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A Brief History of Arran

When you step ashore on Arran’s soil to travel to your holiday cottage, you follow in the footprints of millions who have gone before. Over 200 million years ago, the Chirotherium (a large, long-legged lizard-like creature) left its tracks on Arran. Reminders of others can be found in burial cairns and castles, from standing stones and axeheads. In photographs, written and oral memories, and to this day, the residents of Arran are making their contribution to Arran’s fascinating story.

The first visitors, hunters and fishermen (and still they come!) splashed ashore, between 7000-4000BC, the Middle Stone Age. They were followed by the farmers who brought animals and cereal crops and so began the history of Arran relating to the people. From then on Arran drifted through the Bronze and Iron Ages, eventually to become part of Dalriada, ruled from Ireland and Gaelic was the language. Roman galleys did sail the Clyde, but, curiously, no evidence of their landing has ever been found on the island. Hard to believe they did not fancy catching a galley to Arran for the weekend.

The forces of religion began to make their mark, in 545, with the founding of a monastery by St. Brendan, patron saint of sailors, possibly at Kilpatrick. St. Columba is reputed to have visited Arran, but it is his disciple St. Molois, who settled in his cave on the Holy Isle sometime after 585, who is associated with Arran. Perhaps there is a spiritual aura to the Holy Isle as it is now a Buddhist retreat, though visitors are always welcome.

By 800 Arran had entered a long period of Viking domination and the blood of the Vikings must surely have mingled with that of the people of Arran. By 870 Olaf the White controlled the Firth of Clyde and it is thought that the remains of the Viking ship burial at Kings Cross may have been from that period. As the years passed Arran seems to have changed hands, regularly and probably violently, between the Vikings, the Celts, the Stewarts and Somerled, Lord of the Isles and his descendants. It was the Battle of Largs in 1263 that saw the beginning of the end of Viking domination, when the Scots under Alexander the 4th Steward of Scotland, defeated the Vikings under Haakon of Norway. By 1371, Robert 11, a Stewart, became King of Scotland, and Arran became his hunting ground. For the remainder of the 1400’s Arran was raided, in turn, by the English, the MacDonalds, Donald Balloch, and the men of the northern isles. Confusing for the islanders…“Och no, the MacDonalds raided last week.”

The 1500’s saw much of the same. A Hamilton became Earl of Arran and feuding ensued between the Hamilton’s and the Stewarts, the latter being reluctant to hand over Arran and the security of Brodick Castle. This was in 1503 and in 1526 they were still feuding, and the Stewarts burnt Brodick Castle. In 1544, the Earl of Lennox, an agent for Henry V111 of England, attacked Brodick Castle, and death and destruction visited the island once more.

It did not get much better in the 1600’s. The National Covenant, 1638, brought more strife and, sadly, division within families. The Covenanters, under the Duke of Argyle and the Campbells, took Brodick Castle from the 3rd Marquis of Hamilton. This said marquis could not have too thrilled to discover that his mother had raised troops for the Covenanters. Arran was not returned to the Hamiltons until 1656, when the Lady Anne Hamilton, heiress to the 2nd Duke of Hamilton, married William Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, and paid off the fines levied on her family for their part in the war.

Prior to being returned to the Hamiltons, Arran was briefly occupied by Cromwell’s troops. Cromwell, worried by reports of Dutch vessels skulking around the Scottish coast, sent 80 soldiers to Arran. Arran is their resting-place as they were eventually all ambushed and killed by the Arran men for paying too much attention to the Arran women.

What was possibly the first commercial ferryboat, with sails and four oars, plied the waters between Arran and Bute in 1684, and failed because of lack of demand. A visitor in 1695 recorded that the air was temperately moist (it still is!) and there was great fishing of cod around Lamlash.

By the 1700’s life appeared to be more settled on Arran. The Hamiltons, well established in Brodick Castle, now gained, by peaceful means, possession of the last Montgomery lands at Lochranza, including the castle, Catacol and Machrie. There were schools at Kilmory and Shiskine. The Kirk greatly influenced the behaviour of the islanders. Breaking the Sabbath was frowned upon and transgressors were penalised by the Kirk Session. On the other hand financial help was given to needy parishioners and, in one case, money given to have a crofter’s son taught Latin.

With the implementation of the Malt Duty, which discouraged brewing and therefore encouraged the drinking of spirits, smuggling proved profitable, and to the islanders the Revenue men became a new enemy.

But still there was war. And it was to Auchengallon, in Arran, that Hector McAllister fled after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Hamiltons were staunch Jacobite supporters and Brodick appears to have been a hotbed of Jacobite intrigue and Hector had previously visited Arran in order to raise troops for this cause. Hector, his descendants and namesakes feature largely in the genealogical history of Arran.

Arran’s population in the 1750’ was, at 3646, fairly low. A weekly packet between Saltcoats and Arran was bringing health conscious visitors attracted by the goats milk offered at Cladach, Brodick. Huge changes were now set in motion on Arran with the arrival, in 1766, of John Burrell, at the request of the tutors of James, 7th Duke of Hamilton. Burrell ‘s intention was to banish runrig farming. His Journal (1766-1782), which makes interesting reading, was reprinted in 1982. It was an old Jacobite, James Bain Fullarton, who lead the inevitable resistance to Burrell’s plans for Arran.

The population count was rising, but the islanders were depressed by increased rents and by Burrell’s policies, which would lead to as many as 800 families losing their holdings and therefore their homes. He did, however, spend money on mining work at the Cock of Arran and boring for coal at Lamlash. Tenants at Corriecravie and Tormore were relieved of the collective responsibility of debt and he also offered incentives i.e.: 6 guineas for the best field of cabbages.

The 1800’s heralded the arrival of Robert Bauchop who surveyed on Arran for five years. His plans were in preparation for the new land divisions planned for 1814. A road was built between Brodick and Gorton Alister, Lamlash, paid for by the Government and the Landowner. This made travel much easier and increased the use of wheeled vehicles as opposed to heavy wooden sledges. Grave fears were expressed that many of the population had become “more openly abandoned in wickedness”. This frightening scenario probably prompted the religious revival lead by the Rev. Neil McBride.

As leases expired the old runrig system began to disappear. Arran farmers had to make good the debts of their neighbours to obtain the tenancies and were required to build a new house within a year, for which they were allowed relief of one year’s rent. In 1817 roads were built connecting Brodick and Shiskine (The String), Brodick and Sannox, and Lamlash and the South End (the Ross Road). Progress indeed.

Arran’s population reached an all time high of 6500 in 1823, and they must all have been excited when the steamboat “Helensburgh” began sailings from Greenock to Arran via Rothesay and back via Millport.

A steady trickle of islanders had been emigrating to North America over the years but it was the notorious clearances that caused the greatest exodus. Glenree had already experienced the replacement of people by sheep but it was in 1829 that the group which seems to have made the greatest impact when talking of Arran and the Clearances trudged from their homes in North Sannox, laden with everything from bibles to spinning wheels, to Lamlash, where the ships waited. 86 islanders boarded these ships for the two-month journey to Canada. Half their fares were paid for by the Duke of Hamilton; the men were given tobacco and the women tea. It must have been unforgettable to have witnessed those people, old and young, married, widowed and single, walking their last walk on Arran’s soil, some eager for adventure, but many with great apprehension and sadness in their hearts. The ancestors of these people still visit Arran and their story in Canada and in Arran will never be forgotten.

As the Arran immigrants arrived in Canada and began their new life, travel to Arran was becoming easier. The Royal Mail Packet Company introduced the “Inveraray Castle” and the “Toward” on a weekly run to Arran, with the strict warning that the smuggling of illicit goods would not be tolerated. With each season more vessels ran to Arran. Passengers were ferried from ship to shore, probably with some upsets. It is impossible to believe that everyone had a dry landing!

By the 1830’s the island was well supplied with schools and the population distribution had changed. Previously the southend had the greatest density but now there was a swing towards Brodick and Lamlash. A visitor to Brodick complained that it took fifteen enquiries to find accommodation and that the rents were enormous.

Lochranza was finally connected, in 1843, to Sannox and so to Brodick by the Bouguillie Road. Many islanders were still living in poverty and many emigrated. The arm of the law reached out to Arran and in 1863 the first policeman stepped off the ferry, hopefully onto dry land!

Arran’s first pier, an elegant iron construction, was built at Brodick, in 1872, and was soon followed by piers at Lamlash, Whiting Bay and Lochranza. These villages buzzed with activity as the graceful Clyde steamers docked and unloaded holidaymakers, cattle, sheep and horses, but it was not until 1897 that the first car was landed on Arran. From the islander’s perspective, laws and acts were passed which affected them. Education became compulsory between the ages of 5 and 13. In 1883 the islanders learned that Arran was not included in the area covered by The Crofters’ Act, so denying them the security of tenure, fixed rents and compensation for improvements available elsewhere in Scotland. They were eventually granted security of tenure in 1911.

Considering Arran’s early history of mayhem, it is indicative of how peaceful life had become when, in 1889, all Scotland was shocked by the Goatfell Murder and Arran got press coverage. High tech appeared in the form of a telephone connection between Brodick Castle and Dougarie Lodge and by 1913 there was a mainland link. After the death of the 12th Duke of Hamilton, in 1895, many restrictions regarding building were lifted and new homes promptly sprang up. In 1909 Brodick Castle installed a private turbine to provide electricity, but it was 1933, before the Arran Light and Power Company brought electric power to Arran with Brodick being the first village to benefit.

War Memorials appeared in Arran’s villages, permanent reminders of The Great War. A further Memorial, The Arran War Memorial Hospital, paid for by voluntary subscriptions (no lottery money then!), was officially opened in Lamlash in 1923, and it still serves Arran well. To encourage tourism a Guide Book was published and an ecological scare occurred when a stranded oil tanker leaked benzine at Bennan Head.

Between the wars, tourism and farming were the backbone of Arran’s economy. Charabancs appeared on the roads taking visitors on tours of Arran and tractors appeared on the farms.

With the outbreak of WW11, Lamlash once again became an important naval base, commandos trained on the beaches, mountains and moors, and sadly, numerous aircraft crashed on Arran’s hills.

After the war tourism revived. Each village had its own Tourist Officer. The boats were met by numerous bus companies serving different parts of the island. Each bus company had it own colours and the piers were a colourful melee of buses and visitors. Few cars came to the island and those that did were driven on to the deck of the steamer via two wooden planks. The first car ferry, the “Arran”, which carried 34 cars and 650 passengers, did not come into service until 1953 and heralded the beginning of changes in holiday patterns on Arran. Prior to that, on the island, various changes took place – The Arran High School took its first pupils in 1947, and Brodick, Lamlash and Whiting Bay got street lighting. The population in 1951 was 4656, and after a brief decline in the 1960’s and 70’s has remained around that level to this day. The 1950’s saw the closing of the piers at Whiting Bay and Lamlash, the end of an era. In 1957 another era ended with the death of the Dowager Duchess of Montrose and Brodick Castle became the property of the National Trust for Scotland.

In the 1970’s Brodick Pier was upgraded to take a larger ferry, the “Caledonia”. This ferry proved to be too large for the pier at Fairlie, which had, because of its sheltered position, been the mainland winter destination for the Arran boats, calling at Keppel, Cumbrae, on the way. Fairlie, apart from the actually berthing area, was a covered pier, the wooden building providing welcome shelter on the walk to the train. A very good idea.
The introduction of car ferries changed the holiday pattern. More visitors brought their cars, stayed shorter times and moved on. Previously families had taken homes for a month, sometimes two, and the minimum was two weeks.

Villages were more self contained before the era of the car, with tennis courts, golf courses and activities centred round the village halls and visitors who came annually to the same village, same house, quite often organised dances and events within “their” villages. Arran was very much a family holiday destination. In 1968, in Brodick alone, there were almost a hundred properties, ranging from hotel, guesthouse, self-catering to Bed and Breakfast on offer to the visitor. Arran has adapted to the shift in holiday patterns, there are fewer self-catering properties but the standard is higher, and there are more activities provided. Indoor sports facilities, coastal paths, outdoor adventure courses are now on offer in addition to the traditional ceilidhs, concerts and Highland Games. The Arran Heritage Museum offers an imaginatively presented insight into Arran’s history, and the National Trust for Scotland have a programme of special events at Brodick Castle…but it is the scenery and the special magic that Arran exerts which captures the visitors’ hearts.

Hopefully this has given you a flavour of Arran and it’s long and fascinating history. Further information can be found in the many books written about Arran and a visit to the Arran Heritage Museum is a must for anyone visiting this special island.

Jean Glen

The information for this brief history of Arran was gleaned from the very comprehensive “History of the Villages of the Isle of Arran” by the S.W.R.I. Arran Federation. The latest revised edition is now available in many local outlets.

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