You have a guest from a landlocked country and you want to take them cycle touring on their first visit to Scotland, where to take them? Ulli suggested the perfect solution would be Arran. Which of the three following phrases could best be used to describe Arran: the jewel of the Clyde, Scotland in miniature, or that island with the crap roads? Well possibly all three, but Bute is actually the jewel of the Clyde and most of Scotland’s islands suffer poor road surfacing (or should that be most of Scotland?).

So it was that the three of us, Ulli, her cousin Bernhard and myself, set out to cycle round Arran on a two day tour. Getting to Arran from Edinburgh is fairly easy, go to Waverley Station, take a train to Glasgow Queen Street (about 50 mins), then a short walk to Glasgow Central Station (not forgetting to turn off into Gordon Street half way down Buchanan Street, about 10 mins), then catch the train for Ardrossan Harbour (note Harbour, not Town or Beach, about 53 mins). This leaves you with a two minute walk to the Cal Mac ticket office. Tickets procured, pedal gently to the jetty, where the Cal Mac staff may direct you to jump the queue of waiting cars and go straight onto the ferry. Here you add your treasured bicycle to the stack of others in the cubby hole, just off the car deck, marked “Cycles”, then head up to the upper decks as the car deck is not a healthy place to hang about.

The crossing takes about 55 mins, and in good weather, sitting out on the sun deck watching the Ayrshire coast recede into the distance can be very pleasant. For the cyclist, it also has the benefit of telling you which direction the wind is coming from, in our case it was from the ENE. This is useful to know, as it can help you decide which way to go round the island. One of the great things about going round an island with a circumnavigatory road, such as Arran, is that once you have decided in which direction you are going to make your circumnavigation, it is hard to get lost. It is just a case of keeping the sea on your left if going round clockwise or on your right if going anticlockwise. On Arran if the sea is behind you, a steep hill and the setting sun in front, you are going up the String Road, which is cheating. Our target for the first day was to get to Blackwaterfoot, where we had booked a B&B for the overnight stay.

When planning to stay on an Island, it is often a good idea to book your accommodation in advance. This was something that Ulli and I had discovered on a previous visit to Arran three years ago. We arrived on a Friday night, having only booked that night in advance. Having arrived on the island, we went straight to the Tourist Office to arrange accommodation for the Saturday night, only to find that there were three weddings on the island that weekend, and that all the approved accommodation on the island was fully booked. We were given a list of B&Bs which had previously been listed but were no longer on the list and warned that not all of them would still be in business and those that were might not be of an acceptable quality. It was from this list that we found the wonderful Mrs Bannatyne of Lochside Guesthouse near Blackwaterfoot, an object lesson in the best of Scottish hospitality. The reason for it not being on the approved list was simple, they are almost always fully booked and so don’t need the Tourist Office approval or recommendation. This time they were fully booked all week, so we had to stay elsewhere is Blackwaterfoot, enough said about that.

Having arrived at Brodick Pier, they let the motor vehicles off first so that the cyclists don’t get run over in the rush. This means that you simply filter past a long line of stationary cars to get into Brodick, where the discerning cyclist heads for the local bakers, Wooley’s of Arran to carbo load ahead of the coming tour. Mid-morning snack over and the ferry traffic cleared, we set off south on the first part of our clockwise circumnavigation. As soon as we left Brodick, we started on the first hill of the day. At this point the road doesn’t actually follow the coast but cuts off Clauchland headland, climbing through the forest to 114m before dropping back down to sea level at Lamlash. We took a short diversion out to Margnaheglish to take in the view of the north of Holy Island. Bernhard was intrigued by the idea of a monastery of jam making Buddhist monks who now live there.

From Lamlash it was an easy relaxed pedal round to Whiting Bay, where we stopped for a spot of bike fettling, as Ulli’s derailleur wasn’t changing gear quite as smoothly as it should. Derailleur fettled and running smoothly again, we decided it was too early for lunch and started the gentle climb up to Dippen. Beyond Dippen where the road reaches 130m, we had the choice of either carrying on along the main road which contours round above Kildonan, or dropping down into the village. So of course we took the road which went down to the village, which provided a very satisfying decent. Where the road levelled off briefly, we found a bench with a view out over the Sound of Pladda to the island of Pladda and, in the hazy distance, Ailsa Craig. A lovely spot for lunch.

Lunch over, we continued on through Kildonan to where the road turns abruptly and heads almost straight uphill to meet the main road at about 100m above the village. It was on this section of road that I recorded my slowest speed of the trip, dropping to 4 Km/h at one stage. The main road regained, we found the wind had turned more easterly and discovered the delights of wind assisted climbing. Along the south end of Arran you pass through rich rolling farmland, along some of the best stretches of tarmac on the island. There are good sections of road with smooth clean tarmac on sweeping descents which are a joy to ride on, sadly they are seldom more than a few hundreds meters in length.

At Lagg the road passes through a wooded area that hides a short sharp climb which you don’t see on approach, until you come round a bend and it rises up before you. Then on towards Sliddery and Corriecravie with a few good sweeping descents along the way, somewhere along here I recorded my highest speed of the tour, just over 62 Km/h. Just past Corriecravie there is a field of Heilan’ coos above the road, there are steep steps worn into bank by tourists making their way up to take photos. A word to the wise here, if you see a stock fence with plain wire rather than barbed wire along the top, have a look to see how it is attached to the posts before leaning against it to take photos. If it is carried on wee plastic insulators, the electric shock won’t really hurt you, but may come as a nasty surprise.

The road from Corriecravie to Kilpatrick follows along the top of low cliffs with fine views across the Kilbrannan Sound to Kintyre. If you are lucky you will see gannets (Morus bassanus) diving for fish, a spectacular and memorable sight. Unfortunately the day we passed by, there were only two hungry gannets scouting up and down, and no fish to be had. Beyond Kilpatrick we passed the Lochside Guesthouse where we weren’t staying the night and took the sharp left bend which led us into Blackwaterfoot and a search for ice cream.

The stats for anyone who is interested were:

  • Distance cycled – 47.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 2:19:31
  • Max Speed – 62.2 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 20.3 Km/h

Continues in Cycle Round Arran (Part 2), also see Machrie Moor Circuit