Something about Arran that I don’t quite understand is how it is possible, with no great effort, to walk from sea level into the mountains. One example is the trail that follows Sannox Burn from the golden sweep of sandy Sannox Bay along the gently rising path to the head of Glen Sannox, where spectacular mountain peaks tower over the head of the Glen.
We had driven up the coast road past the giant granite erratic known locally as the Cat Stone, through the little harbour village of Corrie with its public sculptures featuring a seal perched on a rock and a trio of sheep on the quayside – they always make me chuckle – before parking at Sannox Bay.
Passing through Corrie you notice that, as well as its amusing sheep and seal sculptures, it possesses two harbours. The smaller, more southerly one was where the sandstone dug from a nearby quarry was loaded for shipment to the mainland. It was from here, too, that limestone quarried from caves in the hillside above the village and barytes dug from mines in Glen Sannox was exported. We were to encounter the remains of the barytes mining later.
The more northerly of Corrie’s two harbours was once a stopping off point for steamers in the 19th century that linked Arran’s coastal villages with the Clyde ports. Today, a few small boats are moored to the sheep sentinels.
It’s no exaggeration to state that the views from the beach at Sannox Bay are breathtaking. With our backs to the Clyde, we lifted our eyes from the pristine sands to take in the stunning backdrop of mountain peaks that rise from the glen.
The Vikings called this place Sandvik, meaning ‘the sandy bay’; Sannox is a corruption of the Gaelic Sannaig. The path follows the burn from the point where it enters the bay through woodland and into Glen Sannox itself. Immense glacial activity 8000 years ago, when a succession of deep ice sheets gouged out the glen and scoured the mountain ridges, tore up and deposited softer rock as they progressed southward. One of those rocks was the granite Cat Stone at Corrie.
After crossing the main road that heads over the pass to Lochanzra, the first stretch of the path is metalled, passing a burial ground where gravestones lean in the shade of a huge yew. Soon the path enters the glen proper, grazed by red deer and sheep. There’s a notice placed here by the Arran Deer Management Group which is a response to the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which extended the right to roam to all citizens of Scotland. Stating that ‘walkers are welcome’, the notice states that the Deer Management Group ‘recognises the tradition of free access to the hill’ and explains its responsibility for the management and conservation of the land, in particular the management of red deer:
Walkers are welcome to enjoy freedom of access to these hills. This part of Arran has many red deer easily observed while walking. To maintain a healthy deer population in balance with the natural habitat, control measures are carried out periodically. Mid-August to mid-October is a particularly sensitive time.
It may look wild now, but once there were mine workings here, and settlements that reach back as far as the Iron Age fort. There are the remains of a village abandoned in 1829 during the Highland clearances; most of the inhabitants emigrated to Canada where they built a replica of the church in which they had worshipped back in Sannox.
But the most obvious sign of human activity here are the remains of barytes mining which began here in 1836: adits, mine shafts, ruins and spoil heaps. Initially, when you encounter the remains of early industrial development in an idyllic or remote setting like this it seems a paradox. But it happened frequently (and still happens in other parts of the world today). But, whether it’s the remains of lead mining in the Peak District or Yorkshire Dales, tin mines in Cornwall, or the first cotton mills in the Lancashire river valleys, there is always a feeling of things being out of place.
What they were after was this: a heavy, reddish metal that was crushed and screened here before being shipped off to the industrial towns of Scotland and England. I brought a piece home which is on my desk now where it serves no useful purpose but to provoke thoughts about landscape, nature, industry and progress.
It’s all gone now, but mining took place here over a long period: from the 1830s until 1862 (when it was halted by the 11th Duke of Hamilton who felt it was spoiling the grandeur of scenery), then begun again in 1919 for another twenty years. Whether there is any connection – the result, perhaps, of minerals in the soil – I don’t know, but wherever there was barytes spoil, there grew thyme in profusion.
The path continues along the glen, rising gently and offering views of the rugged mountains ahead. It’s a vista that normally you would have to expend a fair amount of energy, climbing into high passes, to see. The sun shone, but it felt more like Easter than midsummer as a fierce wind blew up the glen.
Swathes of cotton grass danced in the breeze, and in the peaty, boggy ground beside the path grew Spotted orchids, Fairy flax, and Bog asphodel.
of bird’s foot trefoil
delayed by the pink
of thrift or campion
in the long grasses
you are coloured
you lose yourself
takes your place
- Arran’s geology: informative pages on the Arran Museum website
- Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world
- Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’
- Back on Kildonan shore
- Walking Arran: rock of ages
- Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims
- Return to Arran, where the world was stilled
- On Arran: Millennia deep