Distillery Focus

Arran adventure

Dave Broom is writing a book on distillery-related walks. Here he confronts Goat Fell
By Dave Broom
Arran is a compression of an already compressed country.Scotland distilled.Its northern hills are the equal of the best of the Highlands, its southern grasslands as gentle as those of the Ayrshire countryside only a few miles away across the Firth of Clyde.This day was to take in both. Euan Mitchell, Arran distillery’s sales director, and I had spent the night in the southern village of Blackwaterfoot, all decaying seaweed and machair grasses, the lights of Campbeltown glinting across the Kilbrannan Sound. Our walk though was in the north.It’s a bright but windy morning as we head north east over the String Road, but by the time we make Brodick the gathering clouds have made it seem like night is imminent. The rain batters the coast with tropical intensity and then clears as suddenly as it hit giving us our first look of Goat Fell. The peak is white with snow. In the last week of May! Bloody Scotland.There’s a path to the top starting in Brodick, but we’ve decided to take the shortest route from the hamlet of Corrie with the intention of bagging both summits. Short and direct it may be, but it’s also the steepest way up.Goat Fell is one of the few Scottish hills where you start climbing at sea level; and the Corrie route rises abruptly from the shore road, changing quickly from a rhododendron bordered road to a rocky path leading through rowan and alder, new leaves bunched like tight little fists.The bones of silver birch shimmer in the dim wood.The path, rip-rapped out of granite blocks, resembles a staircase. We settle into a slow hypnotic trudge. A stile over a deer fence brings us clear of the tree line and into exposed rough land. At the same instant the sky is bruised with the next squall. We shelter behind a boulder as it strikes, then watch as it surges over the Clyde before dumping more of its load on the mainland.We’re now climbing in the crystal light which comes after rain, flakes of feldspar and mica flashing in the granite, silver light on the black sea, a faint smell of anise rising from the heather.It’s the unpredictability of climate which makes Scotland’s landscape so compelling: the play of cloud on hill, constantly changing light, tantalising mists, sense-filling, watertriggered aromas. It’s a landscape that seems both ancient and constantly renewed.All this rain is adding to the volume of the waterfall, actually more of a granite waterchute, which runs parallel to the track. Here it comes again, though now it’s turned to hail, needling our faces.The path levels out as we arrive in the corrie, then forks. There’s two options: head straight on up the face to the (lower) north summit, or ford the stream to meet up with the long ridge leading to the main peak. The latter’s the obvious choice as the path to the north summit is now doing a fair impersonation of a burn.It’s a long steady climb through rubble and deer-grass. The summit disappears under cloud again. We look at each other and grin.“I give it one minute,” says Euan.He’s spot on. 60 seconds later we’re being buffeted by sleet. The path is now made of great granite flags allowing us to speed up as we reach the snow line. All colour has been stripped to a basic template, then sudden sunlight turns the sea blue and gold; the hills of Cumbrae glow lime green. It’s no more than a tease. Once again the colour is drained from the land as another sheet of rain hits.Even the heather is struggling to find a foothold here. It’s as if the mountain has eased itself free of its peaty claggy cloak. The closer we get to the summit the steeper it becomes.The path dwindles, disappears. We’re on our own, picking our way through this midden of wet, black rock, boots skittering on the slippery angled slabs. The wind plucks at our jackets.Why is it so steep? Because this rock is hard. Goat Fell is a sister mountain to the Cuillins of Rum and Skye, an upwelling of lava which elbowed its way through the more ancient schist some 60 million years ago.Granite is intransigent stuff, standing firm through aeons of rain and wind. We pay the price for geology with our sweat. Finally Euan takes a feint to the left to link with the Brodick path, allowing us a clear run to the top.As we stagger onto the summit the clouds rip apart and sunshine floods the land.Exhaustion slips away at the beauty of it all.The heart of Arran is at our feet. It is heartstopping. Magnificent. Severe. Aplace of high peaks and corries. Snaggle-toothed ridges fall away around us.There’s no sign of habitation, we’ve passed into a new island. Shadows of clouds stream over the moorland far below. A primal land, an edgy landscape. The wind blasts us as we hang on to the trig point.There’s no wisdom in attempting the ridge to the north summit.We settle down and have a sip of the new Arran 10 year old, its gentle sweetness a counterpoint to the wild setting.According to most sources, Arran takes its name from the Brythonic word meaning ‘high place,’ though there is an intriguing alternative meaning coming from Irish Gaelic ara meaning kidney.Although Arran is kidney shaped, according to Tim Robinson author of two magnificent books on the Irish Aran islands, in Ireland this meaning shifted to mean a long ridge. Perhaps you could think of it as also meaning the back country, the part of nature which is beyond human control. At this moment it seems plausible.Directly in front of us are the pinnacles of Cir Mor and behind it, Lochranza and the distillery, 10 years old this year. Why choose Arran?“There was a history of whisky-making,” Euan explains. “There were three legal stills which ran briefly at the end of the 18th century, while after 1823 there was a still at Lagg but it closed in 1837 and whiskymaking stopped until 1995.” Quite why Arran abandoned whiskymaking is a mystery. Notorious for smuggling, famed for moonshine (a contemporary account calls it ‘rather an honourable occupation’) it had the same heritage as other now famous regions; what’s more, it was as close to the blending centres of Glasgow and Kilmarnock as Campbeltown and closer than Islay.That said, the island was pretty effectively cleared and during the past 160 years has slowly been repopulated by incomers.Perhaps the answer is as simple as that. The old whisky makers gave up moonshining, left the land and their inheritors never thought about it.There’s another mystery though. Why, after almost 160 years of silence was Arran’s new distillery built in the back country?History shows that most distilling activity took place in the pastures of the south.“They looked at 12 sites,” says Euan, “and settled for Lochranza because of the water.Loch na Davie gives us both volume and a good pH to help with fermentation. It’s the granite.” That said, on first acquaintance Arran’s malt seems best fitted to the south, the perfect fit for the easy cliché of soft landscape equals soft whisky, but at this moment its gentleness is appropriate. It balances the landscape, completes it.“Whisky is elemental,” Euan muses. “Fire, water, earth, air, spirit. This landscape is elemental too. Whisky is just right for it.” Yet what is 10 years compared to this land? The never-ending grinding and eroding, the thrust, decline and layering.We’re no more than dust blowing off this peak, no more fixed on this landscape than the already melting snow, our passage as brief as the squall now heading towards Ardrossan.All we leave are markers: the stones on Machrie moor, some liquid harking back to a folk memory.Thighs aching, we sclatter back down the ridge to the pub.