The Isle of Arran: From Castles to Cliffsides, What to Know and Where to Go on the Scottish Island
The Isle of Arran's rugged landscape is part of its charm and beauty. Photo: Sam Spicer/Getty Images
We’re on the first hole of the quirky, delightful, 12-hole Shiskine Golf Course on Scotland’s Isle of Arran. I’ve been set up to play a round with three members of this fiery green links course on the west side of the island, and I hit a slow putt that has absolutely zero chance of making it to the hole.
“When we hit a putt that’s short of the hole, Canadians yell, ‘Skate, skate,’” I tell them.
“That’s great” one of my partners, Alice Anderson, says with a laugh. “When we hit a putt like that we yell, ‘Taxi!'”
For the rest of the day, the Canadian in the crowd shouts “taxi” at his slow-moving golf balls, while the locals shout, “skate,” or, even better to my ear, “go skating.”
It’s a little thing; a tiny cultural/sports exchange. But I find it delightful, and we’re quickly chatting like old friends. We “tsk tsk” and sympathize when a wayward drive goes into the thick Scottish heather, and applaud happily when someone’s putt goes skating and drops into the cup.
There’s a fair bit of cloud in the sky. At one point I glance across a wide swath of water and spot the Mull of Kintyre peninsula. There are clouds swirling around the hills, but it’s still partly visible.
“I don’t think it’s going to rain just yet,” I say.
Fiona Herson, another woman in my group, nods. “If you can see Kintyre we’re fine. If it disappears, we head for coffee.”
I had come to this island because the folks at the Scotland tourism board, Visit Scotland, told me Arran was a microcosm of the country. I don’t know that anyone from a tourism board has ever spoken truer words.
Over the course of four days I played golf, toured a fine distillery with excellent whisky, took endless photos of furry sheep, toured a romantic castle by the water, drank local beer at a fine pub, and admired tall, rolling hills and a deep valley cleft by a sweet stream and tumbling waterfall. We had excellent meals at surprisingly casual and more elegant restaurants and rolled past deserted beaches in glorious Scottish sunshine. And, of course, met plenty of friendly locals.
Shiskine, for its part, is a lovely golf course, with several holes right alongside the ocean and a view of the water from everywhere. There are a number of blind shots, and there’s a good deal of rise and fall to the landscape. One player’s quote on the course website called it a “topographical roller coaster,” a line I wish I had thought of myself.
At the fourth green, the other local in my group, Tony Ellis, walks me to an elevated platform to see the ruins of an old seaside home and a rumbling, rocky beach. He points down the coast and tells me there are a series of caves in the sea cliffs.
“They say Robert the Bruce (former King of Scotland) hid out there. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a good story.”
After our round on a pleasant day, with only the lightest drops of rain, we repair to the new clubhouse for coffee and a bite to eat.
“One thing I love here is that the views change every day,” Herson tells me. “It’s never the same two days in a row.”
She also loves the relative solitude on the island, which is an hour ferry ride from Ardrossan – itself an hour’s drive from Glasgow. The island is about 430 square k.m.’s (about two-thirds the size of the city of Toronto) and there are just 5,000 or so permanent residents.
“There’s such a sense of peace here,” she says. “Some people are townies and don’t like it.”
Highlights of the Isle of Arran
I leave the golf course and decide I’ve got time to drive along the southern coast on my way back to our hotel, the fine Auchcrannie Resort in the port town of Brodick, which has several nice shops and restaurants and a nice, waterfront promenade. I pass small white stone cottages with gardens overflowing with brilliant pink flowers. This being a relatively warm part of the country, I also pass the odd, spiky palm tree.
I roll the window down and the smell of fresh ocean air mixes with the smell of fertile, deep green fields. I drive along lovely, curving roads that dip and swirl past thick forests of ferns and pasture lands dotted with cows and sheep. I spot a road that points to the village of Kildonan and decide to give it a go.
I’m rewarded with a truly delightful Scottish seaside village with a rocky promontory at the end of a nice beach. To my right are freshly watered green fields and small white homes. In front of me is a lighthouse on a sloping bit of land called Pladda Island, and to my left a lone boat bobs in the water, just offshore.
It’s one of the many incredible locales on the Isle of Arran. If you visit, here are some others to check out:
Much of the castle has been redone over the years, but parts of this handsome structure overlooking The Firth of Clyde bay date back as far as the 1300s. A tour reveals the story of how Princess Marie of Baden wedded the future 11th Duke of Hamilton (said to be “the handsomest man in Europe”) and moved in. She immediately began fighting with her father-in-law about renovations and a castle expansion she wanted to undertake. Our audio guide tells us the Duke “bit off more than he could chew” when he married the Princess, who was a cousin of Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III).
I read that the Duke fell down a staircase at the castle at age 52 and died. Queen Victoria said he was drunk. Others say Louis-Napoleon had him killed over a gambling debt.
The interior tour reveals an entire herd of mounted deer heads, as well as ornate tobacco holders, pricey teapots and heavy, thick wooden tables that are so polished you could use them as a mirror. The gardens were my favourite part; brilliant fuchsia hedges, quiet paths lined with sweet-smelling eucalyptus, yews, and reach-to-the-sky pines, a large walled garden with dozens of black-and-orange butterflies, and much more. I later found there’s an outdoor playground for kids, with bridges, zip lines, a mini-castle and more. The grounds are so extensive that I just plain missed all of those bits.
The drive to get here from Brodick is magical, as you glide over a narrow pass between the mountains on the north end of the island and then slide down into a delightful, green valley. Our tour guide, Scott Bain, was excellent. He tells us they get pure mountain water that spills down six granite waterfalls. The area also is home to golden eagles and red deer.
“This place gives back,” he says of Arran. “A lot of places and big cities restrain you, but not this place.”
Bain tells us Arran makes single malt whisky that is not dried over peat. The result is a bright, fruity dram I quite enjoy. They started Lagg Distillery on the south end of the island a few years ago, and they make a peated whisky.
“There used to be a lot of illicit distilleries on the island,” he tells us. “One of my great grandfathers ran one. I’m also told he was arrested once for breaking someone’s leg,” he adds with a grin.
There were no distilleries at all for some time, but Arran opened some 30 years ago as the first whisky distillery on the island in 150 years, he says.
“We’re one of the few independent, family run, traditional practice distilleries around.”
Bain lifts the lid on one batch of fermenting liquid, unleashing a strong smell with hints of pineapple. After our tour we get to taste from a couple of divine bottles, including a super-smooth 20-year-old and some of the Lagg peated whisky. Rather than drink too much and drive, we’re given small “driver drams” to take home as samples.
This is the hub of Arran. We enjoyed nice mussels (the appetizer portion was enormous) one night at The Douglas Hotel, where we chatted with a man from Ayr, Scotland named Greg. He adores Arran and comes often.
“I hear great things about the Isle of Skye,” he tells me. “But I don’t go there. I feel like I’d be cheating on Arran.”
The Little Rock Deli in Brodick serves up a lovely salad with greens and beetroot chutney topped with a large slab of tasty, grilled goat cheese. The interior has cute, bright paintings of dogs on the wall, and there are picnic tables outside overlooking the bay. Arran Cheese Shop sells local cheeses, jams and other goodies, and you can watch the cheese-making process through a window.
Next door is Arran Sense of Scotland, where you’ll find lovely soaps, body lotions, shaving gear and more. Saltwater Gallery was closed when I strolled past, but it has wonderful paintings of the island on display. Mackenzie Makers sells gorgeous, locally made leather belts and purses. Some of the purses I saw were going for nearly CAD$450.
The Arran Heritage Museum is a fun place to learn about Arran’s colourful history, and you’ll find bright red tractors and other farm equipment, old wooden boats, a kids’ play area and plenty of interesting historical nuggets.
A Circle Drive
The main road pretty much circles the island, so it’s easy to find your way on Arran. Near Shiskine Golf Club is a pretty village called Blackwaterfoot. I also loved the drive along the coast between Lochcranza and Blackwaterfoot, where we enjoyed the beginnings of a fine sunset. Lamlash is another Instagrammable, seaside village, as is the aforementioned Kildonan. I also enjoyed the village of Corrie, a short drive north of Brodick. The Corrie Hotel serves a fine, spicy curry.
A Fine Hotel
Our hotel, the Auchrannie Resort, was on the edge of town near a lovely beach. There are two large, indoor swimming pools, steam rooms and a sauna, as well as a nice spa and a large, indoor play area for kids. The resort has a variety of rooms, including spa resort rooms and five-star luxury lodges. We had a nice, hotel-style room in the main building with undoubtedly the heaviest throw pillows I’ve ever encountered. We didn’t hit the Cruize Bar Brasserie, but breakfast at Brambles was quite good. (I tried the haggis but couldn’t get the taste for it, sorry!) At dinner one night we enjoyed a fine tapas menu at 1869 restaurant, including very good beef short rib and crispy cod cakes.
I didn’t have time to hike to the top of Goatfell Mountain (and if that’s not a great name for a hill, I’ll go back and eat all the haggis at Auchcrannie), which rises a very reasonable 874 meters above the sea. But I got to admire its granite ridges on our drive to the Arran distillery, and again on a walk I took in the valley that leads to the mountain. It wasn’t a long hike; maybe an hour, but the light slanting through the thick forests of towering pine trees and the glistening green moss on the trees were lovely, and I had a small river and a pretty waterfall all to myself.
We flew to Edinburgh, took a train to Glasgow, drove an hour to Ardrossan and loaded our car on the ferry for the 55-minute ride to the Isle of Arran. A car would be wise on the island if you really want to explore, but you could stay close to Brodick for a couple days and have a fine time without one.