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Friday, 20 September 2013

Taking the Humps  

From Tuesday 24th September the A841 between Catacol and Pirnmill will  be closed for six weeks for “improvements”.

As many of you reading this will know, the A841, which along with The String from Brodick to Blackwaterfoot makes up Arran’s road network, includes a bumpy stretch between Catacol and Pirnmill known locally as the Humps or the Switchback. Its Gaelic name is Rubha Airigh Bheirg. The area is  picturesque and geologically significant with heather-tufted volcanic sea stacks and a tiny old weathered graveyard huddling under high cliffs. The humps cause many an excited squeal from children in passing cars.

The A841 clings to the island’s edges because they are the only flattish land on a mountainous island. In fact the road is using ancient raised beaches much of the time. Arran’s steep hillsides mean that rainfall flows off the land rapidly and across the road to the sea. This makes maintaining the tarmac a challenge. Fortunately, for most people, the beauty of the scenery more than compensates for the odd pothole, and who would want to speed in such surroundings anyway?

The imminent roadworks at the Humps have provoked a great deal of controversy. The aim is to level the road so that buses with low floor mobility access ramps can use it. Apparently this is required by EU legislation (aspects of small island life can be vulnerable in the path of juggernaut one-size-fits-all legislation). Any road closure on Arran has a considerable impact on local people and visitors alike. There are no alternative routes unless you have a boat. In this case, Pirnmill Village Stores, the only shop in the north end of the island, will undoubtedly be affected by daily road closures. These come in a year when March’s freak blizzard meant a late start to the season, then shortly afterwards the shop was badly damaged by fire, before reopening in July.

Given the unique character of this section of road, many people have wondered if buses with lifts might offer a solution which would allow access for people with wheelchairs without changing the landscape. This is not to be but after listening to local concerns, North Ayrshire Council has moderated the original plans. Instead of flattening the crests the dips between are to be infilled. We hope that this compromise does not compromise the natural landscape. Many islanders fear the pressures to “mainlandise”  the island with pavements and tarmac laybys. Arran’s unspoilt natural character once damaged can never be regained.

Another concession that has just been announced is that the road will be open daily during the period of roadworks, from 3.30 pm until 9 am the following day, so Pirnmill Shop, the Lighthouse Restaurant and The Old Byre Showroom will still be accessible later in the day. The drive from Lochranza to Pirnmill is very scenic and there’s usually something to see in the Kilbrannan Sound from basking sharks to naval manoeuvres. If you’re hoping to travel to Machrie Standing Stones or the Kings Caves it will be best to make an early start or go across the String via Brodick.