Thursday, 24 February 2022


A 10 Mile Victory Lap of Cumbrae

I took a notion over 2 years ago to run across Scotland from coast to coast. In the odd day off work I tried to pick a route across the central belt that would take in some places I hadn't really been before. Across Fife I followed the new long distance walking path from Culross to St Andrews, The Pilgrim Way. From Glasgow to Culross the obvious route seemed to follow the canals the connect the Clyde to the Forth. From Glasgow to Largs I was really retracing the weekend days out and early holidays of my childhood, and the trips of generations of Glaswegians "doon the watter". 

My original plan had been to finish with a victory lap of Little Cumbrae, and complete the annual 10 mile road race on the island. A circuit of the island seemed like the perfect full stop to end my travels, and I remember standing at the side of the road in Millport cheering on my dad when he took part in this race when I was younger. 

1980s Millport 10 mile race

Back two years ago I was coming to the end of my route across the country, 14 stages and about 170 miles ticked off. As much as possible I had been using public transport to get to my start and end points, but after getting the train home from Weymss Bay after running there from Greenock in March 2020 my plans were put on hold. Covid had arrived and people were beginning to wear facemasks on the trains, and jump back in alarm from anyone wheezing or coughing. As lockdown approached my journeys were firmly in the "avoid unnecessary travel" category. I have waited until now to get back on track and finished my run from Weymss Bay to Largs a few months ago. Now a wee bit later I have ran my lap of Cumbrae, in the end of January 2022, as the feeling finally sinks in that we are emerging from this traumatic and gruelling two years.

Great Cumbrae

Like many people I often refer to the island as Millport (the town at the southern end of the island), when of course I mean Great Cumbrae, or more normally just plain old Cumbrae. "Wee Cumbrae" lies just to the south; less than 2 square miles, and a lighthouse. Great Cumbrae is less than 3 miles from top to bottom, and less than 2 miles across. A 10 mile road skirts the circumference of the island making it a perfect distance for day-trippers to hire a bike and do a circuit, or for a pleasant walk. When I visited it in January it was dreich with low clouds, but on a clear day if you walk to the highest point in the middle of the island at The Glaid Stone you can see Ailsa Craig to the south, Arran to the west, and north to Ben Lomond.  

 It took off as a holiday destination for the people of Glasgow in the 20th century, and Millport was a popular steamer destination. My great grandfather sent this postcard back to his family in 1913 from a trip to Cumbrae.

Postcard from 1913, commemorating a golf match that year on the island

Viewed from Largs the island of Great Cumbrae (below) presents an unremarkable countenance. Most of the 1300 population of the island lives at the southern end of the island in the town of Millport. The ferry no longer services the pier at Millport and a car ferry makes the 10 minute trip between Largs and Cumbrae Slip on the east of the island. From there a bus takes foot passengers the 3 miles to Millport.

Great Cumbrae seen from Largs

The car ferry arriving at Cumbrae Slip.

Like any proper tourist I got off the bus in Millport at Crocodile Rock and made this the start and end point for my lap. I went clockwise from here, although my fellow foot passengers, two cyclists that came over on their own bikes (and passed me twice on their battery assisted laps) and the walkers that started from Cumbrae Slip, all headed anti-clockwise.  

Crocodile Rock, Millport

Crocodile Rock in Millport was first painted by Robert Brown in the early 1900s, and Elton John brought it to worldwide attention, singing it's praises in his number one hit that shares its name in 1972. "Me and Susie had so much fun, holding hands and skimming stones" he recalls, remembering a sun drenched holiday to Millport, before Susie went and left him for some foreign guy. (Disclaimer - his song and this Crocodile Rock may in fact not be related). 

Kids have been clambering clumsily over Crocodile Rock for over a 100 years, one of a number of Scottish seaside rocks that inexplicably continue to be painted to this day (Cf. "Tut-Tut rock" in Kilcreggan, "jumbo rock" in Ardrossan (now just painted with "vote Yes", previously "Jesus saves"),  and the Puffin Rock in Dunooon replacing the more controversial "Jim Crow" Rock in that location).

The Ritz Cafe can still evoke the 1960s heydey of Millport and provide refreshment or refuge as required. Passing the small bay beside Millport Pier, "the wedge" (one time supposed narrowest house in the world) and out of town to town to the eastern side of the island I was soon making my way up the eastern side of the island.

Fintry Bay can provide a popular resting spot for cyclists, all closed up at this time of year though.

Painted rocks on Cumbrae

Coming around the northern tip of the island you come to the HMS Shearwater memorial erected in memory to two young men from that boat that lost their lives in 1844 when the small boat they were on went under at this point. 

HMS Shearwater memorial

Car ferry at Cumbrae slip

Coming back down the western side of the island past the ferry slip to where King Hakon's ships were possibly based in 1263 before their unsuccessful attempt to defeat King Alexander III, at the Battle of Largs. Beyond that I came to the "Lion Rock". This time not a painted rock, but a geological feature said to resemble a prowling lion. It highlights the aged geology of this part of the world. A piece of stone left when the softer sandstone has been worm away from it at the last ice age, leaving the weathered Labradorite in the current shape. With the eye of faith, yes, it is a lion...but only from a certain angle. 

King Hakon's last stand

Lion Rock, Cumbrae

Past the Lion Rock and you come into Millport again, at Kames Bay. The Crazy Golf awaits warmer weather to entice you in, but the palms trees outside the Garrison House suggest that warmer days are possible. Hopefully not the full heat of an issue at Hunterston B nuclear power station across on the Ayrshire coast beyond the palm trees. 

Millport, Kames Bay
Hunterston B Power Station across the water

Crazy Golf, Millport

You know you've come full circle when you see the other, goofier face of the Crocodile Rock. On a winter's day it is hard to picture the bustle and crowds that used to frequent this place on the Glasgow Fair in days gone past, but I have always enjoyed a wee trip across to Millport. The boat may only take 10 minutes, but that feels like a proper day away somewhere, going across the sea. 

Back again to Crocodile Rock

Time to head back on the ferry across to Largs for the train back to Glasgow. I can now officially rest at ease that my original plan of St Andrews to Largs, and then a lap of Millport, has been completed. It may have taken 2 years longer than I meant it to, but I think I had a good excuse. 

Coming into Largs on the Cumbrae ferry