Friday, September 13, 2013

Isle of Arran

Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran
Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran.
We recently took a day trip to the Isle of Arran. Located within the Firth of Clyde southwest of Glasgow, the island is approximately 20 miles wide and ten miles long. The northern half is steeply hilly; the southern half is more gently hilly. Some folks like to claim Arran is a "Scotland in miniature" because of its geography, with a highland northern half and a lowland southern half.

Arran dominates the Firth of Clyde.
To get to Arran you need to take a ferry boat. For our 7:00 am ferry trip, we had to arrive at the dock no later than 6:30 to check in with our car, which means we had to leave Glasgow by 5:15, which means we had to get up damn early to be showered and dressed and ready to go. Like all the ferries on the western coast of Scotland, our ferry ride was run by the monopolist ferry company Calendonian MacBrayne, called "CalMac" by the locals.

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Isle of Arran
The boat can hold up to 120 cars and 1,000 people.
On our trip in the middle of the week, most of the passengers seemed to be commuting for work, whether delivering goods on trucks or to work on the island. The boat had multiple levels, with the vehicles at the bottom, some restaurants and shops in the middle, and observation levels up top.

Top level of the CalMac ferry boat
The top level was deserted in the rainy and blustery weather.
The Isle of Arran is an attractive place, even in the gusty and rainy conditions we had during our visit. Few guidebooks even mention Arran, and if they do they generally devote only a paragraph or two. Accordingly, it has far fewer tourists than some other islands.

Seaside view of Brodick
The little town of Brodick is the arrival point for the ferry. Goatfell, the highest point on the highland, looms in the distance.
Only 4,600 or so people inhabit the island, almost all of whom live clustered in villages and hamlets on the coastline. A winding two-lane road rings the isle. Along with a few streets within the villages on the island, only a couple of other roads bisect any part of the island and generally only in the southern half. Thus, the vast majority of the interior of the island is pristine and unpeopled.

Our first stop after arrival was at the Arran Cheese Shop. They make a variety of cheeses on location; you can watch through the window. One of their blue cheeses is very highly regarded by cheese connoisseurs and by laymen like me. This is the same cheese that might have given me an allergic reaction (see here), but the cheese was awesome and I'm tempted to try it again, consequences be damned. We ended up buying five cheeses, as well as some mustard and chutneys. Indeed, we liked the cheese so much we came back again later in the afternoon.

Arran Cheese Shop
Arran's Cheese Shop it was so nice, we went twice.
We then headed over to Brodick Castle, a scenic country estate with miles of hiking trails and beautiful gardens. So scenic, in fact, that the castle served as the set for a movie called "The Governess," starring Minnie Driver. I haven't seen the movie, but I understand why the castle was chosen as the location.

Brodick Castle squats atop the leveled hill. The term "castle" in Scotland is used loosely and seems to be applied to any large country estate that wants it.
Brodick Castle
The Royal Bank of Scotland . . .
Brodick Castle on the Royal Bank of Scotland's £20 bill
. . . has Brodick Castle on its £20 bill.
The interior is essentially frozen in time after the last owner donated it to the government in the 1920s. No interior photos are allowed. But it's the kind of place that has lots of Victorian furniture and old paintings and elaborate crystal goblets and deer heads on the walls.

Brodick Castle entrance hall
Brodick Castle's entrance hall features, among other things, 87 stag heads. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
Dining room of Brodick Castle
Dining room. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
Bedroom in Brodick Castle
One of the bedrooms. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
Brodick Castle drawing room
The drawing room is just like it was at the turn of the 20th century. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
The castle has acres of gardens and a large country park, with more than ten miles of trails. We spent a couple of hours wandering on the grounds and exploring the gardens.

Lovely gardens adjacent to Brodick Castle
Lovely gardens adjacent to the castle.
Exploring the gardens
Jackson exploring and spinning in the gardens.
After lunch, and a purchase of a case of the award-winning Isle of Arran dark beer, we headed south around the island. We stopped briefly in Whiting Bay, which has a soft sand beach that would have been quite inviting if not for the weather.

Whiting Bay on the Isle of Arran
Whiting Bay.
Whiting Bay beach
This beach on Whiting Bay is just steps from the handful of B&Bs in the area.
Swans, ducks, and seagulls in the bay
Swans, ducks, and seagulls enjoying low tide in the bay.
To circumnavigate the island on its ring road takes longer than it looks on a map. First you're slowed by the twisty and hilly route. Then you're sometimes stopped by farm equipment slowly chuffing down the road, or wild sheep and deer roaming. And you also find yourself stopping to gaze at vistas or islands in the distance.

Holy Isle off the east coast of Arran
A view of the Holy Isle east of Arran. Once the site of a sainted hermit, it's now owned by a Tibetan Buddhist community.
Young buck deer in Lochranze on the Isle of Arran
A young buck wandering in the town of Lochranza.
Roadside sheep on the Isle of Arran
Time for a shearing? That's a whole lotta wet wool to carry around.
Or maybe you just stop to admire a stubby rainbow.
By mid-afternoon, we made it to the trail head for a hike to see some prehistoric standing stones in a moor. It's a three mile round trip hike to the Machrie Moor stone circles, across gently rolling hills and along the edges of farms. Because of the rain, we ended up seeing the site all by ourselves (a far cry from the stone circle of Stonehenge). Solitude is the best way to see prehistoric sites.

Standing stones at Machrie Moor
Three standing stones remain from this stone circle at Machrie Moor.
Kate pretending to try to push over one of the stones. Don't worry, it didn't budge.
Machrie Moor is my favorite prehistoric site in the U.K. so far. I liked it better than Stonehenge and Avebury (in southern England), both of which are too near roads and civilization and crowds to provide much suitable atmosphere, or even to enjoy them much. At Machrie Moor, you have a pleasant hike to thin the crowds, an appropriately desolate setting, and the occasional bleat of sheep as you pass by. Gloomy weather helps, too.

With not a person in sight, we felt free to linger and peruse the stones. Feel their texture. Smell the boggy peat. Ponder the thousands of years these stones have stood in the moor and the immense effort it took to transport and erect them.

Double stone circle at Machrie Moor
In this double circle you can see many more stones, but only nubbins remain.
Mattie, Kate, and Jackson
Mattie, Kate, and Jackson.
Solitary standing stone at Machrie Moor
Only one standing stone is left for this circle at Machrie Moor, which otherwise has low nubbins in the grass.
The hike back to the car was rainy, and neither Kate nor I was smart enough to bring a change of clothes or shoes. We were a bit damp for the rest of the day. Jackson, who enjoyed a great rain cover, nevertheless had a complete change of clothes and shoes waiting for him in the car. Even Mattie had multiple towels to get dry.

Departing the Machrie Moor stone circles
Starting the return back to the car.
We finished our hike in the early evening and had to get in the car and make our way around the northern tip of the island to get back to the ferry. The hills are severe on the north side of the island, and it did feel a bit like driving through the valleys in the highlands.

Our return trip on the ferry was at 7:30, so we got back to the mainland around 8:20 and home to Glasgow by a bit after 9:00. Jackson, who had plenty of time for good naps in the car, was still going strong when we got home. Indeed, the highlight of the trip for Jack was to see an eighteen-wheeler carrying an immense yellow digger drive onto the ferry boat. How cool was that for him? A construction vehicle on a big truck on a big boat! You can picture a Muppet who gets so excited he simply explodes into smithereens. Jack talked about it for days.

Trying to "do" an island all in one day trip was ambitious but achievable. If we had managed our time a bit better we might have been able to make a quick stop at distillery or brewery for a tour, and if the weather had been better we might have considered a longer hike near Goatfell or the surrounding hills and glens. Arran would make for a pleasant two or three day trip. But we were pleased with taking a long but excellent day trip from Glasgow.


For more about the Machrie Moor stone circles:

You might also like the Isle of Bute:



Part I:

Part II:

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