Arran: notes from a Scottish isle

© David Rae

The Isle of Arran, a kidney-bean shaped island off the west coast of Scotland, is a perfect introduction to Scotland, offering an introduction to the ways and whims of island life as well as a taste of the raw beauty of the western isles.

The largest island in the Firth of Clyde, Arran is easily accessible via ferry from Ardrossan in North Ayrshire (around £100 return with car; or just a tenner if you only take your bike).

The island is known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ because it has a mountainous northern area and a relatively rolling, luscious southern half, similar to the mainland itself. But everything else about the island tends to back up its nickname – it has its own micro-distillery, its mountains are big but not Nevis-like and while lochs are to be found they are small in both number and size.

The most obvious challenge to take on while on the island is Le Tour de Arran, a 55-mile loop of the island which involves 2,800ft of climbing and some stupefying views. The odd thing is, that while the north of the island is mountainous, the roads of the south are far more lumpy and energy sapping.

The views, however, more than make up for that – expect crashing waves, seals, red squirrels (one ran across my path during this ride, which is surely even luckier than a black cat), basking sharks, highland cows, golden eagles…

A reasonably common outing for Glasgow-based cycling clubs is to ride to Arran, complete the loop and ride back in a day. However, while the loop is certainly the most obvious challenge, there are two other roads of note – the String road and the Ross road. The former links the west coast with the east and has the island’s second largest climb, the latter is a single-track road which isn’t in the greatest of nick and which chops the bottom-right corner off the island. It also boasts the island’s largest and steepest single climb, rising almost 900ft in a continuous, lung-bursting effort from Lamlash.

The route above is a ‘half island’, starting from Lamlash (Arran’s second city) and which takes in the lumps of the southern half of the island before ascending and descending the String road. In reality, most visitors will start and finish in Brodick, as that’s where the ferry docks, but it amounts to the same thing. The descent from the String road back into Brodick is perhaps the highlight of the ride, with 50mph+ speeds achievable due to the lack of bends and good road surface. (If you cycle at a sensible time, cars will be in short supply too.)

The route has many memorable points, but perhaps the most satisfying is topping out on the String road and getting your first view of the Firth of Clyde since riding off the ferry and when I arrived I was treated to a rare light show of sun beams glaring through a few holes in the blanket cloud and lighting up pockets of the sea like search lights. (Just visible on the top image.)

A note about the roads… Some are truly awful, and until recently all were truly awful. Happily, the island has been subject to some infrastructure investment of late with long stretches of perfectly smooth tarmac rewarding those cyclists who make the trip. A particular stretch on the run in to Blackwaterfoot had me whooping for joy – with the views across to Mull of Kintyre and the Irish Sea only adding to a well-established, ear-to-ear smile.


Ride off the ferry at Brodick, turn right and complete a figure of eight of Arran, which would involve two ascents of the String road and (more importantly) two descents.

Finish off the day with a bottle or two of Arran Blonde at the Brewery just outside Brodick in the shadow of Goat Fell, the island’s highest peak.

Look out for basking sharks and seals.


Run over any red squirrels – they’re in short supply.

Fall in to the trap of “stopping by” the distillery at Lochranza. 48%.

Order a deep-fried poached egg.

Ride details

Half an Arran (south) – 55km, 700m climbing

Tour de Arran – 90km, 850m climbing

Figure of Eight – 110km, 1250m climbing

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