By Robin McKelvie
Seeking a ‘remote’ or ‘untouched’ Scottish isle, the type so beloved of gushing TV presenters? Well, sorry, but you won’t find it. Scottish islands are not remote to the people who live there and remember there were up to 20,000 people thriving on Orkney when the good folks of Salisbury were still struggling to erect their stone slabs at Stonehenge. The imprint of man is everywhere, whether defiant today, or ravaged by the Clearances. You certainly won’t find that TV confection isle in Arran. This is a vibrant, dynamic island that, as a travel writer who has visited over 100 countries, I make sure to go back to every single year.
I love writing for Scottish Islands Passport, as they really get it. They don’t want a powder puff listicle of the ‘Top 10 fairy hideaways where you can find a real life haggis in the wild’. Their App, their physical passport stamps and their printed books all strive to forge beyond the cliches. Scratch below the barely concealed surface and Scotland’s islands burst alive with a wonder you won’t find trapped behind the glass of a coach tour.
Yes you can come to Brodick for a day and laze it away playing on that crazy golf course and paddling as the Waverley thrashes by wrapped in Doon the Watter nostalgia – I spent many a childhood day doing just that. And yes you can bash up Goatfell and try to impress everyone over CalMac ‘n’ Cheese on the ferry about how you conquered Goatfell in a day and made it home.
But how about discovering a different island? Why not tackle a section of the 66-mile Arran Coastal Way, or climb Goatfell, but then come back via the scramble to North Goatfell, dropping down into Corrie to stay at the recently revamped eponymous hotel? Why not actually spend some money rather than count the pennies you’ve saved by bringing a packed lunch over from Asda in Ardrossan? If you do you might meet the people who call Arran home. The locals are there as sure as the summer midges, just sometimes well hidden if you don’t make the effort.
Speaking of effort, the lovely team over at COAST (Community of Arran Seabed Trust) in Lamlash make me feel tired even writing about them. Not content with setting up Scotland’s first No Take Zone in 2008 (a massive success), they went on in 2016 to hugely expand with the nigh 300 sq km South Arran Marine Protected Area (MPA). They have a lovely COAST Discovery Centre to check out too in Lamlash. As the Scottish Islands Passport App points out all donations are welcome. You can even check out the new snorkel trails they helped set up.
Yes I did say snorkel trails. On Arran. I know, but it’s a sheer joy. My daughters and I were the first people officially to try one out back in summer 2021. Ok, so we didn’t see the whale shark my youngest was hoping for, but we did see a lot of fish, chased scuttling crabs around and lost a whole morning exploring the dense kelp forests. We had such fun the girls insisted we snorkel every day and so we tried out more spots on the snorkel trail. The highlight was Lamlash. Snorkelling under the vast embrace of the Arran Hills we did catch sight of a shark, not a whale shark sadly, but the girls were more than happy with the basking shark.
Arran is world-class for wildlife. I could tell you that Arran is the only Scottish island to boast all of Scotland’s Big Five – golden eagles, red deer, otters, harbour seals and red squirrels – and tell you exactly where to find them, but I won’t spoil the surprise and fun of tracking them down. Why not head out on two feet or two wheels and ask the lovely lady working in one of the shops at Home Farm to point you in the right direction, or the staff at that outstanding sustainable fish restaurant in Corrie where you eat out of recycle cardboard trays on the shore?
Pick any of Arran’s – of course, lovely – big hitters and there are always alternatives off the beaten track a little. Not remote, mind. Yes Brodick Castle is absolutely brilliant, but the rugged charms of Lochranza Castle tempt too. How about kayaking there with the community-focussed Lochranza Centre? They do superb canyoning trips too that make you look at Arran in a totally different way.
On Arran I try not to linger over the fact that pretty much all of the villages used to hunker down inland, but the years of Clearance mean there is only one outlier, glorious wee Shiskine, still inland today. I celebrate instead their whitewashed beauty, the vibrant, distinct communities that continue living here. You meet people in Blackwaterfoot who have a friendly, positive rivalry with Brodick that would make Glaswegians and Edinburgers blush. And then be envious. I celebrate too the random children’s swings dotted between the villages. Very Arran.
It’s easy to celebrate on Arran. It really is. Someone please call certain TV presenters and assure them that not only has electricity definitely reached Lagg, but the island’s second whisky distillery is now thriving there too. And the island now has two breweries. Don’t hold me to that as there may be more when I head back this summer. Arran is like a wonderful game of Whac-a-Mole, with creative new small businesses popping up all over the place.
The Scottish Islands Passport App and book have more info on Arran, so check them out. You’ll learn about the mysterious ‘Doctor’s Bath’, where you can take a therapeutic dip in the saltwater. You’ll hear about ‘meeting the makers’ through Arran Open Studios and also about the life-affirming Arran Art Trail that I am a massive fan of. There is so much creativity on the island, as artists come here with their own inspiration and find Arran sending them spinning off in all sorts of creative directions.
If you’re looking for an island as dead to the world as you often find on – admittedly beautiful-looking – TV shows you won’t find it with Arran. This inspirational, dynamic and irrepressible island is the sort of place you visit and leave not only wanting to come back, but with ideas for – and indeed lessons to learn to take back to – your own life back home. See why I come back every year?