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Wanderthirst: camping on the Isle of Arran opened my eyes to the magic of our native wildlife

A week away with friends in Scotland surrounded by nature was the perfect antidote to working from home in a small London flat.

05 Feb 2022

Illustration by Serina Kitazono

“Red squirrel!!” I shouted, pointing out of the window. We’d just pulled out of Brodick ferry port and already spotted our first bit of wildlife on the Isle of Arran – a poor pancake of a red squirrel lay dead on the roadside. It was September 2021 when my boyfriend, our friend Sam and I packed my car to the brim and embarked on the 10 (plus) hour drive from London to Arran in Scotland. Our last attempt to save the lukewarm summer.

Enchanted by the wild beauty of the West Highlands the year before, we’d been lured back to Scotland. As someone who fantasises about swapping grey, busy city life for a remote, leafy place, I was so excited to be immersed in nature again.

“The evenings passed in the glow of crackling fires as we huddled over steaming pots of mac and cheese”

Arran, a small island in the Firth of Clyde off the west coast of Scotland, is commonly described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ as, like the mainland, the island offers dramatic rocky highlands as well as luscious green lowlands. Just 20 miles long, 10 miles wide and with a population of around 5,000, Arran is a quiet haven with most of the island seeming undisturbed by human presence. We spent the first few days exploring the fascinating landscape and a handful of pubs – we wanted to see it all!

We based ourselves at a quiet coastal campsite in Kildonan. That first night, we dined on pesto pasta under a blanket of stars and were lulled to sleep by the rolling waves.

The next morning, as our pancakes sizzled on the stove, a small congregation of campers formed on the shoreline, waving their binoculars. As we hurried down to join them, we saw three otters slipping in and out of the still, silvery water onto the rocky beach. “A mum and two babies,” whispered a woman next to us, “they’re here most mornings.” We watched, mesmerised. It was a stark reminder of what the pandemic has taught us: there is an abundance of exciting wildlife and treasures to discover on our own shores after all. 

Armed with an ordnance survey map, we set out on our first walk around Glen Rosa. As we made our way through a woodland, small bursts of colour sprung out at us against the pine-strewn floor. From small, evil-looking red toadstools freckled with white spots, to large, puffy brown ones that reminded me of Yorkshire puddings, the forest was teeming with mushrooms to tempt us off the path. We wandered around like lost children in a fairytale, hunting for more.

“As we watched the pod of dolphins make their way across the horizon, I marvelled at the beauty of our native wildlife”

We left the shadowy woodland and were suddenly basking in glorious sunshine overlooking the valley. Bright green ferns, clumps of burning orange and vibrant purple heather lined the rocky path ahead. Stopping to catch our breath, we looked up and spotted two golden eagles circling the towering mountain top like ancient guardians. A sharp movement under my feet caught my eye. An adder was uncoiling and slithering away from its sunbathing spot.

I exhaled. After so long working from home in a cramped London flat with only a brief lunchtime walk to look forward to, this was exactly what I needed.

Along the river, we stopped to enjoy a cold dip in the shimmering Blue Pool, a popular wild swimming spot flanked by pretty waterfalls. As we lazed in the sunshine, revelling in the beautiful scenery, a cloud of midges descended and chased us out of the pool. The unwelcome price for visiting Scotland!

We hired rickety mountain bikes in Brodick village, struggled up a gravelly, tree-lined track and raced down the other side. Sannox Beach was the perfect pitstop for a swim after a sweaty cycle, followed by a drink at the Corrie Hotel.

Friends from Edinburgh and Glasgow joined us mid-week for more swims, hikes and pints. The evenings passed in the glow of crackling fires as we huddled over steaming pots of mac and cheese. Sunk low in canvas camping chairs, sipping whisky next to the rumbling waves and beneath the infinite, twinkling stars, it was more magical than any beach bar or glamorous restaurant I could imagine. 

On our last day, we rented kayaks. We floated in red boats on the still grey water, as our guide told us about her encounter with a basking shark. “It was so large! I thought the head, tail and fin were all separate animals.” We were paddling across Lamlash Bay to the tiny Holy Isle and I was keen to ask about the wildlife that had escaped us on this trip. 

When we reached Holy Isle, she led us along the stony beach to show us the skeleton of a baby minke whale that had died there. Before we jumped back on the boats, we laid down on the jetty and peered into the deep water as starfishes larger than dinner plates glowed ghostly white up at us. As we paddled back, a curious seal spotted our group. Her charcoal head bobbed out of the water as she followed us back to shore like a concerned chaperone.

We had our final dinner at a seaside pub. As we ate, black shapes rolled in and out of the water in the bay – distinctive shadows under a dusty pink sky. As we watched the pod of dolphins make their way across the horizon, I marvelled at the beauty of our native wildlife. I’ve always found being out in nature rejuvenating and calming, but, like so many others, the anxiety and claustrophobia of the pandemic has reminded me just how vital it is for my wellbeing. I left the Isle of Arran feeling grateful and at peace, and excited for my lunchtime walks again.

Highlights include

Useful info

  • Prepare for the midges! Stock up on citronella candles, insect repellent and head nets. Tiger balm was great for stopping midge bites itching.
  • Stay warm at night – pack lots of layers and blankets and don’t forget a hat and gloves.
  • Book ferries in advance to ensure your itinerary is set. The ferries serve hot food and drinks, perfect for weary travellers.
  • The weather in Scotland is notoriously volatile – don’t forget to pack your raincoat and layers each day, even if it’s blue skies and sunshine.
  • Edinburgh and Glasgow are a few hours’ journey from Arran so why not start or end your Scottish adventure with a city break?