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Issue 67 - Purest Escape

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Purest Escape

In our penultimate coastal adventure, join us as we delve deeper into Argyll and discover Cowal and Bute

INVERARAY Like many towns, Inveraray grew from a cluster of huts built in the protective shadow of a castle. But in 1744 the 3rd Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell, demolished his castle on the sheltered shores of Loch Fyne, and built a grand new one. He wished for uninterrupted views down to the loch, so he simply had the people of Inveraray relocated, and built a new town a few miles south. The Duke’s castle was left to stand alone, an island of sweeping lawn in a sea of dark forest. Forty years in construction, and with its crenulations and conical towers, Castle Inveraray looks like it has stepped right out of a fairy tale. It is mostly 18th century neo-Gothic in design, with some additions made in 1877, the result of a fire. In 1975, fire struck again and the 12th Duke and his family were forced to live in the basement while restorations were carried out, requiring a worldwide fundraising drive.

Inside it is simply stunning. The armoury hall in particular soars to a height of 21 metres, and the walls are adorned with impressive displays of arms: including 16th and 17th century pole-arms and roundels of Brown Bess muskets dating from around 1740. There is even a dirk and sporran belonging to Rob Roy MacGregor.

But Inveraray town is even more impressive. It is one of the best examples of an 18th century new town in Scotland, and will come as a pleasant shock to the wandering visitor. The first building went up in 1753 and the town has looked pretty much the same since its completion in 1776. Its perfection is unexpected, with wide, straight streets and dignified whitewashed buildings with distinctive black window casings.

It was a hugely ambitious and costly project. The essayist Doctor Johnson, no great fan of Scotland, was moved to comment on the new town during his travels: “What I admire here is the total defiance of expense.”

As early as 1747, the celebrated architect William Adam had drawn up plans for the creation of the town, but most of Inveraray as we see it today was built not by Adam but by the Edinburgh-born architect Robert Mylne.

At the time, the business of the town was herring: smoking these fish produced the famous Loch Fyne Kipper. The fish industry survives along the longest sea loch in Scotland, with farmed salmon, mussels and oysters. Loch Fyne Oysters at the head of the loch produce arguably some of the best varieties of smoked salmon in Scotland.

Also worth a visit in the town is Inveraray Jail, a so-called ‘living museum’ where real people portray life in a 19th century prison. You can interact with costumed characters, watch courtroom trials, talk to the prisoners, and witness the punishments prisoners endured, such as the Crank Machine, a form of useless labour. Male prisoners had to turn the handle 14,400 times a day for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. The warder could make the task harder by tightening a screw, giving meaning to the slang word for prison warder: ‘screw’.

From Inveraray, the road turns east towards Glasgow, or west to explore the Cowal peninsula and the Kyles of Bute.

Where to stay

The ‘first house’ to be built in the new town. Uninterrupted loch views and open fires.
Tel: +44 (0)1499 302 111

Loch Fyne
Comfortable inn serving some of the best food to be found in Argyll.
Tel: +44 (0)1369 860 279

Bed and Breakfast Rooms from £35 per person including excellent breakfast. Splendid.
Tel: +44 (0)1369 707 646

A Victorian house with spectacular views over Rothesay Bay.
Tel: +44 (0)1700 502 329

A beautiful and mountainous peninsula within Argyll, Cowal is bordered by Loch Fyne in the northwest, and the Firth of Clyde in the south east.

Argyll Forest Park spreads out across the hillsides and mountain passes in north, making this feel like a very remote part of the Highlands – despite being only one hour from Glasgow.

The arboretum at Benmore Botanic Garden, part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is situated in the heart of the park. The garden, formerly a private garden for the Younger family, is now open to the public from March to October. Its 150 acres feature some of the tallest trees in Britain, including an avenue of Giant Redwoods planted in 1863, some which are now more than 120 feet (37m) high. Also of note is the Victorian fernery, an extremely rare glasshouse dating from the 1870s.

The stone and glass construction is built into the hillside and ranges from single storey to three levels with a vaulted entrance, grotto and pool.

The east of the peninsula, along the Firth of Clyde, is dotted with numerous little settlements sprung up to accommodate the tourism boom in the 1800s.

During Scotland’s rapid industrialisation, fleets of paddle steamers brought people ‘doon the watter’ from Glasgow, and every village had a pier for holidaymakers to disembark. The first commercial steamboat service sailed in 1812, and by 1900 there were more than 300 steamers sailing up and down the Firth. Tiny villages like Dunoon soon became resorts with wooden piers and villas, hotels and public houses for holidaymakers, eager to escape the grimy city, to enjoy.

The PS Waverley, built in 1947, is the last survivor of these fleets, and the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. She departs from Dunoon and Blairmore throughout the summer for excursions around the sea lochs and islands.

Bute is an island moulded to the shape of the Cowal peninsula like a jigsaw piece.

The island is only 15 miles long by four miles wide, yet has much to offer the visitor. The Highland Boundary Fault Line runs straight through the island and has a dramatic effect on the landscape: to the north the island is hilly with extensive areas of forestry, in the south the landscape is softer, the land highly cultivated and more intensively farmed.

The main town is Rothesay, a remarkably preserved Victorian resort on the east side of the Island that prospered – yet again – thanks to the tourism from the Clyde paddle steamers.

In the centre of the town is the circular, moated ruin of Rothesay Castle, much of which dates back to the early 1200s. Further south is the astounding Mount Stuart, arguably the finest piece of domestic architecture to emerge from Britain’s Gothic Revival in the 19th century.

It was the first home in the world to have a heated indoor swimming pool, and the first in Scotland to be purpose built with electric light, central heating, a telephone system and a Victorian passenger lift. Most of these are, quite remarkably, still in use today.

From Rothesay, hop aboard a ferry for the 35 minutes crossing to Wemyss Bay on the mainland.

Wemyss Bay exists as a consequence of the rail connection to Glasgow, which opened in 1865 and connected to the Clyde steamer services.

The station is still regarded as one of Scotland’s finest railway buildings, and is remarkable for its use of glass and steel.

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