IN the halcyon days of heading Doon the Watter, Arran sparkled as a Clyde holiday hotspot; now ‘Scotland in Miniature’ is set to sparkle again after the baleful lockdown lifts as an antidote to the pandemic-ravaged world. Arran has never been better geared towards the holiday-starved, as I found when I hopped back last autumn on CalMac, bound not for amusement arcades and donkey rides, but new distilleries, hipster gin and boat fresh seafood on an isle where change is afoot.

In tandem with the more traditional Clydeside-resort trappings a new Arran has emerged that savvy travellers are discovering. It is an oasis of superb produce, world-class whisky and bright new businesses that are bringing life to hills so dramatic that Ayrshire-born Robert Burns didn’t even bother trying to wax lyrical about them.

Let’s get that Arran epithet out of the way first. Yes ‘Scotland in Miniature’ is cheesy, but it’s remarkable for being a tourist tagline for once that actually rings true. This bijou isle is the nation in microcosm: the Highland Boundary Fault ravages right through Arran, splitting it between a Highland north alive with high hill and tumbling glen, while a more bucolic land of pasture and beaches eases to the south.

The Scotland in Miniature schism isn’t just limited to geography. Yes, Arran is still the island we all know and love on a day trip, but there is so much more as Sheila Gilmore of Visit Arran is desperate to point out. As we enjoy a lunch laced with local produce at Little Rock overlooking Brodick’s crazy golf, she says: “Today there is a real energy to the island with all sorts of businesses opening up, run by young people who left the island and who have now seen the error of their ways. It’s given a real adrenaline shot to everyone else and meant they have had to up their game too.”

Gilmore is right. I can see the changes for myself as I’ve visited every year since I was just about old enough to toddle up to the windy bow of the ferry to watch Arran loom into view. Even during the Covid-gloom cases were comparatively low and Arran felt brimming with positivity.

The much-needed upgrade at the crazy golf I have played at since I was wee may be minor, but bigger changes are afoot at Brodick Castle. It has always struck me as one of the strangest of National Trust for Scotland properties as not only does it sport the old bolthole of the mighty Hamiltons, but also a sprawling flora and fauna rich swathe of gardens that continue on to half a mountain. Not much has changed on Goatfell of late I grant you – though you can now hike it with their rangers – but inside the castle there is no need for a guide now. The revamped interior has been massively re-modelled to make it accessible to all, with lashings of new technology employed to appeal to all tastes and ages.

The change inside is mirrored in the grounds. An epic new woodland playground – Isle be Wild – has sprung up in the forest. Long gone is the mouldy old perfunctory effort I remember and in its place is a sort of timber Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the canopy alive with rope bridges, magical towers and loads of wee nooks and crannies. They even have a coffee kiosk and a sheltered viewing deck for the big kids. Just a short walk away lies a striking Iron Age Roundhouse recreation and a red squirrel hide, where the bushy tailed ones thrive on an island devoid of pesky greys.

Brodick Castle overlooks the coast, but I want to get closer still on an island that has faced the water ever since the Clearances, when many of the residents were forced to the littoral as the inland communities were abandoned. Here I find new life at Arran Botanical Drinks. Owner Stuart Fraser welcomes me with a broad grin and a cap that is more Shoreditch than Shiskine. The small team here don’t just conjure up the botanicals for Arran Gin – they also concoct a mean cider and cassis.

Sitting in this wooden chalet’s beach bar – or what is a beach bar when regulations allow – the vibe moves from East London to the Med as I recline in a chair on the sands. Inside a wood-burning fire cosies away. Fraser says: “We want to bring something different to Arran, offering exciting drinks using the flavours of this island around us and offer an experience. We couldn’t be further away from the old world of visiting whisky distilleries.”

That old world awaits just north in the land of the red deer in Lochranza, but to be fair the eponymous distillery only opened in 1995. The same owner has opened a young upstart too, Lagg Distillery, which began production last year. It’s a breathtaking distillery, surging from the rolling farmland of Arran’s south like a giant leviathan, a visual rival to Pladda and Ailsa Craig offshore. The tours are impressive too – the visuals are beamed on to the floor and as production takes place in one massive space you’re efficiently whisked through. You will want to linger over their malts, though, if the newmake is anything to go by they are going to be rich explosions of peat.

The new face of Arran moves from glass to plate at Mara. Kirsty Decaestecker is a Corrie girl made good, bringing both a world of influences and her partner and co-owner Gordon with her back from the mainland. They create mouth-watering culinary creations from boat fresh seafood and serve them up in sustainable packaging. We savour ours on the shore with salt in the air and a volley of seagulls gutted we are not leaving a scrap of the spiced mussels, posh fish finger sandwiches and fish kofta.

Arran has come so far from fish ‘n’ chips at the pier – though you can still get that. We are talking the world class blue cheese crafted from 100% Arran milk. Then there is bright new bakery in Blackwaterfoot, pioneering Robin’s Herbs in Whiting Bay (they were offering organic produce on Arran decades ago) and The Bay Kitchen & Stores, a trim deli that wouldn’t look out of place in Glasgow’s West End, with as good coffee and a better range of ultra-local produce. At Café Thyme Turkish pides burst from a homemade oven, Wooleys’ wee oaties are still that good and Arran ice cream comes from 100% Arran milk. You can even buy Arran milk these days from vending machines.

In Arran today even the farms are not just farms. At Bellevue Farm I meet the Curries, the lovely family now opening up their lives as Arran does what it has done for centuries – adapt. We check out the lumbering cows, cheeky goats, feed the chickens and gawp at a massive bull. I chance upon Calum Chaplin, whose Bellevue Creamery produce that Arran Blue, as well as award winning camembert and brie. He is in on the creative act too and tells me about his new Swiss style hard cheese, White Stag.

It’s not stags we are in search of up the road at Balmichael. Arran Alpacas just started up in 2019. Run by yet another bright, young couple I head out with them and their furry four-legged friends. I gaze up towards Arran’s famous Sleeping Warrior wondering what on earth he makes of the latest arrivals in Shiskine. As well as alpacas they have a sprinkling of impressive wee glamping pods that sleep a family of four and come complete with snazzy pizza ovens.

We don’t glamp, but head for the only real resort in the Scottish isles. I’ve watched the Auchrannie grow from just a small country house hotel into a sprawling leisure oasis. Mercifully they’ve not gone all corporate or literally sold out to a chain; they remain impressively independent. There is change here too. We stay in an exclusive extension in the newer spa hotel. The rooms are as sleek as a city boutique hotel and our keycard gives us access to a wee terrace with a hot tub and complimentary lounge; very new Arran.

I stay too across in Blackwaterfoot at the Kinloch. Here they let the epic views across the Kilbrannan Sound to Kintyre and on to Ireland do the soul soaring talking. Our apartment is spacious and I recline, after a tea in their waterfront restaurant of Kilbrannan scallops and Pirnmill lamb, with a glass of that Lagg newmake whisky watching out for dolphins and whales.

As well as our marine mammal cousins Arran is famous for spotting basking sharks and for being the only island out of Scotland’s 800+ where you can see all of Scotland’s ‘Big Five’. You could spend a trip searching for red squirrels, red deer, seals, golden eagles and otters, but my girls spot them all within two hours of rolling off the ferry, scuppering my back seat entertainment plans.

If Arran to you doesn’t scream basking sharks and golden eagles, gin bars and new distilleries, bright new seafood eateries and boat fresh scallops, it’s probably time you headed back doon the watter. This year – after the longest year imaginable – most of us seek a sense of escape and this magical isle offers the ideal tonic.


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