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North West Isle of Arran / 5 days / 27 miles (44km)

OS Route Map → Map Route file →

Date: 09 Apr 2010
Start: High Dougarie on the west coast of Arran, NR 882370.
Finish: Sannox.
Maps: Explorer 361 Isle of Arran.
Ferry information: Ardrossan ↔ Brodick: Caledonian MacBrayne
Ardrossan parking: the large manned harbour car park. Collect a ticket on entry and pay the man on departure (our 5-day stay was £8).
Bus information and Journey Planner: Traveline Scotland / Brodick → High Dougarie and Sannox → Brodick: Service 324.

Day 1Glen Iorsa & Sail Chalmadale3.3 miles / 1620 feet (5.3km / 493m)
Day 2Dubh Loch, Mullach Buidhe, Beinn Bhreac & Meall nan Damh5.8 miles / 2550 feet (9.4km / 777m)
Day 3Catacol & Gleann Diomhan5.1 miles / 1380 feet (8.2km / 420m)
Day 4Gleann Easan Biorach & Bearradh Tom a ' Muidhe6.1 miles / 1070 feet (9.9km / 326m)
Day 5Laggan coast & Sannox6.1 miles / - (9.9km)
Pitch on Sail Chalmadale

A fine 5-day backpack in the NW of Arran, including the Beinn Bharrain range of hills on the western side of Loch Tanna, the long wild glens of the north and the high-level path from Lochranza to Laggan.

After a long and hard winter with a significant late snowfall only a week or two before, many Scottish mountains still retained a covering despite the onset of a thaw and we took our flexi-crampons and winter kit. The highest central peaks on Arran did have significant though very patchy snow, but these hills were largely clear and we didn't need it, in fact after a cold wind on the second day it became really warm with very little wind for the rest of the trip and we walked in base layers in the afternoons. We timed our arrival to coincide with the clearance of a weather front that heralded several days of settled conditions, and the forecast was spot-on: it was sunny throughout until the high grey mist returned on our last early morning walk to Sannox.

Our second trip in the north of Arran and once again the upper glens and isolated hills in the remote heart of the region were completely deserted, a superb area for backpackers and one that makes a powerful and lasting impression.

Day 1 - Glen Iorsa & Sail Chalmadale

On the ferry we again saw a motley array of monster bone-buckling backpacks, bulging with stuff and festooned with camping paraphernalia on the outside as well: perhaps this is a new hobby BackCracking.

The bus ride from Brodick ferry terminal around the north end of Arran to High Dougarie was a shaky experience at times, especially as we decided to sit at the back: a full-length single decker bus winding around some tight curves and letting rip on the straight sections of a bumpy and not-very-wide road. On several occasions we literally left the seat and landed back with a thud. The driver was very helpful though and knew from our backpacks where we needed to alight: he dropped us at the exact spot where the signed footpath to Glen Iorsa leaves the road (this is not the access track to Dougarie Lodge, it is a short way NW beyond a bend in the road).

The mid-afternoon start was just right for a climb of the first western hill Sail Chalmadale. The path joins a good track into Glen Iorsa following Iorsa Water, crossing a footbridge over the Allt na h-Airighe and arriving at a concrete ford at Glen Scaftigill: there is no longer a footbridge here but the water was shallow enough for us to walk through dryshod. Just beyond the ford we left the track for a faint sketchy path ascending NE near the stream, aiming towards an obvious little peak on the skyline. The line petered out higher up but reappeared later to pass the left side of Loch Sail Chalmadale at the foot of the final slopes.

Entering Glen Iorsa
Entering Glen Iorsa (09 Apr 2010__15:22:47)
Sail Chalmadale and loch
Sail Chalmadale and loch (09 Apr 2010__16:36:33)

A straightforward ascent of the south ridge gains the 480m summit cairn, a grand viewpoint in the late sunshine for the full length of Glen Iorsa and the exquisite wilderness region ahead to Loch Tanna, on whose shores we made a highly memorable pitch on our last visit to Arran. To the NW lies the Beinn Bharrain chain that we would tackle the next day, while across the glen lies the range of mountains from Beinn Nuis to Caisteal Abhail.

A short way north of the summit we made a fine pitch with that excellent view of the heartland from the tent door, there could hardly be a more enticing vista in the sinking sun and rapidly falling temperature.

Beinn Nuis & Beinn Tarsuinn across Glen Iorsa
Beinn Nuis & Beinn Tarsuinn across Glen Iorsa (09 Apr 2010__17:44:46)
Upper Glen Iorsa from Sail Chalmadale
Upper Glen Iorsa from Sail Chalmadale (09 Apr 2010__17:52:50)
Pitch on Sail Chalmadale
Pitch on Sail Chalmadale (09 Apr 2010__18:31:08)

Day 2 - Dubh Loch, Mullach Buidhe, Beinn Bhreac & Meall nan Damh

At dawn the clear dry air and a chilly breeze saw the views in a new eastern light and the tent flysheet was unusually bone dry. We contemplated the possible lines of ascent to the Beinn Bharrain ridge ahead as we descended to the foot of Cnoc Breac and dropped down to Lochan nan Cnamh, still partly snow covered. Above the lochan the next bealach is typical of these parts: pretty wet but liberally peppered with rock and easy to walk across, even with the snowmelt water to swell the volume.

We made our way over the shoulder of the next 388m rise that forms the headwall of Glen Scaftigill to arrive at Dubh Loch, nestling at the foot of the ridge and hidden until the last moment, a delightful spot making a picturesque foreground to the snow-flecked slopes.

Beinn Bharrain ridge from descent of Sail Chalmadale
Beinn Bharrain ridge from descent of Sail Chalmadale (10 Apr 2010__08:12:16)
Lochan nan Cnamh
Lochan nan Cnamh (10 Apr 2010__08:41:19)
Dubh Loch
Dubh Loch (10 Apr 2010__09:57:20)
Dubh Loch
Dubh Loch (10 Apr 2010__10:04:00)

After surveying the ascent options on the steep slopes of broken rocks and heather, we chose a heathery strip climbing north-westwards through the rocks: it turned out surprisingly easy going underfoot despite the angle. Higher up we met a thin path coming up from further north and running westwards which took us almost to the ridge, where the terrain was very easy cropped grass and rock leaving a short ascent to the summit and trig point of Mullach Buidhe.

On the ascent there was a grand aerial view over Dubh Loch and Loch Tanna towards the central high peaks, while the summit gave clear distant views to the Kintyre peninsula and the islands further west and down to the cliffs of the north-eastern corries. Beinn Bharrain is the pointy spur at the western extremity, but according to the only couple we met on this traverse, the name is used to refer to the whole ridge.

View over Dubh Loch & Loch Tanna
View over Dubh Loch & Loch Tanna (10 Apr 2010__11:25:29)
View from Mullach Buidhe
View from Mullach Buidhe (10 Apr 2010__11:49:53)

Descending to the bealach, the cold wind had strengthened and we raised the hoods on our shell jackets, a total contrast to the warmth of the sheltered Dubh Loch. There was a fine view of Glas Choirein and the next summit Beinn Bhreac, still sporting a quite deep line of snow along its western rim and giving more excellent views.

Beinn Bhreac
Beinn Bhreac (10 Apr 2010__12:11:25)
Glas Choirein
Glas Choirein (10 Apr 2010__12:23:01)
Mullach Buidhe
Mullach Buidhe (10 Apr 2010__12:36:14)
View from Beinn Bhreac
View from Beinn Bhreac (10 Apr 2010__13:14:01)

The ridge path descends northwards and climbs a small hump with spot-height 653m, a good vantage point for a retrospective view and forwards along the rim of Coirein Lochain, still snow lined and presiding over Coire Fhionn Lochan below. En route we appraised the scene ahead for the ascent options for Meall nan Damh.

Looking back along the ridge from cairn at 653m
Looking back along the ridge from cairn at 653m (10 Apr 2010__14:09:32)
Choire-Fhionn Lochan
Choire-Fhionn Lochan (10 Apr 2010__14:15:20)
Lodan Ruadh & Meall nan Damh
Lodan Ruadh & Meall nan Damh (10 Apr 2010__14:15:52)

Nearing Meall Bhig we veered right towards the headwaters of the streams that drain the bealach eastwards and crossed to join a thin path climbing around the southern slopes of Meall nan Damh. On reaching the SE ridge the path resolutely carried on around the eastern slopes to who knows where, and we left it to climb the ridge line on easy short heather and rock to the summit cairn.

An isolated hill in a commanding position at the end of the ridge, it gives extensive views all around and a great view of upper Glen Catacol to Loch Tanna. We made an excellent pitch quite near the summit.

Upper Glen Catacol & Loch Tanna
Upper Glen Catacol & Loch Tanna (10 Apr 2010__16:07:05)
View from Meall nan Damh
View from Meall nan Damh (10 Apr 2010__16:41:33)
Pitch on Meall nan Damh
Pitch on Meall nan Damh (10 Apr 2010__17:26:26)

Day 3 - Catacol & Gleann Diomhan

Another clear sunny morning and we descended easily NNW on very short heather and rock to around the 500m contour, where we decided to continue down the NE slopes to visit Lochan a' Mhill: this direct line is not recommended!. As the slope got steeper the heather got bushier, concealing hidden rocks to throw every careless step and make the going very arduous. The descent took a long time and we arrived at the lochan with much relief, though it is a very quiet and attractively wild spot.

Lochan a Mhill
Lochan a Mhill (11 Apr 2010__10:30:49)

From the outflow stream a path develops on the NE side, becoming quite prominent for a while as it passes along the rim of a little rocky gorge before dissipating again in the bracken lower down. In any event the route is easy enough: we followed the stream down to the watersmeet of the Allt nan Eireannach and Allt Cilloug where they are very easily crossed to the north side. A path heads NE to descend alongside a deer fence to a gate at the bottom which leads onto a good track out to the car park at Catacol Bay.

We crossed the bridge and headed up into Glen Catacol, forking L on the higher path up to a gate in the deer fence and onwards into Gleann Diomhan. This glen path is only around 2 miles long but somehow seemed much longer, at any rate it is a fine walk back into the heart of the region. Apart from a distant forward view at one point, the waterfalls marked on the map are hidden from the path in a deep defile. In the marshes alongside the Abhainn Mor we saw a colony of breeding toads and their dark strings of spawn.

Lower Glen Catacol
Lower Glen Catacol (11 Apr 2010__13:14:06)
Lower Gleann Diomhan
Lower Gleann Diomhan (11 Apr 2010__15:17:30)
Upper Gleann Diomhan
Upper Gleann Diomhan (11 Apr 2010__16:16:22)

The path gradually marched ever upwards near the slowly dwindling stream and its many little tributaries, constantly deceiving us with an illusion of mountainsides closing in to a V-shaped glenhead below Beinn Bhreac, but we were basically walking around the sides of a cone - it always looks the same. Finally our patience was rewarded with the sudden appearance of the arresting shape of Cir Mhor above the approaching bealach. Soon we recognised the other snow-streaked mountains that emerged to join the spectacle, from Caisteal Abhail and A' Chir to Beinn Tarsuinn and Beinn Nuis.

We easily crossed the deserted wide wet bealach on the numerous stony bits and offloaded our packs to soak in the view in the warm late afternoon sunshine - what a magnificent spot for a pitch today!. Later we sat outside to eat our evening meal and further absorb this splendid atmosphere.

Cir Mhor & A Chir from the bealach
Cir Mhor & A Chir from the bealach (11 Apr 2010__17:16:43)
A Chir & Beinn Tarsuinn from the bealach
A Chir & Beinn Tarsuinn from the bealach (11 Apr 2010__17:20:34)
Pitch at the bealach with Caisteal Abhail beyond
Pitch at the bealach with Caisteal Abhail beyond (11 Apr 2010__17:54:52)

Day 4 - Gleann Easan Biorach & Bearradh Tom a' Muidhe

The low hazy sun over the peaks warmed the tent as we packed up the kit for the next leg around to Loch na Davie and Gleann Easan Biorach. Near the centre of the bealach is the rare sight of a marker cairn, indicating where the path can be picked up after crossing the wide stony expanse: it descends gradually in a wide arc turning northwards into the cleft between Beinn Bhreac and Carn Mor. Glen Iorsa can now be seen from its head and Sail Chalmadale reappears.

Glen Iorsa & Sail Chalmadale from the bealach
Glen Iorsa & Sail Chalmadale from the bealach (12 Apr 2010__08:37:32)
Loch na Davie
Loch na Davie (12 Apr 2010__09:15:12)

From Loch na Davie, Gleann Easan Biorach is a good scenic walk but the path can be a little exasperating at times: a scruffy braided mixture of wet furrowed peaty bits, stony bits and vague marsh where it almost disappears for a while, rarely is it possible to get into a normal walking stride and it becomes quite time consuming. The ravine at the watersmeet of the Allt Dubh is an attractive spot and there is a low waterfall further down, while the prominent Torr Nead an Eion dominates the lower glen. In one of the grassbound pools we saw an adder sinuously emerge and disappear into the tussocky grass.

Watersmeet at the Allt Dubh
Watersmeet at the Allt Dubh (12 Apr 2010__11:34:36)
Lower Gleann Easan Biorach & Torr Nead an Eoin
Lower Gleann Easan Biorach & Torr Nead an Eoin (12 Apr 2010__12:39:30)

Nearing the foot of the glen a good path is established, skirting the lip of the deep gorge where the river makes its final descent in a waterfall, and furnished with a guard rail. The path emerges close to the distillery Visitor Centre at Lochranza.

We took the lane opposite the Field Studies Centre and turned R to join the signed high-level path over to the Cock of Arran and Laggan. This is apparently a quite popular route over the headland and initially follows a private unmade road to an information board at the foot of the open hillside, pointing out some of the wildlife you may - and probably won't - see on the walk. We did see another adder basking by the path in the very warm sunshine but he didn't get a mention on the board.

The path is a good one, beautifully graded and resembling a well made shooting track higher up as it approaches the heathery upper slopes. At the highest point Bearradh Tom a ' Muidhe, we left the track and followed a short thin path through the heather, probably just a popular short diversion to optimize the view, and continued further to seek a pitch. We found a good pitch, another fine spot with a very different atmosphere from previous nights, but a relaxing location for eating outside again with extensive views to the north and east over the sea.

Pitch at Bearradh Tom a Muidhe
Pitch at Bearradh Tom a Muidhe (12 Apr 2010__17:42:43)

Day 5 - Laggan coast & Sannox

At dawn the fine clear weather spell had broken: the sky was grey and mist lapped the summit of Fionn Bhealach to the SE. The timing of the trip was perfect: our objective today was just a descent to the coast path and walk into Sannox for the bus to Brodick. The high-level path descends gradually to Laggan cottage and joins the Isle of Arran Coastal Way path into North Sannox. The sun made a feeble attempt to penetrate the gloom on the way down and did briefly produce a pleasing light on the sea.

Early light on the sea from Laggan path
Early light on the sea from Laggan path (13 Apr 2010__07:07:28)