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North East Isle of Arran / 4 days / 39 miles (63km)

OS Route Map → Map GPX Route file →

Date: 16 Apr 2009
Start / Finish: Brodick ferry terminal.
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 4-day stay was £6).
Coastal Way website: Isle of Arran Coastal Way

Day 1Glen Rosa & Beinn Nuis6.0 miles / 2350 feet (9.7km / 716m)
Day 2Glen Iorsa & Loch Tanna6.1 miles / 1090 feet (9.8km / 332m)
Day 3Glen Catacol & the northern Coastal Way16.3 miles / - (26.2km)
Day 4Goatfell10.3 miles / 2870 feet (16.6km / 874m)
Loch Tanna

A varied 4-day backpack in the NE of Arran including superb glens, the wild and deserted Loch Tanna, a section of the Isle of Arran Coastal Way and finally Goatfell with its excellent view of the nearby rugged mountains.

This was a backpack of contrasts in other ways too: the wind was so strong on the first night that we feared for the integrity of the tent poles and it felt bitterly cold in the morning, yet by the third day it was very warm, there was hardly a breath of wind and the first midges were in evidence.

The terrain and walking were generally very easy, but in the wild deserted Glen Iorsa it was arduous and difficult especially against the wind, making the trackless progress very slow on the second day.

If this visit to Arran was typical, the walkers seem to be concentrated even more than elsewhere: while the obvious peaks of the Goatfell group form the inevitable and justifiably popular magnet, the entire region around Glen Iorsa and Loch Tanna was completely deserted and almost pathless despite its great beauty.

Day 1 - Glen Rosa & Beinn Nuis

We arrived in Ardrossan harbour car park early and casually got out of the car to stroll around the terminal area: yikes!. Within a minute we retreated to put on some serious wind protection and abandoned any thought of sitting up on the open deck, not a hard choice since the views were dull and misty as expected for this morning. Quite a few backpacks made an appearance in the waiting area and once again we wondered if the lightweight movement was still a closely guarded secret: all of them were 80l+ jobs and some were huge. Not only huge, but all of them had both tent and sleeping mat strapped on the outside as well, one girl even having a large extension sack on her front.

The ferry is an efficient and painless operation and 55 minutes later we arrived in Brodick, still overshadowed by dull cloud and Goatfell hidden by the murk. We tailed several of the pack-mule backpackers from the ferry who were heading out on our route and later discovered their destination: the Glen Rosa campsite. This glen was shielded from the wind and it felt quite warm. Leaving the overburdened campers we headed up into Glen Rosa, a lovely walk and an alluring entry line with a fine view of the mountains at its head.

Glen Rosa
Glen Rosa (16 Apr 2009__15:06:31)
Glen Rosa
Glen Rosa (16 Apr 2009__15:21:19)

We crossed the footbridge over the Garbh Allt and left the main glen path to climb near its cascades and falls, initially on a pitched path as far as a deer fence where we saw a juvenile adder basking on the stone, then a squelchy moorland path to a second fence where the burn runs through an incised ravine. The path crosses the burn and turns immediately R to continue alongside it, later heading away from it to pass through the fence higher up. The wind was getting stronger on this exposed section and there was a good view of the ridge and impressive cliff of Beinn Nuis.

Ridge from the Beinn Nuis path
Ridge from the Beinn Nuis path (16 Apr 2009__17:48:36)
Approaching Beinn Nuis
Approaching Beinn Nuis (16 Apr 2009__18:01:16)

The climbing then began in earnest on a good path, but just as we approached the final pyramid the wind suddenly increased in ferocity to the point where we could barely move forward at all and were constantly being blown off course. Trying to struggle upwards next to a precipitous cliff was not a good idea, and we retreated down into the leeward valley to seek a pitch. By good fortune this was an easy descent on agreeable grass, very unusual for these mountains, and we passed many scattered pieces of aircraft wreckage.

The bad news was the wind: this was the kind of gusty wind that continued far down the leeward slope retaining a large measure of its strength. We descended over 200m to around the 450m contour, surprising a herd of deer who disappeared swiftly when they sensed us, and located a shallow hollow to pitch the tent. We were lucky that the ground was firm and anchored the pegs very well, nevertheless the poles at the rear alarmingly collapsed inwards to a concave shape a few times but fortunately sprang back out. The poles survived but now have distinctly more curvature than before.

Day 2 - Glen Iorsa & Loch Tanna

Despite the wind we had a pretty good nights sleep but it was still strong in the morning, requiring our military precision depitching operation which went smoothly enough, and the newly curved pole sections would just go into the pole bag. Beinn Nuis was shrouded in mist above us as we set off SW over the lower shoulder of the mountain towards Loch Nuis. Surprisingly there is a discernible line to follow here, probably just an enhanced deer trod or faint tractor track, that heads easily and conveniently towards the loch before veering off just short of its shore. The setting is not an inspiring one, especially today with breakers scudding across its surface under grey skies, although a large flock of seagulls calling above its waters seemed to like it.

We made a long slow descent alongside the outflow that becomes the Allt Airigh Mhuirich with its cascades, a rough tussocky slope that was quickly forgiven when the sun broke through and revealed the scale and serene beauty of Glen Iorsa with Sail Chalmadale opposite.

Loch Iorsa
Loch Iorsa (17 Apr 2009__09:10:03)
Glen Iorsa
Glen Iorsa (17 Apr 2009__09:13:57)
Sail Chalmadale
Sail Chalmadale (17 Apr 2009__09:14:47)

The terrain on the floor of the glen is very rough indeed in parts and mostly boggy too, particularly arduous today in the wind that was still strong even down here. Reaching the floor at the foot of the Allt Airigh Mhuirich and bearing L, there is a point where the river spreads out into several thin ribbons through islands of reddish sands - this was the key to the crossing. Some ribbons are fairly deep but after searching around we crossed one ribbon by jumping, leaving just one that was too wide but shallow: off with the shoes and socks to wade it. For the second time this trip we came within inches of an adder basking in the tussocks.

A short way up the hillside there is a bit of a path contouring the slopes, but only rarely is it dry and easy to walk on, much of it is rough and boggy like the surroundings. Eventually we left it for a very rough and tiring ascent towards the deep cleft of the Allt Tigh an Shiorraim, the outflow from Loch Tanna. The views of Glen Iorsa were splendid, and if there was a good path around this glen it would make an excellent low level walk.

Red gravel shallows in Iorsa Water
Red gravel shallows in Iorsa Water (17 Apr 2009__11:14:55)
Glen Iorsa
Glen Iorsa (17 Apr 2009__12:07:05)
Glen Iorsa
Glen Iorsa (17 Apr 2009__12:07:28)

Inside the ravine of the Allt Tigh an Shiorraim there is an intermittent thin path up the left side and we were finally sheltered from the wind, which was beginning to ease. The terrain was much easier alongside the stream and the ravine meanders upwards to reach the outflow of Loch Tanna, encircled by heather and rough upland grasses beneath the slopes of the Pirnmill hills and Beinn Tarsuinn, the lower cousin of its nearby loftier namesake to the SE. The scene was superb: wild and beautiful yet deserted and there were no paths at all here to speak of.

Mindful of the wind and hoping for a more sheltered position to pitch, we crossed the very shallow outflow on the plentiful rocks to the east side and walked around the shoreline. There was a sporadic faint line to assist progress as we picked our way along, moving back and forth from the water edge to the heathery banks, evidence that a few people have walked here. We made a pitch near the north end of the loch, relieved that the wind had died back to a breeze, but in the soft wet ground we took the precaution of weighting down the key pegs with rocks. Beinn Nuis and the higher peaks to the east still retained a cap of cloud, but the nearby hills were clear as we soaked up the scenery in the evening with the sun sinking towards Beinn Bhreac.

Loch Tanna & Beinn Tarsuinn
Loch Tanna & Beinn Tarsuinn (17 Apr 2009__14:56:47)
Loch Tanna
Loch Tanna (17 Apr 2009__15:22:36)
Loch Tanna
Loch Tanna (17 Apr 2009__15:28:06)
Pitch by Loch Tanna
Pitch by Loch Tanna (17 Apr 2009__17:22:23)

Day 3 - Glen Catacol & the northern Coastal Way

The scene at dawn as we opened the frosty tent door was one of a quintessential wilderness backpack: the low orange rays of the sun illuminating the deserted hills and loch with a warming glow, a satisfying distraction that stretched out the packing up operation with involuntary pauses to gaze around. Cnoc Breac and Sail Chalmadale to the south were somewhat overshadowed last evening but were now particularly striking in the early light. We set off for an easy stroll to the head of Glen Catacol, with frequent stops to look back on the scene that would soon disappear.

Loch Tanna & Beinn Bhreac
Loch Tanna & Beinn Bhreac (18 Apr 2009__07:07:21)
Cnoc Breac & Sail Chalmadale across Loch Tanna
Cnoc Breac & Sail Chalmadale across Loch Tanna (18 Apr 2009__07:08:41)
Loch Tanna from the head of Glen Catacol
Loch Tanna from the head of Glen Catacol (18 Apr 2009__07:59:55)

From the head of Glen Catacol the map shows a path down the glen, and it's a very good one that seems well used, yet it stops abruptly by a cairn at the glen head. Perhaps people are deterred by the rough and wet terrain ahead, but it seems strange that not enough people have ventured a bit further to forge a path to the loch and around its shores.

The excellent path follows the long course of the Abhainn Mor with its little falls and cascades that tumble down the creamy rocks, while the upward view is dominated initially by the heather and rocks of Meall nan Damh and lower down by Creag na h-lolaire (but don't ask us to pronounce it!). The path emerges on the road at Catacol Bay.

The Abhainn Mor & Creag na h-lolaire
The Abhainn Mor & Creag na h-lolaire (18 Apr 2009__09:30:43)
Lower Glen Catacol
Lower Glen Catacol (18 Apr 2009__10:05:12)

A change of scenery now as we joined the Isle of Arran Coastal Way (CW) that would take us to Corrie on the eastern side of the island. A short walk along the road at Catacol immediately before the first house is a short track to an obvious ladder stile: this marks the start of the high level path to Lochranza. A short sharp climb up a wet muddy slope towards a line of telegraph poles gains the high ground and the way is marked at intervals with coloured-top posts, passing through woodland, open slopes and even a stretch of bog near the end. There is a fine view over Catacol Bay from the open sections.

The path descends to the quiet A841 road in Lochranza, where a short walk L along the road past the ferry terminal is a public toilet block. Lochranza is a laid-back place spread around the bay, with a focal point of its castle remains standing in the middle against the towering backdrop of Torr Nead an Eoin. Deer were lazing on the grass verges quite unperturbed by people, and we noticed that all the garden fences and drive gates were of deer-fence height.

View from the Coastal Way above Catacol
View from the Coastal Way above Catacol (18 Apr 2009__11:25:41)
Lochranza & castle remains
Lochranza & castle remains (18 Apr 2009__12:48:08)

The route crosses the bay via a lane and turns L to Newton Point where we saw many seals basking on the rocks near the shore. The CW from here to the Sannox forest via the Cock of Arran is an enjoyable walk with some rock falls and caves for added interest, and some fine examples of sandstone geology eroded into artistic shapes and patterns.

Coastal Way geology
Coastal Way geology (18 Apr 2009__15:02:09)
Coastal Way geology
Coastal Way geology (18 Apr 2009__15:05:25)

Approaching North Sannox the CW takes to the forestry track and later joins the road, passing a bronze age cairn and swinging inwards to cross the North Sannox Burn. Across the road bridge it turns immediately L to follow the river on a very good woodland path back towards the sea and resumes its line to South Sannox. On our last pitch the wind had almost disappeared and the first midges were out, but not enough to be a problem.

Day 4 - Goatfell

The night was crystal clear and left a frost on the tent followed by a warming sunrise over the sea, a fine start to the last day and the climb of Goatfell.

Sunrise from pitch at Sannox
Sunrise from pitch at Sannox (19 Apr 2009__06:21:28)

The CW follows the road S through Corrie, a pleasant walk in the morning sunshine with no traffic at all, and after the last buildings just before Corrieburn Bridge the track to Goatfell is signed. The mountain would be well and truly climbed in this case: it is 874m in height, and starting from the sea we would have to climb every one of them.

The track becomes a good path near Corrie Burn and ascends past the forestry to the open hillside, climbing near the long cascades to the foot of Coire Lan where the path splits. Ideally we would have continued up the corrie to include North Goatfell, but to save time we took the other path across the burn to climb Goatfell directly via the east ridge. A steep ascent through the heather and rocks gains the foot of the main ridge at Meall Breac, giving a grand view of Coire Lan.

Ridge from Meall Breac
Ridge from Meall Breac (19 Apr 2009__10:02:26)
Coire Lan
Coire Lan (19 Apr 2009__10:16:00)

As we later discovered, the east ridge looks highly foreshortened from this angle and the summit looks only a short ascent away, but it is an illusion: up and up we climbed and the prominent slabs above barely got any closer. The ascent is an excellent one though, much of it on a pitched path that is a classic example of sympathetic erosion control - beautifully blended with the rock and highly unobtrusive, unlike a couple of atrocities in the Lake District that sprang to mind at the time.

Eventually we did reach the slabs and the summit trig point and topograph were a short way above. The view of the mountains beyond is hidden until the last moment, and what a view!. Certainly one of the finest rock vistas we have seen, dominated by the striking and formidable shape of Chir Mor. This was the Sunday after Easter and we were alone at the summit of Goatfell drinking in the views, at least for around 15-20 minutes, which is quite something.

Chir Mor & Caisteal Abhail
Chir Mor & Caisteal Abhail (19 Apr 2009__10:59:04)
North Goatfell & Mullach Buidhe
North Goatfell & Mullach Buidhe (19 Apr 2009__11:00:20)
Chir Mor & A'Chir
Chir Mor & A'Chir (19 Apr 2009__11:00:39)
North Goatfell & Caisteal Abhail
North Goatfell & Caisteal Abhail (19 Apr 2009__11:01:37)
Beinn a' Chliabhain
Beinn a' Chliabhain (19 Apr 2009__11:03:39)

Inevitably the first group of the long steady stream of walkers arrived and we started our descent, retracing our steps to the foot of the ridge and forking R on the Brodick path. Among the hordes panting upwards were members of a team bearing the emblem of the ochre charity, one of whom told us that the previous two nights they had been to the Lochranza distillery and a brewery.... hmmm, yes I could see their problem...

The path arrives at the road in Cladach, and opposite is a footbridge onto a pleasant path that follows the edge of the golf course above the tidal pools, crossing a long footbridge on the way and arriving in Brodick. We took a last photo of Goatfell seen across Brodick Bay, ending a great and highly memorable trip.

Goatfell & Brodick Bay
Goatfell & Brodick Bay (19 Apr 2009__14:35:16)