A weekend in Arran. First things first, it’s not enough. We’ve arrived late Friday afternoon after a leisurely drive from Edinburgh to Ardrossan and ferry crossing courtesy of Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV Caledonian Isles ferry. Our mission: a chance to get away from the clamour of the city.
For somewhere so relatively close to the Capital, time spent on Arran really does feel like getting away from it all. And it helps if you are staying in a luxurious hotel with stunning views towards Holy Isle and the Ayrshire coastline beyond.
I realise every B&B with half a star now styles itself as “boutique”, but the Glenisle in the village of Lamlash is the real deal. A warm welcome courtesy of proprietors Geoffrey Dallamore and Timothy Billings, luxurious rooms, including a premier suite that stretches the full width of the top floor, great food – more on that later – and fantastic nooks and crannies in which to enjoy a drink. Indeed, a few minutes after booking in we’re nursing glasses of Arran Sunset on the hotel’s garden terrace overlooking Holy Isle as, yes, the sun sinks slowly behind us. With the only sounds the gentle lapping of the sea, the occasional car and the murmur of conversation around us, the city seems a million miles away.
At dinner we’re spoiled for choice. I start with a smoked ham hock terrine, my wife opts for the smoked salmon with potato salad. Both are delicious – but still trumped by the main courses: slow roast pork belly with mustard mash for me, roast halibut for my wife. Full but not wishing to admit defeat, we somehow manage dessert. I can recommend the Glenisle chocolate pot with walnut shortbread.
Our bottle of wine not quite finished, we retire to the library – yes, the library. Comfy chairs and sofas and a selection of books, with everything from Margaret Attwood to Dan Brown.
A comfortable night’s sleep in our king-size bed and we’re up relatively bright and early. The weather forecast chalked up on the bar’s blackboard the night before had proved accurate – it’s a mild and sunny day, perfect for sightseeing. For a small island – just 20 miles long and 10 miles wide – there is too much to do in one day, so we have to be selective. But first, breakfast. There’s a wide range to choose from but I can rarely see past a good fry-up in a hotel and the Glenisle’s full Scottish passes the crucial tattie scone test – for me it’s not a proper cooked breakfast without one of these – and the coffee is fresh and plentiful.
Suitably fortified, we make for our first destination on the whistlestop tour – Brodick Castle. The historic seat of the Dukes of Hamilton is a five-minute drive from Brodick itself, the island’s main town. What looks like a typical 19th century baronial house – have a look at its picture on a Royal Bank of Scotland £20 note – has a surprisingly chequered history dating back a further 600 years. In 1307 it was attacked and captured by supporters of Robert the Bruce’s forces during the Wars of Independence. Some 350 years later it was occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads and by Victorian times it had more than doubled in size.
Inside, there are all the trappings you would expect in a Scottish country house – fine collections of silver, porcelain, paintings and trophies. The castle was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1958 in lieu of death duties and nothing was removed – not even the 90, yes 90, stags’ heads. A grouse reputedly shot by Napoleon III, one of the first visitors to the castle after its Victorian extension had been built in 1847, sits in a glass case near the entrance.
We find there’s still time to visit the castle’s impressive walled grounds and wander through the woodland garden with its towering rhododendrons beyond. Make sure you visit the Bavarian summerhouse built in 1848 by the 11th Duke of Hamilton for his wife, Princess Marie of Baden, to remind her of home. The views out to sea are spectacular and the summerhouse itself is covered with fir cones forming intricate patterns.
It’s time for the next stop – no time and no need for lunch after that breakfast – so we have to pass on attempting to climb nearby Goatfell, at 2867ft the highest peak on the island. Instead, we’re travelling a few miles down the road and thousands of years back in time to see the six stone circles on the windswept Machrie Moor. Thought to have been erected about 2000BC, their exact purpose is unknown, but the best guess is that they played some kind of religious or ceremonial role. We only see two other people on the hike to the stones, and once there we are alone. It makes for an eerie and awe-inspiring experience.
We did plan to leap forward more than 3000 years to visit the King’s Caves, the spot where Robert the Bruce is said to have hidden from English forces early in the 14th century and been inspired by the example of a determined spider spinning its web to “try, try again”. Unfortunately, time defeats us. The circular walk to the caves and back takes at least two hours and by now we’re hankering after another pint of the local beer.
Dinner is up to the previous evening’s high standards – my braised Scottish lamb shank served with Colcannon mash melts in the mouth; my wife’s prime Scottish beef burger topped with Gruyere was just as good (I demanded a bite – for research purposes, of course). This time round we opt for the cheese board – a fine selection featuring Kintyre cheddar, Arran brie, Dunsyre blue and Caboc. We take our nightcaps to the library again.
A second hearty breakfast and there’s just time for some shopping before we head back to Ardrossan. The Isle of Arran Cheese Shop near Brodick is a must after last night’s dinner, and the Arrran Aromatics factory shop is next door for gifts.
As we board the ferry and take a last look at the island, we vow to return. There’s so much more that we haven’t managed to pack in, not least the King’s Caves. And when we do, the Glenisle will be at the top of the list for accommodation – and this time we’ll book that premiere suite, complete with roll-top bath in which to soak while you take in the view of Lamlash Bay. Just as long as nobody on Holy Isle has got a telescope...