Articles - Holy Isle
“Some people come to Arran to climb the mountains,” said a lady of a certain age to everyone within earshot, “I come here for the chocolate.”
From the Chocolate Shop, she had crossed the shore road to sit and savour her sweets at a picnic table set in a well-tended area of grass and flowerbeds overlooking Brodick Bay.
Behind her, passing cars carried bags of golf clubs, mountain bikes, canoes or surfboards. There was activity on the putting green, crazy golf course and bowling green.
On the strip of sandy beach to her left, the bucket and spade brigade were also busy, possibly too busy to notice an artist attempting to capture on canvas the shifts of light and cloud patterns that played on the backdrop of forest and mountains.
Completing this postcard picture, moored yachts bobbed in the gentle swell as the Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world, chuff-chuffed away from the pier.
The Isle of Arran, known as Scotland in miniature, has long been a magnet for a diverse range of visitors. As well as sandcastle builders and adrenaline junkies, it’s also an ideal get-away for those who would pursue ‘soft adventure’ and good food.
Being in the soft adventure age group, my ploy was to drive the coastal road, get sand between my toes on the beaches, and walk some of Arran’s way-marked paths. My efforts would be rewarded with stops along the way, on the Arran Food Trail - a smattering of businesses, cafes, restaurants and hotels that make splendid use of local food supplies.
For my first foray, Brodick Castle was perfect. As well as fabulous formal gardens and a famed display of rhododendrons, a network of paths meander through tree covered slopes and lead back to the castle restaurant where the lunch menu boasts home-made soups, locally produced smoked salmon pate, cheeses, ice cream, breads and oat-cakes amongst many other delights.
From Brodick, Arran’s “capital”, the A841 road twisting southwards, gains enough height to give superb views over Holy Isle, before it slopes down to the coastal resort of Lamlash. Holy Isle’s great bulk shelters Lamlash Bay where conditions are generally favourable for water activities of all kinds. On a day of blustering wind with sunny spells between showers of lashing rain, I watched a group of youngsters gamely attempting to control their kayaks in the added safety of the harbour. A caravan on the pier was advertising sailing trips across to Holy Isle (see Peace Perfect Peace on Holy Isle at www.writearoundscotland.com) where everyone is welcome to stay in the Centre for World Peace and Health that opened in May 2003. The centre aims to become a focal point for interfaith work and retreat and offers a peaceful refuge from this hectic world.
The name Holy Isle has only been in use since 1830. Before then it was named in Gaelic, Eilean Molaise, from eilean, (island) and from Molas, after an Irish monk born in 566 who went there to live in a cave. As was often the case with holy men then, he was imitating Christ’s period in the wilderness.
To get as close as possible to Holy Isle, without taking to sea, (I left that for another time), I drove on to find the turn-off to Kingscross Point. From the road-end, a path bordering a field where horses graze, leads down through trees to an area of short grass ending at a strip of pebble beach. Holy Isle seems to rear up a short distance away. Near the south end, the white lighthouse is striking in the sunshine above the blue of the water and backdrop of green slopes patched with purple.
With such a view, on such a beach, it’s easy to linger, to search for that perfect flat stone to beat a previous, best stone-skimming record, but I wanted to get higher. Trimmed grass paths lead upwards past waist high ferns, tangles of bramble bushes, and rowan trees loaded with orange-red berries to the ruined outline of an Iron Age fort. With extensive views back to Lamlash Bay and Brodick Bay, to Holy Isle and much further out over the Firth of Clyde, it’s easy to appreciate why the ancient builders chose this commanding position.
Further along the coast, Whiting Bay is the next village and the usual start of a sign-posted trail to Glenashdale Falls. It’s a walk of great contrasts. From near the seaside, the way leads past well-tended gardens growing palm trees, eucalyptus, vivid blue hydrangeas, hedges thick with red-pink fuscia blossom and orange monbretia. A board at the end of one garden reads,
“Drive carefully. Beware! Children! Animals and Frogs”!
The going gets slightly rougher on a farm track which narrows to a path leading into the dark, coolness of a spruce forest until an area above the falls is reached. This is an ideal spot to rest and make use of the picnic bench conveniently placed a few steps from the river before it plunges over the rock edge to the valley below. To get the best views of the falls, there is a bridge here that crosses the few yards of river and leads to a path going down the opposite side of the gorge. Further down the path there are fenced areas and a platform that offers a great view of the waterfall.
Driving south again, the road leaves the coast to climb round the side of hills, dipping and bending and offering views of fields of sheep and cattle and, more unusual, Shetland ponies. Even more of a surprise is the sight of a party of peacocks at the end of a driveway.
It's worth leaving the A841 at the road sign for Kildonan and parking at the hotel, or further along the road at a smaller parking area near where the row of houses ends. From there, find the gate for a walk along the beach. Spot cormorants drying their wings and seals hauled out on the rocks. Inland the waterfalls dropping from the height of the raised beach can be impressive. Out to sea, look for the great lump of volcanic rock on the horizon that is Ailsa Craig, sometimes called Paddy's Milestone and the small island of Pladda. Blackwaterfoot is the next sizeable village with shops, a hotel, small harbour and other facilities for visitors. It’s a busy spot. People come to enjoy the fine sandy beach or walk the coastal path to the King’s Cave where Robert the Bruce supposedly watched that spider. The way leads alongside Shiskine golf course, where anyone, from grandparents to grandchildren are encouraged to come and play.
Similarly, further round the coast at Machrie, golfers and non-golfers alike, are welcomed into the clubhouse to enjoy home cooked delights such as chicken broth and plum and date crumble.
“Spike shoes must not be worn in the tea-room” seems a reasonable admonishment on a noticeboard.
Hardly any distance on, at Auchagallon, there’s a stone circle just a short distance from the road. From here, views are vast - out to sea, over farmland and the Machrie golf links. The few remaining upright slabs of the stone circle hint at the outline of a large cairn. It’s now grassed over but some 4000 years ago this would have been an impressive mound of stones for all to see, covering the stone-lined graves of important people.
The road here hugs the shore past the small settlements of Pirnmill and Catacol. Pirnmill takes its name from a type of bobbin used in the cotton industry. When production of cotton continued to increase on the mainland, a mill for the manufacture of bobbins was established here.
The village of Catacol is well known for its twelve, almost identical cottages, known as the twelve apostles. Attractive as they are, the row is evidence of a sad episode in Arran’s history. The cottages were built in 1863 to house islanders cleared from Glen Catacol in favour of deer, which at the time were more profitable than sheep.
The road continues to follow the shoreline until it reaches Lochranza. With its castle, distillery, ferry connection to the mainland and safe mooring for yachts, Lochranza is a popular spot. Though getting there is still a little bit of a delightful adventure, a trip here, to the north end of Arran, wasn’t always so easy. Before cars were commonplace, a bus company in Lamlash ran mystery tours costing 3 shillings - the price included tea and entertainment. These outings were much in demand even though it was known that they always ended in Lochranza. Seemingly the best part was the community singing, with the bus owner conducting with a stick of rhubarb. Ah, innocent days.
After Lochranza, the road bends inland to pass through Glen Chalmadale, an area almost Highland in character where jagged peaks reach for the clouds. A steep run down then leads back to the sea and our starting point.
Further Information: The Arran Arts Heritage Trail has been recently established around the island. Twenty hand carved, red Arran sandstone blocks mark the physical trail. They denote places where artists including Joan Eardley, Jessie M. King and Alasdair Gray were inspired to create work while on Arran. Some of the stones are fairly easy to find. Other stones are not so easy to find. Information booklets can be obtained from the Visitor Centre near the bus stances in Brodick