Being close to only a month a way from starting the PCT, we thought it might be useful to do a shakedown hike, especially so Lucy could try out some of her new gear. Scotland in winter isn’t necessarily the best place to mimic the weather of a hike that starts in a desert, but we found a great trail to walk anyway.
The Isle of Arran is not far off Scotlands west coast, only an hour by ferry from Ardrossan and the Arran Coastal Way circumnavigates it. Arran is Scotlands seventh largest island and has a resident population of 4-5000 people although it certainly becomes much more crowded than that in the summer. Because of its incredible geology and diverse array of ecosystems, the 167 square-mile island is often described as “Scotland in miniature”.
On March 1st we left Glasgow for the ferry and were on the road for 5 minutes before Lucy suggested to check for delays and cancellations. Thankfully so because all departures to Arran were cancelled that day due to a storm hitting the west coast of Scotland. We tried again the next morning, leaving Lucy’s flat at 5:30 AM to catch the ferry at 7. Arriving in the dark, we boarded the boat with our packs filled with our food for the next 4 days.
My resupply was a bit different than normal as I could not find many of my beloved snacks from the AT in the UK grocery stores. Chips Ahoy was replaced with Jaffa Cakes and digestive biscuits, goldfish were non-existent, but I still refused to drink tea; or did I… Thankfully I could still find Poptarts for breakfast since I am maintaining my lifetime boycott of Honey Buns due to overexposure on the AT.
Conveniently, the trail is a loop going around the perimeter of the island so it both starts and ends at the ferry terminal. Simply enough, when we disembarked at the harbor in Brodick, we just started walking. Most resources suggested moving in an anti-clockwise direction sending us first in a northerly direction. The walk began relatively easy as it followed a coastal path out along a beach bringing us past many morning dog walkers.
My concern given my experience with Scotland over the past two years wasn’t if it would rain, but how much it would rain. Surely enough, an hour into our walk as we snaked into a forest and had our first proper ascent, the rain began to fall. Being surrounded by trees on a muddy hill and getting downpoured on induced traumatic flashbacks to the AT. But the rain in Scotland is different, it’s never just a sprinkle, it is generally always the opposite. Donning much heavier waterproofs than the AT we made our way up and out of the forest to the coast where we approached the town of Sannox and were fully exposed to the elements. The nice thing about the weather in the Scottish Isles though is how quickly it changes and we were soon greeted by glints of sunshine through the overcast skies. The temperatures stayed in the forties which normally would have been fine aside from the consistent dampness of well, everything.
Water squished up through my shoes with each step creating a group of bubbles on the top of my shoes. We walked below the cliffs on a grassy path that mimicked my shoes as the ground underfoot was saturated from the past several months of rain. It was early on in this hike that I accepted my feet were going to be soaking wet for the next four days and there was no escaping it.
We set sights for the town of Locharanza on the northern tip of Arran as we had high hopes of camping on the outskirts and visiting the pub that evening for a warm fire and a pint. Setting our tent up in a wooded, marshy area we immediately traded shoes for flip flops to air out our incredibly pruned feet. After a mac and cheese dinner we walked a half mile into town where we located the very closed looking pub. We would come to realize over the next several days that like most islands, many pubs, restaurants, and cafes remain closed until the nicer weather and more tourists arrive.
We awoke the next morning just on the threshold of being warm enough. Lucy was first out of the tent and suggested we start packing up quickly as rain looked rather imminent. Not only is Lucy a doctor, I now learned she is a very good weatherwoman as well. The skies emptied almost as soon as we began dismantling the tent, the cold air debilitating our hands while we fumbled with the stakes and clips. Setting up or taking down in the rain will NEVER be a fun experience. But we moved quickly and began our trek around the Northern coast in the pouring rain. We were blessed with the shelter of a public toilet before leaving town where we could finish our breakfast and readjust everything we needed for the 20-mile day ahead. We trudged along while the rain (which eventually turned to hail) bounced forcefully off the pavement on what was unfortunately the longest road walking section of the day. Checking the maps, we noticed a cafe 6-7 miles into the day and put our heads down and walked quickly towards the direction of tea (for Lucy).
As we neared the small town of Pirnmill with our waterproofs reaching the point of soaking through, the cafe was most definitely closed. BUT, the small village shop next to it was not. We shuffled quickly inside and removed our hoods to see two women conversing at the front of the store. We mentioned how we had hoped to seek refuge in the cafe and the shop owner, Hazel, offered a cup of tea much to Lucy’s delight. We began to chat while she set up a table and chairs for us to rest and warm up for a bit. The first experience of trail magic on the ACW. Slightly surprised, I noticed she had put out a cup of tea for me as well. Given my state of being very cold and very wet, I actually enjoyed it thanks to copious amounts of milk and sugar. As we drank the tea and ate some cheese and crackers under Hazel’s incredible hospitality, we noticed sunshine coming through the windows. Hazel checked the forecast for us which showed a relatively (for Scotland) dry rest of the day. Wanting to take advantage of the nice weather, we quickly packed up and continued down the West coast of Arran.
The sea birds here were absolutely amazing as Lucy pointed them out identifying all of the gannets, oyster catchers, terns, cormorants, black-back gulls, buzzards, hawks, and eider ducks. We spent a sunny lunch break on a rocky beach watching gannets dive aggressively into the sparkling ocean.
Walking along the coast was extremely rough at times, clambering over boulders and finding comfort in the small patches of grass in between was oddly reminiscent of walking through Pennsylvania. The sights however, were much, much better. Looking out to the ocean and walking amongst the sea cliffs provided a stunning landscape that only improved as the sun began to set and we found a camp spot in a small protected nook along the beach near Blackwaterfoot on the side of a golf course.
We awoke the next morning to a tractor collecting sand from the beach below us, diligently moving in rows upward from the shoreline. When we had packed up and began the third morning of walking, the tractor pulled up beside us and a bearded man hopped out and told us it was a bit silly to be camping this time of year. We got to chatting and he told us he was a groundskeeper at the Shiskine Golf Club. He invited Lucy and I back to the shed on the golf course for, you guessed it, a cup of tea. Stuart generously made me a coffee in the warmth of the grounds crews break room where we talked about the island and what an incredibly dismal winter they have had. After working at the golf club for 38 years, he recounted this being the wettest it had ever been. We could certainly attest to that given the present state of our feet.
This incredibly generous act of kindness had me realising that trail magic in the UK was tea. Hopefully Lucy will adjust to PCT trail magic of PBR and Coca-Cola. After a great chat with Stuart, starting our morning on a high note, we began walking around the southern tip of Arran on what would be the sunniest day yet. Descending down onto the shore we moved along the notoriously rocky bit of Bennan Head. Giant sea caves dotted the cliffs, some of which were a staggering 80 feet high.
We moved slowly as we navigated the difficult terrain while also looking out to the sea hopeful of spotting some of the many marine mammals that call Arran’s coast home. Stretching around to the rocky beaches of Kildonan, we finally had our first seal sighting when we stumbled on several colonies of grey seals totalling some forty individuals. We spent at least a half hour watching them play in the waters of the sheltered bay hopping on and off of the rocks, the rugged coastline only passable at low-tide protecting them from much human interaction.
Our feet were sore and worn from the incessant moisture carried in our socks. Each morning we put them on, cold and wet, and no matter how long we had been walking on a dry stretch, we knew that it wouldn’t last. The painful rubbing on the soft skin became more hurtful than annoying as we approached the third night of camp just near Whiting Bay. Knowing we only had 15 miles to walk to the end of the trail the next day, we indulged on much of our remaining chocolate on the coldest night of the trek.
The chilly air woke us early the next morning and we packed up quickly knowing the only way to get warm was to start moving. Exiting the tent, I brushed patches of ice off of the rain fly onto the cold, frost-coated blades of grass. We made our way up the east coast as Holy Isle came in to view. The southern bit of the 2-mile long island is a Buddhist retreat, while the remainder is a nature reserve that houses Eriskay ponies, Saanen goats, Soay sheep, and many rare plants and trees.
Snow capped peaks of the Goatfell range poked into the skyline as we looked down and saw the end point of the Arran Coastal Way where we had started just four days before. Reaching the monument back in Brodick we had successfully walked about 70 miles around Arran together with really zero issues, allowing for an optimistic outlook of the PCT. We entered the fish and chip shop across the street from the ferry terminal where I sat on the ground and removed my completely saturated shoes for the last time on Arran. Excited about this successful trial, we grabbed our grease stained, newspaper covered meal and boarded the boat towards a much needed warm shower.
March 6, 2020