‘Streaming off the ferry — nine round trips a day — travelers like me encounter this “Scotland in miniature.”
This is the Isle of Arran, a 167-square-mile island in the Firth of Clyde, a 55-minute ferry ride from Scotland’s southwest coast. The year-round population of 4,500 swells to 14,000 some days when summer travelers arrive.
“Scotland in miniature” refers to the island’s remarkable landscape. The moors and the granite peaks in the north resemble Scotland’s vast Highlands. The lush, sheep-filled pastures of the south, Scotland’s Lowlands.
Americans visit Scotland for its cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh -- and to play golf. Yet, Arran is largely unknown to Americans: by one estimate, just 6 percent of travelers to Arran come from overseas.
Over five days here, I met a handful of people who introduced me to the Isle of Arran, a wee bit of Scotland Americans might want to know better.
“Bet you’ve never seen sheep on a golf course before,” said Helen, whose path I crossed on one of the hiking trails that crisscross Arran.
I was starting out; she was finishing.
We met along a trail known as the Lochranza-Narachan Track, which zig zags over a peak, connecting one coast to another. We met where the trail borders a golf course, where she’d stopped for a drink of water.
Walkers like Helen and me admire Arran for its hiking opportunities.
Arran “offers everything from gentle forest trails to arduous mountain scrambles,” writes Paddy Dillon in an authoritative guide to 45 island trails. “Walkers will delight in visiting waterfalls, watching wildlife, marveling at ancient standing stones and enjoying spectacular views.”
The toughest, certainly, is Goatfell, at 2,867 feet the island’s tallest peak. Goatfell was windswept and snow-covered the late-April day I hiked through a country park to its trail head -- but no farther.
Turns out Helen was here retracing walks taken with her husband over the previous decades. He has Parkinson’s, she said, and remains at their home in Stirling, on the mainland near Edinburgh.
“Had a hole-in-one here,” Helen recalled, facing the 3rd green, where sheep lolled in the sun.
And, about those sheep on the golf course? The manager in the pro shop told me the course is leased to a sheep farmer from November to April, the least-busy months of the year. So, are the sheep a “hazard” in the way golfers think? How do you score hitting a sheep, and landing amidst one’s leavings?
No relief, the manager said. It’s what golfers call the “rub of the green,” an obstacle that brings bad luck.
And then she walked on, as did I.
Arran is best seen on foot, but you need a car to get around.
I met Nathan running up the steep grade of Ross Road, one of the two-way, single-lane roads that crisscross the island. I was driving a Suzuki Alto, the smallest car for rent that day at the car garage near my hotel.
This was a 10-mile training run for Nathan, 46, who became a distance runner six months ago when he learned of his father’s diagnosis of bone marrow cancer. He runs to raise money for the cancer support group that’s helping his father.
“I thought maybe I could do that,” Nathan said.
Runners like Nathan are common along Arran’s roads. So are hikers and backpackers, cyclists, farmers on tractors, motorcyclists alone or in groups, donkey trekkers – and, just-born lambs who’ve wandered from their mothers.
Arran’s roads, tourism officials acknowledge, are “unique.” There is the coastal road that links the island’s villages, rarely more than 10 minutes apart. And, there are the roads that bisect the island, like the Ross Road where I met Nathan.
All are narrow and winding, with hills that challenge, both ascending and descending. Road surfaces change. Look out for the sheep and deer. The scenery a constant, if welcome, distraction. Some use less-decorous language: a frustrated driver painted over a road sign warning of twists and turns with the words – “Sh-t road.”
I met David and Yvonne testing the roads in a Roush Mustang 427R. This is a tricked out, hey-look-at-me, muscle car with a throaty, hairy-chested, exhaust note, according to the Car & Driver review.
They’d ferried over from Glasgow with friends in Corvettes, Mustangs and Chargers.
“How are the roads?” I asked. “Could use resurfacing,” David replied.
Seems like the road conditions hold down speed.
Speed wasn’t the issue for Nathan. It was endurance.
When we met, near the high point on the Ross Road, Nathan had already run 10 miles. It was 10 miles back to his village, Killmory, known for its creamery and cheese shop. A long, uphill, downhill run, Nathan said. “I’m running for my dad.”
Arran comes with an accent -- Polish, Romanian, Czech.
These Eastern European voices are heard in the island’s bars and restaurants, at reception desks in hotels, and among the housekeepers cleaning rooms.
“Staffing is quite difficult,” says Colin Morrison, chief financial officer at The Auchrannie, a large, highly regarded resort, hotel and spa in Brodick, the island’s largest town. The week I was there, the hotel advertised for nine positions.
Hospitality work, Morrison says, lacks prestige and doesn’t pay well enough for staffers to live on Arran, and commuting on the ferry takes up too much time. To recruit and retain staff, The Auchrannie has invested almost $2 million in staff accommodation, Morrison says, building more rooms for staff than for guests.
The Auchrannie, Morrison says, relies on residents of European Union countries for 30 percent of its staffing. No one on the island seems to object. “Arran doesn’t complain about immigrants,” Morrison said. “They’re doing jobs [local residents] don’t want to do.”
As the U.K. prepares to leave the EU, Morrison and his EU staffers confront two worries: Will those already here be allowed to stay? Will others in EU countries be allowed to come and work here?
How worried is Morrison?
It’s “not keeping us up at night,” Morrison says. “We’ll deal with it.”
The big problem, he says, is the uncertainty. “We don’t know.”
Another glimpse of politics came on my last day here.
I met Douglas and Cathy on the trail to Machrie Moor, a collection of six early Bronze Age stone circles, including a trio of tall red sandstone pillars. They had come over for the day on the ferry from Ayrshire, especially to see the pillars.
I asked Douglas about a button on his hat that read “Yes.”
“What’s that stand for,” I asked.
“Scottish independence,” he answered.
The three of us talked Scottish and U.S. politics as we walked, then Douglas brought up the Kennedys. Scottish Kennedys come from Ayrshire, Douglas said, and some there believe the president’s family, thought to be of the Irish Kennedys, have Scottish roots, too.
Douglas told me he’s reading Larry Tie’s recent biography of Robert F. Kennedy.
I told them I worked for Kennedy’s campaign and was nearby when he was shot.
“That made me so sore,” Douglas remembered. “I thought the world stopped.”
It had grown chilly as we talked. Douglas offered me his scarf. “You’re from the South, not accustomed to our weather,” Douglas said. I could leave it on their car mirror when I got back to the car park.
I told him I’d be fine and would remember his generosity.
John F. Greenman publishes the travel site 36hoursincolumbus.com. He is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia and the former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer.