THE second day of my May 2017 walking trip began with blue skies, sunshine and a hearty breakfast at the Lagg Hotel on Arran. My plan for the day was a fairly long walk by my standards — twenty-five miles to Lochranza — constituting the third and final part of my circuit of the isle. Or, to look at it another way, by nightfall my total net travel over Arran would be zero.
‘Well, here goes nothing,’ I thought as I emerged blinking into the sunlight, which glared off the whitewashed walls of the hotel.
Originally a coaching inn, the hotel was established in 1791 and was thus one of the oldest such establishments on Arran. I backed up slightly onto the bridge to photograph it before leaving.
An Lag in Gaelic means ‘the hollow’ and, accordingly, Lagg sits low and secluded on the banks of Kilmory Water; it is the only settlement on Arran’s coastal road to not have a view of the sea.
What this meant for me, as I followed the road westwards out of the hamlet, was that the day’s adventure started with an immediate ascent. Not a huge one, admittedly, but steep enough to be signed as 20%.
I hardly felt it, bounding up the tree-flanked road with all the energy and enthusiasm of someone who has yet to walk twenty-five miles. Within mere minutes, I had emerged from the trees and passed the end of the village’s speed restrictions. The coast road — once an A-road but now long declassified — lazily snaked its way through open fields, seemingly devoid of all traffic but me. I strolled along it until about half a mile from Lagg, where I reached the farmstead of Clachaig (Gaelic for ‘rocky place’).
There, a narrow turnoff led past the farm to the coast, signed as the cart track to Cleats Shore. Now, I knew that a fair proportion of the day’s walking would be on roads, so I seized this chance to head down to the shore in order to get in some variety.
The Cart Track
It was, as the sign had suggested, little more than a farm track winding the half mile to the shore.
I passed through a gate and the sea came into view, looking every bit as blue as the sky, and a haze-hidden shape on the horizon hinted at the presence of Kintyre.
What I didn’t know before I went there was that Cleats Shore was Scotland‘s first official naturist beach. For a long time it was also its only such beach, though there is now also one at Ardeer.
I wouldn’t have known it after going there either for, despite the beautiful weather, no one else was there to be seen, naked or otherwise. Thanks to its remoteness and Arran’s typical weather, a book on the subject of British naturism titled Bare Britain described Cleats Shore as ‘probably the least visited nudist beach in the known universe.’
Not that nudism is Cleats Shore’s first failed tourism venture either. In 1906, a golf course was established there but lasted only one season before being abandoned.
Even a herd of nearby cows appeared to be keeping their distance.
Cleats Shore takes its name from its most prominent natural feature, the rocky protrusions that jut out into Kilbrannan Sound. These ridges of rock formed as igneous dykes — magmatic material intruding through cracks in other rocks — and are locally known as cleits or cleats from Norse klettr meaning ‘rock’. You can see one such rocky finger in the top left of the photo above.
The rocks don’t make the most inviting shoreline and have proven the bane of unfortunate ships. For example the steamship Kyle Skye, built in 1922, ran aground at Cleats Shore in 1940. Her cargo at the time is uncertain, what with there being a war on, but unfortunately for her captain it wasn’t only loose lips that sank ships.
I set off along the shore, initially following a faint track but soon taking to the beach itself where it comprised either sand or flat sandstone sheets. The latter were eroded in interesting patterns and I wondered if some of the indentations might turn out to be prehistoric footprints. I dismissed this idea as a flight of fancy and instead turned my attention to a lone cow who had been staring at me with disquieting intensity for some minutes as I approached.
I stared at the cow, she stared right back as though standing her ground.
‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘you can have that ground,’ and I gave her as wide a berth as I was able.
As I drew level, I discovered that that had been a stealth pun for a birth is indeed what she had had. A new-born calf tried to hide behind her legs as she anxiously watched me pass by.
A short distance down the shore, I encountered a man out walking his dog (which, I am pleased to say, he immediately brought under control so as not to disturb the cow and calf). The man was fully clothed and made no mention of Cleat Shore’s naturist credentials but he did ask me if I’d seen the dinosaur footprints?
‘Er… maybe?’ I hazarded.
‘Not that they’re actually dinosaur footprints,’ he added, explaining that they were something 230 million years old, right at the dawn of dinosaur existence.
He followed this up by asking if I’d seen the sea otters? Ah, now I was on more confident ground; I had definitely not spotted those. There were, he said, several different groups of sea otters I might see during the day. Sadly, I never saw any of them.
Footprints Man then pointed along the shore ahead, identifying which track I should take to escape the beach and return to the road. He also warned me about Sliddery Water, a stream I was expecting to ford.
‘You’ll get across it easy,’ he predicted, ‘It hasn’t rained for a month.’
I bade him goodbye and continued, wondering how I’d crossed into this alternate dimension where rainfall patterns could be so bizarre. Not rained for a month? On Scotland’s west coast? Impossible! This thought kept me occupied right up until Sliddery Water, which I splashed across barefoot, my boots strung about my neck.
On the far side of Sliddery Water, the beach was a mixture of sand and shingle though I could see signs of more rocks and cleats up ahead. These were labelled on my map as Cleiteadh Dubh (‘black cleat’). I merrily crunched my way along beside the water.
Before long I came to the track that led to the village of Sliddery (Slaodraidh) but, ahead of me, a farm track continued some way along the shore. I decided to throw caution to the winds — not that there was any wind to throw it to — and continue where I was…
Port na Feannaiche
The track I was following didn’t last long, carrying me just as far as some utterly incurious cattle before it became a faint trail left by others equally determined to stick by the sea. This became by turns patchy, uneven and boggy before ending at a fence that necessitated a clamber over some adjoining rocks.
Sliddery was now behind me and I found myself picking my way across marshy ground in a small bay called Port na Feannaiche.
It was becoming difficult going and I decided that maybe I wasn’t as determined as all that and started to look for an exit to the road. Certainly, it didn’t look like it was going to get any easier if I stayed at the shore and Port na Feannaiche itself was at once too boggy and rocky to be hospitable. Neither for me nor for sea traffic — a little research shows that the Ordnance Survey described it in its 1855-1864 Name Books (used to help compile its maps) as ‘a rocky port on the farm of Corriecravie but seldom used by boats in consequence of its dangerous rocky position.’
Regaining the Road
Casting my gaze inland I could see the knoll of Torr a’ Chaisteal, the site of an Iron Age fortified farmstead or dun (dùn = fort), what looked like a sheep track that I couldn’t possibly get up and — hurrah! — a farm track climbing only slightly less steeply out of a field containing sheep.
The sheep field was only partially bounded so I made my way to it and staggered up the farm track, eventually regaining the coast road beside the farm.
The Coast Road
At the roadside, I found a couple who had stopped their motor-home for a break and we chatted amiably while I got my breath back and stowed my walking poles.
We discussed the weather, walking, the importance of carrying enough water and the modern scarcity of public conveniences for disposing of that fluid when you’re done with it (local authorities have no legal obligation to provide public toilets so scrapping them is an easy win for council cost-cutting).
When those topics were exhausted and I was feeling less so, we bid each other farewell; they drove off towards Sliddery and I walked in the other direction.
I had joined the road just past Corriecravie, some four miles by road from Blackwaterfoot, which would be my next destination of note. For most of that distance, the road was partway up the coastal slope, some 50 m above the shoreline, with rising moorland on one side and Kilbrannan Sound on the other.
There are walkers who hate roads as boring or cheating but for me it depends on the road and any alternative. As if to test this, I was given a choice when the Arran Coastal Way peeled off to return to the shore. I peered down from the easy-going roadway and saw a mostly pebbly beach below. The road was level and traffic was light. Did I want to give up this road for walking on shingle, I asked myself?
I remained on the road, dodging the very occasional car, and slowly drew closer to Blackwaterfoot, located on the distant headland shown in the photo above. And in the photo below:
Blackwaterfoot, as its name suggests, sits at the end of a stream called Black Water. Its Gaelic name — Bun na Dubh Abhainn — continues that theme by meaning ‘bottom of the black river.’
Black Water spills out into Drumadoon Bay and one might expect the coast road to curve around that bay to meet the village but it doesn’t. Instead, it heads north with no regard for coastal curvature. On its way, it passes through the hamlets of Kilpatrick and South Feorline before meeting the String Road, as the road between Brodick and Blackwaterfoot is known.
The String Road
The String Road is one of only two cross-island routes on Arran, the other being the Ross Road, which runs from Lamlash to a point on the coast road between Clachaig and Sliddery.
For most of its length, the String Road is also the B880 but its westernmost half mile, where it leads into Blackwaterfoot, is unclassified. I suppose that officially that’s actually the coast road but any glance at a map will show that it’s a direct continuation of the String Road. Ah, whatever.
Whichever road it technically was, I made my way along it and into Blackwaterfoot, the largest village on Arran’s west coast, having grown (slightly) from its beginnings as the port for the Shiskine Valley. A
In times past, it was home to a massive cairn, but Victorian villagers raided it for building stone and by the mid 1880’s it had almost gone.
Something that hadn’t gone was the Kinloch Hotel, where Footprints Man had recommended that I should stop for a drink. Well, having earlier ignored his suggestion as to where to exit the shore, I now took this one up with enthusiasm; after all, I’d hate to seem rude and ungrateful about his advice.
One restorative gin and tonic and a pleasant rest later, I availed myself of a handy shop to buy more water and then crossed the Black Water, which empties straight into the harbour. As a couple of horse riders clip-clopped gently past me, I paused briefly to glance back at the harbour and hotel.
Drumadoon Point & Torr Righ Mòr
At the western end of Blackwaterfoot, the ‘coast’ road headed north while the actual coast kept going west for another mile, turning at Drumadoon Point. The Arran Coastal way stuck resolutely to the coast and I decided to do likewise, strolling purposefully along a mostly sandy beach.
I splashed my way across a small stream and soon reached Drumadoon Point where, in theory, I should have had excellent views across Kilbrannan Sound to the Kintyre Peninsula. I should, for instance, have been able to make out Davaar Island at the entrance to Campbeltown Loch. Alas, the sea haze reduced all to a bluish blur but that was okay, Arran itself would soon serve up some scenery to take notice of.
At Drumadoon Point, the beach gave way to a grassy path over rocky outcrops as it (and the coast) turned north and headed for the basalt cliffs of the Doon. The name Drumadoon derives from the Gaelic Druim an Dùin, meaning ‘ridge of the fort’ and the Doon (dùn) is the rocky outcrop on which the hill fort in question once stood.
From the seaward side, the Doon is visually striking — a basaltic sill with columnar cliffs. Beneath them was a steeply-sloping boulder field but a path had been manufactured through it by carefully filling gaps with smaller stones until it was essentially paved as it weaved amongst the boulders. It made for a dramatic landscape.
Once past the boulder field the path became grassy again. It led north for about a mile, on the way passing this:
At the end of the grassy path was a low cliff containing several large caves formed around 6,000 years ago when the sea level was higher. Scotland was and still is rising on account of post-glacial rebound; basically, now that the ice has gone, Scotland is bouncing back up in extremely slow-motion.
While all the caves are visually impressive, the one people actually trek out to see is called the King’s Cave. This is one of several caves in western Scotland and Ireland that is claimed to be the cave where Robert the Bruce hid out and drew inspiration from a spider tenaciously rebuilding its web.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t but, as it’s only been called the King’s Cave since the 19th century, my bet is on ‘isn’t’. Prior to that it was Fingal’s or Fionn’s Cave, both referring to the mythical Irish hero Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill).
Within the cave there are several carvings including some animal figures and cup-and-ring markings and later designs depicting across and man holding something above his head.
Exclamatory Germans & Hard-hatted Teens
A metal gate has been placed across the entrance of the King’s Cave but this was unlocked when I got there and the cave was milling with excited Germans, pointing and photographing and exclaiming keenly. This pretty much precluded my taking any photos unless I wanted pictures of them but I wasn’t too bothered; it was nice to see so much enthusiasm.
I left the Germans to it and continued along the shoreline, just as an even larger crowd of teenagers wearing hardhats was being expertly wrangled towards the cave by what I took to be youth activity leaders exhibiting the patience of saints. That cave must have got really crowded.
I, meanwhile, had the conceptual opposite of crowding, now that Arran’s cave enthusiasts were all behind me. The trail climbed steeply through a narrow gorge and made the cliff top, where it transformed into a clearly defined footpath following closely the line of the cliff.
The cliff path continued for about three quarters of a mile, traversing the seaward flanks of the wooded hills Torr Righ Mòr and Torr Righ Beag (‘Great King’s Tor’ and ‘Little King’s Tor’ respectively).
Returning to the Road
The path then rounded Torr Righ Beag to head inland, skirting the edge of the wood and descending slowly to meet the road (which, you may recall, was about a mile inland). It didn’t have a great deal of elevation to lose, having been only 70 m at its highest, but this was more than enough to allow a magnificent view of the coast yet to come:
More of the Coast Road
Crochandoon Car Park
Where the footpath met the road was a car park, in which I encountered a group of would-be walkers peering at the information board and arguing over the distance to the King’s Cave. Their informal leader appeared to be a young woman who was armed only with tourist maps so I let her look at my Ordnance Survey map to settle their uncertainty.
They looked. They measured. They resoundingly decided ‘no’.
Returning my map with profuse thanks, they turned their backs on the footpath and set off down the coast road towards Blackwaterfoot; I have absolutely no idea where they were heading. Fortunately I did know where I was going, which was in the opposite direction.
As you can see, the return to road walking was not exactly terrible.
The road veered to the left, closing the gap between it and the coast and passing through the hamlet of Tormore (tòrr mòr = great tor).
To my right was Machrie Moor, which has an impressive a collection of cairns, hut circles, and standing stones as one could wish for. There are, for example, the remains of no less than six stone circles.
Circle Two is easily the most photographed, being the most visually striking — only three out of seven or eight stones remain but they’re about 4 m tall. Not that they’re visible from the road, alas.
The road crossed over Machrie Water, a broad but shallow gurgling stream, and once again ran close by the shore with only a narrow golfing green between them. By the side of the road was a club house of sorts, a café containing an honesty box for golfers to deposit their green fees.
I tend to dislike golf courses for entirely irrational reasons but the sight of this clubhouse café filled my heart with joy.
I stumbled inside to drink tea and eat cake in celebration of getting halfway through my walk (Yay! Woohoo! And other celebratory noises).
I think the girl behind the counter was bemused, for my elation must have seemed a tad excessive — the cake was good but not that good.
Eventually, I stepped out again into the blinding sunshine and made my way northward along Machrie Bay. A rocky cliff to my right formed the base of the hill Cnocan Cuillaich which, though only 109 m, concealed from my sight taller summits further inland. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the walk: the road by the shore, with Kilbrannan Sound narrowing on one side and low hills hiding higher peaks on the other.
A mile and a half from Machrie, the road crossed over Iorsa Water and passed along the edge of the Dougarie Estate.
The estate owes its existence to the Duke of Hamilton who in 1865 built himself a shooting lodge — Dougarie Lodge — on the opposite side of Arran from his main residence, Brodick Castle. Various other houses and outbuildings were added over the years including a boat shed.
The estate remained in Hamilton ownership for many years but was sold in 1972 to the Gibbs family, who still live in Dougarie Lodge today. In addition to holding an annual garden open day, they run the estate as a ‘country sporting’ attraction, offering accommodation (in the other cottages and houses) and access to sea and river fishing and golf in nearby Machrie.
The road passes between the bulk of the estate (including the lodge) and its twin-gabled boathouse, which was built around 1900 and designed by the architect John James Burnet (1857-1938). Constructed from red sandstone, it persists in its intended function, housing a 17 ft open-topped boat that facilitates sea fishing.
Past the boathouse, the road continued to follow the coast, heading in a north-westerly direction. As Kilbrannan Sound narrowed and the haze dissipated, vague details became discernible on the Kintyre Peninsula. Landward, the road was flanked by wooded hillsides.
Two and half miles from Dougarie, the road turned slightly inland and climbed steeply at Imachar Point. An ear-splitting screech alerted me to peafowl wandering the grounds of a cottage near the top of the incline.
You don’t get that many places rearing peafowl in the UK, possibly because they’re not native and possibly because of the hideous noise. Peacocks are damn fine to look at though and I tried to get a photo but this particular peacock was having none of it. He quickly ducked away behind a wall, followed by his loyal harem of peahens.
Thwarted by peafowl, I continued on my journey over the high ground — though “high” here only means 50 m — as the road crossed Imachar Point. On the far side was the clachan or hamlet of Whitefarland (An Aoirinn, ‘the raised beach’) and beyond that a shallow bay with the village of Pirnmill at its far end.
I covered the mile from Whitefarland to Pirnmill fairly quickly and rested in the latter on a bench. Digging into my bag, I retrieved a soft drink that I had been saving for when I felt like I needed the sugar, which was now.
Pirnmill (Muileann nam Piùirneachan) takes its name from an actual mill that made weaving pirns — similar but slightly different to bobbins — between 1780 and 1840. It was powered by the fast flowing waters of the Allt Gobhlatch (‘forked stream’), whose waters come straight off the mountains. The mill’s demise was largely down to its own success; by 1840 is it had exhausted all the available timber within its reach.
With the mill gone, the village turned to tourism and became a regular port of call for the Clyde steamers until Lochranza pier was built and Pirnmill lost much of that business too. It hung on, having a better beach than Lochranza, with tourists now arriving by road. This remains true today and the village sports a well-regarded restaurant, as well as a shop and holiday accommodation.
The shop had closed by the time I reached Pirnmill but I eyed the restaurant with some indecision. There was a strong risk that I’d miss the kitchen by the time I reached my hotel in Lochranza, which meant that perhaps I should eat now, while I could. But if I did that, I’d be reaching Lochranza in the dark. What to do?
I decided to take the risk and press on. Initially the road remained level, which was handy…
As I made my way up Arran’s coast, the terrain became more rugged, passing through areas where rock falls were common, and the road began to undulate somewhat as it passed through a bumpy stretch known locally as the Humps.
Between the headlands of Rubha Glas and Rubha Airigh Bheirg and miles from the nearest village, I passed the tiny, tumbledown Lennimore Cemetery, named for the closest farmstead.
Many of the graves within it are marked only by flat stones but those few that have conventional headstones show dates between 1794 and 1898. The grass around the graves was nice and short, so someone was keeping it tidy.
Hurrying on, I put the Humps behind me and soon found myself approaching Catacol Bay, where I was overtaken by an elderly woman on a bicycle, grim determination written on her face.
Across the bay, Catacol’s elegant row of cottages waited patiently for me to reach them. Bicycle Woman would pass me again (now heading the other way) before I got there.
Catacol (Catagal) derives its name from the Norse for ‘cat gully’, which name was attached to the bay and the glen that runs down to it. The village’s origins are more recent, dating to the mid-1860s as part of the Highland Clearances.
In addition to the main stream down Glen Catacol — the Abhainn Mòr (‘great stream’) — a lesser burn, the Abhainn Bheag (‘little stream’), also empties into the bay. Prior to the clearances, a hamlet stood at its head.
The 11th Duke of Hamilton commissioned a row of cottages to house the hamlet’s inhabitants, who were evicted so that the duke could use the area for deer-stalking. The villagers were understandably unhappy about their eviction, though, and spurned their new homes, refusing to live in them. Some dispersed themselves around the island and others emigrated, leaving the cottages empty for two years. This earned them the nickname Hungry Row though today they are known as the Twelve Apostles.
Since the evictees were expected to stop being farmers and become fishermen, the cottages were given a cunning design detail in that they each had upper windows of different shapes, allowing the fishermen’s wives to signal their husbands by placing a candle in the window. I remain unconvinced that the difference in shape of the glow is actually visible from a boat, not that any of the evictees ever tested it.
Arran Whitebeam & Antecedents
In addition to its tales of clearances, Glen Catacol has unlikely fame as home to three of the world’s rarest tree species, a claim that arises purely thanks to the complicated sex life of the rowan genus Sorbus.
The glen is home to about 300 Arran whitebeams (S. arranensis), 200 bastard mountain ashes (S. pseudofennica) and literally just a couple of Catacol whitebeams (S. pseudomeinichii). All three owe their existence to hybridisation, deriving from a process that began with the common whitebeam (Sorbus aria) accidentally giving rise to the rock whitebeam (S. rupicola) through polyploidy — i.e. inheriting having an extra set of chromosomes.
The rock whitebeam proved hardy and spread across Britain, Scandinavia and Russia but on Arran it crossbred with the rowan (S. aucuparia) to produce the hybrid Arran whitebeam, which grows only on Arran.
Bastard Mountain Ash & Catacol Whitebeam
So far, so good. A unique tree species — well done, Arran! Bravo! Except the Arran whitebeam also crossbred with the rowan, giving rise to a new, more rowan-y, hybrid: the bastard mountain ash.
But the rowan, it seems, can’t get enough of this hot hybrid action as it then crossbred again with the bastard mountain ash to make yet another hybrid (and presumably the roweniest one so far), the Catacol whitebeam or false rowan.
This is a hybrid so shiny and new — not much more than fifty years old —that only three have ever been found and one of those was a sapling later eaten by deer (a surprise consequence there of the Duke of Hamilton’s clearances). A fourth seedling is now being grown in Edinburgh.
I was heartened to learn of a genus of trees that is far too busy indulging in rampant hybridisation orgies to try to have sex with my nose (tree blossom sets off my hay fever). I mentally wished them the best of luck as I strode out of Catacol and round the next headland, which would lead me to Lochranza.
The sun was starting to set now, lending a pinkish tinge to the sky. Across the water, the mainland was the closest it had been all day. I would be crossing there in the morning but, for now, I just needed to get to my hotel.
I strode past the ferry slipway like a man possessed and reached the Lochranza Hotel by the eerie blue light of twilight. I’d missed the kitchen by mere minutes but they kindly offered to cook me some food anyway (I was very grateful).
That night, I slept the sleep of the physically exhausted. Come morning I was up and ready for more…
This time: 25 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,828 miles