I SPENT the third and final day of my April walking trip making my way around the coast of Arran towards the island’s main settlement, Brodick. I was met by low cloud and greyness as I emerged from my hotel but the moisture in the air could not dampen my enthusiasm. My t-shirt, yes. My spirits, no. And so, grinning like a mildly humidified idiot, I set off…
Isle of Arran
The Isle of Arran (Eilean Arainn) is the largest of the islands in the Firth of Clyde and has been inhabited since at least the Neolithic. Later, the Bronze Age brought Gaels from what is now Ireland, incorporating Arran into the Kingdom of Dál Riata.
Kingdom of the Isles
Later still, in the 9th century, Vikings would arrive, settling and subjugating the western seaboard to form the Kingdom of the Isles, known in Norse as the Suðreyjar or Southern Isles. In time, this became a largely autonomous region under the suzerainty of Norway, with the Lords of the Isles holding great power.
Scotland wrested control of the isles in 1263 after the Battle of Largs but the Lords of the Isles remained powerful until King James IV took action in the late 15th century. He confiscated the title, using it henceforth for the heir to the throne, just as the English crown used the title ‘Prince of Wales’.
Earls of Arran
In 1503, James IV made one of his privy counsellors — Lord Hamilton — the Earl of Arran in reward for helping arrange his marriage to Margaret Tudor of England (sister of Henry VIII). The Hamiltons dominated Arran thereafter, displacing hundreds during the 19th century Highland Clearances in which villages were emptied and smallholdings merged to form large estates by their landlords; formerly common land was enclosed and made private.
In consequence, I would be passing a number of empty hills, whose valleys were once home to long-lost farms.
I began, though, in Lochranza, a village that is very much still there. Honest, I checked. It’s not a particularly large village, nestling along the sides of a small sea inlet named Loch Ranza (Loch Raonasa).
A former herring port, Lochranza now depends on tourism and whisky, two things which combined well in the Lochranza Hotel, behind the bar of which was an array of different whiskies the like of which one rarely sees. Lochranza makes its own whisky — the Arran single malt — in a distillery at the southern end of the village. I gave some thought to visiting it but quickly concluded that in that case I might not get any further. I resolved to visit the castle instead.
Lochranza Castle was originally built in the 13th century as a stronghold for Clan MacSween, which held sway in parts of Argyll and Arran. It was probably constructed for Dougal MacSween, whose father was called Sweyn the Red (MacSween means ‘son of Sweyn’).
Unfortunately for them, the MacSweens lost the castle in 1262, when King Alexander III gave it to the Earl of Menteith. In the subsequent struggle between Alexander and Norway’s King Håkon IV, the MacSweens fought for Håkon, who granted them Arran. Except of course that he lost at Largs, leaving the MacSweens out of luck.
They went on to support the English-backed John Balliol during the Great Cause — the dynastic struggle following Alexander’s death — making them enemies of Robert the Bruce, who ultimately came out on top. Many of the clan fled to Ireland, where they became known as Clan Sweeney, while in Scotland the name shifted to MacQueen.
A Royal Castle
Meanwhile Lochranza Castle became a Royal castle, used as a hunting lodge by Robert II, before passing through several changes of ownership. In the 1490s James IV used it as one of many bases from which the King could attack the Lord of the Isles.
Development & Decline
In the 1500s, it probably belonged to the Earl of Eglinton, at which time it was largely rebuilt into the form seen today.
The castle was briefly occupied by Cromwellian troops in the 1650s and was bought, following the foreclosure of a mortgage, by the Duchess of Hamilton in 1705. The Hamiltons later sold it on but it fell into disuse during the 18th century and became ruined.
Today, it is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland (Àrainneachd Eachdraidheil Alba).
The Loch Head
I spent more time than I expected nosing around the castle ruins before getting properly underway. Eventually though, I tore myself away from it and followed the road past an equally ruined cottage and round the head of Loch Ranza, crossing the Lochranza Burn. Lumpen hills towered over the village: dramatic for sure but not mountains.
One possibility I had entertained was taking an inland path up over one of the hills but, on the day, I decided against it. Visibility remained poor and low cloud kept hiding the hilltops. Rather than waste effort climbing to a view of uniform greyness, I made my way along the far side of loch to Newton Point, where I experienced this stunning vista of Claonaig four miles or so across the sea:
Arran Coastal Way
A sandy path that had led me most of the way to the viewpoint now diminished to the kind of narrow beaten trail made by the feet of those who walked there before. This picked its way round mud and over rocks above a stony-looking beach. It rounded the base of the 272 m hill Cnoc an Sgrath ending at a small, scraggly wood beside which gurgled a tiny stream. A cottage stood off to one side and the whole impression was oddly enchanting against the bare moorland of the hillside. This was, my map insisted, the Fairy Dell.
Had I realised it was there, I might have ventured into the wood to see the stone and tree circle within which is a pool — the actual Fairy Dell, complete with a fairy-sized bench. As it was, I escaped this near-terminal tweeness through sheer obliviousness and the Fairy Dell became just the first of several things I never saw. Perhaps a fairy glamour drove me away?
Where there is now one single cottage there used to be a small fishing community comprising a number of dwellings. Careful examination of the shoreline betrayed the remains of a breakwater. It struck me as an ideal spot to pause and take a break except for the fact that I didn’t need one yet.
Instead, I continued along a pebbly beach towards what appeared to be a mass of rocks with no way forward. A footpath sign was pointing, almost comically, into the coastal slope. Had I not been expecting this, I might have been perplexed, but I had and therefore was merely befuddled.
Looking closer, it became apparent that there was a path of sorts up, over and through the rocks of An Scriodan Rockfall. This was tiring and needed concentration as it wound its arduous way for about half a mile. Until fairly recently, the path had been far more nominal, with several scrambles over large rocks, but thanks to the hard work of others I got to do it on the ‘easy’ setting.
The rocks and cliffs of this part of Arran have a claim to fame regarding the history of geology as a science. Visible in some of them are two juxtaposed rock types of different ages and structure. This is known as Hutton’s Unconformity after geologist James Hutton (1726-1797), whose examination of such formations led him to conclude that the earth evolved over an immense period of time with different rocks created at different times and then displaced and eroded by forces which must still be ongoing.
This contrasted with older beliefs that rocks had created ‘as is’ and had not changed thereafter or that they had formed due to processes now ended.
I repeatedly glanced at the rocks and cliffs as I passed, aware that Hutton’s Unconformity exited but not entirely sure what it looked like. It thus became the second thing I didn’t see or recognise. The third thing I didn’t see was the Cock of Arran except that I did but it wasn’t there. Sort of.
Cock of Arran
The Cock of Arran is a sandstone boulder on the shore that, thanks to the wonders of pareidolia, roughly resembled a cockerel. It was long used as a navigational marker by fishermen and others in boats but sandstone is not the most erosion-resistant of materials and, in time, its head fell off.
With its centre of gravity altered it has since also shifted position and now bears little relation to any sort of farmyard fowl.
A little way on from the Cock of Arran was Ossian’s Cave, a small cave in the cliff-side which I failed to find where my Ordnance Survey map said it was; I did spot a different cave but paid it little heed.
According to Historic Environment Scotland — the public body responsible for investigating, caring for and promoting Scotland’s historic environment — OS have marked the wrong place. So let’s make the fourth thing that I didn’t find.
Duchess Anne’s Salt Pans
The path, which had levelled out a while back, experimented briefly with climbing over another small patch of rocks beside a small wood. Fortunately, it quickly gave that up as a bad idea and levelled out again, conveying me towards a group of ruined buildings; I counted three of them. These were the remains of the Duchess Anne’s Salt Pans, a works for extracting salt from seawater by evaporation.
The process was sped up considerably by boiling off the water, the heat being provided by a coal furnace using coal extracted on site. It was the discovery of coal in that remote place that led to siting of the salt pans there.
They were named for their owner, Anne Hamilton, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton (1632-1716), who had inherited the Hamilton estates in her own right upon the deaths of her father and uncle during the Civil War. The salt pans were in operation between 1710 and 1735 and brought in workers from other Hamilton-owned salt works on the River Forth. After 1735, the salt pans were abandoned though the coal seam was briefly worked again in the 1770s.
All this thought of salt made me hungry, so I took the opportunity to perch on one of the ruined walls and take a break and a bite to eat. Somewhere up above me on the hillside, nestling on a ledge, was the equally ruined Cock Farm. This remote croft was abandoned in 1912, long after most of its neighbours had been cleared — around a hundred people used to live on that hillside but today there are none.
In 1735, a boy named Malcolm Macmillan was born at Cock Farm and, in adulthood, he would become its tacksman or tenant farmer. His grandsons Daniel (1813-1857) and Alexander (1818-1896) Macmillan would eventually leave Arran and move to London, founding Macmillan Publishers in 1843.
Daniel’s own grandson, Harold Macmillan (1894-1986) would go on to be Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963 and be created Earl of Stockton two years before his death. ‘Supermac’, as the PM became nicknamed, was said to have kept an old photo of Cock Farm on his desk to remind him of his family’s origins.
When I had rested and mused on the mighty rise of the Macmillans, I made my way past the salt pan ruins and found this a short way beyond them:
It is, of course, actually a millstone. This one would have been used by the salt panners to grind the salt into uniform grains. I did wonder though how it came to be lying so far from their actual buildings. I mean, that’s got to be heavy. It’s not the sort of thing that one moves casually.
I followed the footpath in what was — thanks to the curvature of the coast — now a south-eastern direction for about half a mile until it brought me to Laggan Cottage (lagan meaning ‘little hollow’).
Like Cock Farm, this was once part of a thriving community of small crofts dotting the hills and shores. Today, though it looks shuttered-up and abandoned, it belongs to the estate of the Laird of Arran and can be privately hired.
Behind Laggan Cottage, a path of leg-destroying steepness climbed up the hillside before traversing along it to the right. This was the path to Cock Farm and Lochranza, the inland route that I had dismissed earlier that morning. Had I taken it, I’d have joined the coast here. All paths lead to Laggan Cottage, apparently.
From Hard to Soft
I stuck to my coastal route and it immediately rewarded me for my loyalty by ending its intermittent rockiness and experimenting instead with intermittent muddiness. Still, a change is as good as a rest. Actually, for the next couple of miles the going was quite a lot easier.
Up until this point I had been walking in splendid isolation, with no sign that anyone else was out walking the Arran coast. After Laggan Cottage, I was repeatedly disabused of this notion as I encountered several hikers going the other way. As is absolutely demanded by custom, we paused to comment on the weather to each other, praised the scenery and then pressed on, equally keen to get back to having it all to ourselves.
The path conveyed me around Millstone Point where, had the tide been slightly lower, I would have seen the second millstone of my walk.
Stone was formerly quarried there and fashioned into millstones, probably for local use; it is probably where the salt pan’s millstone came from. One millstone remains on the pebbly beach, damaged and discarded.
The path passed some navigational beacons on the hillside where the farmstead of Laggantuin had once stood, before the Highland Clearances. Its inhabitants (twenty-three of them, from four families) were evicted in 1829 and emigrated to Canada.
Beyond Laggantuin, the path weaved its way past some Fallen Rocks that were named as such on the map. All at once, it was flanked by gorse and then woodland and the path expanded into more of a track.
A picnic bench by the shore beckoned and I sat down for a moment or two, admiring a small arrangement of stones that someone had left upon it.
Ayrshire or Buteshire?
Today, the Isle of Arran falls for administrative purposes within the council area of North Ayrshire, making it one with the most distant coast visible in the photo above. Great and Little Cumbrae likewise fall in North Ayrshire and this perhaps makes sense as the primary ferries to Arran and Great Cumbrae both sail from North Ayrshire ports (Ardrossan and Largs, respectively).
Historically, though, all three islands were combined with their neighbour, Bute, to form Buteshire, a county that today exists purely for registration purposes. Given that there are currently no direct ferry links between Bute, Arran and the Cumbraes, treating them all as one county might seem a bit odd today but I quite like the old counties, so I’m still going to think of it as Buteshire.
Continuing onwards, the track became an unmade road, flanked on both sides by woodland. As with the other small woods I had passed that morning, many of the trees were bare; unlike so many of Scotland’s forests, it wasn’t a conifer plantation. Much of it appeared to be silver birch.
North Sannox Burn
I followed the road until it ended at car park where it joined the public road. I was only walking on tarmac for a few minutes though before a path led me across a footbridge over the North Sannox Burn.
I knew that about three quarters of a mile upstream, on the banks of the burn, was the site of a village cleared in 1829 so that land could be used for sheep farming. Like those of Laggantuin, its inhabitants largely migrated to Canada.
The ruined walls of several buildings are still visible but I shunned them, passing instead below an Iron Age hill fort on the low hill of An Cnoc (‘the hill’) and then using a set of concrete stepping stones to cross Sannox Burn.
On the far side of this second stream, I joined the A841 in Sannox village.
A841 Coast Road
Sannox (Sannaig) derives its name from Old Norse Sandvik meaning ‘sandy bay’. It is well-named, facing onto a curved, sandy beach. The village itself comprises several houses and one hotel but little else.
A stubby pier attested to the village’s brief dalliances with baryte mining (1840-1862 and 1920-1938). A mooring post at the end of the quay was fashioned and painted to look like a sheep — a bollard repurposed from the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival.
Not much more than a mile down the road was the village of Corrie (An Coire), the name of which means a curved hollow or cirque (i.e. a glacial, amphitheatre-like valley); the particular corrie for which the village had been named loomed high above it in the mountains. Corrie sits in the shadow of Goatfell — at 874 m, Arran’s highest peak — and a path alongside the Corrie Burn is one of the routes up to the summit.
Corrie was a little more substantial than Sannox, looking sufficiently sizeable that I hoped to be able to find lunch.
Corrie Old Port
Corrie used to be a regular stop for steamers. It has two small harbours and I passed the first one, known as Old Port, on my way into the village. This was the quay used for Corrie’s non-quarry commerce and also as the stopping off point for the Clyde steamers of the 19th century.
The longship belongs to the Arran Viking Longship Society, whose volunteers built her themselves in 1999. She is 40 ft in length and called Black Eagle; a stylised black eagle decorates her sail.
I didn’t witness any marauding Norsemen while in Corrie but that may just have been because I was distracted by my own personal quest to find food.
I found it in the Corrie Hotel, built in 1894, where I purchased not only lunch but a gin and tonic to wash it down. At least, that was the plan. What I actually washed was the table as I clumsily sent my glass flying with a sweep of my arm. Not my best moment ever but the hotelier was very nice about it.
Eventually, when I’d eaten and managed to get a drink to my lips without throwing it everywhere, I made my way further down the road.
I soon passed the second of Corrie’s two harbours — Sandstone Quay — which once served a nearby sandstone quarry. Like Sannox’s pier, Sandstone Quay was also graced with sheep-shaped bollards from the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival.
At the southern end of Corrie was High Corrie and it is from there that A path led up Goatfell. It formed an alternative inland route to the Arran Coastal Way and I had earlier entertained the idea of making my way up there for the view. Full of lunch and looking up from sea level, I once again weighed up my options.
Having decided to stay at sea level, I ambled merrily down the A841. I had intended to branch off along a forest track just past High Corrie but in the end I walked straight past it and continued on the A-road. It was pretty quiet and easy going and the next two miles slipped past effortlessly. Almost before I knew it, I was approaching Brodick Bay.
The A-road curved round the edge of the bay, flanked by forest on its landward side. Brodick sat on the bay’s far side and thus soon came into view.
The road became rather bendy as it ran along the bay, making it slightly more dangerous even with the low traffic. The forest track that I didn’t take earlier soon reunited with the road and then I passed the gates of Brodick Castle.
Constructed on the site of a 5th century fort, the castle was rebuilt as a tower house in 1510 for James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran (1475-1529). Additional crenellations, turrets, and other examples of Victorian excess were added in 1844, designed by the architect James Gillespie Graham (1776-1855).
The Hamiltons lost Brodick Castle twice to the Campbells during the Civil War but otherwise held onto it until 1906 when it passed by marriage to the Duke of Montrose. The Duchess outlived her husband and in 1956, after her death, her daughter gave the castle to the National Trust for Scotland in lieu of death duties.
The Castle sits amidst landscaped grounds, its woodland garden laid out by the late duchess in the 1930s. Amongst the many plants in the gardens are tree ferns native to eastern Australia, some of which I saw over the wall.
These tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) typically grow to about 5 m, so those at Brodick are fairly small. The funny thing is, they were never actually intended to be there at all. They arrived in Brodick aboard a ship carrying plants for the gardens but weren’t a part of the cargo. They were ballast.
The Duchess had them taken and planted anyway and the mild, humid climate — Arran gets the Gulf Stream’s full benefit — seems to have suited them fine.
Charmed as I was by this historical episode of pteridological serendipity, I kept going past the walls and onward towards Brodick. I was now passing through the oldest part of Brodick as an actual settlement, rather than a scattering of farms.
During the 1770s, communal farms were split up into smaller individual tenancies with additional lots being created on the shores beneath the castle. An inn and a landing place were established and now are all that remain of Old Brodick, the rest having been cleared to create a deer park in the mid-1850s. The old inn became a private house for a while but is now a bar and restaurant.
A little way past the old quay, I left the road and joined a footpath that led me onto a beach. I knew it couldn’t lead me straight to Brodick as Glenrosa Water would bisect it at some point. In the meantime though the sand was soft underfoot and barely a ripple stirred the sea.
Just before I could inconveniently run out of beach, I spotted a sign directing the footpath inland through a golf course — I loathe golf courses — where a bridge would take me over Glenrosa Water. The bridge was part of the golf club grounds and, it turned out, was exactly one golf cart wide.
On the far side, the path became a raised boardwalk, on which I stepped aside to let a gaggle of joggers pass. A second bridge, minus the golf carts, conveyed me over Glencloy Water and then I was entering Brodick.
Taking its name from Norse breithr vik meaning ‘broad bay’, Brodick (Breadhaig) is Arran’s main settlement but even so it’s really just a village.
As befits the port with ferry links to the mainland, it is well-supplied with hotels and B&Bs and I quickly found mine and checked in. One restorative cup of tea later, I was back out taking an evening stroll along the seafront.
I had two reasons for my evening promenade, and the pleasantness of my environs was but one. The other was…
MV Caledonian Isles
I would be catching the first ferry in the morning and didn’t trust myself to get up in time to buy a ticket. With my ticket pre-purchased I could sleep the undisturbed sleep of the knackered before trekking homewards the next day.
I’d be back soon though, I promised.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,783 miles