Singletrack Magazine Issue 125 | The Road To Thundergay

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Sanny and Dave explore the western slopes of the Scottish isle of Arran, far removed from the tourist-heavy honeypots of Brodick and Goatfell. 

Words & Photography Sanny

Deploy the food anchor

Is that a dude dressed as Princess Leia?” I expleted, more than a little taken aback when a bearded vision of a hairy-arsed bloke walked past us as Dave and I queued to board the early o’clock ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick, the main town on Arran. I suppose I should not have been surprised to have my pre-adolescent crush smashed into thousands of pieces. After all, this was the May bank holiday weekend and Arran’s highest peak, Goatfell, does a roaring trade in attracting day-trip punters, serious mountaineering types and charity walkers. Of course, he could have been a hard-core fan of the holy trilogy who had perhaps taken the passing of Chewie aka Peter Mayhew a little too close to heart. Or maybe he just dressed that way all the time. Who am I to judge?

Boarding the ferry, Dave and I stood out like sore thumbs from the Lycra-clad roadies and cyclo tourists who make up most of the cycle traffic on the island. We were marching to a different drum though and heading off the beaten track, far from the madding (maddening, even?) crowd. Our destination lay to the north-west of the island along the broad, vaguely pronounceable summit ridge that connects Beinn Bharrain and Beinn Bhreac, before dropping down to the picturesque Coire-Fhionn Lochan. As rides go, it was a bit of a step into the unknown. A trawl of t’interweb yielded precious little useful information in terms of which route to take, whether the riding was up to scratch and a sum total of zero first-hand accounts of anyone having ridden it. All we had was a map and an idea. Fortunately, Greg, aka Nobeerinthefridge from the Forum, was able to provide me with some pointers, having previously hiked it and his description of walking down the valley to the wonderfully named Thundergay was enough to whet the appetite. Like Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, Dave and I were taking a leap of faith in the hope of striking trail gold. 

Island life.

As with all such adventures, we started as we meant to go on by stuffing our faces. Caledonian MacBrayne, aka CalMac Ferries, do a fine number in Full Scottish breakfasts. As Dave contemplated the merits of a pre-ride beer, I had already ordered the eight-item belly buster. One should never travel on an empty stomach, or so I have been told. Perhaps such wise words should come with the caveat *except when the first few kilometres of your ride are entirely up. Striking up the curiously named String Road that connects the east and west sides of the island, I had ample time to reflect upon the gurgling mass of meat, dairy and fungal products that I was singularly failing to digest. On a positive note, the sun was out, the roads were buttery smooth, and at a shade after 8am, traffic was virtually non-existent. Island life was already growing on me. 

Cresting the summit at some 700ft, we dropped saddles and let gravity do the hard work for a while. The going was easy despite the early morning chill. Cutting off on a minor road, the view to Carradale Point and Argyll opened up in front of us while all around spring was putting on a fine show. Wafts of what to all intents and purposes smelt like coconut emanated from the blooming gorse while bluebells of all shades decorated our path. Joining the coast road north, our pace slowed a little as a brute of a northerly did its best to impede our progress. However, the sun was out and the sea and sky a glorious shade of blue that encouraged the odd scenery stop. A locked beachside hut bolted to the ground with metal spars, stepping stones crossing a slow flowing river, an old lifeboat station complete with rusting, rickety jetty and curious collection of dead animal heads on the walls (walrus, anyone?) that came straight out of the Aleister Crowley ‘Book of Occult Interior Design and Soft Furnishings’. Throw in a pair of peacocks and we had pretty much everything you would need to recreate The Wicker Man.

Finally reaching the trailhead at Pirnmill, we took advantage of the local shop to stock up on soft drinks. We watched a jolly, ruddy-faced chap exit the shop, two big bottles of cider in hand – just the type of person that Nicola Sturgeon’s minimum alcohol pricing policy was trying to discourage from drinking. Sorry Nicola, but I’m not convinced it’s working. He wished us good luck on our adventures though, and I couldn’t help but admire his cheerful disposition. I started to fantasise about a post-ride cider… Mmmmmm!

Any way you like as long as it is up.

Following the footpath signs (remember this is Scotland so none of your uncivilised English access laws here, thank you very much) up a concrete farm track, we took a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ track through sun-dappled trees. The path was a singletrack in the strictest sense of the word. Often rideable, we made good progress through the forest glade before clambering over a rickety set of steps that would give Heath Robinson a bad name. Ahead, our target of Beinn Bharrain came into view, while to our right a deep gorge opened up, the chatter of fast-flowing water below providing a soundtrack. Although exposed in places, there was no real sense of danger as we quickly gained height. Reaching a flattening, we crossed the river only to find a parallel path that looked entirely rideable. “Ya big bollox!” I muttered in my finest Bishop Brennan impersonation. So much for my research. On the plus side, our route was undeniably prettier and boasted the better scenery if not the riding.

With no path to speak of, we broke trail and headed in the general direction of the western flank of Coire Roinin. Not having the Gaelic I can’t give you a direct translation, but suspect ‘The bog of strangely dry’ might come close. Although free of tussocks and heather, the tinder dry brown grass on the surface hid a curiously spongy and moist layer beneath. Each step started with a crunch and ended with a splodgy squish. Finding a quad track, I thought I’d managed to find a less leg-sapping route up but it was even worse. Go figure. 

With no alternative, we put our heads down and got stuck into the task at hand. Every step took us closer to the summit but at times it felt like we were in the middle of some weird spatial anomaly where the closer we got, the further away we actually were. Thankfully, the ground got firmer as we hit increasingly frequent sections of exposed bedrock and our pace noticeably quickened. Finally cresting the summit, we were treated to a truly outstanding reward for our efforts. Only with the last few steps did the jagged eastern summits of the Goatfell range come into view while to the south lay the iconic granite lump that is Ailsa Craig, the Galloway Hills and even Ireland. To our west, the Inner Hebrides with the Paps of Jura laying claim to the round and pointy hill of the day prize. “I’ve never seen a view like it!” exclaimed Dave. As a seasoned world traveller, I took that as high praise indeed. As the crow flies, we were only a few miles from home but it felt like a whole world away. Not bad for a return ticket coming in at less than a tenner!

Time and tide wait for no man.

It would have been easy to just plonk ourselves down and spend the afternoon taking in the scenery. However, with a ferry to catch at some point and a broad ridge of possibility to ride, we didn’t hang about for long. Ahead, an improbably bouldery outcrop of steep rock barred our progress. Scrambling up it, I wondered if we were in for a nightmare of a down climb. I shouldn’t have worried. Although steep, a mixture of broad slabs and short cropped grass made for a jigsaw puzzle of a descent. Ride a little, trackstand, Euro-hop, repeat – reaching the bottom, neither of us could quite figure out how we had managed to ride down but ride down we did.

In our sights next lay the high point of Mullach Buidhe. An easy to follow trail guided us up the summit while all around the views were being presented in Ultra 4K Cinemascope. This was scenery and riding writ large. Progress now felt effortless, our earlier travails now forgotten. Far below, Glen Iorsa snaked its way along the valley floor. Glinting pools of water hinted at the pathless horror show that walkers and riders make the mistake of traversing only once. Greg had warned me of the long dark teatime of the soul that several of his friends had experienced when attempting to pass through the glen. In terms of paths, this one comes under the category of fiction. Looking down, I can’t say I wasn’t sorry to heed his sage advice!

Reaching the somewhat wind and rain-ravaged summit cairn, we chatted with a walker who reflected on the quiet solitude of the range compared to the tourist-heavy peaks only a few kilometres to our east. On the ferry, it had felt like the world and its dog were heading for the island and yet up on the mountain, the Zombie Apocalypse could have hit and we would have been none the wiser. Same island, different world. 

Ahead, a long, open, ‘every man for themselves’ descent beckoned. Crossing lateral moraines, we must have looked like a poor man’s mountain bike version of Bullitt’s chase sequence as we hit a series of shallow drops in quick succession. I’ve never ridden anything like it but dang it, it was a lot of fun! Throwing caution to the wind, we let our suspension do all the work as we freestyled our way down the trail. With no discernible path to follow, we darted hither and thither as exposed boulders and bedrock came at us thick and fast. Imagine yourself a pinball on a bike and you get the general idea. The faster we went, the quicker our reactions had to be in order to avoid a bloodied dismount. It was nothing short of exhilarating. Reaching the saddle, I had a smile as wide as the Clyde. It’s not often that you experience something truly unfamiliar in riding terms, but this was definitely new to me.

One last push!

Practically giddy with excitement, adrenalin carried us effortlessly to the final summit of the day. What gems would it bring? We didn’t have to wait long to get our answer. Where previously there had been no clear path, a sliver of a trail wound its way into the distance. Clearly we were now on the busy and bustling walkers’ route of choice as we made our way past a vast crowd of (well, three) fellow travellers. Descending at a fair rate of knots, I found myself humming tunes out loud. A good friend, Graham, had suggested singing as a way of relaxing on descents and on this showing, he was bang on the money. Like Yoda on a bike, but with smaller ears and a little bit taller, I could feel myself relax and just let the bike flow beneath me, which was probably just as well as the tech came thick and fast. A steep, narrow channel peppered with half-exposed rocks and loose gravel added a bit of spice to the proceedings before being quickly followed by an expanse of gloriously grippy bedrock at the edge of the corrie, the lochan far below drawing our eyes. Grippier than the grippiest, grippy thing that has ever been grippy, Dave and I messed about for a few minutes riding it several times to find the optimum and funnest line. 

Dropping in once more, the trail took another steep downward pitch meaning that as Dave walked down a short section of ankle-snapping trip hazards, I broke trail and mooched down the heather moorland. Unsure of whether an errant rock or hidden hollow were waiting to spit me off into an unedifying heap of bike and rider, I leaned back and hoped for the best. To my astonishment, it actually worked and it fired me out onto a well-established walking path. Result! Directly ahead lay a smooth, flowing ribbon of trail that would, we hoped, take us down to the lochan. Except it wasn’t. Instead it was a lumpy, bumpy mishmash of slow-going rockiness that belied its easy-going appearance from afar. With progress slow, we cut our losses and took route one through the heather to the water below.


Looking back from the comfort of the beach, we surveyed the mountain we had just come down. It might not be a Munro, but it was still a fair old lump of a hill that offered a bit of everything trail wise. Tucking into the trail food of choice, Peanut M&Ms followed by a Wheat Crunchy chaser, I reflected on the location for a wild camp. Relatively sheltered from the wind, it would make for an epic place to wake up on a sunny May morning. However, jump forward a few weeks and it would no doubt be midgey hell as the dreaded wee beasties strip flesh faster than the titular stars of a cheap ’70s piranha horror flick! One for the committed bivvy fan only, I reckon.

Remounting, we found ourselves on an upgraded section of trail. Clearly a bit of a tourist hotspot, the path has enjoyed some recent renovation. Normally this would spell doom for the rider seeking their technical thrills but in this case, it has been done to perfection. A fast and flowy first section with obligatory Scottish stream as constant companion led us into a series of steep slabs, stepdowns and square edges that kept us on our technical toes. It was nothing short of brilliant. Reaching one particularly steep section, we happened across a couple of chatty female walkers who cheerfully suggested that if we managed to spanner ourselves, at least they were doctors so we would be mostly fine. “Or perhaps not so much me, as I’m a gynaecologist!” said one. I glanced at Dave and steeled myself for a suitably Tourettian riposte. Rather like a sleeping Father Jack, with such an open goal, you just know that something wonderfully inappropriate is going to be uttered. “You’ll be fine, Sanny. After all, you are a bit of a fanny!” Thankfully, the walkers laughed at this comic interlude. 

Leaving them to their walk, Dave and I ripped down what remained of the empty trail. Bedrock was replaced with dusty, buff singletrack through verdant green fields. In the space of a few kilometres, we had experienced the edited highlights of pretty much every trail type Scotland has to offer. No small feat for what is a small island on the Clyde.

Back on tarmac, we were barely any further up the coast from where we had started. Hmm, four and a half hours to travel a handful of kilometres up the coast… that is slow, even for me. Levers were pushed and dials turned as we readied ourselves for the long road ride back to Brodick via the top of the island. As expected, the headwind was back and did its best to grind us down as we skirted the pretty shoreline around to Lochranza. On the plus side, our less than rapid progress meant that we could admire the scenery and the holiday cottages and homes that pepper the coastline with a real feeling of prosperity. It’s fair to say that there is precious little about Arran that speaks to the outsider about urban decline and social deprivation. There is money there and no mistake.


With Lochranza Castle in sight, we turned south for the homeward leg of our ride. We had 15 miles to cover and just over an hour to do it in if we wanted to catch the 4.40pm ferry. Channelling our inner Alaphilippe, we spun up the several-hundred-foot road climb over to picturesque Sannox Bay. Despite being a bank holiday, we saw just as many cyclists as we did cars. It was a cheering sight, although I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those going in the opposite direction and battling both the climb and a fierce headwind. For us, it was payback time as we raced to reach the ferry. With Dave setting a fierce pace, I tucked in for maximum aero advantage. In the far distance, we could see the ferry making its way into port. Would we make it? We were cutting it awfully fine. Trim homes, inviting bays, sun-dappled glades all whizzed by in a blur of head-down chain gang speed. Hitting the edge of Brodick, we kept up the high pace. We were in touching distance of glory. Rounding the last corner, we hit the slipway only to be met with shut gates. I briefly considered dropping to my knees, hammering the ground with my fists and damning everyone all to hell in my best Charlton Heston, but I need not have worried. “Well lads, if this had been yesterday you would have missed it but the doors are still open so on you go.” I could have kissed the cheerful CalMac employee who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for us with his 95th minute winner of kindness. 

Sitting on the ferry, hot chocolate and raspberry coconut slice in hand, we reflected on what had been a truly memorable day out. We had ridden somewhere new, had sampled fine technical riding set against a backdrop of truly magnificent scenery and had done so in virtual solitude. Even the road riding had proven to be a bit of a gem. Arran had delivered and then some. Would we go back? In a heartbeat? Should you? Absolutely. Just keep it our little secret, eh? Oh and remember to top it off with scampi and chips and a glass bottle of Irn Bru from Albert’s in Ardrossan. After all, no day out at the seaside is complete without something deep-fried.

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