I’ve visited over 100 Scottish islands – and this is my favourite

With history, nature and views, Arran has a lot to offer visitors – Alamy

I’m writing this in one of the toughest places on earth. On the ferry, ripped away from the soaring eagles, epic drams and vaulted mountains of my favorite Scottish island. By default, Arran is my favorite island in the world. I’ve been lucky enough to explore over 100 countries, but you can keep Bali and Bora Bora – I’d rather stick with Brodick.

For full disclosure, with Arran it’s personal for me. So deeply. One side of my family was formed in the rugged southern extremities, and I have returned to this planet almost every year of my half-century. Arran let me go on an adventure, accompanied by my late parents. It shocked me that there were possibilities beyond the prosaic. For decades I simply didn’t realize that all those long roads around six continents would lead back to the Firth of Clyde and an even greater appreciation for Scotland’s most special island.

There are of course more, and I have written articles and books recommending many of them. But there’s little about the others that you can’t find about Arran. And most of the time, your experience on Arran will be even more spectacular, more hair-raising, or simply tastier on what is undoubtedly Scotland’s foodie island.

Arran is called ‘Scotland in miniature’, and for once this is not a superficial marketing term. The Highland Boundary Fault rips through the ancient heart of Arran, sculpting the gnarled north into a wild landscape of towering Alpine peaks, tumbling valleys and swirling waters. The south of the Lowlands is gentler: still almost embarrassingly picturesque, seductive with rolling hills, vast stretches of empty sandy beaches, fertile farmland and the kind of coastal scenery that makes BBC documentary producers salivate.

Arran Island in ScotlandArran Island in Scotland

The Isle of Arran has been called ‘Scotland in miniature’ – Getty/iStock

It’s hard not to get excited about Arran, an island that continually overdelivers. I once promised my daughters a “wildlife safari weekend” on the only island where all of Scotland’s “Big Five” live (golden eagle, red deer, harbor seal, otter and red squirrel). Arran had other ideas.

As they rolled off the ferry, impossibly cute, bushy red squirrels bounded across the road just outside Brodick and the girls barely had time to check them off in their little notebooks before we came across a dozen seals lurking under the hull of Brodick Castle Sun tanning. North Sannox brought a pair of golden eagles; the steep descent to Lochranza a bunch of deer. On the way to Blackwaterfoot in search of an elusive otter, we chanced upon our furry friend in Pirnmill. It wasn’t yet lunchtime on the first day, but Dad’s Arran safari “weekend” was already over.

Seal at the Isle of Arran in ScotlandSeal at the Isle of Arran in Scotland

Seal spotting off the coast of Arran – Getty

This abundance of experiences on this year-round Gulf Stream island knows no bounds. Walkers can tackle the 65 mile Arran Coastal Way and enjoy some of Scotland’s most beautiful mountain walks. For cyclists this is the exciting 90 kilometer Tour of Arran route. Kayaking with the community-run Lochranza Center is also tempting, along with horse riding with two stables. There’s even an Arran snorkeling trail that I wandered around with my daughters.

Nature is in abundance; also the imprint of man. Arran has an abundance of historic sites, from brooding castles to mysterious hillforts, chilling chambered cairns and enchanting stone circles. Arran continues to casually share with us the ancient traces of humanity. Last year a huge new Neolithic site was discovered – the team working on it told me: “Drumadoon’s course could be even more important than Stonehenge’s.”

Robin McKelvie on the Isle of Arran in ScotlandRobin McKelvie on the Isle of Arran in Scotland

‘Arran is my favorite island in the world,’ says Robin – Robin McKelvie

This being Arran, they probably won’t be shouting about the Stonehenge sibling. This is an unassuming island close enough to Glasgow to keep it real; no place for haughty people, nor for attitudes. It can get busy in summer, especially with day trippers in the bijou capital Brodick, but it’s never as congested as Skye. And there is enough space for everyone.

There is always something more. In what must have been almost 100 visits, I’ve never ventured to remote Càrn Bàn, and on my most recent trip I discovered the community forest wonderland of Eas Mor, with its tumbling waterfall, and the reborn Corrie Hotel. Reinvention is in Arran’s DNA.

The island suffered the ill-fated Clearances, during which an enterprising former crofter founded Macmillan Publishers; his descendant was destined to become Prime Minister of Great Britain. Andy and Rodger came the other way in 2022 – all are welcome in internationalist Arran. They swapped the madness of Manhattan for the sleepy seaside town of Corrie, where they’ve created a boutique hipster hideaway.

Catacol Cottages on the Isle of Arran in ScotlandCatacol Cottages on the Isle of Arran in Scotland

The island is home to sleepy coastal villages – Robin McKelvie

In the restaurant of the Corrie Hotel I enjoyed Arran Blue – for me the best blue cheese in the world – and seafood. It’s easy to enjoy Arran, whether you explore beautiful whiskey distilleries, the two breweries, or follow the new Arran’s Food Journey trail. Lamlash Bay lobster is rightly famous, as is Pirnmill lamb. Arran Dairies’ ice cream is – like so much on Arran – 100 percent local. This continues and continues to expand.

Next to the hotel I said goodbye to a fellow guest, Clyde the wooden seal. This local celebrity is known for sitting on a rock and pranking tourists. Earlier this year, the unthinkable happened: Clyde was washed away by a storm. After a desperate search it was found on the neighboring island of Bute and is now undergoing an MOT before returning to its rightful bank on the coast. He had to come back. This is Arran, after all, whose tractor beam, I can confirm, is unbreakable.

Arran Island in ScotlandArran Island in Scotland

From mainland Scotland the Isle of Arran can be reached by ferry – Getty

Other Scottish islands that will live long in the memory

St Kilda: an alien outpostSt Kilda: an alien outpost

St Kilda: an alien outpost – Alamy

The hardest to get to… was St Kilda

My late father, a trophy-winning sailor, never completed the Scottish Holy Grail of blacksmithing to faraway St. Kilda. I’ve had the honor of reaching this unique archipelago, 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, half a dozen times and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have ended up on five of them. I’ve hiked every inch of Hirta and battled kayaking on the Atlantic Ocean in this otherworldly outpost that you must visit if you even get the chance. Think puffins, whales and memories seared into your frontal lobes.

My favorite hotel… is on Skye

The luxurious, gloriously old-fashioned Kinloch Lodge on Skye is truly sublime. This ancient royal hunting lodge is steeped in history and is owned by what some believe to be the real Lord of the Isles. Jordan Webb’s Michelin quality cooking and brilliantly fun foraging make for a wonderful stay with the super hospitable Isabella Macdonald and her team. Wild swimming is also a delight in their Pirate’s Cove, with mountains and sea all around.

Harris: home of 'epic beaches'Harris: home of 'epic beaches'

Harris: home of ‘epic beaches’ – alamy

The best beaches I’ve ever seen… are on Harris

I once met an American visitor on Harris who told me that the epic beaches here in the Outer Hebrides resemble the Caribbean. I politely pointed out that it is the other way around, as these starched white sand strips are millions of years older on an island with some of the oldest rocks in the world. I’m not making any claims about the softness of the water, but if you’re the only person sitting there, with seals on one side and seabirds on the other, you won’t mind.

My favorite night… was at Papa Westray

One midsummer I took part in the world’s shortest scheduled flight to Papa Westray. After being invited to join the extremely friendly locals for a barbecue and campfire, I headed to the Knap of Howar, a Neolithic site that makes Stonehenge look like Ikea; It is thought to be almost a millennia older. I sat on the seafront at the oldest house in northwestern Europe with a glass of local Highland Park malt and watched the sun refuse to set across the glass-calm Atlantic Ocean. Sublime.


This way you will find the perfect Scottish island for your holiday

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