Arran for families

Through a series of short family-friendly coastal hikes around the Isle of Arran (Scotland) we discover why it is such an excellent destination for an active family holiday.

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.

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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.

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“Calmac” ferry approaching Ardrossan harbour, with Arran in the background

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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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Ailsa Craig. The island-mountain in the Irish Sea

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.

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At the Fairy Dell, Isle of Arran

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.

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(Photo originally published in our article “The encounter on the island“)

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.

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Our friends watching the otter off the south coast of Arran

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

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Source: Holmes’ Map of Arran – Herald Series (amended)

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All photos and text (c) 2017 Jonathan Orr

Daisy the bus visited the Isle of Arran in April 2017

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Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

49 thoughts on “Arran for families”

    1. Thank you so much. As you have read, we simply adored our visit to Arran and will be sure to return again some day. We’re really glad you enjoyed the article, and do say “hi” to the fairies from us! 😉

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  1. What you said about all inclusive holidays with kids clubs etc just being a continuation of the controlled life kids lead really hit me. I had never thought of it like that. Much better to get out and explore the world any! Love seeing people enjoying Scotland 🙂 #farawayfiles

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not totally opposed to “all inclusive” kids’ holidays – we have some very happy memories of “Kinderhotels” in Germany, and sometimes us parents deserve a break too 😉 – but it would be sad if such holidays were the only type of travelling that kids experience. I totally agree with you – it is often best just to get out there and see / experience things, letting the kids’ natural curiosity and rhythm dictate how the holiday goes. That’s certainly what we try to do! Thanks for reading, greetings from Luxembourg!!

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  2. This looks amazing! I’ve been reading about so many cool islands across Europe lately, we really need to go out exploring again. Love your approach of letting kids be kids during the holidays. With all expectations and ‘must do’s’ I’m sure it’s quite hard for kids to just be themselves. #MondayEscapes

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  3. What happens when my son is let of the leash from school (I can confidently say after two summers in a row) is that he damages himself quite spectacularly in the first week. Only knows what would happen in Arran. But for otters we might brave it. Looks perfect, actually.

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    1. I believe you – the number of times we’ve been in A&E with our eldest son must be in double figures by now… Boys eh? But it’s all worth it for great outdoor experiences and wildlife encounters. Thanks for taking the time to comment! 😉

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  4. This is just wonderful! I always look forward to reading about your adventures, and this one is just magical! I know what that feeling of wanting to preserve such a special place while at the same time wanting to spread the word! #farawayfiles

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    1. The man on the boat had a good point: one of the charms of Arran is that it is relatively quiet, whilst still having a basic tourist infrastructure. Mass tourism would destroy the appeal of the place. I am hoping that its remote location keeps it as reward for those who are prepared to look beyond the mainstream tourist destinations. Thanks for reading, and for the lovely share on Twitter!

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      1. Thank you Daisy the Bus for this wonderful write up! That said, we welcome visitors to Arran (even if yer man doesn’t!). As an Arranach born and bred, the locals are happy to welcome visitors – and remember there’;s a whole island to explore, so loads of space for everyone! Thanks again, Sheila (from VisitArran) 😀

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  5. Oh my! This is so lovely. This place is so full of beauty. It is true that kids see places in a different way. I have camped with my friends and their kids and they had a blast like you have no idea. Did you find out more info about the fairy settlement? #FarawayFiles

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    1. No, we have absolutely no idea about the fairy settlement. It was unmarked, unheralded, unoccupied (by any humans except us) and not in any guide books or tourist information that we read. The only plausible explanation is… fairies 😉 Thanks for reading!

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  6. I’m not too familiar with Arran but it sounds/looks like a place of pure discovery. From the rocks to the caves to the mysterious island, I know my girls would be so into it. What a magical place! #farawayfiles

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  7. THIS is my kind of place! I love all of its very authentic “islandyness” – I’m totally absconding that word and taking it as my own – immediately! I love love love a place where children can be children and have wide open spaces to explore and discover and look and FIND! Otters?! Otters are a huge hit in our house as well – such a magical and rare thing to see them in the wild – well done! Thanks for sharing the magic of Arran with #FarawayFiles. I’m smitten with Scotland. Cheers, Erin

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  8. Beautiful photos of Arran, Jonny. I’m so keen to see more of the Scottish islands with our kids. We’d love to go hiking, find fairies and otters. Thanks for sharing your adventures on #FarawayFiles

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  9. Aaah i recognise that photo – I loved it! And now it all fits into place. You are so right about allowing kids to have a time away from restriction, rules and regulations that go with school life. That is what we love about campervan life too. Beautiful post #countrykids

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  10. I must have been about the same age as your children when we went on a family holiday to Arran. We did see the sea otters! It’s a beautiful place although it rained an awful lot when we were there! #CountryKids

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  11. this place looks like a dream come true. your photography is amazing, though, that was my favourite part of this post. my favourite is the one is in the sea… love how her toes are up. I’m totally with you about letting kids be kids, especially with nature play, I see/hear so many parents won’t let their kid climb on rocks or paddle in the river/stream with rocks and… it’s all good fun. 🙂 #countrykids

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  12. We went to Arran last year and loved it. It is magical and bursting with wildlife. The ferry trip over makes it seem even more of an adventure. The islands always seem the perfect place to lose time. Your write up of Arran makes me want to go back even more, but we have a few more islands to visit before then. #CountryKids

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  13. Oh how wonderful this sounds. Your photos and descriptive writing really make me want to visit even though it is such a long way from Cornwall. It looks so wild and beautiful and to see otters swimming how wonderful. We have otters in the river here at Coombe Mill so I had assumed they were just fresh water animals. That volcanic rock is quite a feature on the horizon and sounds huge. What a perfect way to explore the nature of this far away spot as a family. I can see why you had tears leaving.

    Thank you for sharing with me on #CountryKids

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    1. Wow. Lucky you having otters in your river!! We’ve never been to Cornwall, so we may need to plan a trip there the next time we are back in the UK. Thanks for reading, and for hosting the #CountryKids community.

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  14. Oh what a wonderful, wonderful post again! Your writing is just exquisite – I love the humour, the little bits of information, and the sheer wonder that comes through your words. Apologies in advance to the boatman – we will definitely make our way to Arran in the future!
    #CountryKids

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    1. I am actually blushing reading your kind words! So glad that you enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to seeing (and reading about) what the Acorns get up to in Arran. Greetings from Luxembourg.

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