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Issue 31 - Argyll – the best of three worlds

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


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Argyll – the best of three worlds

Argyll has something for everyone, offering visitors a taste of the very best of Scotland. Dominic Roskrow reports

If you’re of the view that Scotland is actually three countries in one – The Lowlands, The Highlands and The Islands – then Argyll should hold a special place in your affections because it offers a taste of all three.

Stretching up from the Lowland region round Glasgow to the rough and ready Highland territory that includes the rugged beauty of sea ports such as Oban and passing some of Scotland’s best-loved Western isles on the way, Argyll is a constant revelation.

Geographically it’s a challenging and dramatic region, its borders seemingly torn from the mainland to form a group of interconnecting islands and peninsulas. Its rocks, inlets and crannies are loaded with history, and not all of it stretching back to the Romantic centuries of old. Indeed, its older history is etched with suffering and hardship, but you can recall a more recent past, too, when the great Clyde steamers made Glasgow second to none in the world and wealth poured in to the west coast and its residents made Argyll part of their recreational base.

In particular isles such as Bute and towns such as Rothesay stand testament to a working people’s past and Argyll’s lochs and canals are hark back to the great days of steam, when Scotland’s west coast was at the forefront of the industrial world.

Argyll is actually Scotland’s second biggest county but it is a fragmented one, and to tour it extensively requires considerable investment in time and effort.

But it is worth it. In the south of the region is Campbeltown. You reach it by driving up from Glasgow along the banks of Loch Lomond and then down past Loch Fyne. This was once a thriving centre for fishing and whisky production but now well past its glory days. But from the quaint port of Tarbert you can make the crossing to Islay, home to eight whisky distilleries including world famous ones such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Bowmore; and to Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984.

To the north of the region is Oban, a pretty and bustling seaport with its ferry terminus right at its heart. From here you can travel out to islands such as Mull, and to the small island of Iona, part of Argyll and an island that played a pivotal role in the establishment of Christianity in Scotland. Other islands that form part of this region are Tiree, Gigha and Coll.

Oban itself makes a great base from which to travel inland to explore the western side of the Highlands, or to venture north to Fort William and Ben Nevis, or to Glencoe, with its dramatic and intimidating weather changes, its tragic and imposing history, and its challenging and often dangerous outdoor sports opportunities.

Argyll changes in personality at every turn and its diversity means that the visitor has the pick of activities, from skiing, surfing, snowboarding and diving for the more energetic to bird, whale, seal and puffin watching or cycling and walking for those who prefer to take it easy.

But perhaps most fascinating of all the region is the Isle of Bute, a small island about 15 miles long and four miles wide which nestles between the mainland and the Campbeltown peninsula in what are sea lochs in South Argyll. Its island status due to the narrowest stretch of water at its northernmost point. Indeed you can make the crossing from Colintraive on the Cowal Peninsula to Rhubodach on Bute in about five minutes, and the ferry chugs back and forwards all day at peak times, so no booking is necessary.

The most established route on to the island, however, is from Wemys Bay. In summer there are about a dozen crossings a day so again, no advanced booking is necessary.

Once there, Bute is a curious mix of natural beauty, historic Scotland, and faded Victorian charm. This was a busy holiday resort back in the 19th century and Rothesay in particular retains its Victorian façade. The pier and promenade are built on land reclaimed from the sea, and Rothesay Castle, some 200 metres inland, was once a seafront castle.

But like most of the islands in the region, Bute can also claim a history stretching back thousands of years. This was once the ancestral home of the Stuart family.

Rothesay Castle itself is more than 800 years old and was built by a hereditary high Steward of Scotland. It was from this root that the name ‘Stewart’ and then ‘Stuart’ was derived. It withstood many onslaughts including those by the Vikings but fell to the English in the wars of independence before Robert the Bruce took it back again.

It was partially destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops and finally destroyed by the Duke of Argyll. It has been substantially restored during the last 120 years.

The peace and tranquillity of the island has attracted a procession of celebrity residents, including renowned film director Lord Attenborough.

With Glasgow so close at hand Argyll is a captivating and absorbing destination for any visitor and its coastline and islands guarantee that it offers something new to offer on every visit. It rolls all the best bits of Scotland’s three distinctive regions in to one. For these reasons Argyll is an unmissable destination. And whatever you want from Scotland, the chances are you’ll find it here.