The Isle of Arran is often called ‘Scotland in miniature’ and, in many ways, its Coastal Way is a ‘Thistle trek in miniature’. The trail has it all; unique wildlife, a geological kaleidoscope formed by volcanoes and ice, Gaelic culture and history, pristine beaches and mountain ascents. All packaged into 65 miles of beautiful, challenging trekking.
Day 2 – Lochranza to Machrie (14 miles)
One of the good things about the Arran trek is staying in the same place, Brodick, for the week. This means that today we start the “routine of readiness and departure” that by day three or four will be almost automatic to us all (except for walking poles, which somehow defy any organisation). We head off in high spirits for the drive to Lochranza and one of the longer days on the trail.
The trail starts on the road for a short while, before taking the old postal path that runs between Lochranza and Catacol. As we start walking, Davey suddenly points us to a small dark shape among the reeds and hags of the tidal bay. An otter! It’s only a brief glimpse but for many, including me, a first.
We stop in for a quick look at Lochranza Castle, which sits out in the bay and is said to sit in the water at high tide (and when viewed from the right angle). It was the inspiration for the cover of one of Herge’s Tintin books but has otherwise sat quietly supervising the harbour since the 1600s with very little fuss.
We turn up the track, starting a short ascent that will take us away from the road and over to Catacol. Although narrow in places and a little harder in wet weather, the path is a welcome one for a day that is mostly made up of long road sections. It ascends and traverses through birch woodland that provides some shelter from another beautiful sunny day. Again, the path is full of life and we stop to check out some polypores growing out of the birch, listen to a cuckoo that is sounding the warning on the hill above us, as we walk and muse on what an Amazon delivery driver might make of it all.
As the path undulates across the hill we come across an elderly local man, with a hand-scythe and a smile taking his rest in the undergrowth on the side of the path. He has just finished walking ahead of us and had been trimming the path edges along the route we had been happily walking on. The view of Catcacol bay opens up as we leave the woods and start our descent and to the left Glen Catacol curves round and away from sight. Interestingly, it is home to a rare species of Whitebeam-Rowan hybrid, a tree that only exists on Arran. We take a short break at the road and check out the Apostles – a line of cottages with some unique features – before slinging our bags for the next section to Pirnmill and lunch.
We will be on the road most of the way now, with only one short section that rounds the shoreline away from the road. It’s a surprisingly delightful part of the trail; this time beginning with a sighting of Golden Plovers on the beach at Catacol, one of them pretending to have a broken wing to try and distract us from its nest. After this the group spreads out and we all go at our own pace, still searching for seals along the shore but marvelling at the views across the Firth, distant sailboats, seabirds and a range of coastal plants. To locals these are considered busy roads but for us of course they seem relatively quiet and make for pleasant walking despite the distance.
After a lunch of peaceful rest, good views and ice-creams from the local shop, we continue on the road for a short while before taking the last diversion of the day round Whitefarland Point. Here, for a short time, the landscape is one that will become familiar to us for the next couple of days. The route runs over white sand beaches, scattered with smoothed rocks that look like giant eggs, leads through a field of boulders covered and connected by turf and fields of undergrowth – hemlock and sea radish, grasses and ferns – all forming land at the water’s edge, and, conveniently, a path on which to cross it. It is firm enough but requires some focus, between moments of fascination at the edge of rock-pools and inlets, to avoid the occasional hole where land hasn’t quite been formed underfoot.
We emerge from the undergrowth, shaking off various bits of flora and have a quick catch up with Davey who has arrived with the van at the road junction. With water bottles refilled and a shoes changed, we set off for the last 5 miles of the trail along the road to Machrie. The sky has clouded over, providing a pleasant temperature for the tramp in and eventually we all arrive at the car park for Machrie Moor, our finish point for day two. It is also the access point for the impressive stone circles a mile or so away. We elect not to walk the extra miles this time and instead pile in the van for an elated but welcome ride back to Brodick.
Day 3 – Machrie to Kilmory (12 miles)
Breakfasts eaten, if not yet digested, and water bottles filled. Lunches bought, plasters and creams applied, and walking poles unearthed from their hiding places. Away we go for day three, probably the hardest of all the days but with some great compensations. We pass the DofE team we met on day one as we drive out of Brodick, not looking quite as cheerful and also not very awake as they walk into town. On the drive through the island’s centre, we’re lucky to spot a hen harrier, gliding across our front and away into the woods to our left as we drift by.
We start walking from the car park, a short way further along the road before the route skirts some pine woodland with fantastic views back along the previous day’s route. We have a quick stop in the woods to look at tree acne, resin pockets formed on younger fir trees, before ascending gently to the cliff’s leading edge and then down to our first stop of the day, King’s Cave. We take a short break on the rocks that litter the shore, in the lee of two large caves that make up this site and then push on for Blackwaterfoot and lunch. This section is dominated by the giant basalt cliff at Drumadoon point, which sits resolute in the distance as we take the path along the shore. Later in the year the path will be shrouded in purple as the rosebay willow-herb takes over but for now it’s a yellow and green canopy we wander through.
We take a brief detour to the lizard footprint embedded in the small cliffs ahead of the point. The group agrees with my assessment, that the picture on the little panel is actually better than seeing it in person but it’s still a thrill to imagine this link with a creature living so long ago. The cliffs of the point loom above us and Alison does a grand job of guiding us through the surprisingly well thought out path that has been carved out of the boulder scree that lines the foot of the cliff. We switch our gaze from the impressive basalt cliff, to finding the next step and then back again for a while before finally reaching the point. A sandy walk follows, along a beach covered in shells and jellyfish left by retreating tides. A holiday feel kicks in as we reach Blackwaterfoot with its few shops, a hotel bar, ice creams and even toilets. It’s about as good as a lunch stop gets on our treks; coastal views and proper amenities!
Duly softened up, we unfold from the picnic benches for the harder part of the day. The second half of the day is a mix of all the trails and types of landscape so far described. Initially the trail is faint and runs through a mixture of beach and grassland walking, after a half hour or so we come to Preaching Cave – a long triangular dome carved into the cliff. The trail from here is quiet, beautiful and sheltered, oyster catches and black-backed gulls gambol out at the water’s edge as we pick our way across more fields of giant eggs, craggy rock jetties and the occasional sections of path. This section and the first half of the next day feel the most remote, picking your way along at the water’s edge with either cliff or sloping farm fields to the left and the expanse of calm water to the right.
It’s a tiring end to the day. Davey hikes in from the end point to meet us and check the water crossings that are the penultimate challenge of the day. A couple of the group decide to take the easier option of walking the last part along the road, and I join them for this whilst Davey heads off with the rest over the river crossings. The way is easier on the quiet road but also much more hilly, the rocky shoreline has the benefit of being mostly flat. The three of us tramp on resolved however and arrive to the van about five minutes before the others. Stories are exchanged, boots and bags eased off and tired limbs are folded into the minibus for the drive home. Over halfway now…