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Isle of Arran – the ultimate way to experience the best of Scotland

Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran

‘We’re the Arran Ceilidh Band…’ announced the band-leader in a strong Scottish accent, while his co-members adjusted their array of traditional instruments. ‘We’re going to play some music, because that’s what we do. I hope you like it.’

I was in a restaurant in Brodick on the Isle of Arran, looking out across the water. It was a small, unassuming place, but on a Saturday night it was full of people and folk music.

In many ways that sentiment of: ‘This is what we do, hope you like it…’ is probably the perfect tourism slogan to describe the Isle of Arran.

It’s a unique place. Undeniably Scottish, almost intensely so. Tourism is the island’s major industry, but this is a place that feels very real, a place where people live, a place where the traditions and realities of life on an island off the coast of Scotland is authentic, unapologetic, and unforgiving.

You can get to Arran swiftly by taking a ferry with the award-winning Caledonian MacBrayne, also known as CalMac. You can enjoy their comfortable facilities while heading to an array of remote, magical island destinations throughout Scotland, from Barra to Gigha to Skye.

Arran, meanwhile, is only an hour across the water from Scotland’s west coast on CalMac. But it feels a world away from the gritty bustle of Glasgow or the sedate grandeur of Edinburgh.

Approaching the island, the dramatic coastline gradually comes into view, emerging from the water, promising a glimpse into a different way of life, a change of pace.

I was there for a weekend in June. I found the people of Arran to be incredibly welcoming, and the island offers a huge range of things to do and experience. Here’s what I learnt during my visit…

Is the Isle of Arran welcoming to LGBTIs?

I told everyone that I met that I worked for Gay Star News. People were interested, polite, not really bothered. A few people mentioned local gay and lesbian couples, people they knew running businesses or who had recently married.

I’d seen a number of gays and lesbians on the ferry on the way over, I wanted to know whether the LGBTI market was something that tourism promoters on the island were targeting:

‘We don’t really target anyone specifically…’ explained one operator. ‘We want to welcome everybody – whether you’re gay, a family, if you have accessibility needs, or if you’ve got a dog – we don’t want to make a big deal of it, just be welcoming.’

If you’re wanting a taste of Scotland, then Arran is a great way to do it. If you’re a couple looking for a romantic minibreak; a family looking for activities to entertain the kids; a group of friends looking for some outdoor activities, or if you’re looking for a destination where you can take your dog with you – Arran gives you all of that. Just don’t expect anybody to make a big deal of it.

The history

Settlements on the island have been dated back to the Neolithic period (possibly around 4500BC), and the standing stones and stone circles that can still be seen today are from the early Bronze Age (possibly around 2000BC).

Control of Arran has shifted numerous times across the centuries – ruled from Ireland as part of the kingdom of Dalriada; ruled from Norway as part of the Viking empire of Magnus III; ruled by Alexander III of Scotland; often contested by the English; and held by various clans throughout the years.

Arran was caught up in the Highland Clearances of the 19th century. Alexander, the 10th Duke of Hamilton – the Earl of Arran – forcibly evicted tenant farming families, leading to widespread emigration from the island, the removal of entire villages, and the devastation of the Gaelic culture that had been part of the island’s identity since the 6th century.

Today about 5,000 people call the Isle of Arran home. One of the biggest challenges facing the island’s tourism industry is recruiting the staff required to run the hotels, restaurants, and activities. Attracting people from the mainland isn’t easy, agency staff from Europe hard to come by.

What to do

  • Lochranza Distillery is a relatively new player in the history of whisky in Scotland, but it’s a great opportunity to see a distillery in action and taste some of the outstanding whiskies being produced with the water of Arran.
  • If you want to get active, then Lochranza Field Study and Activity Centre has a range of activities on offer. I went sea-canoeing which was a great workout and a fantastic way to experience the island’s coastline from a different perspective.
  • Go walking – the island offers a surprisingly diverse range of landscapes and opportunities to explore the outdoors. Popular walks include the Eas Mor Waterfalls near Kildonan, and the Standing Stones near Machrie.
  • Cycling is also popular, but be prepared for some challenging hills. I hired a bike from Arran Bike Hire at Brodrick. I didn’t tackle anything too steep, instead exploring some of the local sights such as Brodick Castle, the Arran Cheese Shop, Arran Aromatics, and the Arran Heritage Museum.
  • Horse-riding gives you a chance to experience the island at a different pace – I joined Cairnhouse Riding Centre for a relaxed ride along the beach, but for more experienced riders longer and more challenging rides are also available.
  • Keep an eye out for wildlife – there are herds of Red Deer on the island, Golden Eagles circling overhead, and seals and otters along the coast. There’s currently a white stag in one of the herds in the south of the island – apparently an omen of impending death within the ruling clan.
  • If you’re tired of walking, then Arran Adventure offers a Segway tour. This was much more fun than I was expecting – whizzing along forest trails and admiring the views across the island.
  • Golf and hunting are also readily available.

The ruins of Lochranza Castle

Sea-canoeing with Lochranza Field Study and Activity Centre

Bonding with Magnus the horse on Blackwaterfoot beach, as part of a Cairnhouse Riding Centre trek.

How to get there

  • I travelled from London to Glasgow on the Caledonian Sleeper – a unique and hassle-free way to travel across the UK while sleeping.
  • From Glasgow, I hired a car for the one-hour drive to Ardrossan – which is where you board the ferry to Brodick on the Isle of Arran.
  • The Caledonian MacBrayne ferries between Ardrossan and the Isle of Arran operate throughout the day, but if you’re taking a car across – which is pretty much essential – you need to book in advance and make sure you arrive by the designated check-in time (I made that mistake).
  • The ferry trip takes just under one-hour. It’s a comfortable journey, with food and drinks available on board. The ferries are pet-friendly, so taking your dog with you is no drama.

Arriving into Glasgow Central Station on the Caledonian Sleeper

Loading the car onto the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry at Ardrossan

Approaching the Isle of Arran

Where to stay

  • There’s a huge range of accommodation options on the Isle of Arran.
  • I stayed at Auchrannie Resort. Just on the outskirts of Brodick, Auchrannie has a mix of hotel-style room as well as self-contained lodges. Plus there’s an in-house leisure centre with spa and swimming pool, as well as an on-site adventure company that offers activities ranging from gorge walking, archery, mountain biking, or a Segway tour. The resort is pet-friendly, and they’re also constructing some new eco-pods that will provide guests a unique way to immerse themselves in the spectacular wilderness of Arran.

Where to eat

  • Brambles Seafood & Grill – part of the Auchrannie Resort, I dined on scallops, and monkfish.
  • Kildonan Hotel – I ate fish and chips while keeping an eye out for otters. This is apparently one of the best places to spot them, but they were hiding from me on the day I was there.
  • Fiddlers’ Music Bar – a folk music bar with live music every night of the week. I ate crab, followed by Moroccan-inspired lamb.
  • The cafe at the Arran Heritage Museum is a great spot for a casual lunch or coffee and cake.

Monkfish at Brambles Seafood & Grill, Isle of Arran

Fish and chips at the Kildonan Hotel, Isle of Arran

Tian of crab with gazpacho at Fiddlers’ Music Bar, Isle of Arran

Gareth Johnson travelled to the Isle of Arran courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne and Visit Arran.

CalMac is a client of Gay Star News

Top three pictures by Pixabay. All other pictures author’s own