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Firstly, how to get there. Luckily, I didn’t follow popular web search results which advised me of the average flying time... there’s no airport! Instead I opted for the CalMac ferry from Ardrossan. A great service when it runs, although it’s sometimes at the mercy of Mother Nature and her breath making seas unsafe to cross and at other times to mechanical faults. The trip doesn’t take long, but the plumes of black smoke pouring from marine diesel engines revving up to take tonnes of vehicles, bikes and passengers across the Firth of Clyde reminds me not only of the amazing power that can be extracted from a few gallons of fossil fuel, but also of the carbon loaded fumes that result. I went to the front of the ferry to avoid inhaling the black cloud that drifts eastward.
First impressions: Arran is an amazing place. Coping with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, there’s hardly any litter to be seen, clean beaches, wildflowers, beautiful scenery, etc. The food is a delight too and has a strong local provenance with shops and food outlets proud to promote and sell their Arran cheese, beer, vegetables and meat. Some were even considering planting tea bushes recently… I wonder if that took off as an idea.
Dig below the surface image that Arran first presents and you realise that the isle has a greater story to tell. The residents are passionate to make it even better... they appreciate that the status quo is not enough and constantly work on local challenges, balancing the issues of island life, affordable housing shortages, pressures from tourism, commercial fishing, variable phone signals and so on.
One sparkling gem on the island, and there are many to be found, is local charity – Arran Eco Savvy (AES). Founded in 2013 and funded in part by Climate Challenge Fund, it is led by an enthusiastic team of trustees who are keen to find ways to make the island more sustainable.
Arran is not on the gas grid, so electricity is the main heating fuel, backed up with LPG gas and kerosene heating oil, both of which need delivered by lorry from the mainland. Household waste all gets shipped off to the mainland too and there are individuals in fuel and food poverty, folks living in social isolation and so on.
This is where Arran Eco Savvy shines – it is a catalyst for positive change. Firstly, through the shop in Whiting Bay taking in household items and giving them new homes thus saving on items brought onto the island and limiting the volume of waste that heads to North Ayrshire Council landfill. And secondly, through their commitment to go beyond initial organisational actions on household waste. They have quickly re-skilled to become an amazing team of home energy advisors, promoters of active travel and e-bikes as well as promoting solutions to reduce the food waste from a local supermarket – one that tries to predict the demands of a varying number of visitors which can be affected by a ferry cancellation.
By researching and inviting the best renewable energy firms to the island to present their services and ultimately to install solar panels and heat pumps, the group has created a visible change. Now homes proudly showcase their solar rooflines, but there have been many hidden changes too. Helping elderly citizens struggling to heat just one room in their homes, giving adults the support and confidence to take up cycling and to experience the benefits of new electric bikes, developing partnerships with local businesses to find solutions to their food waste and energy consumption. This list of achievements and ambitions is both impressive and admirable.
A small efficient staff team and volunteers help out at AES, quite often supported by the dedicated trustees. Working together to maximise their time and resources, they promote events in the local Banner newspaper and have a strong following on social media. They listen and adapt their plans when the locals provide input. They host film and quiz nights and regularly engage with many of the young people on the island through local events and talks.
I look forward to monitoring their progress over the next two years and am fully confident that they can make the journey to net-zero emissions an enjoyable and rewarding experience for all.
My fleeting glimpse of Arran has shown me the challenges that island life can present and the opportunities that a transition away from fossil fuels can provide. The human energy and dedication to a sustainable future will be the true winner.
Hopefully one day soon, the diesel ferry will be replaced by a hybrid or hydrogen one like they are pioneering on shorter routes, the buses will be adapted with bike-racks, new cycle paths will be created with support from Sustrans and minimal quantities of waste will need to be driven off the island on lorries. Arran Compost? Perhaps their next challenge for all that green and food waste.
Arran is an island to visit, but don’t just take in the heights of Goat Fell or gear up for a personal best cycling challenge. Take time, as I have done, to find the amazing charities and people behind them. Community-led climate action at its best. Long may it continue as it’s clearly working on Arran.
I’ll be back... perhaps next time to try one of their e-bikes and to explore the great places selling fresh local produce and staying in a local B&B powered by the sun.