Last month, I spent three days visiting the Isle of Arran and I'm already looking forward to going back. It might be a small island, but there is so much to keep you busy here that it can be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, my ultimate guide for things to do in Arran is here to help.
When people call the Isle of Arran "Scotland in Miniature", it's no joke. There are waterfalls, castles, distilleries, standing stones and so much more to experience. However, don't think that you can see this island from the comfort of your car. I'm sorry to say that you're going to need a little bit of effort for most of the top things to do in Arran.
How to get to Arran?
First things first, you're going to need to know how to get to Arran! There are two ferry services to the island, both run by Caledonian MacBrayne with Ardrossan to Brodick the most popular. It's really simple to book your return tickets as either a foot passenger or a car driver, then it's just a matter of collecting from the terminal. You can't miss the signs for where to queue up in the car and don't be nervous about driving aboard, it really couldn't be easier.
I brought Molly along and so had to reserve a free dog ticket. She wasn't fazed at all by the ferry to Arran, we walked all around the deck and at no point did I think she was looking to go for a swim off the edge! There is a dog-friendly lounge inside, but the only problem was that there's no access to the cafe.
Luxurious living at Brodick Castle
Now we've landed in Brodick, there's a logical first stop on our itinerary. There are three castles on the island and Brodick Castle is the only one still intact so it's no surprise this is one of the top things to do in Arran. Once home to the powerful Hamilton family, today it's run by The National Trust for Scotland. The self-guided tour of the castle doesn't take very long, but it does a good job of telling the story of the 11th Duke of Hamilton and his wife Princess Marie.
They doubled the size of Brodick Castle, taking it from a sturdy Scottish towerhouse to an elaborate 19th-century castle. There is plenty to see outside the castle too with so many woodland trails, it's like a maze full of sculptures. The summer house covered in pinecones is a quiet spot to sit in and if you have any kids along with you then enjoy the adventure play park!
Of course, this wouldn't be a castle without ghosts. A mysterious old man lurks in the Library while a white stag appears in the garden, signalling death for a member of the Hamilton family. More tragically, the grey lady was either a servant girl who killed herself after being disowned by her family and lover after becoming pregnant or a plague victim, condemned to Brodick dungeon to die a painful death. Either way, I hope she got her revenge by haunting those who caused her suffering!
North Glen Sannox Waterfalls
This walk alongside the waterfalls and back takes a couple of hours but the views are spectacular. I saw some incredible places, but this short hike is absolutely one of the best things to do in Arran. Most importantly, unlike other similar waterfalls, you won't be fighting hundreds of people for photo opportunities. It's a really easy stroll and if you're visiting on a hot day then why not drop in for a little swim in some of the pools?
The view in the second half of the walk just gets better with every step. The Glen Sannox ridge is spectacular and if you're feeling especially energetic then you can carry on the walk all the way up!
Head North to Lochranza
Lochranza is usually known for three things. The castle, the distillery and the shadiest place in Scotland. If you're lucky enough to visit Arran on a sunny day, then you're in for a real treat.
Lochranza Castle is one of the most picturesque ruins in Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides with hills rising all around. It began life as a small hall house, probably built by Dougall MacSween in the 13th century. But in the running battle for the west coast, Lochranza made its way to Walter Stewart.
This area of Scotland wasn't secure and Walter was tasked with defending it by the King of Scots. That wasn't an easy job but in 1263, the Stewarts won the Battle of Largs driving off a Norwegian invasion under King Haakon. When Robert the Bruce started his campaign to win back Scotland in 1306, Lochranza Castle was where he supposedly landed on Arran.
If you're visiting Arran on a less than sunny day, you might be needing to warm up. Lochranza Distillery will put some warmth back into your bones and some fire into your veins. Excellent whisky aside, the distillery was only created in the 1990s and purpose-built with visitors in mind. That's why it won Distillery Visitor Experience of the Year and is easily one of the best things to do on Arran!
Visit Arran's Standing Stones at Machrie Moor
There are few standing stones in Scotland that are as instantly recognisable as these at Machrie Moor. I would go as far as saying that no visit to Arran is complete without seeing these in person. It's not a short walk out to the stones but it's fairly flat with a decent path. Beware the guard sheep though, I kept Molly on the lead but some of them were still pretty bold.
Contrary to what you might think from looking on Instagram, Machrie Moor is more than just 3 large stones. There are actually the remains of six stone circles surrounded by dozens more standing stones, burial cists and hut circles. The stones are between 3500 and 5500 years old although they replaced even earlier 6500-year-old timber circles. Some of these were only recently discovered, completely swallowed up by layers of peat.
It seems like we will never know what the stones were used for, but we don't need to. We can just be happy in standing and experiencing them in this quiet part of Arran. One folk story says that they were created as fairies sat on the hills and flicked pebbles down towards Machrie Moor. Those fairies must have been giants if they considered these pebbles!
While most people are drawn to the tallest stones, it's the double circle near the old farmhouse that's got the best story. It's called Suidh Coire Fhionn or Fingal's Cauldron Seat. This is where the legendary Gaelic hero used to cook his supper in a big cauldron. His faithful dog Bran tended to get in the way while he tried to eat, so Fingal would tie him up using a little hole that's still visible in a corner of one of the stones.
Royal Legends at King's Cave
The west coast of Arran is littered with caves and one of the entrances is just a little more impressive than the rest. This grand gate is guarding the King's Cave, one of the many locations that lays claim to the story of Robert Bruce and the Spider. It's a pretty incredible place and if you're short on time then I'd highly recommend this as an essential thing to do in Arran.
After Bruce had been crowned King of Scots in 1306, he was almost immediately defeated in battle and forced to go on the run. Nobody knows where Bruce went that winter and Arran is one of the candidates. He more than likely moved around, not staying in many places for too long. The King's dream was hanging by a thread.
The common folk story is that while sitting in a cave with his willpower almost broken, Bruce saw a spider trying to build a web. A dozen times the spider missed its jump and fell to the cavefloor, only to climb back up and start again. The lesson learned was that if at first you don't succeed, try and try again.
Robert Bruce certainly wasn't the first person to use this cave, it's full of much older carvings. A huge cross, crude horses or deer and even Viking symbols adorn the walls between the graffiti of visitor's initials. It takes around 2 hours for the full circuit to King's Cave which is pretty easy going. Find full instructions here.
Eas Mor Waterfall & The Library in the Woods
Eas Mor is one of the stranger, yet interesting, things to do in Arran. Not only is this a beautiful 100 foot waterfall, hidden in the forest but you'll also find an eco-library in a purpose built hut. Eas Mor Ecology worked tirelessly to create a path that would allow people of all abilities to experience the forest. They've done a great job and the plan is for this to become a mecca for people with disabilities.
The walk detailed here goes right up to a loch further up from both the hut and waterfall but that's entirely optional. It doesn't take long to get here and it's worth it to read through some of the letters and notes left by other travellers. If you've just finished a book during this visit to Arran, why not leave it behind here for somebody else?
Don't miss the Giants' Graves
One of the most popular sites on Arran are the Giants' Graves. These do take a bit of effort to visit. The graves aren't the only thing worth seeing though and on the way you come across the beautiful double Glenashdale Waterfall. A viewing platform juts out to give you the best aspect of possibly the most stunning waterfall on Arran.
Once you've dragged yourself away from the waterfall, it's time for the Giants' Graves themselves. These are actually the remains of two Neolithic chambered cairns. From their size, people can be forgiven for thinking these were burials for giants. We know very little about the societies that made these and the stones have been badly robbed over the years. Judging by the size of the original cairns and how prominent this hill at the south of Arran is, whoever was buried here must have been important.
I'd strongly advise trying to get up here early in the morning while the sun is coming up. Not only does the light look great since you're on the east of the island, but you should get the place to yourself. It's an incredible place to just stand and imagine how things might have looked here around 6000 years ago.
Viking Fort - Kingscross
Kingscross Point is famous as the location where King Robert the Bruce left Arran for the Scottish mainland and future glory. That's not what we're really here for though. Kingscross is also the location of the Viking Fort. This is actually a combination of both Viking boat burial and a small Iron Age fort.
Pictures can't do this little spot justice. You need to stand on it and see the lumps, bumps and steep drops for yourself to really appreciate the Viking Fort.
The Viking Fort is probably one of the most underrated things to do on Arran, but it was one of my absolute highlights. It's that undefinable feeling you get around anything "Viking" I think. To get there you can either follow this Walkhighlands route and where it mentions "a rocky outcrop and some ruins", that's the spot. I was lucky enough to be around very early morning and somebody let me park next to their house. The fort was just a short farm track away instead.
Always keep the locals on your side!
The Mysterious Holy Island
Just off the coast of Arran is the mysteriously named "Holy Island". Unfortunately for me, they have a no dog rule on the island because of the wildlife there. From what I have heard and read, it's a fascinating place and hopefully I will be back to see the place with my own eyes soon. Historically, the island was home to the 6th century hermit St Molaise but that's not its only holy feature.
The island was gifted to Tibetan Buddhist Monks and today hosts the Centre for World Peace and Health. They are very clear that this isn't a Buddhist monastery and not everybody who lives on the island is Buddhist. Instead, this is a place where anybody can come and find peace. If you do decide to get the short ferry from Lamlash then it’s important to be respectful of both the community there and the environment they look after.
For everything to do with the Centre and info on the ferry, have a read here.
Hike up Goatfell
The glaring omission from this visit to Arran so far has been the highest hill - Goatfell. Time and weather were both against me on my trip, so this is one of the things to do in Arran that I haven't actually done! Don't worry, that just gives me an excuse to come back.
If you're a hiker and you have a spare 6 hours or so then you should get yourself up Goatfell. You can find the route laid out here. Just make sure you let me know what it’s like and send me some pictures from the highest point on the island!
Where to Eat, Drink & Shop While Visiting Arran
Like usual, I was camping during my visit to Arran so most of my meals were from a can over a stove. Nevertheless, I had a few recommendations that I couldn't ignore.
Mara Seafood - Corrie – This is much more than just a simple fish and chip shop. Mara is from the Gaelic word for the sea and they serve up what I would call fancy takeaway seafood. My choice was a single oyster, spicy soup and a portion of Hake with tomato salsa and potato wedges. Pre-ordering your food for collection online as early as possible is advised!
Sandwich Station - Lochranza - A small hut near the Lochranza ferry terminal that somehow delivers incredible sandwiches from its tiny interior. Artisan bread and fillings that go much further than ham and cheese. I went for 5-spice slow roast pork on sourdough with a coffee and a friendly chat.
The Corrie Hotel - Corrie - I didn't order food here but I did have a very relaxing pint. After a day of adventuring around Arran, there was nothing better than sitting in the beer garden here and gazing out to sea. I'll just let the picture below do the talking.
Others - You can't travel far around the island without encountering either Arran Cheese or Ice Cream. Both are delicious and just outside Brodick, you can find the Arran Cheese shop to stock up on treats. Over the years, I've probably tried every flavour but love the Claret, Whisky or Mustard versions.