Safari, Scottish-style, on the Isle of Arran

Now I know what it feels like to be a penguin swaddled in a girdle…not that I had given it much thought before. But as I waddle into the cool shallows of Lamlash Bay on Scotland’s Isle of Arran, lumpily sheathed in neoprene and dragging my bright red kayak behind me, I feel as awkward as that klutzy, egg-shaped comic. I’m hoping that when I finally reach deeper waters and launch myself into my craft, I, like the stubby-legged polar bird, will take on some measure of aquatic grace—but in my heart, I know better.

Lamlash Bay, courtesy Calum McNicol, Arran Adventure Company

Lamlash Bay, courtesy Calum McNicol, Arran Adventure Company

Just as I feel a chilly trickle filling my rubber booties, my jovial guide, Bruce Jolliffe with the Arran Adventure Company, suggests we board our crimson kayaks, and soon we’re gliding across the gunmetal gray bay. Well, my companions may be “gliding,” but my idea of an upper-body workout is brushing my teeth (flossing, too, when I’m feeling particularly hale), and I soon start to feel the burn.

Fortunately, Jolliffe has specially chosen this sheltered location on Arran’s southeastern coast for its relatively calm waters—and to my surprise, I find I’m having fun.

The briny smell of the sea fills my nostrils as I hug the shore, where an abandoned church, slowly declining into romantic ruin, and several tidy cottages sweep down to the rocky beach. Gentle slopes, typical of southern Arran, form a wide “V” behind the village, parting to reveal jagged granite peaks serrating fast-moving clouds in the wilder, more rugged north.

Arran landscape_7588

Arran’s varied landscape

Arran, about an hour’s ferry ride off Scotland’s southwest coast, is traversed by the Highland Boundary Fault, partitioning it into the hard-edged Highlands and the more softly undulating Lowlands.

Thus, despite the island’s tiny size–measuring just 55 miles in circumference–it delivers incredibly diverse topography, earning the moniker “Scotland in Miniature.” 

Deer roam Arran's golf courses. Careful, or you might get a hole in one.

Deer roam Arran’s golf courses. Careful, or you might get a hole in one.

The only big thing about Arran is golf. With seven courses and a year-round population hovering around 4,700, the island boasts the most golf courses per head in the world.

Arran offers up an abundant Scottish safari, as well. In a single weekend, I spot red deer, a gray seal sunning on a rock, dozing goats, shaggy-haired Highland cows and sheep of such variety that I suspect they were invented by Dr. Moreau.

About the only critter you won’t find here is the Loch Ness Monster. But Holy Island, where a group of Buddhists offer holiday retreats for folks of all faiths, does its best impression of a giant beast rising up out of the middle of Lamlash Bay.

For those who wish to commune with a spirit of a different sort, a tour of the Isle of Arran Distillery may be in order. In fact, that’s my next stop, and I’m relieved to find that, despite kayaking leaving my limbs as limp as linguine, I’m still strong enough to lift a dram when we reach the distillery, which opened in 1995 to produce the first (legal) whisky on Arran in nearly 160 years.

Campbell Laing

Campbell Laing

Our twinkly-eyed guide, Campbell Laing, explains that nothing goes to waste in the process, including a barley by-product, which is used to feed local cattle.

“The cows may walk a wee bit funny,” Laing admits, “but they’re happy.”

I may be walking a wee bit funny, too, thanks to a visit to the tasting room, where Laing lets us sample several whiskies. He advises us that, if we add a drop of water to a dram, it will “soften” the flavor and take the edge off.

“But drink it to suit your taste,” he adds. “The only thing I ask is please, no Coca-Cola.”

Weaving outside, I scan the skies for a pair of golden eagles that nest in the crags above the distillery. Alas, while I might be seeing pink elephants, there is no sign of those majestic birds. “It’s just the remote control’s not working,” quips Laing, although I suspect that they’ve been sent off for re-gilding.

Brodick Castle

Brodick Castle

It’s not just the fauna but also the flora that flirts with the fantastic. The gardens of Brodick Castle—a stately red sandstone home, furnished as it was when the widow of the 12th Duke died in 1957—are filled with all manner of exotic vegetation, from massive leaves ample enough for more than one bum to sit upon to strange palm trees that look like parts of other plants assembled by giddy four-year-olds let loose with a glue stick.

My favorite slice of Arran, however, is a walk on the southwestern coast that begins near the King’s Caves, where legend holds that Robert the Bruce, repeatedly defeated by the English, was inspired by a spider building its web to “try, try again” and eventually regain the Scottish throne.

King's Cave

King’s Cave

A narrow dirt path winds through fields of bracken, heather and foxglove before descending towards the sea, where hikers have built small stone cairns to mark their pilgrimage.

cliffs2_7751Then it begins a slow, steady ascent to the base of a dramatic bluff, improbably tufted with gravity defying bits of green.

With all their lush drama, these cliffs might appear more at home in Tahiti than this northern outpost.

Arran, it seems, isn’t content to model itself solely upon the best of Scotland. It’s a greatest-hits medley of island beauty—a slogan that’s equally as apt as “Scotland in Miniature,” and it might just about fit on a bumper sticker, too.


Related link about the Scotch Whisky Trail:

Tourism info:  

Where to stay

Best Western Kinloch Hotel, Ideally situated on a sandy stretch of beach, near a golf course and scenic coastal walk, the Kinloch Hotel has a kid-friendly lawn, lively locals’ bar, indoor heated swimming pool, sauna, snooker room, squash court, fitness room and wifi.

Kinlock Hotel

Kinlock Hotel

Auchrannie Resort, Choose from two hotels—the Spa Resort or Auchranie House Hotel–or one of 23 five-star self-catering Country Club lodges.

The Centre for World Peace and Health on Holy Isle, You don’t have to be a Buddhist to stay in these simply-furnished accommodations on the Holy Isle, a 10-minute ferry ride from Arran’s Lamlash Bay, but guests are welcome to join in meditation and chanting rituals. Open April-October. In winter, open only for a Christmas Retreat, New Year’s Retreat and 10-week Winter Retreat.

What to do

Arran Adventure Company, Activities range from kayaking and sailing to climbing, mountain biking, abseiling and archery.

Isle of Arran Distillery and Visitor Centre,

Pinecone gazebo ceiling

Pinecone gazebo ceiling

Brodick Castle, Garden & Country Park, Fanciful gardens, complete with a pinecone-encrusted gazebo, are a highlight of this castle, parts of which date back 600 years. Keep an eye out for the dodo-shaped crystal decanter and alligator-inspired cigar lighter in the dining room.


  1. Denise Tucker says:

    Like a fine wine, whiskey, champagne or whatever it is you are drinking, you improve with age. Your sense of humor keeps the reader engaged and interested in your travel adventures. I long to go.

    • Thank you, thank you! That is incredibly kind to say. If we’ve got to get older, it’s good to hear that I’m not like that container of cottage cheese that gets pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten until the police knock on your door because the neighbors have been complaining about a suspicious smell.

  2. JP says:

    I’ve explored many parts of Scotland but never made it to Arran. This is a great piece and has def inspired me to go someday! Beautiful photos.

    • Cheers, Jon! I jump at any excuse to go to Scotland. Not only is it beautiful, but they do serve a damn fine dram, and I love the Scots’ wit. Oh yes, and those charming accents. I used to get a lot of calls from Scottish telemarketers, and although I never bought anything, I could talk to them for hours. In the end, they’d be trying to get ME off the phone!

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