"Haste ye back," beckoned a sign at the car ferry terminal at Ardrossan on Scotland's western coast as the boat eased up to the dock after crossing from the Isle of Arran.
I told myself I'd heed the invitation.
It was July and I'd been distillery-hopping on Scottish islands. After two days on Arran, the largest of the Firth of Clyde islands, I had followed the whiskey trail to Islay and Jura in the southern Inner Hebrides. I'd chosen to return to Arran to further explore its heather-blanketed glens, peaceful harbors and picturesque villages.
My trip had begun in Glasgow, where I picked up a midsized car at the airport and drove the 38 miles to Ardrossan. From there, ferry service to Brodick, Arran's main port and largest town, is frequent. I'd booked ahead, as advised by the Caledonian MacBrayne line. Good advice: The boat appeared to be nearly full.
The ferry was big, clean and comfortable. I settled into a seat in the nonsmoking lounge with a cup of good Arran Dairy ice cream and my guidebook, and in 55 minutes we were docking.
My heart sank at my first glimpse of Brodick. It's not a place of great charm. Gazing on a row of bygone-era seashore hotels and boarding houses, I thought of one of those vintage English movies set in some dreary seaside holiday resort.
But I had a distinct attitude adjustment upon reaching the Kilmichael Country House Hotel, which occupies a bucolic bit of real estate on the edge of town. It's like staying at a private home, which it is, except from Easter through October, when the two owners — one of whom is the chef — open it to guests.
Checking into Dovecote, a beautifully appointed garden room in a wing that once was the estate's stables, I found fruit and flowers, tea fixings on a tray with bone china cups, a map, a guidebook and "The Complete Illustrated Poems, Songs and Ballads of Robert Burns." When I opened my door, a resident peacock poked its head in.
The next morning, breakfast in the sunny dining room fortified me for sightseeing. The menu promised eggs from the hotel's own ducks — "if the ladies oblige" (they did) — as well as tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages and, yes, haggis, which I pushed discreetly to one side of my Spode Blue Willow plate.
Arran, population 5,000, is just 20 miles long and 56 miles around, and the narrow, sometimes bumpy A841, the main "highway," hugs the coastline for most of those 56 miles, passing through villages filled with whitewashed cottages, guest houses, tearooms and pubs.
The island has two other roads, one narrow and one narrower. The aptly named String Road, which runs east-west, cuts through largely unpopulated territory of undulating green hills, vast vistas and pastures where black-faced sheep graze. Ross Road connects Lamlash in the east with Lagg on the wilder western shore. It carries two-way traffic, but it's about 9 feet wide — 3 feet shy of the California standard for a single lane with one-way traffic — and nine tortuous miles long. When a gas station attendant in Blackwaterfoot told me he wouldn't drive it, "especially not for pleasure," I passed.
Although it's possible to drive around the island in three hours, I spent parts of four days, making myriad stops, retracing my steps when something or someplace intrigued me. I had no set agenda, so I just poked along, listening to the BBC, where debate over a ban on fox hunting — which took effect in February — was given major air time.
Tourism is the No. 1 industry, and although "excitement" isn't a word I would associate with Arran, there is plenty to do, especially for outdoor types: golf courses, paragliding, hunting and fishing, horseback riding, cycling and climbing. Walking is a local passion; drivers share the road with stouthearted hikers wielding walking sticks.
The less athletically inclined can visit Isle of Arran Distillers, the Arran Chocolate Factory, Arran Aromatics (which makes bath and body products), Arran Fine Foods (purveyor of mustard, jams and jellies), or Arran Brewery, or watch cheese being made at Torrylinn Creamery. Arran's cottage industries have multiplied in lockstep with the increase in tourism.
But it was the wide-open spaces inland, the coastal villages and centuries-old churches that beckoned me. I can't resist an old graveyard, and at St. Bride's church in Lochranza, I found a poignant headstone that spoke to the hardships of life on Arran in an earlier time, when fishing for herring was the main livelihood. It was erected by Isabella Blue, in memory of her husband and four children — a daughter who died at age 10, a son at age 35 and two sons who drowned in the Sound of Mull.
Arran promotes itself as "Scotland in Miniature," largely because of its diverse geography. The Highland Boundary Fault bisects the island, dividing rugged highlands from the more populated, gentler lowlands with their sandy beaches. Kildonan and Pirnmill have two of the best beaches. For skinny-dipping, there is a nudists' beach near Lagg. You won't find miles-long sandy beaches, but there are beaches with tide pools and beaches on picturesque bays.
The Vikings left their mark on Arran. Local place names may be Norse — Goatfell, Sliddery, Lochranza — or Gaelic — Kilmory, Lagg, Lamlash. Locals sprinkle their conversation with English and Scottish words, such as dreich, which means dismal, as in the weather (and there is that here).
My first foray was to Lochranza, 15 miles north of Brodick on A841. The village is home to Isle of Arran Distillers, which opened in 1995, reviving whiskey-making more than 150 years after the island's last legal distilleries closed.
It's not as though whiskey-making had dried up during that time. Residents delight in telling tales of illicit stills producing "Arran water" and of schemes for foiling pesky tax collectors, or excisemen. One such ruse is said to have taken place at the Lagg Hotel, a 1791 coaching house still receiving guests in the village of Kilmory. As the story goes, the bootlegger's brother persuaded the exciseman to join him in a wee dram at the Lagg bar, giving the guilty party's co-conspirators time to empty the contraband whiskey into washtubs and fill the kegs with saltwater.
Except during January and February, the distillery offers tours from its visitor center, where an exhibit commemorating a 1997 visit by Queen Elizabeth II includes a thank-you, written on letterhead from the royal yacht Britannia, for a gift of 50-year-old single malt.
Having taken the tour and a wee sip of whiskey, I drove on to the ruins of Lochranza Castle, which probably dates to the 16th century and sits dramatically on a spit of land. It's mentioned in a novel by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote of "fair Lochranza." Just beyond, on the far shore, I spotted a group of red deer. (Their population, it's said, is second only to Arran's human population.) Arran abounds in wildlife and marine life — seals and dolphins frolic offshore — and is a bird-watchers' Valhalla.
Arran has 11 main villages, most of which are along the coast, and village loyalties are strong. At the annual Hope Cup golf tournament, won last year for the first time in 70 years by the team from the sweet village of Corrie on the eastern shore, one member postponed his wedding for two days to avoid letting his mates down.
An expatriate American I met perhaps best summed up the pace of life on Arran: "Two sheep and three deer is a traffic jam." True, she added, it can be a challenge to negotiate the narrow, winding roads while remembering to drive on the left, "but it doesn't really matter because everyone just drives in the middle." (Road signs actually alert drivers to that fact.)
One day, starting out again from my base in Brodick, I drove the 1 1/2 miles to Brodick Castle, once the ancient seat of the Dukes of Hamilton. Since 1957, the National Trust for Scotland has owned the castle, parts of which date to the 13th century. The castle contains some fine paintings, antiques, porcelain and silver, but the pièces de résistance are the walled garden and country park, with woodland trails leading to waterfalls and wildflower meadows.
In the spring, the garden's spectacular collection of rhododendrons is in full bloom. (The flowers, introduced long ago by a resident duchess, are not native to Arran, and one species, Rhododendron pontificum, has become a nuisance on the island, where "rhoddie bashing" is encouraged.) The castle complex, open from April to October, includes a gift shop and, in the former servants' hall, a self-service restaurant with a garden terrace where local fare may include wild boar sausages or haggis and oatcakes. (On a lunchtime visit, I chose "leaves," that is, salad.)
Leaving the castle, I continued north through Corrie and Mid Sannox to Lochranza; just outside, A841 turned into a tailpipe-scraping roller coaster on the way to Catacol, which is home to the "Twelve Apostles." The row of identical white cottages was built in 1863 to house farming families uprooted in one of the Clearances. By order of the 10th Duke of Hamilton, beginning in the 18th century small inland farms were cleared and occupants sometimes brutally evicted to make way for sheep farming, a more profitable venture.
This doomed the communal settlements called clachans and traditional farming, wherein families drew lots each year to determine which lands they would cultivate, assuring that no one always had the greenest pastures.
To entice the newly dispossessed farmers to resettle in Canada, the duke promised them half their fares and 100 acres of land per family near Quebec, but not all chose to leave. (Visitors can learn more about the Clearances at the fine little Isle of Arran Heritage Museum on the northern edge of Brodick. The complex includes a "smiddy," or blacksmith's shop, and a shoeing shed on the site of an 18th century schoolhouse where students paid a penny a day, plus peat for heating, as tuition. There's also a re-creation of an early 20th century cottage where, pre-TV, neighbors might have gathered for a ceilidh, an evening of fiddle music and storytelling.)
My next stop was the village of Pirnmill on the western shore. It's named for a mill that once made wooden bobbins, or pirns, for a mainland cotton mill. It was cold and drizzly, and I stopped at the Lighthouse restaurant, a local favorite, where I had a hot and hearty soup of leek and potatoes.
Back on the road, I drove a long, sparsely populated stretch to Machrie, home of Machrie Moor. There, a well-marked walking path leads to one of Arran's A-plus attractions, the Bronze Age stone circles and standing stones, the tallest of which is 18 feet. It's sort of a mini Stonehenge, a link to the island's Celtic culture. It was raining the day I was there, and a hike of almost two miles to and fro over the moor wasn't very appealing.
In nearby Blackwaterfoot is King's Cave, where, lore has it, in the 14th century a battle-weary Robert the Bruce drew inspiration to carry on from watching a tenacious spider struggling against odds to spin its web. His later military successes culminated in Scotland's winning independence from England and his becoming king.
Farther along, in Kilmory at the island's southern tip, I was photographing a quaint pitched-roof cottage when its occupant emerged. The cottage was tucked away behind a gated garden across from the old church. Sarah introduced herself and told me that her home, once the parsonage, had been built in 1690 and that it was the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland. (The story may be apocryphal, although some reference books concur.) I would save exploration of the territory south of Brodick on the eastern shore for later, on my return from visiting distilleries on other islands. I left from Lochranza, where an 18-passenger ferry makes the 30-minute crossing to Claonaig on the Kintyre Peninsula; there, another ferry connects to Islay. Boarding is first come, first served, and although I was at the head of the line, I was bumped to accommodate a huge truck and a tour bus. That meant an hour's wait, but time is relative on Arran, where, as one resident explained, " 'Now' may mean tomorrow or next year."
Returning four days later to Arran, I popped into the office of the weekly newspaper in Brodick, the Arran Banner, and chatted with staffer Jenni Turnbull about local issues. She mentioned concerns about supermarkets forcing out mom-and-pop stores and the sharp decline in dairy farming. But, she said, "we're a very affluent island, close to the Scottish mainland, with a very robust tourist industry" (about 240,000 annual visitors, including Britons seeking someplace less glitzy than Spain's Costa Brava).
The gem of the eastern shore is Lamlash, four miles south of Brodick, with its Edwardian architecture and village green. Here, in 1829, a minister preached a farewell sermon to the first 12 of the hundreds of Clearance-displaced families sailing for Canada. Offshore sits the Holy Island, once the site of a Christian monastery and now home to a Buddhist center. It can be reached by ferry.
A few miles farther south in Whiting Bay, behind the counter of the little Bay Stores, I found Rhidian and Lori Grant, 38 and 45, respectively, who'd just moved from Mount Vernon, Wash., in search of "the good life," leaving behind good jobs — she was a microbiologist, he an engineer. Rhidian, who's called Rudy, explained: "We wanted to do something completely different in a completely different area."
They didn't just pluck Arran from the pages of an atlas. Rudy had lived on the island until he was 13, when his family moved to England. His parents — Robert, a Scot, and Mary, who's English — divorced, reconciled after 22 years, remarried, settled on Arran and six years ago bought the store.
Gazing out the window of the store, Rudy, who had daily commutes of up to two hours in Washington state, said: "The busiest day of the year, I can cross that road without looking. There's maybe two cars passing every five minutes."
As we talked, Stuart Robertson, an islander of "90 plus" years, came in to buy digestives and "fairy cake," an iced confection that the Grants did not have but promised to stock. When asked, Robertson grumbled about progress on the island: "Too many strangers."
Soon, Fiona Rodriguez stopped in with her young son and daughter. She'd grown up on mainland Scotland and had vacationed on Arran as a child. Now a divorced single mother, she had just relocated here from Vancouver, Canada, after 23 years away from Scotland, seeking a wholesome environment for her children.
She was astonished to see a pram — infant inside — parked, unwatched, outside the store. "In Vancouver, your baby would be gone."
Kildonan, at Arran's southeastern tip, has the ruins of a castle and a rocky shore on which many a ship has met its fate. I spent my last two nights at the pleasant, homey Kildonan Hotel, one of Arran's oldest, dating from before 1800. The hotel provides binoculars for guests who want to watch the seals just offshore.
On my last night, I raised a glass in toast to new friends in the hotel's popular pub as, to guitar accompaniment, everyone sang a spirited rendition of John Denver's "Annie's Song." It was a nice ending note.
Recommended for the Arran itinerary
From LAX, direct service (stop, no change of plane) to Glasgow is available on Continental; connecting service (change of plane) is offered on American, Aer Lingus, British, Continental, KLM and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $836. From Glasgow, it's a 38-mile drive to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan. There also is a train from Glasgow Central station timed to ferry departures. Round-trip fare, Ardrossan-Brodick, in peak season, is $97 per car, plus $16 for each passenger. Information: Caledonian MacBrayne, 011-44-8705-650-000, http://www.calmac.co.uk .
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for Britain) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Kilmichael Country House Hotel, Glen Cloy, Brodick; 1770-302-219, http://www.kilmichael.com . The historic property includes exquisite public rooms and accommodations in a garden setting. Open Easter through October. Doubles from about $272, including full breakfast. Four-course dinner, by reservation, about $71 per person.
Kildonan Hotel, Kildonan; 1770-820-207. http://www.kildonanhotel.com . Inviting seafront hotel with newly refurbished rooms. Doubles from about $137, including full breakfast. Popular pub with live music and view restaurant, with dinner entrees about $13-$39. Open year-round.
Auchrannie House Hotel & Spa Resort, Brodick; 1770-302-234, http://www.auchrannie.co.uk . Something for everyone, including self-catering lodges. Indoor pool and tennis, a fitness center, three dining options. Doubles, room only, at newer spa resort from $105; in Victorian-era hotel from $170, including breakfast. Open year-round.
WHERE TO EAT:
Lagg Hotel, Kilmory; 1770-870-255. The ambience at this circa-1791 coaching inn includes Scotch-plaid carpeting and an oak-beamed bar. Dinner entrees in bar $15-$25; in dining room $19-$29. Open Easter-October.
Ormidale Hotel, Brodick; 1770-302-293, http://www.ormidale-hotel.co.uk . Meet the locals at this lively bar and restaurant, which serves large and small meals and a variety of beers and whiskeys. Open Easter through September. Dinner entrees $11-$26.
Lighthouse restaurant, Pirnmill; 1770-850-240. The casual seafront spot is known for its homemade scones and meringues. Open Easter to October. Dinner entrees about $11-$23.
Eagle's Nest, Isle of Arran Distillers in the Lochranza visitors center, 1770-830-264, http://www.arranwhisky.com . This attractive restaurant serves lunch and dinner. Main courses at dinner $17-$48.