Big Birthday Blog: Turning Time Around on the Isle of Arran

As I walked the Fife Coastal Path on my 29th birthday last September, I hatched a plan for celebrating my 30th. This milestone birthday seemed like a good opportunity to cross off one of the more meaningful items on my Bucket List: ‘Climb Goatfell again’.

I have a few vague memories from very early childhood but I can pinpoint in time the exact week when the memories really started to stick. In July 1989, aged 3 years and 10 months, I bagged one of my first Scottish islands when my parents, brother and I stepped off the ferry in Brodick for a self-catering holiday on the Isle of Arran in our pre-caravanning days. I’ve been back to Arran enough times over the years that I’ve overwritten many of the memories from 1989. However, a few of those early Arran-based memories will stay in my mind forever and one of those is having my photograph taken on the summit of Goatfell.

The summit of Goatfell, July 1989
The summit of Goatfell, July 1989

At 2,866 feet (874 metres), Goatfell is the highest peak on Arran and it dominates the view from the main settlement of Brodick. There are three possible routes up the mountain: 1) from Cladach near Brodick Castle; 2) from Corrie; and 3) via beautiful Glen Rosa. Whichever route you take, you’re going to start from sea level, or pretty close to it. How I climbed this mountain as a toddler is a mystery to me. I expect my dad carried me much of the way but he assures me that I did my fair share of walking too! I confess I don’t remember much about my first ascent of Goatfell but I do recall feeling a bit fearful on the summit, sitting on a big boulder with my dad and brother, my mum taking our photograph and the wind blowing in my face. I spent half my childhood posing for family photographs so it’s a real pity I’m not looking at the camera in this shot!

It sometimes strikes me as odd that I’ve never caught the hill walking bug. As a child and teenager it always seemed like too much of an effort. As an adult, I know that it’s never going to be practical for me to carry heavy camera gear up Scotland’s mountains and shoot at dusk and dawn – the best times of day for landscape photography. Besides, it’s all been done before. My 1989 trip to Arran clearly didn’t inspire me to climb mountains but I think it’s fair to say that my lifelong love of landscape photography, the coast, Scottish islands, maps, ferries and lighthouses can all be traced back to early childhood – maybe even as far back as 1989. Despite various trips to Arran over the intervening years, I never made it up Goatfell again for one reason or another. In hindsight I’m glad that it didn’t work out. Turning 30 gave me the excuse I needed to return to Arran again, tackle Goatfell, cross an item off my Bucket List and have a really memorable milestone birthday – all in one go.

After a cold, wet and generally miserable summer, I cancelled my camping reservation at Lochranza in favour of a cosy holiday cottage at Bridgend near Shiskine on Thomas Telford’s String road. I was initially unsure about the inland location but it turned out to be a great launchpad for much of the island and it was an absolute joy to look out of the window each morning and see Red Squirrels. As it happened, I got the best weather of the entire summer! Besides the occasional cloud of midges, it was a pleasure to spend a week in the outdoors. I cycled all 56 miles around Arran in a day; took the passenger ferry over to Holy Isle; explored the woods and moorland behind Shiskine; went bird watching at Kildonan; took a boat trip with Ocean Breeze RiB Tours around Holy Isle and Pladda; won crazy golf and lost putting; ate vast quantities of delicious cake at the Little Rock café in Brodick; cycled around Great Cumbrae; and camped overnight at Luss on the way home; all in addition to the main objective – Goatfell.

Onwards and upwards
Onwards and upwards

The morning of 2nd September got off to a cool and cloudy start and I wondered if I’d made a mistake by not climbing Goatfell earlier in the week when the sun was out. Fortunately by the time I’d opened a mountain of birthday presents and knocked back two cups of tea, the low cloud had lifted from the summits and yet another beautiful day began on the Isle of Arran. I toyed with the idea of climbing Goatfell via Glen Rosa but the route wasn’t covered in any of my Arran walks booklets. I drove over the String and, deciding to play it safe, I parked up at Cladach near Brodick Castle and took the most popular route up Goatfell.

The good quality path climbed steadily through forestry and crossed a couple of burns before emerging on to moorland with lovely views back over Brodick Bay, Holy Isle and Ailsa Craig beyond. It got a bit steep latterly but all the effort was worthwhile when I set foot on the summit and patted the trig point. I quickly identified the Thorburn family boulder from the 1989 photograph and sat down for a well-deserved bite to eat. The mountains haven’t changed but I certainly have. I have a few isolated memories pre-dating the old photograph but, for argument’s sake, let’s call it my earliest memory. On the summit of Goatfell 26 years later, I reflected on the significance of being back at this spot. My whole life – every other memory I’ve ever made – had taken place since I was last here. It was certainly a fitting way to mark my 30th birthday.

The summit of Goatfell
The summit of Goatfell

As a 30 year old I realised why Goatfell made such an impression on me as a 3 year old. Only upon reaching the very summit are you rewarded with the view of the Arran mountains. They are spectacular! I gazed across to the distinctive profiles of Cir Mhòr and the Witches Step, then a low flying jet thundered through Glen Sannox, over the Saddle and down Glen Rosa. The 360 degree panorama took in Bute, Great Cumbrae, Little Cumbrae, the Ayrshire coast, Brodick Bay, Holy Isle, Ailsa Craig, the faint outline of Northern Ireland, Kintyre and the Paps of Jura. Arran deserves its ‘Scotland in miniature’ nickname. It was astonishing to be south of Glasgow and soak up this tremendous view which wouldn’t look out of place in the Skye Cuillen.

Descending Goatfell, July 1989
Descending Goatfell, July 1989

I descended Goatfell in high spirits and had successfully worked up an appetite for my three course birthday dinner at The Lighthouse in Pirnmill! As I tucked into my risotto, surrounded by photographs and models of lighthouses and watching the sun setting over Kintyre, I hoped that it wouldn’t be another 26 years before I was back on the summit of Goatfell. I still haven’t caught the hill walking bug although I thoroughly enjoyed my day on my favourite Corbett. The holiday’s over now and I’m back in my study on the Black Isle looking out over the Cromarty Firth to Ben Wyvis (3,432 ft). It’s high time I bagged this Munro and I’ll put this on my list of things to do before I’m 31. I think I’ve just found a theme for a future blog post…!

The Lighthouse, Pirnmill
The Lighthouse, Pirnmill

Thanks for reading my big birthday blog. Do you have any special memories of Arran that you’d like to share? If so, please leave a comment below.

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8 thoughts

  1. One of the first weekends I spent in Scotland with my husband (which he wasn’t then), we camped in Glen Rosa with the intention of climbing Goatfell the next day*. It poured overnight and in the morning the clouds were so low that we didn’t bother. We’ve been back to Arran a couple of times but I’ve still not been up Goatfell and although i’ve climbed many munros in the past i fear my knees are not up to it now – so do them while you can. Happy (belated) birthday.

    *This would have been several years before you were born!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good advice and thanks for the belated birthday wishes! That’s a shame you never made it up Goatfell but, on the bright side, there are so many other lovely walks to do on Arran without going into the mountains. I see the Arran Coastal Way is currently being upgraded. I can imagine Glen Rosa would be a lovely place to camp so long as the rain and the midges stay away!

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