Welcome to Isle of Arran
Arran is often called ‘Scotland in Miniature’ because of the way in which much of the diverse landscapes of the country are represented upon this small island: 20 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west. The island owes its origins to shifting tectonic plates: the Highland Boundary Fault divides it into rugged and often stunningly impressive mountain terrain in the north and lower lying lands to the south, much like Scotland itself. Caressed by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, a mild climate is evident from the flourishing of palm trees, which overlook many of Arran’s quiet beaches and sandy bays. Its landscapes play host to deer and pheasant, the air to eagles amongst over 100 species of birds, and its waters to seals and otters. Yet Arran is one of Scotland’s most accessible islands: being one of the most southerly it is easily visited from nearby Glasgow.
Goat Fell (peak), Isle of Arran
Another reason to call Arran ‘Scotland in Miniature’ could be the way in which many of the important periods in Scottish history are reflected in the island’s history. Scotland’s earliest people were ‘island hopping’ hunter gatherers who undoubtedly called on the island. As people gradually settled permanent structures were built as dwellings, fortifications and for worship. One of Arran’s finest examples of the skill of the island’s earliest inhabitants are the Machrie Moor Standing Stones. These ancient tall red stones are arranged in a number of circles, but how exactly this site was used remains largely a mystery.
When Irish nobles founded the kingdom of Dalriata, the kingdom of the Scotti tribe, on Scotland’s west coast in the 5th century, one of the kingdom’s major fortifications was on the site of today’s Brodick Castle, on Arran’s east coast. However, by the late eighth century there was a new power in the region: the Vikings. In the following centuries the Vikings, who came as raiders and later as settlers, would come into conflict with the locals and Scottish crown. Sliddery, on Arran’s west coast, is said to derive its name from ‘field of slaughter’ in old Gaelic, as it was the site of a bloody battle in which a Viking war party was routed. Nonetheless, Scandinavian influence on Arran can be seen in the abundance of Norse place names which survive to this day, including Brodick itself, Old Norse for ‘broad bay’.
The Holy Isle from Arran
While Alexander III of Scotland’s victory over the Vikings in 1263 ended the Viking threat from the north, within 23 years a greater threat emerged from the south. Taking advantage of the dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne which had resulted from Alexander’s death, English armies, under Edward I, invaded Scotland. All over Scotland battles were fought to expel the invaders. In Arran, Brodick Castle was taken by the English, who held it until 1307 when it was taken back by King Robert the Bruce. It is a legend that Robert, the king who eventually liberated Scotland, was inspired in his continued struggle against occupation by an incident near Blackwaterfoot, on Arran’s west coast. Hiding from English pursuers, in what is now known as the King’s Cave, Robert watched a spider struggling to spin its web in the wind at the cave’s entrance. He was inspired by the spiders resilience and perseverance in finally completing the web, which when noticed by English soldiers led them to believe that none could have entered and so they continued their search elsewhere. Thus the king was saved.
Until the 15th century much of the Western Isles was dominated by the powerful MacDonald clan whose most powerful chiefs, the Lord of the Isles, carved out an empire for themselves in much of Scotland’s western seaboard. The result was ongoing conflict between the crown and the Macdonalds. Arran’s strategic importance, guarding the approaches to the River Clyde, meant that the island’s fortresses were to be crucial in this conflict. Kildonan Castle, in the extreme east of Arran, was originally built by the Lords of the Isles in the 13th century but after having been taken by Robert III in 1406 it was passed on to his son, John Stewart. In 1455 Brodick Castle was attacked and damaged by the Lord of the Isles’ men. Lochranza Castle, on the northern tip of Arran, was used as a base from which Scottish Kings could attack the Lords of the Isles. Arran’s strategic importance was reaffirmed centuries later by Cromwellian forces who occupied (and enlarged) Brodick Castle in 1648.
Rainbow at Brodick Bay
This legacy of conflict has bequeathed Arran with at least three castles of enormous historical importance: Kildonan, Lochranza and Brodick. The way in which Brodick Castle, for example, has developed over the centuries from a medieval fortress to a stately home, with all the periods in between contributing something to its design, helps us chart the history of the island, as well as that of Scotland as a whole. It is this historical legacy in its majestic natural setting which has contributed to the development of the island, from the Victorian period inwards, as a popular destination for tourists. The way in which these castles and other historic sites on the island seem to have become part of the natural landscape reflects one of Arran’s great strengths: raw natural beauty and history emerge interrelated so that the past and the present appear in timeless and seamless panoramas.