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Issue 25 - Get on your bike

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006

 

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Get on your bike

In a new series we look at journeys you can make in Scotland by bike. First up: Craig Whyte explores Cowal

The journey across Cowal doesn’t have to be done by bike, but there is no better way to explore the quiet roads and the intimate tangle of hill and sea loch that makes up this oftenforgotten corner of the Highlands.

This is the bit of the Highlands that lies not north, but west of Glasgow. It’s so accessible, and has the added attraction of an arrival in the Highlands by sea, yet is often overlooked by travellers. Just take the half-hour train ride from Glasgow Central to the pier at Gourock as I did, and in the 20 minute ferry crossing to Dunoon, you make the transition from the world of the bustling lowlands to something of the serenity and grandeur associated with the Scottish Highlands.

There’s been a settlement at Dunoon for many centuries, but it was during Victorian times, when the booming population of industrial Glasgow with its newfound affluence began to venture ‘doon the watter’ to the Firth of Clyde, that the Dunoon of today first made its mark on the map.

Decades have passed since the popularity of the Clyde resorts was at its peak, but when I rolled off the ferry on my bike, I felt a buzz in the fresh October air. Within minutes I found myself unexpectedly standing, paintbrush in hand, bicycle helmet laid to one side, in front of a large canvass just outside the entrance to the Argyll Hotel.

Like other passers-by, I’d been cajoled into contributing to a public participation art piece. It was just one of the many innovative events taking place as part of the third annual Cowalfest, a 10-day ‘walking and arts’ festival with an eclectic programme showcasing the area’s landscape, wildlife, history, music, drama, food and art.

Under the watchful direction of an attendant artist I made my shaky contribution to a sweeping scene depicting the tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows. The tale is one of Irish tradition’s most famous episodes, in which the Scottish west Highlands played a central role. A 1512 Celtic document – the Glenmassan Manuscript – discovered in the 18th century in a glen close to Dunoon, relates the tale and gives it its local resonance.

Another feature of the festival was its guided heritage tours by bicycle. As enticing as that sounded, I had many road miles of my own ahead and so I pedalled out of the town towards the nearby Holy Loch.

The Holy Loch is associated with St Mun, one of several Irish missionaries to Argyll; the village of Kilmun, over on the north side of the loch, is named after him. I wonder then what the saint would have made of the American naval base that was stationed here for much of the Cold War era.

The loch was the base for the American nuclear submarine presence in the north-east Atlantic, a giant floating mid-loch complex of steel serving as the subs’ home port. The base did little to boost the area’s flagging tourist industry, but its departure in 1992 could have been more damaging still, Dunoon’s economy having become largely dependant on the American presence.

The town, of course, survived and a hushed air of optimism now blows through its streets. Cowalfest is perhaps a manifestation of the new spirit. Add to this the fact that the Cowal ‘capital’ can now lay claim to being the south-west gateway to Scotland’s first National Park (Loch Lomond and the Trossachs), throw in Scotland’s largest Highland games (the Cowal Highland Gathering), and you have a resort that still has much to offer.

As for the Holy Loch, peace has returned to its sheltered waters and the surrounding hills are now, once again, undisputed masters of the scene.

The 30-mile route from Dunoon and the Holy Loch on the east side of Cowal to Portavadie on the west is a challenging route by bike, but one with ample reward. For much of my cycle, I had the road and the wonderful west Highland scenery to myself. The autumn afternoon sun carved contrasting shades of shadow and soft, brown light from the hillside. Swathes of Sitka spruce forest were deeply green against the natural pale browns, adding further contrasts.

These might not be the loftiest of West Highland Hills, but the multiple arms of the Firth of Clyde that reach deep into the heart of Cowal create steep seashore to hilltop gradients. The ascents can be long and tough, but the free-wheeling descents that follow more than make up for it, and the break from pedalling enables you to appreciate the ever- changing land-and-seascapes incorporating Lochs Striven and Riddon and the Kyles of Bute.

Beyond the bustle of Dunoon, the peninsula is sparsely populated with just a smattering of settlements along the way. The peacefulness of Clachaig, with its well-kept white cottages, sitting on the high ground between the Holy Loch and Loch Striven, and of Millhouse, nestling amid pleasant hilly farmland between Tighnabruaich and Portavadie, belies their origins as a gunpowder manufacturing centres of the 19th century. Glendaruel, the lush wooded glen halfway between, had the forests that provided the charcoal to fuel the process.

Glendaruel today is a peaceful place, but once, several hundred years ago, it reverberated to the clash of Norse and Scottish sword.

At the beginning of the 12th century, the West Highlands were disputed lands. The Scottish kings wielded little power in the western fringes of their kingdom and the Norseman, already masters of the islands, had designs upon the adjacent mainland.

The battle that took place in Glendaruel was decisive in the locals’ favour and, although tension remained, Cowal was never again threatened by the Norsemen. As I cycled through on a gloriously sunny autumn day, all was calm. The green fields and woodlands were welcoming, the shelter from the wind soothing, and the unfolding views of Loch Riddon that followed were a joy.

At the end of the long climb from Glendaruel to the heights above sleepy Tighnabruaich a break is more or less compulsory, not only to rest weary legs, but also because it would be a crime to miss the view from here across the stunning Kyles of Bute.

It is here that the Isle of Bute all but nudges the underbelly of Cowal, with only the narrowest arm of the Clyde (bent at the elbow around the intriguingly named Buttock Point) to separate the two lands. From here southwards, the Kyles give way to the more open Sound of Bute, the distant rugged mountains of the Isle of Arran, jewel of the Clyde, forming an impressive backdrop.

The gliding descent into Tighnabruaich marked an exhilarating end to the day’s most challenging cycling. From here, all that remained of my Cowal journey was a six mile pedal towards the sinking autumn sun, through an undulating landscape of heather hills and green fields to Portavadie, on the tranquil shores of Loch Fyne. Once, there were plans to develop this quiet spot as an oil platform construction site, but this never materialised. Instead the village is now the starting point of the Cowal Way, a 47-mile walking route that leads north, through Glendaruel to the majestic heights of the Arrochar Alps – the northern frontier of the Cowal peninsula.

I took the last ferry of the day, sailing across Loch Fyne into a red sunset, towards a delicate evening mist that was settling over my destination – Tarbert, Kintyre.

Getting to Cowal

Cowal can be reached by ferry from Gourock to Dunoon (Caledonian MacBrayne, tel: +44 (0)8705 650 000) or from McInroy’s Point to Hunter’s Quay (Western Ferries, tel: +44 (0)1369 704 452). Hopscotch tickets are available combining the Gourock-Dunoon and Portavadie-Tarbert routes. The rail service from Glasgow Central to Gourock runs regularly throughout the day, but if you’re travelling with a bike it’s best to avoid peak hours, as there is no specific cycle accommodation onboard. To travel by road, drive 48 miles north from Glasgow to the Rest-and-be-Thankful (A82 and A83) before turning south towards Lochgoilhead or Strachur.

Cycling on Cowal

There are many opportunities for the cyclists of varying abilities on Cowal, including forest trails and a number of circular routes by road, both short and long: From Millhouse (near Portavadie) take the road up Loch Fyne (B8000) and at Otter Ferry take the scenic (but very high) hill route back to Glendaruel. Alternatively, continue north to Strachur and take the busier A815 past dramatic Loch Eck and Glen Massan, back to Dunoon. Cycles can be hired from Highland Stores in Dunoon (tel: +44 (0)1369 702 007) and from Pro Adventure in nearby Sandbank (tel: +44 (0)1369 703 669). Outdoor Spirals (tel: +44 (0)1369 703 135) can supply advice and suitable clothing.

The Cowal Way is a 47 mile mini-long distance footpath, stretching from Portavadie to Ardgartan. A guide book, The Cowal Way in Argyll divides the route into six sections of 9-17.6 km, and includes seven loop walks of 8.9-6.6km. www.colglen.org.uk/cowalway Cowalfest 2006 will take place between October 6-15, 2006. www.cowalwalking.org

Cowal Highland Gathering takes place on the last Friday/Saturday of August. It is Scotland’s largest Highland Games and is renowned throughout the world. Upwards of 150 bands take part comprising 2,000 pipers and drummers. Friday centres on the Highland Dancing event. www.cowalgathering.com

Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park – www.lochlomond-trossachs.org