Every ripple on the water is a question mark; every splash a possibility.
We are gazing hopefully at the Inner Seas off the west coast of Scotland. Silvery waves lap a rocky shoreline, birds herald the beginning of spring from the nearby bushes and, just offshore, a seal lounges languidly in the mid-morning sunshine. It’s all rather idyllic… but we don’t see what we are looking for.
Let me explain: when we asked the kids what they would like to do during our recent trip to the Isle of Arran, their answer was instantaneous: spot an otter. It’s not so easy though… otters are notoriously elusive, and Poppy (5) and Piko (4) simply don’t have the patience to stare at a patch of sea for more than a few minutes.
So we made an improvised plan: Using the quirkily brilliant (and, sadly, out of print) “Arran for families” book as a rough guide, we spent the next few days partaking in short, kid-friendly hikes along Arran’s glorious coastline, as many as the younger kids could manage at their own pace. In this way not only would we (hopefully) spot an otter, but we would also experience much of what this beautiful island had to offer us.
This turned out to be a rather good plan, and after a few days of slowly savouring this wonderful island we discovered many reasons why Arran is a magical destination for a family holiday. Here are just a few of them:
You need to get on a boat to get to Arran.
“Hello? It’s an island! Of course you need a boat to get there!” Well, not necessarily… Many other European holiday islands – Öland in Sweden, Rügen in Germany and Angelsey in Wales to name but a few – are connected to the mainland by a bridge, which significantly reduces the islandyness of the experience. But for Arran, getting there is all part of the fun.
Viewed from Ardrossan on the Scottish mainland, Arran looms dark and brooding across the water, its huge mountains rearing into the sky and calling out: “Come. Join the adventure. You won’t regret it.” If the weather is fine, take your kids out on the deck of the Calmac ferry and, together, relish the one-hour crossing of the Firth of Clyde. Watch the amazement in their tiny faces as the mighty Goat Fell grows slowly to epic proportions and individual houses and trees begin to appear in its shadow, as if sketched by an invisible hand. Whispers of something special are in the salty air… and you haven’t even arrived yet.
Arran is one big natural playground
As parents, it is important to remember that kids see holidays differently from us adults. At school, in their extra-curricular activities and at home, they are increasingly subjected to rules, regulations and timelines. All-inclusive package holidays with kids’ clubs and set meal times may seem appealing, but they are essentially just a continuation of our children’s über-controlled lives. On Arran, however, kids can forget about the restrictions of their everyday lives and just be… kids.
Let them pick up those sea shells, let them climb that rock. Let them take off their shoes and socks and splash uninhibited into the sea. They don’t care about the cold.
Let them do cartwheels, let them pick up that bird skull, let them follow those animal tracks in the sand… because maybe – just maybe – it’s an otter? (Spoiler: it wasn’t)
Most of all, just let them explore, at their own pace. Which reminds me:
Arran has caves
Our kids LOVE exploring caves, and on the west coast of Arran we found some to compare with the brilliant “dark places” we enjoy back home in Luxembourg. Of these, the “King’s Cave” is by far the largest and most spectacular, but it was quite busy and didn’t hold the kids’ attention for too long. However, some of the smaller caves nearby were tourist-free and therefore ripe for discovery by our wannabe speleologists:
There is a magical hovering island just offshore
The island-mountain of Ailsa Craig dominates the sea views from Arran’s southern shores. Despite being tiny (less than 1km square!) this plug of an ancient, extinct volcano soars to a height of almost 340 metres over the Irish Sea, making it considerably higher than the Eiffel Tower. And during our visit, Ailsa Craig was doing something very weird indeed:
Now, is it just me, or is Ailsa Craig hovering ABOVE the horizon in that photo? And why are the edges of the island folded upward by some invisible force? Perhaps the clue is in the name: “Ailsa Craig” is an anglicisation of the gaelic “Aillse Creag“, meaning “Fairy Rock”, and the kids didn’t need much convincing that this is a magical, ethereal place. After all, during our exploration of Arran we discovered that:
Arran is full of fairies
One of our favourite discoveries of our too-short time on Arran was in a bluebell-filled forest near Kilmory. Here, without any human explanation or notice, our girls – with eyes as big as saucers – discovered the unmistakable, irrefutable signs of a fairy settlement.
And this wasn’t even our first fairy encounter on the island: Why, only the previous day we had followed some signposts to a “Fairy Dell” near Lochranza and found ourselves in a quite idyllic spot, where a lively stream tumbled past weirdly twisted trees to join the sea – exactly the sort of place where one can imagine magical creatures coming out to dance in the twinkling moonlight.
There are plenty of other reasons why Arran is a perfect location for a family holiday. Its numerous historical (and prehistorical) sites, for instance, will undoubtedly impress the adults whilst being relaxed and small-scale enough to ensure that the kids don’t get bored.
Also, the Scottish islands have a reputation for being rather expensive, but we found Arran to be surprisingly reasonable. As an example, our stay in a wonderful privately-owned small hotel in Lamlash cost approximately the same per night as a youth hostel in Yorkshire later in our holiday, and had an incomparably higher standard of accommodation.
Oh, and of course:
Arran’s wildlife is incredible
There is no need for a “safari park” on Arran: to the observant tourist, the whole island is effectively one big natural menagerie.
Flâneur pheasants wander carelessly across fields and roads. Seals bask on wave-smoothed rocks. Red squirrels dart up the magnificent trees around Brodick Castle. Oystercatchers parade their cartoon beaks around the shallow coastlines. Red deer graze peacefully in the mountainous north. And – if you are really, really lucky – golden eagles soar majestically over rocky crags.
And, of course, there are otters… and on our very last evening on the island, just off the shore of the very final beach that we visited, we finally found what we had been searching for:
With the imposing presence of Ailsa Craig lurking menacingly on the horizon, the otter dipped and dived its way to supper, right in front of us. When its underwater excursions were successful, it would lie on its back, munching contently. If it saw the excited families watching it through binoculars less than 100 metres away, it wasn’t bothered by us in the slightest.
The next morning we boarded the Calmac ferry back to Ardrossan with heavy hearts and even a few tears. On the boat I got chatting to a local man and told him all about the wonderful adventures we had experienced on his island. He nodded and shrugged; he’d heard it all before countless times, and had some special advice for me:
“For God’s sake don’t tell anyone about Arran. Otherwise everyone will be coming here!”
Sorry. I couldn’t help it…
Our map of Arran
All photos and text (c) 2017 Jonathan Orr
Daisy the bus visited the Isle of Arran in April 2017