Ambling around Arran, 'Scotland in Miniature'

Scenic island has rugged highlands, gentle lowlands, charming towns

Destination: British Isles

August 21, 2005|By Beverly Beyette | Beverly Beyette,Los Angeles Times

Haste ye back," beckoned a sign at the car ferry terminal at Ardrossan on Scotland's western coast as the boat eased up to the dock after crossing from the Isle of Arran.

It was July and I'd been distillery-hopping on Scottish islands. After two days on Arran, the largest of the Firth of Clyde islands, I had followed the whiskey trail to Islay and Jura in the southern Inner Hebrides. I'd chosen to return to Arran to further explore its heather-blanketed glens, peaceful harbors and picturesque villages.

My trip had begun in Glasgow, where I picked up a midsize car and drove the 38 miles to Ardrossan. From there, ferry service to Brodick, Arran's main port and largest town, is frequent. I'd booked ahead, as the line advised.

The ferry was big, clean and comfortable. I settled into a seat in the nonsmoking lounge with a cup of good Arran Dairy ice cream and my guidebook, and in 55 minutes we were docking.

My heart sank at my first glimpse of Brodick. It's not a place of great charm. Gazing on a row of bygone-era seashore hotels and boarding houses, I thought of one of those vintage English movies set in some dreary seaside holiday resort.

But I had a distinct attitude adjustment upon reaching the Kilmichael Country House Hotel, which occupies a bucolic bit of real estate on the edge of town.

Checking into Dovecote, a beautifully appointed garden room in a wing that once was the estate's stables, I found fruit and flowers, tea fixings on a tray with bone china cups, a map, a guidebook and The Complete Illustrated Poems, Songs and Ballads of Robert Burns. When I opened my door, a resident peacock poked its head in.

The next morning, breakfast in the sunny dining room fortified me for sightseeing. The menu promised eggs from the hotel's own ducks -- "if the ladies oblige" (they did) -- as well as tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages and, yes, haggis.

Arran, population 5,000, is just 20 miles long and 56 miles around, and the narrow, sometimes bumpy A841, the main "highway," hugs the coastline for most of those 56 miles, passing through villages filled with whitewashed cottages, guest houses, tearooms and pubs.

Tourism is Arran's No. 1 industry. There is plenty to do, especially for outdoor types: golf courses, paragliding, hunting and fishing, horseback riding, cycling and climbing. Walking is a local passion; drivers share the road with stouthearted hikers.

The less athletically inclined can visit Isle of Arran Distillers, the Arran Chocolate Factory, Arran Aromatics (which makes bath and body products), Arran Fine Foods (purveyor of mustard, jams and jellies), or Arran Brewery, or watch cheese being made at Torrylinn Creamery. Arran's cottage industries have multiplied with the increase in tourism.

A diverse land

It was the wide-open spaces inland, the coastal villages and centuries-old churches that beckoned me. I can't resist an old graveyard, and at St. Bride's Church in Lochranza, I found a poignant headstone that spoke to the hardships of life on Arran in an earlier time, when fishing for herring was the main livelihood. It was erected by Isabella Blue, in memory of her husband and four children -- a daughter who died at age 10, a son at age 35 and two sons who drowned in the Sound of Mull.

Arran promotes itself as "Scotland in Miniature," largely because of its diverse geography. The Highland Boundary Fault bisects the island, dividing rugged highlands from the more populated, gentler lowlands with their sandy beaches. Kildonan and Pirnmill have two of the best beaches.

My first foray was to Lochranza, 15 miles north of Brodick on A841. The village is home to Isle of Arran Distillers, which opened in 1995, reviving whiskey-making more than 150 years after the island's last legal distilleries closed.

Having taken the tour and a wee sip of whiskey, I drove on to the ruins of Lochranza Castle, which probably dates to the 16th century and sits on a spit of land. It's mentioned in a novel by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote of "fair Lochranza." Just beyond, on the far shore, I spotted a group of red deer. Arran abounds in wildlife and marine life -- seals and dolphins frolic offshore -- and is a bird-watchers' Valhalla.

One day, I drove the one and a half miles to Brodick Castle, once the ancient seat of the Dukes of Hamilton. Since 1957, the National Trust for Scotland has owned the castle, parts of which date to the 13th century. The castle contains some fine paintings, antiques, porcelain and silver, but the pieces de resistance are the walled garden and country park, with woodland trails leading to waterfalls and wildflower meadows.

In the spring, the garden's spectacular collection of rhododendrons is in bloom. The castle complex, open from April to October, includes a gift shop and, in the former servants' hall, a self-service restaurant with a garden terrace where local fare may include wild boar sausages or haggis and oatcakes.

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