I’d done my usual trick of not researching where we were going, therefore I was instantly and pleasantly surprised. It started on the surprisingly short journey up to the ferry port in Ardrossan. It continued when I realised there was a bar and a restaurant on the ferry. And it reached its peak as we started our journey across the Isle of Arran to our home for the week and saw our first highland mountains in two years.
George had offered up their holiday home Balmara to the group last summer, and we were the first of the gang to visit. We thought we may be the last after a minor incident with a wine glass, but luckily that was only house related calamity of the week.
Apparently (I didn’t know this, having done no research) Arran is often referred to as Scotland in miniature, and it’s easy to see why. The island is home to less people than live in Barrowford, only they’re spread over about 170 square miles, a lot of it wild moorland and highland peaks. The villages on Arran consist of around five houses and some swings, and many settlements are so small you don’t realise you’ve driven through them.
I’d seen George’s photos on Facebook and discussed their stays on the island with her several times, and I knew there was a ‘hill’ called Goat Fell which I would be expected to walk up whatever the weather. What I wasn’t expecting was it to be sunny practically all week, for there to be mountain ranges similar to what I’d only expected around Fort William or the Cairngorms, and there to be beautiful coastal walks beside cliffs, seals, and more sunshine. I wasn’t expecting Goat Fell to be a similar height to The Old Man of Coniston.
Having not had a full week off work for six months I was well ready for a week of relaxation amidst George’s many scented candles, however Chris, who had done his research, had plans of mountain boot camp. This all came to light on the first day when my suggestion of nice sounding walks called Kings Cave and Fairy Dell were scoffed at in favour of walks that had included descriptive words such as horseshoe, ridge, demanding and so on. We decided to have a nice large gin and then take it in turns to decide what we did each day, hence striking a balance, with compromise and variety. We thought this was such a good idea we immediately had another gin, the Scottish Rock Rose this time, my new favourite, and set about planning the week.
The following day we set off walking up Arran’s highest peak, Goat Fell. I was really enjoying walking through a forest in the sunshine, the higher we went the more of the sea visible behind, the fells up in front… that is until I remembered that I’m pretty scared of hill walking in Scotland. With the exception of Ben Nevis you can walk for hours in Scotland, if not longer, without seeing another soul. To some people this is heaven…this is my idea of hell. If you don’t see anyone, who will reassure you that you’re on the right path? If you don’t see anyone else’s footprints, AND then it clouds over, how do you know you’re not about to end up on the local news for stupidly going for a big walk when you don’t know how to use a compass and only have a Mars Bar for comfort? The wildness of Scottish mountains is tremendously beautiful, but quite frankly I’d like to have an invisible guide a few steps ahead at all times. I don’t know why, it’s not like we’re that far away from the Lakes, where I’ve walked on many occasions in terrible weather, without a map, and strayed far from the path. I’ve always found my way back, even when I set off from Grasmere and ended up in the Langdales, quite by accident. None of that worried me anywhere near as much as trying to get to the top of Ben Scurragh a couple of years ago when I ended up clinging to the side of it. It’s not even as high as Pendle Hill. We continued upwards alone, eventually seeing some people in front of us who looked like they were struggling in what looked like thick snow. At this point we just had t-shirts on and were getting sunburnt faces, but up ahead it looked like a different story.
As we got higher the nerves kicked in even more and after trying to scramble round the wrong side of the path in snow, I was all for giving up. That is until a young lad in wellies started springing up the path towards us, showed us the correct way and then suggested we follow him. I’d recommend Goat Fell as a walk for the spring and summer months if you’re not confident. We had to kick our boots into the snow to get a footing, and without poles, it was pretty heavy going. There’s no drop off the side or anything, but it’s still pretty slippy and possibly one for the more adventurous. Anyway I huffed, kicked and muttered my way to the top, thinking about all the gin we were going to drink on my day, after looking for fairies in a cave in a leisurely fashion. Then I remembered why I go hill walking. It’s for the view at the top, the Paps of Jura and Ireland on a good day, the Witch’s Step and the other Arran ranges today, a golden eagle and views back out over to the Scottish mainland. The lad pointed out what we were looking at and gave us a suggestion to make it a circular walk, and before long we were sliding back down the snow of Goat Fell on our bums to the bus stop at Corrie. Whilst the walk might not have been the easiest, navigating Arran’s transport system was. Yes, the buses are every three hours, but if you want a flavour of Arran life just travel on one. Everyone is chatting, everyone knows each other (probably because there’s only one high school and one late night disco), and it stops and picks up on command. When we travelled one on during the school run even the teenagers were pleasant.
A week happily went by. The people of Arran continued to be delightful everywhere we went. It is impossible to do anything quickly because people just won’t stop talking to each other. They also think absolutely nothing of drinking gin cocktails at high noon. A recommendation for a gin cocktail would be the Auchrannie resort and spa, a little high brow by our normal standards, but lovely for a drink by the fire on our wet final day (my turn to choose the itinerary). We sampled the North Berwick, Edinburgh and Botanist gins that day, though none quite compared to the Rock Rose.
As well as a couple of more leisurely walks along the beach at Kildonnan to see the seals, and around the coastline at Lochranza to Fairy Dell, we also attempted one last ambitious hike. We unfortunately we left it a bit too late in the day to walk as far as we wanted up Beinn Nuis, but the initial walk through the Glen Rosa valley was the prettiest sight of the week. The following climb up through the moorland and an adder sighting were a little more hairy. Again, possibly a walk for summer days (hopefully minus the snake), when I’m hoping we will be able to return.
For an island with so few people and such small villages, it initially surprised me that every village on the coast road has a swing set looking out to the sea. But then, this says a lot about Arran. After all, what could be much more pleasant than swinging out to sea, full of mountain air and Scottish strength gin? Not much I wouldn’t think.