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Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Desperately Seeking Hutton’s Unconformity


Where IS Hutton’s Unconformity? A question we are often asked and one that is not easy to answer because, to the untrained eye, the rocks which comprise the unconformity don’t appear to be much different to the rest of the gnarled, grey, sea-bitten rocks that edge Arran’s northern coastline.

The issue of whether Hutton’s should be marked by a sign has been the subject of much discussion. Many think a sign would look intrusive in such a natural landscape. Many others believe that some kind of interpretation is vital if visitors are to fully appreciate the significance of the site. In fact, James Hutton himself is the remarkable ingredient in the story. In 1787, a time when Christendom believed the world was created in 4004 BC, Hutton, a lively and inquisitive man, farmer and soil-improver, came to Arran, looked at the formation of the rocks and recognised that the Earth must be much older than prevailing wisdom asserted.

Hutton applied modern scientific methods and reasoning to comprehension of the Earth’s history. Walking along the coast towards the Cock of Arran, he observed that younger sedimentary layers of sandstone lay above older Dalradian schists: this is the unconformity. He deduced that titanic processes of erosion and sedimentation, of uplift and great heat, must have created the world over long periods of time. His discovery made him come to be regarded as the father of modern geology although initially he faced outrage and accusations of blasphemy from some members of the church.

How to Find the Unconformity


From Newton Point (GR 931515) follow the Coastal Way. At first the path crosses grass then rocky ground. It’s about 1km to Hutton’s Unconformity.

Look up to your right for a long tree-filled fissure that makes a vertical line down the hillside. Hutton’s Unconformity is in line with this, in the rocks by the sea.

Eventually you come to a stone slab bridging a ditch (GR 936521). Stop here, don’t take the right turn of the path inland. Hutton’s Unconformity is on the sea side of the stone slab bridge. Look out for the two types of rock lying adjacent to each other, despite belonging to different geological ages. Notice how they slope at different angles.

A fun, educational way to learn about the local geology is to visit Lochranza Centre and do their geocaching trail (www.lochranzacentre.co.uk). I also recommend purchasing ‘Arran: Landscapes in Stone’ by Alan McKirdy, £7.99 from the Book and Card Shop in Brodick.‘The Arran Naturalist’, commemorative edition, £3.00, is also of interest if geology captures your imagination. It contains an excellent article about Arthropleura, a 2m long millipede, whose footprints from 300 million years ago remain clearly visible on rocks near Laggan. We sell this booklet in reception. You can also find out more about Arran geology at Arran Heritage Museum, Brodick.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Round Arran On Cloud Nine 

Friday 8th June 2018

On almost any day of the year there is sure to be someone circumnavigating Arran.  They may be walking the Coastal Way, negotiating the road’s ups-and-downs by bike, car or bus, or perhaps paddling a kayak.  One bright morning recently we decided to see how long it would take to circumnavigate the island on Cloud Nine, a 6.3 metre RiB, anti-clockwise and sticking to a steady 18 knots.

We leave Lochranza pontoon on a high tide having enjoyed breakfast at the Sandwich Station. Pulling out into the choppy waves and invigorating breeze of the Kilbrannan Sound we turn south-west, passing Catacol’s white cottages tucked like toy houses under the bulky rounded hills of the north-west of the island. If we see any floating plastic, we lean over the side and pick it up.

From a sea level point-of-view you can truly appreciate what a mountainous island Arran is, with its settlements squeezed onto narrow shelves of flat land. You also realise how there is a great deal of impenetrable terrain on the island, with steep rocky wooded cliffs tumbling into the sea, so steep in fact that it makes you wonder however anyone ever imagined a road round the edge might be  possible. You also realise that this is an entirely lovely island and scenic from whichever degree you look at it from.

You would not choose a RiB ride for comfort- it can be jarring and you are exposed to the weather-  but RiBs are strong and stable on the water. It is best, even on a hot day, to wear warm protective gear because hypothermia sneaks up on you unawares. A hat or cap and sunglasses are essential. In colder weather we wear immersion suits.

On the RiB dashboard is a chart plotter with down-view depth sonar. The graphs on the screen enable the driver to see the shape and depth of the seabed. Round the coast the seabed is treacherously uneven with underwater volcanic dykes jutting out from the land a particular hazard. We look out for marker buoys and cardinal markers which are placed to guide shipping. When you go right up to them you find they have intriguing names such as Iron Rock Ledges. We also look out for lobster buoys so that their ropes do not get tangled in our propeller. We let Belfast Coastguard know about our voyages and can communicate with them by radio if necessary.

Reaching the point where the Kilbrannan Sound opens out into the North Channel the sun is rising higher and sunlight flashes off the waves. The new distillery stands high on the island’s south-west corner . Northern Ireland is a misty line on the horizon, the surprising pyramid of Ailsa Craig ahead. Whenever I see this giant rock, it is always rising eerily out of the mist. The gannets are diving.

When you want to make landfall, a RiB needs a sandy sloping beach to pull upon or a pontoon.  Arriving in sheltered Lamlash Bay we pull up beside the harbour wall but need to keep a close eye on the boat due to the falling tide. We couldn’t possibly pass the Old Pier Tearoom without calling in though.

After Lamlash, we are in the Firth of Clyde – one of the most famous maritime routes in the world. It’s flat calm on this side of the island, the sea more like a lagoon, and it’s much easier to see wildlife. Approaching the last lap of the Sannox- Lochranza coast, the mountains of Glen Sannox look like one of Tolkein’s mythical landscapes. And right at that moment we hear the puff and hiss of vigorous blowing through air holes and see five big broad black gleaming backs gliding purposefully north through the water, their fins thin and upright like sea-tattered masts. We turn off the engine and keep our distance. We don’t know what these creatures are but think they could be minke whales. Cloud nine indeed!

 Then it’s back to Lochranza Pontoon where we started. The boat will need a hose down.
 Our circumnavigation was 100km in length and the journey took us three and a half hours.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Wild Flowers of Arran

Long, cold winters can have a silver lining: ice and frost delay the growth of bracken giving wildflowers a longer window of opportunity to bloom in spring. Some of these plants have shared the earth’s history for a very long time. Did you know that the common horsetail grass existed 400 million years ago? I know it now from joining in the Arran Natural History Society’s Wildflower Identification Walk with enthusiastic and very knowledgeable guide Sarah Cowan in lovely Glen Rosa. Sarah began the walk by informing us that she had identified more than three hundred species of plant just in our immediate vicinity.

Sarah’s sharp eyes picked out many wee species flourishing quietly in hidden places. In the past, most of our ancestors would have known the names and properties of a wide array of plants because they had uses. Sarah informed us how bracken was actually encouraged in order to make potash for whitening linen, as well as stuffing bedding and making glass. Ribwort plantain was rubbed on the skin to be a midge repellent and fragrant valerian was used as an aid to sleep. Bog myrtle still makes a delicious but highly intoxicating beer whilst ling heather can be a great pan scrubber. Distinguishing your heathers can help you keep your feet dry on a hill walk because bright bell heather’s roots form a mat which stops you sinking into bog.

It is always surprising to learn how much the wild landscapes of Britain and their ecology have been influenced by human beings. Sarah told us that the widespread hawthorn was, surprisingly, not native to Arran but introduced at the time of the 18th century enclosures as a means to demarcate land. Brambles and rosehips are likely to be found growing where cottage gardens used to be, as well as hazel for building. Nettles nearly always flag up a place where humans have been active in the past.

To appreciate the beauty and variety of wildflowers you have to look closely and attentively. Apparently, in the Gaelic some grass names are described as grey and blue, not green as you might expect. On looking closer, we agreed that some of the grass stems had a grey-blue sheen, begging the question does language respond to what we perceive or is what we perceive determined by language?

As our short walk neared its end we all came to a standstill at the sight of a flowering creamy Scottish burnet rose spreading over the banks of the burn. Sarah said it had not flowered since 1994 and must have benefited from the cold winter and warm, dry spring. Nearby, deep blue milkwort, bright pink lousewort and sky-blue germander speedwell were bright splashes in the grass attracting the pollinators as well as the insect-eating butterwort and delicate heath spotted orchids. All this natural treasure on a slow stroll of a few hundred metres!

Saturday, 26 May 2018

When the fine weather began earlier this month, the sea was still very cold resulting in weird thick rolls of white mist on the Kilbrannan Sound.


The Return of the Sun

 After the beastly mini Ice Age that was last winter, this magnificent May! It’s as we’d been living in a black-and-white film and suddenly found ourselves shining in brilliant technicolour.

Bright green bracken stalks are shooting up from last year’s faded fronds. Deep yellow whins blossom (with their divine coconut fragrance), frothy white hawthorn blossom and the exotic purple flowers of the rhododendron ponticum adorn Lochranza’s hillsides. The lush leaves of sycamores hum with bees gathering nectar. Even the ash, always last, has come into leaf. In shady rocky clefts there are still velvety violets, bright-eyed primroses, and nodding bluebells.

This settled sunshine makes climbing high a temptation. From Lochranza’s hills our eyes are drawn to the rounded Paps of Jura, up Loch Fyne to splashes of white which are yachts coming out of Portavadie Marina, and across to the Clyde. There are a lot of daylight hours to play with this month and very little real darkness. It is the season and weather for wonderful sunsets behind the ancient silhouette of Lochranza Castle. Nothing is lovelier than being in a Canadian canoe on the loch on nights like these. Using the silent stroke to glide along, we don’t make a ripple. 

There is a soundtrack of birdsong from dawn as birds flirt with prospective mates. The cuckoo’s plaintive two notes calling from behind the Distillery punctuate the day. Adders slither in the undergrowth of Gleann Easan Biorach. They glare boldly at us and add a warning hiss to respect their space. The red deer are casting their shaggy worn-out winter coats and regaining strength on the juicy grass. Badgers meanwhile are focussing on the housework, tossing out the old straw and sheep’s wool that kept their setts warm all winter. Last week we passed seals basking on the rocks in the bay as usual but unusually one took off, leaping and arching in and out of the water like a dolphin. It looked like a seal but behaved like a small dolphin. Can seals leap clear of the water is the question we are left pondering.

Amid so much loveliness there is inevitably a downside: the midgies made their presence known on the 23rd and are currently drifting around in a half awake state. The breeding females have not started biting yet. Without these wee creatures we wouldn’t have the swallows that raise two or three broods a year in our sheds, or the bats. 

In contrast to all this change and activity Lochranza’s rocks seem unchanging but then again, of course they are changing- the whole relevance of Hutton’s Unconformity near Fairy Dell is that the location made James Hutton realise that landscapes are in a process of continuous change and that everything in the natural world is more varied, complex and inter-related than anyone had previously thought. 

Arran is an inspiring island!

Hutton’s Unconformity.  Lochranza Centre staff  have devised a geocaching walk in the area that helps you understand the geological processes that the rocks bear witness to.


Laggan Cottage, which you pass on Arran’s Coastal Way, faces the north but basks in the sunshine for a few brief weeks in summer. This was once a populated area – you can still see the marks of cultivation of the land on these summer evenings.