Of all Scotland’s islands, the Isle of Arran must be one of the easiest to visit. From Glasgow airport it’s just a 45-minute drive west to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan and then less than an hour by ferry before you can be in the heart of Brodick, Arran’s primary town. Trust me, that’s about as easy as it gets from Scotland’s main cities.
It’s a worthwhile trip. Sarah and I briefly visited Arran in 2006, and based on our favorable impressions I decided to spend three nights there on my most recent trip to Scotland. U.S. Airways obviously thought this was a bad idea as their inability to fly on time wound up shaving an entire day off my trip. Nevertheless I persevered through the incompetence and enjoyed two solid nights on Arran in early September.
Just a note: Many of my posts on Traveling Savage are very focused toward specific activities and places, and one thing I’m going to start doing is providing a more general overview of a place with personal recommendations from my travels. I’m starting now, with Arran.
Arran is beguiling. “Scotland in miniature” is a phrase lodged in marketing material, but I have a hard time refuting it. The northern half of the island is mountainous with heather-covered highlands and rushing streams while the southern half is calmer, forested lowland. And of course it’s an island, so it’s got the picturesque coastline for which Scotland is renowned.
Arran is small (167 square miles) and mostly uninhabited (just over 5,000 people), but it’s an orderly place where the stewardship of the residents is apparent in nice yet unobtrusive ways. Arran is incredibly well-signposted for walks, viewpoints, and sights of interest, and it’s a popular holiday spot for Glaswegians. It sure seems like some of that money is funding the five-star accommodations on the island.
Any week-long trip to Scotland should have Arran as a possible stop. The ease of getting there, the beauty, and the approachable feel of the island will have it ranking high in your memory after the trip is over.
Most of Arran’s population can be found in the southern half of the island, especially at Brodick and south from there along the east coast. Brodick is the primary town – mainly because that’s where the ferry comes in from the mainland – though its beauty is tempered by a promenade of aged and typically touristy shops, restaurants, and hotels. Lamlash and Whiting Bay are the main settlements south of Brodick, and Lamlash, situated across from Holy Isle, wins for aesthetic appeal. I drove through these two, but I’d consider staying in Lamlash on a future visit.
To the west, Blackwaterfoot is the only town of any size and by “size” I mean that it has a public place that you can visit: two hotels sit by the harbor. In the north, Lochranza is the main hub as it’s home to a distillery, ruined castle, and ferry to the Kintyre peninsula. Arran’s population exists on the coast road that circles the island while the interior is largely a trackless wilderness. On my two visits to Arran I’ve stayed in Lochranza and Brodick, and I prefer Brodick because of its central location.
Sights & Activities
Just outside Brodick stands the stately Brodick Castle with views over the water, and behind it rears the Goatfell, Arran’s tallest peak. To the north is the beautiful ruin of Lochranza Castle, and down the west coast hide the Machrie Moor standing stones. Erosion has created The King’s Caves where Robert the Bruce is believed to have hidden. The south of Arran holds the ruins of Kildonan Castle and the powerful Glenashdale Falls.
Activity-wise, Arran has the 9-hole Machrie Bay golf course, which is apparently rare and strange (cut me some slack – I don’t golf). The interior of the island is a trekker’s paradise and also good for mountain biking. Sailing, parasailing, and windsurfing also seem to have some market in the south of Arran. The nature of Arran’s road (yes, singular) makes it the perfect place to go on an inclusive drive of the island. With stops, you could easily make this drive in four hours.
Eating & Drinking
Well, Arran couldn’t be perfect, could it? I admit to being surprised at how limited Arran’s eating and drinking options were given that it’s a popular tourist spot. While there isn’t a lot of choice on Arran, there are some nice places. The new Douglas Hotel has a very nice upscale ambience and serves tasty bar and restaurant meals, and it’s the best place to grab a drink in the heart of Brodick. I heard second hand that The Brodick Bar also does nice seafood. Just outside of Brodick’s heart is The Ormidale Hotel, which is a cozy locals bar with good real ale and whisky selection.
Elsewhere on the island, The Catacol Bay Hotel does the island’s best fish and chips though it’s a hike to the northern tip west of Lochranza. I popped into the Pier Head Tavern in Lamlash and exited immediately. Ahem. The Lagg Hotel in the south is a fine old building doing what looked like decent lunches. If all else fails, consider popping into the Isle of Arran Brewery (Brodick) or Isle of Arran Distillery (Lochranza) for tastes at the source.
The state of the eating and drinking scenes on Arran has a lot to be desired. The island needs a couple of reputable spots, especially a pub.
Notes from the Field
Arran is small enough that you don’t need a car to enjoy Brodick and its immediate environment, but to get further afield I recommend a car. It’s the perfect place to drive despite the poor condition of roads in the northern half, and public transportation just isn’t thorough enough to help you take in the sights. The drive from Brodick to Lochranza is the most beautiful on the island.
Three nights seems like the ideal amount of time on Arran, or one night if your trip to Scotland is a short one. Arran can be a side trip from the mainland, going between Ardrossan and Brodick, or you can weave it into a tour of the west by leaving the island via the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry as I did on my most recent trip. No matter how you do it, Arran is a great taste of what the rest of Scotland has to offer.
Have you been to the Isle of Arran? Aching to go? Let me know in the comments!