For an island so small there is a surprising amount of things to do in Arran. When I say small, I mean small compared to the mainland, it’s a lot bigger than many of its neighbouring islands but still has the relaxed and slow paced vibe going on that I love. With a population of only 5000 it’s a close knit community, locals are friendly and no one is in a hurry - ever. Every time I think of Arran it puts a smile on my face.
The Isle of Arran is my favourite island so far. It feels less remote than islands further up north although it isn’t any busier. I’m guessing it feels like that because of the Highland boundary line which passes through its centre. The south of the island is green and plush with forest and flowers and cute little settlements whereas the north is very much like the Highlands of Scotland, dramatic, wild and breathtakingly beautiful.
I’ve rounded up a list of things to do in Arran, from mountains and castles to forests and beaches. I encourage you though to use it as a rough guide and instead land on the island, take a deep breath and feel the stress melt away as you reset your body clock to “island time”. Go without a firm plan and see where the road takes you....
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How to get to Arran
Arran is one of the easiest islands to visit. The ferry leaves from Ardrossan on the Ayrshire coast and the ferry to Arran takes approximately 55 minutes. The Calmac Isle of Arran ferry has all the amenities you'll need such as a small shop, cafe, restaurant, designated pet areas, wifi and outside and inside seating. If you are bringing your own car it's advised you book tickets in advance. As with all the ferries to the islands timings can change due to the weather so I recommend checking the Calmac website the day/evening before if the weather has been bad.
The drive from Glasgow to Ardrossan takes 50 minutes (30 miles). If you'd prefer to take the train there is a direct train from Glasgow Central to Ardrossan Harbour and you can also buy a 'Rail and Sail' pass, giving you one ticket for both the train and ferry with no need to book in advance and it works out quite a bit cheaper.
There is also a summer Calmac ferry from Claonaig in the Kintyre Peninsula to Lochranza in the north of the island, in the winter the ferry leaves from Tarbert. There is no need to buy a ticket in advance, just turn up and wait for the next ferry with spaces.
Buses travel from Glasgow to Ardrossan and there is also a service on Arran covering the north, south and string road which connects the east and west of the island.
Best time to visit Arran
You might already be aware, but Scottish weather can be wildly unpredictable. If you are visiting Scotland I would usually recommend visiting in the shoulder months April, May, September and October when the roads, attractions and public transport are quieter and less stressful. Arran though doesn't tend to get overly busy so summer would be the perfect time to go. Come prepared no matter when you visit though because there is no way of telling what the weather will be like. We are very unlikely to get snow in the summer or t-shirt weather in the winter but that, I'm afraid, is about as predictable as it gets. There will be more open during the summer months, the ferries and bus times will be more regular although accommodation will fill up faster so better to book well in advance.
Isle of Arran Accommodation
I found the prices for places to stay in Arran quite reasonable, we stayed in the beautiful Lochside Arran and had an amazing stay whilst discovering all the amazing things to do in Arran. The elderly couple who ran it couldn't have been more attentive and in the evening we sat in front of a roaring fire and were brought a tea trolley with oatcakes and Arran cheese, homemade cakes and a huge pot of tea. The owners spent ages chatting away to my daughter about photography and birds and Taylor loved getting up at the crack of dawn to see the resident swans in the garden (massive) pond. I've recently found out the B+B has now been taken over by another couple and they are no longer dog friendly so we, sadly, won't be able to stay there again.
There are many options if you're looking for accommodation in Arran. In Lamlash there are is the gorgeous Arran Lodge and Arran Sleeping Huts which are like cabins, which are not only modern and comfortable but also reasonably priced. If you would rather stay in a hotel The Glenisle Hotel, also in Lamlash, has amazing decor and a really good reputation.
Of course you could splash out and stay at Auchrannie where there is so much to do you don't even need to leave.
If you are on a budget the Lochranza Youth Hostel sits right on the banks of Loch Ranza, these youth hostels always find the best locations!
Places to eat in Arran
While we were in Arran we ate at the cute and quirky Janie's near Brodick, Little Rock in Brodick (which do the best milkshakes and hot chocolates I've ever tasted), the pretty Cafe Thyme and the delicious Stags Pavilion. I can highly recommend each of these but there are loads of restaurants in Arran to choose from, whichever cuisine you fancy. Locals are proud of their food in Arran and you can enjoy traditional Scottish meals in most of the restaurants. There are also many tearooms and cafes. Most of the restaurants are centred around the main villages of Brodick, Lamlash, Lochinver and Whiting Bay, but you'll often spot somewhere nice as you drive around the island. Somewhere you must stop is the Isle of Arran Cheese Shop. Established in 1991 this fantastic cheese comes in a range of flavours and be surprised if you hadn't spotted it on your travels around Scotland before coming to Arran as it's for sale all over the country. Nothing beats seeing where it is made though, especially as the shop is on the same land as the dairy which served the Dukes and Duchesses of Brodick Castle for centuries. Yes, it was on my tea trolley at the B+B.
Shopping in Arran
Arran is not the place to go if you want to shop, there aren't any big names or designer brands. What there is though is many cute little independant shops, with local owners who are passionate about their crafts. You can buy locally produced gifts, pottery, jewellery, art work and food. Arran Aromatics pop up in many of the hotels I've stayed at and they are based on the island selling amazing smelling candles and aromas. The Old Byre Showroom is situated next to Cafe Thyme and sells quality knitwear, you know, if you fancy an Arran sweater.
Guided tour of Arran
Below are a few tours I would definitely recommend doing. They leave from Glasgow or Edinburgh and are run by locals who really know their stuff
Castles in Arran
Perched on a gravel spit, jutting out into Loch Ranza this castle is pretty photogenic. It was originally built in the 1200’s by the MacSweens at a time when the whole of the Western seaboard was being fought over and the Norsemen took ownership in parts. It was built as a Hall House before ownership was given to the Stewarts. The castle was gradually changed the L-plan tower house you can see today. Now in the hands of Historic Scotland it’s free to enter and can be found in the north of the island.
One of the most popular things to do in Arran. This opulent baronial Castle is in the main town of Brodick. Despite the grandeur of the building today it’s had a daily turbulent past, having been damaged by not only the Campbells and the MacLeans during the clan battles in 1528 but also by also by Henry VIII’s forces in 1544. Having been rebuilt, repaired and extended over the years it’s now more of a grand stately home, having had a massive “makeover” since 1844. There is many things to see inside the castle so it’s worth taking a tour. The castle is now under the care of the National Trust for Scotland; prices at £7.50 for adults and £19 for families.
Entry - Adult £7.50, family £19.00
Walks in Arran
This is the highest point on Arran and if you want to climb this is the mountain for you. It’s actually a Corbett at 2,866 and there are several routes up. You can leave from the most popular starting point near the above mentioned Brodick Castle, or take an alternative route leaving from the village of Corrie or from the north via the Cioch na h-Oighe ridge. It’s said you can see all the way to Ireland from the summit on a clear day. I’ll take their word for it.
Eas a’ Chrannaig in Gaelic, Glenashdale Falls are magnificent. They are a series of two huge thundering waterfalls with a combined height of 45 metres with a cleverly situated viewing platform which juts out over the water. The best way to see the Falls is to walk the 3 mile circular route which begins just south of Ashdale Bridge in Whiting Bay. The walk offers some stunning views and also takes in the Giant’s Graves. These two Neolithic chambered cairns that are in ruins now but still fascinating. It’s quite the climb though and there are many, many, many (!) steps so be prepared. Worth it for the views? Definitely
Have you heard the story of King Robert the Bruce and the spider? He was forced to flee the English army after being defeated and escaped to a cave in Arran. While he was there, deeply depressed, he watched as a spider made a web, repeatedly falling and starting again. When the spider eventually succeeded he was inspired and rallied up his men, telling them “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again. You can walk to the cave, it’s a circular route, almost 3 miles long. Just north of Blackwaterfoot it’s signposted and you can park in the forestry car park. From here it’s a nice walk through the forest, eventually reaching a clear section with fantastic views. It gets steep and slightly precarious when you reach the coast where you’ll find a series of caves. You’ll not miss the King’s cave as it has iron bars at the entrance.
The Arran Coastal Way
One of Scotland's Great Trails this route circles the island, covering 65 miles. The path is well marked and there are sections to suit every ability. You could just choose small sections if you fancy a walk or tackle the full route over a week if you are feeling adventurous, you even get a certficate at the end if you pop into the Douglas Hotel in Brodick. You can complete the Arran Coastal Way with or without climbing Goatfell. You will pass through 12 villages where there are facilites, cafes and accommodation.
Beaches in Arran
There are so many things to do in Arran that it's always nice to take yourself off to a beach and relax for a few hours. In the very south of the island, looking out to Ailsa Craig, Kildonan Beach is picture perfect and one of my all time favourites. When we visited it was a beautiful but chilly day in January and the beach still looked stunning. There is also a castle, the island’s third point of defence after Lochranza and Brodick, although unlike the other two this one is a ruin and unsafe to get close to, oh and it’s also in someone’s garden! It would be a massive shame to miss this beach if you are looking for things to do in Arran, just make sure you don’t miss the turn off from the main road, it’s not easy to spot but definitely worth the hunt. Sannox Beach, a few miles north of Brodick, is small and pretty secluded as it's surrounded by little sand dunes and amazing mountain vistas. Another beach worth a visit is Pirnmill Beach, a long stretch of beach in the north west of the island, it's especially nice if there is a nice sunset!
History in Arran
Machie Moor Stone Circles
Machie Moor is a popular place to visit in Arran. This site is incredible. Not one, not two, but seven stone circles! As well as many more prehistoric things to see such as burial cairns, standing stones, hut circles, monuments and cists. In the west of the island, around half way down the island, just north of Blackwaterfoot the site at Machie Moor is thought to be at least 4500 years old. It's fascinating to think people lived here in huts, and erected the stones for their religious activities. You can see some of the huts, or at least the foundations, on this vast flat area.
Isle of Arran Heritage Museum
To find out more about the history of the island and about how the people lived you can visit the Heritage Museum. This really is a gem and surprisingly for being an island museum, packed full of well organised things to see and do.
Entry - Adults £4.00, family £9.00
The Sailor’s Grave
Between Lochranza and Catacol you can pay your respects at the Sailor’s grave on the side of the road. In 1854 a sailor died aboard a ship and the crew wanted to bury him in Lochranza. The locals thought it bad luck to bury a sailor in their church yard and the locals in Catacol thought the same so they comprised by allowing the crew to bury the sailor by the road halfway between the two places. You’ll see lots of pebbles, it’s became custom to leave a pebble in remembrance.
St Molios Church
This ‘red church’ is thought to be named after Molios, a hermit who lived in a cave on the Holy Isle. Born around 570AD he had royal blood but chose instead to pursue a pastarol career. When he died his body was buried at Clachan Church. The effigy of the monk was moved to the present church in 1889 and can be seen on the wall outside, albeit with a transparent screen built around it to protect it. Inside the church the dark wood ceiling and pews, and deep red alter carpet, carvings and Romanesque window arches makes this a very pretty church to visit.
More things to do in Arran
If you want a little slice of luxury you can stay at Auchrannie, a large and luxurious hotel complex with a swimming pool, sauna, spa, sanatorium and steam rooms. It’s dog friendly too so you can bring the pup. It’s brilliant for kids with lots of sports available, a play barn, fun in the pool, bike hire and safaris. There are lots of accommodation option including spa rooms, house hotel rooms and stunning wooden lodges.
Isle of Arran Distillery
You can’t visit an island without sampling the local whisky and this is a beauty of a distillery. In the north of the island, near Lochranza, the surrounding scenery is stunning. The water used to create the whisky tumbles down from the mountains to Loch na Davie and the whisky is made traditionally, the old fashioned way, before being stored in oak bourbon and sherry casks. I loved our tour of the distillery, almost as much as I loved the ample samples afterwards!
Tours begin at (Adults) £8.00 for a distillery tour, other tours are available
Lochranza Golf Course
Just across the road from the Distillery, this golf course doesn’t require booking, just turn up, pay and play. It has to have won some kind of award for the best scenic golf course because this area is just breathtaking. Lying in a National Scenic Area and Site of Importance for National Conservation don’t be surprised if you spot a family of deer or red squirrels. We had a lovely time watching the deer dart in and out of the trees. You may even catch glimpse of another of Arran’s ‘big 5’, the Golden Eagle. This course is one of 7 on the island and you can buy an Arran golf pass (£110 at time of writing) and play all 7 for fairly cheap. The other courses are in Brodick, Corrie, Lamlash, Machrie, Shiskine and Whiting Bay.
The Holy Isle
Although technically not one of the things to do in Arran it's worth mentioning. If you are visiting Arran for a few days this makes an excellent day trip. You can visit the Holy Isle by taking the small ferry from Lamlash Pier which only takes 10 minutes. Most of the time you'll be greeted by a volunteer how will take you through the history of the island and tell you all about the retreat. If you want to spend a few days, a week or even longer on the island you can volunteer to help at the centre, or take part in one of the courses on offer. The retreat offers courses in Buddism, Meditation, Yoga and Mindfulness, bringing experts in the teach from across the world. The Centre for World Peace and Health is run by Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddist and Meditation Master. Be sure to check the ferry times to make sure of return times, ferries can be cancelled at short notice due to weather, contact details can be found here
Ferry from Lamlash £12.0 open return
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I love Arran and I hope that when you visit you do to. Or have you been to Arran? Do you have any tips? Let me know in the comments below.