What’s better than being out in nature, drinking whisky under a clear night sky? Being out in nature, drinking whisky and hiking towards a distillery to drink more whisky! So that’s exactly what I did this summer, along with two friends. Having already done a similar (solo) trip on the Isle of Jura, this time it was Arran’s turn to awe us with its natural beauty. We set out with a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear and of course a bottle of Arran whisky.
The easiest way to get to Arran is by taking the CalMac ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick, the main entry point to the island. The boat ride provided great views of Arran, often called ‘Scotland in miniature’: gently rolling hills in the south, and more barren and mountainous towards the north. And the north was where we would be going, so our gaze was inevitably turned towards the jagged peaks rising from the sea, rainclouds ominously swirling around their summits.
Once in Brodick, we immediately set off to conquer the island’s highest point, the 874 metre high Goatfell. The first 9 km were gradual and easy going, with relatively fair weather. Once we reached the slopes, the ascent became more taxing, particularly with an extra 18kg weighing you down. As we approached the summit, the weather turned dramatically, with thick clouds obscuring the view, and wind and rain lashing Goatfell’s flanks. We did not take much time to enjoy the achievement of reaching the summit, eager as we were to get out of the cold, streaming rain. It was hard to find the onwards trail through the thick fog, but eventually we found the path leading north along Goatfell’s crest.
Although we had initially planned to move onto Glen Sannox, the day was growing short and our legs tired, so we decided to descend into the glen facing Corrie instead. We moved along a stream until we found a bit of dry, level ground to pitch the tents, with a perfect view over the Firth of Clyde. It was still extremely windy, and this unfortunately made one of my tent poles snap. I already half imagined myself huddling in between my two friends in their small two person tent, but with my backpack propping up the rear end of the tent, I still managed to create enough space for myself. This allowed me to get out of the cold and pour myself a nice, warming whisky. After a long, exerting day outdoors, it was a dram well earned.
After a reinvigorating sleep of 9.5 hours, I awoke refreshed. Judging by the temperature in the tent, it seemed that the sun was out and I was looking forward to a nice day. My enthusiasm quickly turned to dread when I observed a swarm of Highland midges hanging out around my tent. The little buggers spoiled breakfast somewhat, but they gave us all the more reason to get moving. The day’s hike took us past Corrie and Sannox, from where we followed the coastal trail northwards. The availability of fresh drinking water was a bit tricky along this path, and since everything was covered with ferns, it was hard to find a place to pitch the tents. We were therefore very positively surprised when we stumbled upon Laggan cottage, an old, abandoned farmstead. A small burn flowed along the building and there was a level lawn that was perfect for the tents. Soon after pitching the tents, we scoured the beach for driftwood, and sought refuge near the smoke of the campfire that we had set up to drive off the midges. Inside the cottage, we even found an old axe and a wood saw, allowing us to prepare some big logs for the fire, which we were able to keep going well beyond sunset. And what a sunset it was! As the sun lowered, it threw brilliant shades of purple and gold across the sea, becoming more spectacular by the minute. This was also an ideal time to sip some more Arran Madeira Cask, while enjoying the crackling of the campfire.
It rained the whole of that night. Whereas the day before the sea had been a blanket of tranquillity, now the surf had increased considerably, and I awoke to the sound of waves crashing onto the pebble beach. After a quick breakfast, we set out again, keeping our heads down against the incessant rain. A short but steep climb brought us to a mountain pass filled with grazing sheep. After about an hour’s walk, we saw a collection of large, whitewashed buildings appear on the horizon. At long last, the light at the end of the tunnel: Arran distillery. Although our destination was in sight, it took another while to reach it. Once on the outskirts of Lochranza, we had to cross a golf course, where our way was blocked by a herd of rather menacing looking stags, which did not seem at all inclined to move out of the way. While one of us opted to wade across the river instead, my other friend and I sneaked past the deer onto the small bridge that led to the other side. In doing so, we bumped into some locals who did not seem the least bit perturbed by the presence of the deer on their golf course. Feeling slightly silly, we made our way over to the distillery, where we took a small measure of revenge by ordering the excellent Stag Burger in the distillery cafe. Perhaps it was because it was our first proper meal in three days, but the food tasted delicious, I can definitely recommend grabbing a bite to eat during your distillery visit.
The distillery tour itself started with a taste of Arran 14 year old, while watching a video about the distillery’s origins and vision. From thereon we were shown the room where the production of Arran whisky takes place. And I do mean room, because quite unusually, the entire process from milling to distilling takes place in one single space. And while Arran’s facilities are modern (the distillery opened as late as 1995), the production methods are very traditional. Wooden washbacks are used, tall-necked copper stills double distil the spirit, and the whisky is non chill filtered. The distillery tour felt a little rushed, which is understandable given that everything is located in one room, but even so it would have been nice to view the warehouses for example. Fortunately, we booked an extra tasting after the distillery tour. So after a nip of the highly recommendable Arran Gold cream liqueur, we parted with our guide and went to the tasting room.
The tasting itself was great. Everyone was served four drams, but for each glass we were given a choice of three different whiskies. Since we were with the three of us, that allowed us to each pick something different and share, meaning that we were able to try 12 different Arrans! This ranged from the core range of the 10, 14 and 18 year old, to drams such as The Bothy Quarter Cask and Machrie Moor, several different cask finishes, and even the limited 21st Anniversary bottling. On the whole, this was an excellent way to become acquainted with the Arran range, and to be very well informed customers when we showed up to the distillery shop after the tasting. In the end we bought a bottle of The Bothy Quarter cask, confident that it would be useful later that night. We had planned to camp out near Arran distillery’s water source at Loch na Davie, but unfortunately by then we had run out of cooking gas. Having overestimated the size of Lochranza, it turned out there was nowhere for us to restock, and we were forced to take the bus back to Brodick to get some gas at the Arran Active store. Although this cut short our trip to Loch na Davie it did mean we got to camp in lovely Glen Rosa that night. With the help of some wood and fire starters from the shop, we managed to get another campfire going, despite the light drizzle. Some generous helpings of the Bothy Quarter Cask later, we tucked in for our last night on the island. The following day we completed the Glen Rosa loop, and made our way back in time for the ferry to the mainland.
It had been an amazing trip, filled with exercise, whisky, campfires and lots of the Great Outdoors. Arran whisky carries the tagline Pure by Nature, and indeed we got to see Arran’s nature at its very finest. At just an hour’s drive from Glasgow, Arran is well worth a visit. I certainly have fond memories of the island, and from now it will feel that little bit extra special each time I pour myself a dram of Arran whisky.