From the Ayrshire coast, the Isle of Arran, with its Goat Fell-dominated hills, has been likened to a giant warrior sleeping.
As we sailed across the Firth of Clyde towards him, his great bulkswelling before us, so our own anticipation swelled. In order to travel on the first ferry from Ardrossan, we’d left Montrose at 2.30am. Our first walk on Arran would have to be a modest one; we decided on one half only of the Glen Sannox Horseshoe...Beside Glen Cottage a signpost directed us onto a well manicured track into the Glen. Ahead rose the steep heather and granite dappled cone of ‘the maiden’s breast’, Cioch na h’Oighe, the first nail in the half of the horseshoe we’d opted to miss.
Very soon afterwards we could see the final nail of our own traverse, the equally imposing Suidhe Fhearghas or Fergus’ seat; these two fine hills framed the wide mouth of Glen Sannox beautifully. Years ago barytes were mined hereabouts, soon we were passing the remnants of the stone building; across the River Sannox we could see an old slag heap. We crossed the river on stepping stones. Showing us yellow Celandines and delicate pink Cuckoo flowers as well as a riot of purple violets and greenish yellow mats of Opposite leaved golden saxifrage, the glen sucked us in between its enclosing walls. On our left Cioch na h-Oighe led rockily to North Goat Fell; our immediate destination was the high col known as The Saddle, between that hill and Arran’s piece de resistance, Cir Mhor, a great cliffy pyramid which looked impossible from here.
The skyline back was serrated by crab-like Caisteal Abhail, the horrendous vertical rip of The Witches Step and Suidhe Fhearghas. For a long while the path led us gently, but ever deeper into the glen; it’s a fine dry path through very boggy terrain and alongside the glen’s boisterous river, a river enlivened by many slabby rapids and minor waterfalls. ‘The big comb’ of Cir Mhor grew in front of us, intimidating; Ceum na Caillich egged us on. At last, among stunning Skye-like rock scenery, the path began to climb in earnest. To reach The Saddle we put our trust in that path, in many places a steep and rickety staircase through heather and granite boulders. And then, just shy of the saddle’s top, we reached the Whin Dyke. Most of the rock in these Arran hills are comprised of granite.
Boiled deep in the magma of ‘Pluto’s foundry’, the molten rock eventually cooled and, by various processes over eons of time, has extruded to give the rough surface beloved of climbers and scrambles today. But where there’s granite there’s often basalt, another rock born deep below, cooled more rapidly (thus altering the crystalline chemistry), to form dykes of an altogether smoother, more friable rock. More prone to wear and tear, these dykes often drop away, leaving gaps and notches in the ridges; ‘the Witches’ step’ is a formidable example.
The Whin Dyke is another, albeit far more modest, so formed gap. It gives an awkward little scramble, either in the confining gap, dark and damp, or along the top of it’s bounding left hand wall. We huffed and puffed our separate ways up. With just a few more steep metres left to attain The Saddle, we burst into glorious sunshine. A wonderful spot The Saddle is! A high place of huge granite boulders and towering slopes; of magnificent backward views down the length of Glen Sannox to the glistening sea. Today The Saddle, bristling with big, granite tors was a sun trap designed, you would think, solely as a place to stop for lunch. We chose our tor and ate.
Refreshed, it was time to tackle the steep cone of Cir Mhor. Heather, more boulders and occasionally treacherous grit give the ascent a more serious feel. Higher up huge cliffs have to be circumvented and, although never desperate, concentration is a prerequisite on this most rugged and exciting of Arran’s hills.
The final path to the summit wends its way tortuously through giant blocks, at last dumping the walker on the topmost granite plinth, (799m).
What wonderfully rugged views reward the climber for his toils! North Goat Fell, the pinnacled Oighe ridge and, king of all on Arran, Goat Fell, guarded the vistas over the Firth of Clyde and hazy mainland Scotland
To our south, the toothy ridge of A’Chir, (the comb), barred the way to Beinns Tarsuinn and Nuis. Directly below us, sweeping gracefully into the north-west, the arc of ‘the hunter’s ridge’, rose to the peak of Caisteal Abhail.
We picked our way down through a jumble of boulders until a good path appeared to lead us up again, past a welcome cairned spring, and up into another land of giant tors. We scrambled onto the great granite slab, at 859m, and sunned ourselves on ‘the castle’s’ summit. The way on is intricate, through or over outcrops with many an up and down; interest piled upon interest! And then ‘The Witches’ step’. The way into this fearsome gap from the Abhail side, though steep, is relatively straightforward. Yet not to be underestimated! We descended by a series of slabs made nasty by the passage of countless walkers before us. Granite may be hard, but it wears to a granular consistency which makes one think of tiny marbles; much of the way down we found ourselves gingerly shifting on our bums!
On the opposite side of the narrow gully, (much akin to Skye’s An Dorus), rose the formidable broken wall of Ceum na Caillich. It’s a nerve racking climb but, although exposed, is not as difficult as it appears. We were glad to get it past us!
A wonderfully warm afternoon had crept up on us, ideal for the gentle ridge walk which awaited us on ‘Fergus’ seat’. All difficulties now behind us we could relax.
The final top, which bears the name of Suidhe Fhearghas, cuts the sky at a lowly 660m; still, it was a grand spot for a retrospective gawk. Particularly fine was the view across the deep slash of this morning’s saddle, filled now by Beinn Cliabhain and the end of tomorrow’s walk.
The way back down is steep in places and the path, often gritty, is deeply worn. Giant steps dropped us quickly down; between each step a short level section gave our aching knees respite. At last we reached the bottom and a path that led us across a broad heathery gap and much boggier ground, mercifully soft after a day’s hard graft on granite.
Pleasantly we ambled down towards the glen, heather eventually giving way to sheep clipped grass and the barytes mines and slag heaps. We passed an adit, water filled and choked with ferns, to join the old incline track where today only walkers and pony trekkers tread.
We crossed a wooden bridge and revelled in the shade of burn-side beech trees. Amongst the violets and saxifrages of this morning, we turned for one last lingering gaze up Glen Sannox.
With those wonderful hills now below our belts, our first day on the island had assured us that we’d be back again for a good deal more.