Starting mileage: 20757 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 22:00
The road north from Stranraer (a small, nondescript harbour town at the foot of Rhinns) north towards Glasgow is all about the sea view. The A77 highway goes right by the sea, the waves almost lapping at the wheels of the giant trucks speeding towards the Stranraer ferry. Out in the sea, like a beacon, juts out the basalt cone of Aisla Craig, a volcanic plug and a bird reserve, perfectly visible all the time just to your left – yours for just £1,500,000 if you fancy.
This is one of the great Scottish coastal routes, cutting through the rocks of all shapes and sizes and lined with small cottages of Scandinavian style, built in red or black wood. It passes through several small towns and villages, by several picturesquely perched coastal castles, and many reefs and rocks in the tidal zone, where cormorants and grey seals basque in the rare sun. It’s also home to two rather more unusual spots of interest: the Varyag Monument, and the Electric Brae.
The Varyag Monument is an imposing brass plaque, all in Russian, standing next to the sea, surrounded by anchor chains; unveiled with great pomp by highest Russian dignitaries a few years ago, it commemorates the strange and twisted fates of one of the most famous vessels in Russian fleet’s history, the cruiser Varyag, a hero of the lost battle of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. Following many wars and revolutions, it ended up crashing against the reefs right off the Scottish coast.
The Electric Brae is an altogether more esoteric spot: it’s one of the “electric” or “magnetic” mountains, where the car (and any other rolling item) seems to be moving up the hill as if by magic or, as was believed, powerful magnetic forces. After a few trials and errors we managed to find the sweet spot where the phenomenon was the most visible (between the forested bend and the commemorative stone) and managed to pass a group of incredulous tourists with our engine off, at a decent speed of some 5 mph “uphill”.
As often happens, the solution to the riddle is far more mundane: it’s not really uphill; it’s just an optical illusion caused by a false horizon which makes the downhill slope seem to go up. Still, it’s great fun nonetheless.
We managed to reach the ferry quay at Ardrossan just in time for the ferry, and there we had to make one of those fast and costly decisions, and buy a Rover Ticket; we were going to go island hopping, and this seemed like the best option. It still does, but it meant we only had 15 days to go from Arran to the furthest of Hebrides and back to mainland. Talk about breakneck speed!
There’s a little known story from the BBC censorship heydays – the Mull of Kintyre test; it regarded the depiction of male genitalia on TV: never could it have been shown raised at an angle higher than the Mull of Kintyre peninsula on the map. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what the small, round island of Arran was in this image.
Arran is advertised as Scotland in Miniature, and it fits the slogan to the letter. Everything here is very Scottish, and very small indeed. The island is split in two by the same fault that splits the mainland into High and Low land; there are some true mountains in the northern half, jagged and black against the sky, with Goat Fell just barely missing the Munro mark of 3000 feet. There are sprawling glens dropping into the sea, there are beds of Old Red Sandstone jutting from under the later sediment on the coast, there are extensive heathlands and spruce forests, there are red deer and golden eagles, and finally, there is everything a Scot needs to live a comfortable life: a ruined castle, a golf course, a brewery, a cheese maker, a fish smokery, and of course, a whisky distillery (Arran Whisky: honey and caramel, with a very long, dark chocolate finish).
The coastal road encompasses the entire island, making the SatNav directions a breeze: “go straight on for 14 miles”. It does go up and down quite a lot, and if you need a shortcut, there’s the String road running through the middle, (in)famous with many cyclists trying to finish the Arran Figure of Eight course. The views from either road are nothing short of spectacular, helped by the fact that late August on Arran seems to be the equivalent of May anywhere else: the entire island is in bloom, with explosions of oranges, yellows and purples all along the coast.
We couldn’t of course pass by another set of ancient stones, and Arran has these in abundance. In neolithic times the island was source of pitchstone – a type of obsidian, priced by the men who had built the burial chambers all over Britain, and often found in the graves; perhaps it was the exports of pitchstone which made Arranians wealthy, or something else entirely, but the tiny island had enough resources to build not one, but six great stone circles in one place. The Machrie Moor, now a peat bog, but once a fertile plain, is like the Salisbury Plain in miniature, with each of the six circles different in style and method of construction, from the massive, tall and flat sandstone blocks of the type used in Hebrides and Orkney, to simple round boulders in a complex arrangement not unlike those of Irish bogs. Add to that a couple of chambered cairns, cup-and-ring markings and single menhirs, and you have plenty to keep the archaelogists occupied for decades. After our conversation with Joe the day before, we were keen to spot the clocks or calendars in the circles, and indeed some of the stones seemed obviously marked with groves, holes and pointy edges, as if deliberately; I’m sure with enough time on our hands we could start seeing patterns here, just like at Cairnholy.
The Holy Island ferry was out of order due to “lack of customers”, so we couldn’t see the Tibetan Buddhist monastery that day; we headed back to the ferry and crossed into the mainland, early enough to still find the campsite we could stay at before venturing past Glasgow, and into Argyll.
On Arran we found a fairly tiny site, the Bridgend Cottages, just on the other side of the island from the mainland ferry (a 15-minute drive down the String) – fairly quiet despite being close to the road, and with reasonable facilities in a small wooden shack at the bottom of the hill.
There’s a good, almost wild campsite at the borders of the Clyde Murshiel Regional Park, but contrary to what it said on the website, it turned out to be tents only, so we had to improvise; we found a place to stay near a small village called Bridge of Weir; Pannel Farm, a working horse farm, had a small square of grass for tents, and what amounted to a gravel car park for caravans and campervans. At £20 per night (with hookup) it seemed rather steep, but we had little choice this close to Glasgow, and at least it had an industrial strength washing machine and dryer, almost free (£1 charge was enough for both). It’s not the most terrible place to stay, if you can stomach the smells (it is a working farm, after all) and the invasion of crane flies the size of your palm.