

Rewind to February. One of the biggest perks of being in a City of Edinburgh school for Placement 2 was the half-term break (some councils only have a long weekend, as they have a much longer break in October). Cue: much Googling of potential destinations for a short break. We had a nice short wish list: somewhere within a couple of hours’ drive with hiking trails and quiet roads for cycling. Suffice it to say, the Isle of Arran hit the spot. Here’s what we got up to… (Disclaimer: it’s a long one, so you might want to pour yourself a cuppa first.)

Lochranza Castle
Lochranza

Day 1: Arran Coastal Way

When we arrived, it was overcast. Pre-trip Googling led us to Lochranza, a small village which is home to one of the island’s two whisky distilleries, a ruined castle and the starting point for several walks. Undeterred by the drizzle, we pulled on our waterproofs and struck out. We took a wee detour to the castle ruins (above), then continued along the waterfront where we picked up signs to Fairy Dell/Ossian’s Cave. We had the path mostly to ourselves, which suited us just fine and made for a peaceful amble along the coast. We turned back a little after Fairy Dell (but before Ossian’s Cave) as the incessant rain was somewhat detracting from the fun by this point – but on a drier day, I’d have happily explored a wee bit more of the Arran Coastal Way.

A sparrowhawk (I think!)
Arran Coastal Way

We stopped off at the Arran Cheese Shop, which came highly recommended by a couple of friends, en route back to Brodick. This teeny-weeny shop was filled to the brim with cheeses – most locally made, a handful not. We bought a wheel of cheddar (for both of us) and a small brie (for Laurence; I hate soft cheese). Cheese-lovers won’t be disappointed by this wee spot.

  • Parking | There are a handful of parking spaces near the Lochranza Ferry Terminal.
  • Distance| 10.9km/ 6.8 miles; 99m of elevation gain. Allow two-and-a-half to three hours.
Goatfell (hidden in the clouds)

Day 2: Goatfell

We’d earmarked one of our full days on the Isle of Arran for Goatfell. At 874m, it’s the island’s highest peak – and, as such, commands excellent views over the island. Or so I’m told. As you’ll see, we weren’t very fortunate at the summit. There’s a well-maintained track to the summit, so although the elevation gain on this hike is pretty substantial (as you’re pretty much starting at sea level) it’s fairly easy-going.

Our first glimpse of the summit

The path climbs through Cnocan Wood for the first couple of kilometres, then winds across the hillside before veering left to the summit (at which point the path becomes notably steeper). When the clouds briefly lifted, we spied a dusting of snow on the summit. We hadn’t banked on this but figured we’d carry on for now. After all, we could always turn back if we felt out of our depth.

Disappearing into the clouds

Remember that dusting of snow? Well, up close it turned out to be pretty darn deep. Out came the walking poles for added stability. (A phenomenal investment at only a fiver each from Decathlon, it must be said.) We made slow progress up the slope, though only a fraction slower than that of the trio coming down.

Onwards and upwards
Splendid summit views… somewhere behind the clouds!

Much to our amusement, a huge shovel was propped up against a boulder near the top. Who on earth had lugged that up?!, we wondered. We spent all of a couple of minutes at the top, as it was bitterly cold, before making our way back down – at which point the clouds parted to reveal bright blue skies.

Sunshine

We wanted a circular route, so had planned to descend via Méall Breac and take the Arran Coastal Way from High Corrie back to Cladach. We made it safely down the hillside… only to discover that the path we’d hoped to pick up was closed, as the tree-choppers were out logging in the forest. Jolly good. Just as well there was a Plan B (seven-ish kilometres back along the road), as neither of us fancied climbing back up the hill.

Looking back at Goatfell (the peak on the left) and North Goatfell (somewhere along the ridge to the right of Goatfell)

Back in Brodick, we made a beeline for Crofters Arran to warm up with a hot chocolate. (We swung by a few cafés and pubs while on Arran, and this was one of my favourites.)

  • Parking | There’s space for twenty or so cars in the car park opposite the trail head (on the right-hand side of the road if you’re coming from Brodick). From there, cross the road, follow the path towards the Isle of Arran Brewery and you’ll spot the signs to Goatfell.
  • Distance| 20.2km/ 12.6 miles; 1,005m of elevation gain. This took us a little over six hours but if you were to do Goatfell as a simple out-and-back it would take considerably less time.
Look out for (red) squirrels

Day 3: Cycling around Arran

Arran is the seventh-largest Scottish island (behind Lewis and Harris, Skye, Mainland Shetland, Mull, Islay and Mainland Orkney, if you were interested), and as such you can rack up a fair distance on a bike. General consensus is that it’s best tackled anti-clockwise, so that’s what we did.

Towards Ardrossan/Ayr
(Not real) sheep on the harbour wall at High Corrie

From Brodick, the first few kilometres along the coast are pan-flat. (Enjoy it while it lasts!) When the road veered inland, the climb began. I’m a bit hit-and-miss with climbs: sometimes I make it all the way up on the bike, other times I admit defeat and push the bike up. This turned out to be one of the former – probably helped by the fact there were very few cars out and about, so I didn’t feel as though I was holding anyone up as I crawled along in my easiest gear. What goes up has to come down, though, and before too long we were zipping down the hill into Lochranza.

O’er the moors to Lochranza
Lochranza Castle

Beyond Lochranza, the road hugs the coast once more – though on this side of the island, it’s more undulating. One of my highlights of the entire ride were the two wild boar we encountered just outside Pirnmill. They weren’t wild wild boar (if that makes sense); rather, they were scampering around a pen that had been filled with piles of bracken for them to forage in.

So cute ❤

We missed the turning for Café Thyme (whoops!), so pedalled on through Machrie (if you’re into Neolithic stone circles, you might wish to detour to the Machrie Moor Standing Stones) and down to Blackwaterfoot. Tucked away down an alleyway was Blackwater Bakehouse. They serve drinks in the morning from the shop, but if you’re there in the afternoon (as we were) you’ll need to serve yourself from the shed. We bought a pastry each; payment can be made in cash (no change given) or by bank transfer.

Blackwater Bakehouse
Nom

After a quick pit-stop in the bar of the Kinloch Hotel (they’d just stopped serving food, but the barmaid took pity on Laurence and heated a scone up for him in the microwave), we continued south. Somewhere between Sliddery and Lagg, we pulled off the road to enjoy our pastries. Our verdict? Worth every penny. A wee bit further on, Pladda Lighthouse came into view. Pladda Lighthouse was first lit in 1790, and is one of several lighthouses in the Firth of Clyde. Today, it’s fully automated and its light (three white flashes every thirty seconds) can be seen up to 17 nautical miles (31km) away.

Pladda Lighthouse

The last stretch of the circuit takes in the pretty seaside villages of Whiting Bay and Lamlash before cutting inland to return to Brodick.

Distance | 88.8km/ 55.5 miles; 1,014m of elevation gain. If you don’t fancy doing the whole loop, take the B880 (aka “The String”) from Blackwaterfoot to return to Brodick.

Days 4 and 5: Lagg Distillery and Lamlash

UK-based readers may recall that in February three storms hit the UK in quick succession. Storm Dudley derailed our plans, and with all ferries cancelled for the day we were due to return home our four-day trip became a five-day trip. Being – quite literally – stuck on holiday was a new experience, and one which left us both (for different reasons) feeling a wee bit stressed. Fortunately, our host was able to have us for an extra night and CalMac were very efficient at getting us booked onto the next available crossing to Ardrossan.

With an unexpected extra day on the island and more drizzle/high winds/insert foul weather of your choice here on the forecast, we decided to do a distillery tour. Neither of us are big whisky drinkers (and I rarely drink at all these days), but we figured it’d be interesting even so. (And – spoiler alert – it was!) There are two distilleries on Arran: the first is in Lochranza, and the second in Lagg. We opted for the latter.

Copper sills at Lagg Distillery

Lagg Distillery specialises in producing earthy, peated whisky using traditional methods. We followed the whisky through the manufacturing process from grain to glass. Along the way, we learnt that there are four ingredients in whisky (water, barley, yeast and peat smoke) and that the spirit must mature in an oak cask for at least three years and a day before it can legally be bottled as single malt whisky.

Midway through the tour, we were offered a sample of the raw spirit. Laurence declined as he was driving, but I gave it a shot… and instantly regretted it (that stuff was strong). At the time of our visit, Lagg Distillery was about a month away from being able to bottle their very first cask. This meant that when we reached the end of the tour, we received a sample of one of the whiskies from Lochranza Distillery (which is under the same ownership). Drivers could have their sample in a tiny bottle to enjoy later, and everyone came away with a souvenir shot glass. Happy days. We had a bite to eat at the café, which serves a range of hot and cold dishes, before heading back up to Brodick.

One happy poutine-eater

With Storm Dudley still brewing outside, we decided to stay inside – and split what remained of the afternoon between enjoying cake and a cuppa in Little Rock Café and browsing the shops along the seafront. (We would have quite liked to visit the Arran Heritage Museum but unfortunately it’s closed over the winter months.)

Holy Island, from Lamlash

On our final day, we had just enough time to investigate The Old Pier Tearoom in Lamlash before our lunchtime ferry back to the mainland. If you only visit one café on Arran, make it this one: their cakes are divine, and the bacon butty (which Laurence had) also looked very good.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • Transport | Caledonian MacBrayne run four to five ferries a day (more in the summer months) between Ardrossan and Brodick, and in February 2022 a return ticket cost £49.50 (two passengers plus a car). Book tickets at www.calmac.co.uk; their Twitter feed (@CalMacFerries) provides regular service updates and fields customer queries.
  • Accommodation | We stayed in an Airbnb in Brodick (c. £60/night), which proved to be a good base for our trip. There’s a large Co-op in Brodick, which is helpful if (like we were) you’re on a smaller budget and want to save money on food and cook yourself.
  • Maps and guides | Even the most directionally challenged would find it tricky to get lost on Arran, for there are so few roads: one around the coast, plus two which cut across it (known as “The String” and “The Ross”). OS Explorer 361 covers the whole of the Isle of Arran; arm yourself with a copy if you’re planning on tackling Goatfell or any other walks on the island.
  • Food | We ate out a couple of times in the evening: one at Pierhead Tavern in Lamlash (the steak pie was delicious), and one at Crofters Arran in Brodick (which serves very tasty burgers). Expect to pay £30-40 for two, based on a main meal and a soft drink each. We brought breakfast bits, snacks and teabags with us, and picked up a few bits from Coop to keep costs down for other meals.
  • Misc. | Tours of Lagg Distillery last c. 1 hour, and adult tickets cost £12 in February 2022. Find out more on their website: www.laggwhisky.com/visit.

4 thoughts on “Scotland in Miniature: 5 Days on the Isle of Arran

  1. An adventurous five days you had, that’s for sure! Although weather didn’t look so favorable for you for most of it, I suppose that’s the beauty of Scotland…in all of its dreary glory! Besides the lovely, scenic views, you also had some incredible eats: never would I’ve thought that being rather isolated out there that you’d come across an abundance of delicious joints, from Arran Cheese Shop (I, on the contrary, LOVE soft cheeses) to poutine to The Old Pier Tearoom, you surely ate to your heart’s desire! Can’t wait to see what other adventures you get up to in Scotland. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We sure did! I think iffy weather is only to be expected in February, though that said it’s Scotland and four seasons in a day is possible at any time of year 😂 I hadn’t expected Arran to be such a good foodie destination… just goes to show, never judge a destination by its size! Looking forward to finally sharing more adventures from the past six months ☺️

      Liked by 1 person

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