With its rugged mountains, lush glens and windswept islands, Scotland is a utopia for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Despite my background in geography, I have little desire to venture overseas as my constant thirst for landscape photography, coastal walking, island hopping, cycling and camping is quenched within these shores. Scotland has over 790 islands scattered around its 10,250 mile (16,500 kilometre) coastline, but only one of these has acquired the nickname ‘Scotland in Miniature’; the Isle of Arran.
My family photograph albums reveal that my childhood had a fairly ordinary start, with a week-long Scottish self-catering holiday once a year, interspersed with local day trips and walks in the Perthshire hills. That all changed shortly before my fourth birthday, when my parents purchased their first touring caravan in 1989. My childhood was transformed into an endless succession of caravanning trips at weekends and during school holidays, and a treasure trove of immensely happy memories. I’ll be eternally grateful for growing up in a time before childhood became plagued by social media, virtual reality, short attention spans and nature deficit disorder. Nearly thirty years on, I’ve gradually come to the realisation that re-discovering the sense of freedom I felt growing up in the 1980s and ’90s has become my mission in my adult life.
During the summer months, my family would sometimes find itself away from home for up to three weeks at a time. For some, the thought of sharing a confined space with three other people for the best part of a month no doubt sounds like punishment. For me, it was paradise. I formed very close relationships with my parents and brother, and I enjoyed a healthy, active childhood getting to know Scotland like the back of my hand, laying a foundation for the outdoor pursuits which inspire me today.
On arriving home to Perth from each caravanning trip, my dad and I would insert a drawing pin into the large map of Scotland hanging in my bedroom. By the time it came to redecorate in my early teens, the wall was peppered with holes showing the outline of Scotland. Most of the places I formed life-long attachments with were in Perthshire and the Highlands but there was one island south of the Central Belt that also stole my heart; the Isle of Arran.
Arran is Scotland’s seventh largest island and is situated in the Firth of Clyde, to the east of the Kintyre peninsula, to the south of the Cowal peninsula, and to the west of the Ayrshire coast; only 43 miles (69 kilometres) from the centre of Glasgow as the crow flies. At 167 square miles (432 square kilometres) in area, Arran is large enough to offer huge scope for outdoor adventures but is small enough to explore during a week’s holiday.
The main settlement, Brodick, is home to a good selection of shops and restaurants lining the bay; magnificent views towards the island’s highest mountain, Goatfell; and the terminal for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry which connects Arran to the Ayrshire town of Ardrossan. The island’s road network resembles a figure of eight, with a mainly low-lying coastal road following the circumference of Arran, linking charming villages such as Lochranza, Corrie and Lamlash; and with a more elevated single-track road traversing the island’s interior between Blackwaterfoot and Brodick. The island is home to one of Scotland’s Great Trails, the Arran Coastal Way; a 68 mile (109km) scenic walking route circumnavigating the island.
Some of my earliest memories were formed here, aged three, just months before a caravan became a permanent feature in my childhood. Our only holiday in 1989 (self-catering in a quiet residential street in Brodick) made quite an impression on me, with the most memorable moment being posing for a photograph alongside my dad and brother on the windswept summit of Goatfell. At 2,866 feet (874 metres), Goatfell is a Corbett as opposed to a Munro, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for in grandeur, with its dramatic close-range views towards the rugged profile of Cir Mhòr and the Witch’s Step, and the more serene long-range panorama south towards Holy Island, the Ayrshire coast and Ailsa Craig beyond.
I returned to Arran a number of times over the years, with my parents in our caravan and later with my husband in our tent, but the summit of Goatfell was to elude me for decades. In 2015, a few years after the end of my caravanning days, I found myself on Arran self-catering with my husband at Shiskine, celebrating my thirtieth birthday. To mark this milestone, we climbed Goatfell and re-visited the scene of that early memory. Other highlights included hiking to the highest point on Holy Island, Mullach Mòr (1,030 ft / 314m), and a lung and leg bursting 55-mile (88-kilometre) cycle around the perimeter of Arran in a single day.
More recently, in the middle of an exhausting few months at work, I sat down to dinner one Sunday evening, flicked on the TV and stumbled across a short feature on the Isle of Arran. Within moments, I was transported on to the deck of the MV Caledonian Isles, bound for Brodick with the unmistakable profile of Goatfell above the glistening bay. Tears sprang to my eyes as I reflected on my life-long love for this place.
In the limited free time I have nowadays, I divide my loyalties between re-visiting old haunts and discovering new places. For a few years now, I’ve set myself the goal of ‘bagging’ at least one Scottish island every year; a passion which I hope will continue for decades to come. I’ve explored many locations with which I have no childhood associations and have encountered some stunning scenery along the way, but the place names don’t stick so well in my memory and my heart doesn’t ache with a longing to return. My emotions run so much deeper in the places I connected with before adulthood.
The spectacular west coast of Scotland often remains out of mind and out of reach nowadays, simply due to a lack of time and the relentless pressures of earning a living and running a home. Arran, however, is never too far from my thoughts. Every time I visit my parents’ house in Perth and relax on their couch drinking coffee, my eye drifts above the TV screen to a framed painting of Goatfell standing proud above Brodick Bay. Somehow, a love of a place means even more when it is shared with the people we love the most.
See the Walkhighlands guide to Arran for information on visiting.