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Mystic Isles : Three Wind-swept, Romantic Outposts of Britain and Ireland : Scotland's Arran

June 28, 1992|DAVID WISHART | Wishart is a Vancouver, Canada-based free-lance writer

RRAN ISLAND, Scotland — There's a bonnie road that sweeps down from the moors edging Glasgow to the west coast at Prestwick, known to wartime pilots as an airport landfall after long transatlantic flights from North America. Along the way there's the old town of Kilmarnock, famous for its Johnny Walker whisky distillery, and soon afterwards the Halfway House hotel, whose heyday was the not-too-distant past, when only travelers who had covered more than three miles could get a drink on a Sunday. As a boy growing up in Presbyterian Scotland I remember that Sunday drives often ended in such a place.

These days, most flights from the New World come into Glasgow, 35 miles to the northeast, which is a pity as Prestwick is a fine airport opening on to country roads. But one advantage about Glasgow is that, having negotiated the urban clutter and found the A77 road, the traveler is set to see the lovely Isle of Arran from a marvelous perspective.

It takes perhaps 20 minutes or so to reach the Halfway House, and at about that point there are some fine hills in the distance. Then, unexpectedly, the road drops away and you see the water, and realize that these hills are part of an island.

This is Arran, 15 miles from the Ayrshire coast, an isle of such charm that it casts a spell on visitors, making them return again and again. Magic, we used to call it as kids.

At Prestwick there is a short drive north, maybe 15 minutes, to Ardrossan, to catch the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry to Arran.

The trip takes one hour, and on a good day most people will sit on deck admiring the majestic scenery of the Firth of Clyde, the outlet of the Clyde River, and home waters of the Queen Mary and QE2, both built on the Clyde, in Glasgow shipyards. And there will be scores of steamers, which have been going "doon the watter" from Glasgow since city businessman Henry Bell built the world's first steam-powered passenger vessel in 1811.

Sometime later there was the Bonnie Doon, vintage 1876, which was so unreliable she was known as the "Bonnie Breakdoon," and the Ivanhoe, launched in 1880 to cater to the teetotaler trade. Some gentlemen and ladies, however, carried a little something, still known as an Ivanhoe flask.

Today the only survivor of that era is the paddle-steamer Waverley, and in the summer it does excursions down the Clyde and across the sheltered coastal waters to Arran.

And so we arrive at Arran's Brodick Bay, where the little town of Brodick lies to the left, the jagged slash of Glen Sannox dead ahead, and to the right, majestic Brodick Castle lies in the lee of Goatfell, 2,866 feet of rock and heather.

The Vikings, who had some presence on Arran during the 500 years they rampaged around these waters, called the peak Geita-fjall, or goat mountain. Breidavik, "broad bay," became Brodick. The Scots rallied to drive off the Vikings in the 12th Century, and Arran became a sleepy backwater of farmers and fishermen.

Our vessel, aptly called the Isle of Arran, unloads at Brodick pier, at the end of which is the island tourist board, domain of Charles Currie, kilt and all, whose staff has information on where to go in Arran (Pop. 4,000), 20 miles by 10, or 56 miles around by road.

On this day a couple from Texas has dropped in. They are on their way to Machrihanish on the nearby Kintyre peninsula (via another Cal-Mac ferry from the top end of Arran) to play golf at the remarkable course there. "It's one of the best-kept secrets of the game," the husband told me. At which point another visitor in the office said with a twinkle in his eye: "Just don't tell anybody about Arran."

Arranires, as the regulars call themselves, tend to be possessive about their island, with its air of rustic gentility. Many have been coming here since they were children, and their parents before that, the latter probably looking down their noses at the more developed and commercial Clyde resorts, popular for their music halls, carnival midways and pubs. The Ivanhoe would have been their ship.

Some Arran regulars own cottages, others rent houses, while others stay in small hotels in the villages of Brodick, Lamlash, Whiting Bay, Blackwaterfoot, Corrie and Lochranza, the latter with its ruined castle made famous by Sir Walter Scott in his poem, "Lord of the Isles."

These places never used to advertise. They were filled every summer by the same people, who would phone on New Year's Day and book the same rooms for the same period, Glasgow folk for "the fair fortnight"--the last half of July--while Kilmarnock factories would close the first two weeks of August.

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