When I tell people I love to come to Arran to delve deep into the history I often get a “Oh, I’ve been to Brodick Castle” response. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE Brodick Castle and its grounds are some of the most impressive in Scotland. My point is that Arran has real strength in depth with no fewer than eight Historic Scotland sites tempting. There is everything from craggy castles and hill fort sites, through to mysterious standing stones on misty moors. I pretty much guarantee you won’t have been to them all. I confess, despite having been to Arran most years of my life, I’ve never quite made it to them all either. More on that later.
Join me now as we embark on a trip back in time. You might want to bring your walking shoes as some of these are quite rugged. I promise all are brilliant. And you don’t need to pay to visit any either. You can have picnics at these sites, paddle at some and enjoy great views from them all as you drink in the history. What are you waiting for?
- Machrie Moor Standing Stones - I’ve been to Stonehenge and the delights of Neolithic Orkney, and for me the stone monoliths of the Shiskine Valley on Arran are right up there. The setting is sublime on a wild, windswept moor. To the west across the deep waters of the Kilbrannan Sound the hulk of Kintyre rises and to the north the Arran Hills stand sentinel. The Machrie Moor Stone Circles are the remains of stone circles that date back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. We’re talking 4,500 years of history. You will lose your own sense of time exploring the stone circles, standing stones, burial cairns and cists, as well as hut circles and an extensive field system at a site you will want to keep coming back to. I’ve been over half a dozen times and would go back now if you give me half
- Moss Farm Road Stone Circle – This is the one that might trip you up, as many people just presume this Bronze Age gem is part of the Machrie Moor main site. It is in terms of a visitor experience in the same valley, but it’s remarkable in its own right and recognised by such by Historic Scotland. Here you’ll find a complex ring cairn that features a high kerb. When I first came here I was confused to learn with its upright stones it’s actually a burial cairn. Today’s remnants consist of seven upright stones and five more lying on their side. Some visitors to the Machrie stones miss here – don’t.
- Lochranza Castle – The rugged waterfront fortress here for me is up there with any castle in Scotland for me in terms of pure drama. The approach to Lochranza from the south is an epic one as you really appreciate you are in the Highlands with vaulting hills, red deer and soaring golden eagles. The castle juts out on its own pebble-covered peninsula so you can paddle and skim stones in its shadow. If it’s open pop in to explore its nooks and crannies, but for me the real drama is its setting and craggy imprint on this quintessentially Highland landscape. Look it up and they’ll tell you it’s a chunky 13th century tower house. It is, but far more too. It’s a fairy-tale castle at its best in the gloaming when I’ve spotted deer around it and even a basking shark casting circles around the bay.
- Auchagallon Cairn - This Bronze Age kerb cairn sits surrounded by 14 standing stones in a spectacular spot overlooking Kintyre – at its best on a blustery day when you have to struggle to stand up as you do battle with the Atlantic as our ancestors would have here. It’s an ancient burial place that dates back over 4,000 years. The tops of the 14.5m wide stone circle you see today were incorporated into the burial cairn. It’s fascinating that some of the stones consist of red sandstone, others of sturdy grey granite. It’s close to Machrie Moor, but we still don’t know how the two sites were related and the beguiling reality is that we may never know.
- Kilpatrick Dun – This little visited site in Arran’s south holds a dear place in my heart as my family, the McKelvies, hailed from Kilpatrick, so I guess I can lay claim to this one! You need to park down near the main road and then follow the markers up to the site. We know precious little about this oasis – was it a Bronze Age burial site or a hill fort, or maybe both? Or even an early Christian monastery? I don’t know – half the fun is visiting and guessing. The other half of the appeal is the remote location peering back down towards the water from the hillside.
- Torr A’Chaisteal Dun – Another southern charmer, again not many people make the effort to explore. There is some doubt about whether this was actually a fort or just a farmhouse, but its strategic location atop a grassy knoll presiding over a swathe of land and guarding the approach from the sea makes me lean, as most people do, towards it being an Iron Age fort. Let’s just call it a far more dramatic 2,000-year-old fort. Chances are it will be just you and seabirds drifting on the breeze as you enjoy the view to Kilbrannan Sound, Kintyre and Ailsa Craig.
- Torrylin Cairn – I used to scramble out here from Lagg when I was a wee laddie. It’s been a real joy taking my own girls back to share this special hideaway. This Neolithic chambered cairn is one of the type of ‘Clyde Cairns’ that I’ve found dotted around the lands by the Firth of Clyde. The Clyde Cairns generally share a crescent-shaped forecourt, framed by a façade of upright stones. Behind this normally lies a rectangular burial chamber divided into at least two compartments. I was surprised to find that Torrylin, though, has four compartments to its burial chamber, so as with all of Arran’s Historic Scotland sites it really gets you thinking. There are great beaches nearby if you want to make a day of it.
- Carn Ban - Ok, hands up here, I have never been to Carn Ban. And more than that – only one member of my Arran-loving extended family has every made the trek out here. This is another of the Clyde Cairns and as it has been far less disturbed so it’s in better condition. It hides away over four miles from the nearest road across some wildly beautiful terrain. This remoteness has really protected this gem through the ages. I recommend ticking off as many Historic Scotland sites as you can as they are all gloriously different. I’m set on getting to Carn Ban soon, but plan to revisit the rest too!