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Bonnie, bonnie banks

Ashore on the peaceful, bucolic Isle of Arran, a small-scale Scotland.

June 05, 2005|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

Arran, Scotland — "Haste ye back," beckoned a sign at the car ferry terminal at Ardrossan on Scotland's western coast as the boat eased up to the dock after crossing from the Isle of Arran.

I told myself I'd heed the invitation.

It was July and I'd been distillery-hopping on Scottish islands. After two days on Arran, the largest of the Firth of Clyde islands, I had followed the whiskey trail to Islay and Jura in the southern Inner Hebrides. I'd chosen to return to Arran to further explore its heather-blanketed glens, peaceful harbors and picturesque villages.

My trip had begun in Glasgow, where I picked up a midsized car at the airport and drove the 38 miles to Ardrossan. From there, ferry service to Brodick, Arran's main port and largest town, is frequent. I'd booked ahead, as advised by the Caledonian MacBrayne line. Good advice: The boat appeared to be nearly full.

The ferry was big, clean and comfortable. I settled into a seat in the nonsmoking lounge with a cup of good Arran Dairy ice cream and my guidebook, and in 55 minutes we were docking.

My heart sank at my first glimpse of Brodick. It's not a place of great charm. Gazing on a row of bygone-era seashore hotels and boarding houses, I thought of one of those vintage English movies set in some dreary seaside holiday resort.

But I had a distinct attitude adjustment upon reaching the Kilmichael Country House Hotel, which occupies a bucolic bit of real estate on the edge of town. It's like staying at a private home, which it is, except from Easter through October, when the two owners -- one of whom is the chef -- open it to guests.

Checking into Dovecote, a beautifully appointed garden room in a wing that once was the estate's stables, I found fruit and flowers, tea fixings on a tray with bone china cups, a map, a guidebook and "The Complete Illustrated Poems, Songs and Ballads of Robert Burns." When I opened my door, a resident peacock poked its head in.

The next morning, breakfast in the sunny dining room fortified me for sightseeing. The menu promised eggs from the hotel's own ducks -- "if the ladies oblige" (they did) -- as well as tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages and, yes, haggis, which I pushed discreetly to one side of my Spode Blue Willow plate.

Arran, population 5,000, is just 20 miles long and 56 miles around, and the narrow, sometimes bumpy A841, the main "highway," hugs the coastline for most of those 56 miles, passing through villages filled with whitewashed cottages, guest houses, tearooms and pubs.

The island has two other roads, one narrow and one narrower. The aptly named String Road, which runs east-west, cuts through largely unpopulated territory of undulating green hills, vast vistas and pastures where black-faced sheep graze. Ross Road connects Lamlash in the east with Lagg on the wilder western shore. It carries two-way traffic, but it's about 9 feet wide -- 3 feet shy of the California standard for a single lane with one-way traffic -- and nine tortuous miles long. When a gas station attendant in Blackwaterfoot told me he wouldn't drive it, "especially not for pleasure," I passed.

Although it's possible to drive around the island in three hours, I spent parts of four days, making myriad stops, retracing my steps when something or someplace intrigued me. I had no set agenda, so I just poked along, listening to the BBC, where debate over a ban on fox hunting -- which took effect in February -- was given major air time.

Tourism is the No. 1 industry, and although "excitement" isn't a word I would associate with Arran, there is plenty to do, especially for outdoor types: golf courses, paragliding, hunting and fishing, horseback riding, cycling and climbing. Walking is a local passion; drivers share the road with stouthearted hikers wielding walking sticks.

Cottage industries

The less athletically inclined can visit Isle of Arran Distillers, the Arran Chocolate Factory, Arran Aromatics (which makes bath and body products), Arran Fine Foods (purveyor of mustard, jams and jellies), or Arran Brewery, or watch cheese being made at Torrylinn Creamery. Arran's cottage industries have multiplied in lockstep with the increase in tourism.

But it was the wide-open spaces inland, the coastal villages and centuries-old churches that beckoned me. I can't resist an old graveyard, and at St. Bride's church in Lochranza, I found a poignant headstone that spoke to the hardships of life on Arran in an earlier time, when fishing for herring was the main livelihood. It was erected by Isabella Blue, in memory of her husband and four children -- a daughter who died at age 10, a son at age 35 and two sons who drowned in the Sound of Mull.

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