Walking the Arran Coastal Way

© Cecilia Mariani

Do you feel it's late in the year for a long distance trail? Think again. When short daylight and worse weather make high level backpacking a challenge, coastal routes can provide a worthwhile alternative. With quiet shorelines and mountain views, the circuit around the entire coast of Arran is an under-sung classic in any season, says Cecilia Mariani. 

It's not even 7.30pm and it's dark. The clouds run fast outside, blown away by a strong wind. I am about to start the last big walk of the season, right here in Scotland where my season started all those months ago. And I couldn't think of a better way to end it then discovering a new corner of this beautiful land that I once called home.

When I first heard about the Arran Coastal Way I didn't really know much about Arran. I knew I would walk all around the coast to complete a full circle of the island, land on the left, sea on the right. I also knew that we would reach the highest point of the island. What I didn't know was that I was about to discover an incredible place, rich in history and wildlife, another beautiful place that would steal my heart and make me wonder why I ever decided to leave this country. The team was of the highest quality, with me and colleague Seren working together for the first time to lead an incredibly keen and lovely group of friends from America.

Rainbow Island.  Goatfell framed by a rainbow from the ferry to Brodick.  © David Dear
Rainbow Island. Goatfell framed by a rainbow from the ferry to Brodick.
© David Dear, Aug 2013

Day 1 - Rain

Sannox to Lochranza 14.5km

The official starting point of the Arran Coastal Way is in Brodick, right beside the ferry terminal. But because we like to do things differently, we changed things around and started in Sannox, a short drive to the north. This way we would be keeping the best day for last: a climb to the top of the highest summit on the island to enjoy a 360° view of the route we would have just walked.

So Sannox Bay it was, and from there we went straight for the coast. It was quite an easy start to the walk, with a good path for most of the day and the weather showing us some mercy (not for long!). We soon found our rhythm, started to know each other a bit better and rolled into a flow that would accompany us for the whole trip. Right from the start we were able to appreciate one of the most distinctive features of Arran: its incredible and extremely intricate geology. Here sandstone and granite, schist and basalt meet to tell an old story, and it is right here that someone got the right idea about how old our planet really is. It is, in fact, by looking at some of these rocks and at the way they've been folded over time that geologist James Hutton realised that the Earth must have been way older than other "scientists" thought at the time, and it is here that he developed his Unconformity theory, which opened the door to a whole new way of seeing things.

Keep the land on one side and the sea on the other  © Cecilia Mariani
Keep the land on one side and the sea on the other
© Cecilia Mariani

As well as the geology, it was a day of firsts with regards to many other features common to the island, and that we would soon learn to become familiar with: the first of which is caves. Arran, due to its geological history, is full of caves such as Ossian Cave, where we could see old carvings including that of an old ship. The second of these features is boulder fields, the first of which we had to negotiate before the end of our day. Oh, and rain, I forgot about rain. There was a bit of that too on day one, a traditional Scottish welcome. 

Day 2 - Road

Lochranza to Machrie 22.5km

Day two started where we finished on the previous day, accompanied by the same wind and good views out past Lochranza and its castle. The path started climbing straight away, off the main road and inland this time, up a small track known as the Postman's Walk.

Lochranza  © Cecilia Mariani
© Cecilia Mariani

Whether the postman used this path to deliver his post to the nearby village of Catacol or he just walked along it for his own pleasure is unknown to me, either way I'm sure he loved it as much as we did. The views of the bay were superb from up there and we soon found ourselves clambering over trees, before steeply descending to the coast once again. Once we reached Catacol, the long road stretch began. But as far as roads go, this was a pretty good one to walk on. We only left it briefly just south of Pirnmill, to enjoy one of the most beautiful stretches of coast of the whole route (totally worth it!). Then on the road again, all the way to Machrie. Here we had just enough time to go and have a look at the standing stones of Machrie Moor. These gigantic stones were placed here thousands of years ago for religious purposes and are still standing to this day, a sight that made us feel very small.

Standing stones on Machrie Moor, Arran
© Mark Salter, Sep 2005

Day 3 - Caves

Machrie to Lagg 19km

We kicked off with one of the main attractions of our trip: King's Cave. One of the biggest on the island, this cave was formed during the last ice age, caused by the pressure of the ice and the consequent release of the rock underneath after it melted. King's Cave is famous for a number of reasons: it was used as a church and a school in the Nineteenth Century, but before that it was also shelter to one of the most famous characters in Scottish history: you guessed it, Robert the Bruce [he gets everywhere - Ed]. It's said that he once found shelter here and was inspired to continue fighting for Scotland by a very resilient spider who, against all odds, succeeded in building its web. Whether this story is true or not we don't know, but that's part of the fun.

Challenging walking at Drumadoon Point  © Cecilia Mariani
Challenging walking at Drumadoon Point
© Cecilia Mariani

After this and a beautiful beach walk into Blackwaterfoot, our own resilience was put to test by a very strenuous, rocky and boggy section of coast. We were concentrating so hard not to fall in a bog or slip and fall onto the rotten kelp that we completely forgot to stop and check out one of the best caves of the island, Preaching Cave! Not one of my finest guiding moments there. Despite this we had a good laugh and reached the end of the day tired but happy.

Day  4 - Summit

Brodick to Sannox via Goatfell 14km, 874m of ascent

On day four the sun was shining and the wind gods were strangely behaving too. Everything seemed to be aligned, so we decided to change things around to tackle the highest point on the island, for which we needed good weather. Goatfell, with its 874 metres, is the highest summit on Arran and offers stunning 360° views of the island, the mainland and sometimes even the Irish coast. Technically speaking not the hardest day of the trek, but it still requires hillwalking experience on rocky paths and exposed terrain.

Cir Mhor and Caisteal Abhail from Goat Fell  © Dan Bailey
Cir Mhor and Caisteal Abhail from Goat Fell
© Dan Bailey

The team were in good spirit. We started the day by walking from Brodick, along the shore and through the golf course, until we started the climb through the forest. It's a great path all the way to the top, hopping from one grippy granite boulder to another and with a very pleasant gradient. After only about three hours we got to the summit, just in time for the last clouds to clear, so we could enjoy a well deserved lunch with great views. After contemplating the horizon for a while we started our descent into Corrie, from which we then continued along the coast all the way to Sannox, where we had started on day one. This was supposed to be our last day, with which we would have closed the circle around the island. We were happy to swap it over, though, and make the most of the best weather window. For the bravest among us the day ended with a very cold dip in the sea, followed by some tasty mussels.

Day 5 - Tide

Lagg to Whiting Bay, 19km

Back on track, we returned to Lagg and started walking again towards the coast. Day five was a tricky one, as we had to time our walk to get to the half point before high tide, or we would be cut off. We picked up the same boggy and rocky ground that we had left behind on day three, but we didn't forget to visit our cave for the day this time! Black Cave is the biggest on Arran and very impressive, with the water getting all the way in at high tide, even though the roof fell down at some point many years ago and it's now much smaller than it used to be. After Black Cave and a short section of tricky boulder scrambling, the path becomes much easier until it reaches the road in Kildonan. From here we opted for the inland route through a recently felled spruce forest, which took us all the way to Whiting Bay.

The Firth of Clyde is your constant companion as you circumnavigate the island  © Cecilia Mariani
The Firth of Clyde is your constant companion as you circumnavigate the island
© Cecilia Mariani

Day 6 - Rainbows

Whiting Bay to Brodick, 19km

We started our journey in the rain and we finished it in the rain, which is fair enough if you consider that every other day was sunny. From Whiting Bay we went back inland and into the forest to the Glenashdale Falls, the tallest waterfall on the island at 45 metres. After this it was an easy gravel road all the way to Lamlash, where we had lunch by the shore, dodging showers like ninjas.

The last stretch of the day was again along the coast. We walked past the first No Take Zone of the island, between Lamlash, Clauchands Point and Holy Island, where any kind of fishing, both commercial and recreational, is forbidden in order to protect wildlife and biodiversity in the bay. From Cluachlands Point we climbed to the last little summit of our trip, to observe the Brodick Bay from above and admire some of the most amazing rainbows that were briefly appearing between rain showers. Then down the other side, back to the road and into Brodick, the end of our loop.

The end

I had never thought of visiting Arran before, but now that I have I would happily go back for more. There's so much to see for such a small place, so much history, geology and wildlife. They call it Scotland in miniature, and you can really see the whole of Scotland there, on a much smaller scale. Sometimes people think that a guide is always on holiday, because my job takes me to the most beautiful places. It's not always like that, but I have to say that week felt more like a holiday than work. If you have not yet been then do visit the Isle of Arran, you won't be disappointed!

With woodland, shoreline and mountains, it's a varied route that reflects Arran's varied geography  © Cecilia Mariani
With woodland, shoreline and mountains, it's a varied route that reflects Arran's varied geography
© Cecilia Mariani

About the walk

The Arran Coastal Way is not the hardest long distance trail in Scotland. The elevation gain is minimal on most days, apart from the Goatfell day of course. It is not to be underestimated, though, as it goes through some pretty technical rocky terrain. The path is not always obvious, and although navigation is pretty easy (keep the sea to your right, or to your left, depending on the direction of travel), it might take some skills to choose the best route. It is recommended to have some hillwalking and navigation skills.

Accommodation and logistics

In terms of accommodation, we stayed in the same place in Brodick for the whole week and moved around in a van. It is possible to plan the trip according to accommodation, walk the route in a linear way, and stop somewhere different each night. Otherwise, it's possible to stay in the same place and move around with public transport to the start of each day.

The bus service is pretty good on the island, or it's possible to contact one of Arran's taxi companies. Arran can easily be reached from Grasgow with a short train ride to Ardrossan ferry terminal and then a quick ferry crossing to Brodick. 

Signs of Arran's long human history are everywhere  © Cecilia Mariani
Signs of Arran's long human history are everywhere
© Cecilia Mariani

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