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Issue 93 - Argyll adventures

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017

 

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Argyll adventures

Charles Douglas travels west to Oban, the Isle of Mull and beyond

The vast landscape of Argyll is home to some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife and impressive historic sites. As covering such a huge area in one trip would be difficult, for this issue we are focusing on the northern part of the region, travelling west to the port of Oban, then over the water to the Isle of Mull, and finishing up with an exploration of the smaller isles that lay beyond. The journey west is usually made by one of two primary approaches, a ‘northern’ or a ‘southern’ route, both of which initially take in portions of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The ‘northern’ route is ideal for those travelling from Edinburgh via Stirling and follows the A84 to the popular holiday town of Callander, on the outskirts of the National Park, before heading north alongside Loch Lubnaig (where there is a campsite and café) and joining the A85 at Lochearnhead, on the western banks of Loch Earn. It is of note that Lochearnhead once marked the frontier between Pictland and Dalriada, the ancient kingdom of the incoming Scots from Ireland. From there, the road takes in Glen Ogle, which has a picturesque viaduct, before swinging west to Crianlarich and then northwest to Tyndrum.

The village of Tyndrum is an important transport staging post, where many will stop at the famous Green Welly Stop, which includes a gift shop, whisky shop, outwear store, restaurant, and motor services. It is here that the road splits and, if so desired, an extended scenic route to Oban may be achieved by heading north to Bridge of Orchy, then through one of Scotland’s most famous natural landmarks: Glen Coe. This geographically dramatic glen was the site of an infamous massacre in 1692 and today is a popular site for outdoor pursuits. From there the road continues west to North Ballachulish, before swinging south toward Connel and eventually Oban. Travellers taking this route are encouraged to stop off for lunch or a nights’ stay at the renowned Pierhouse Hotel in Port Appin, which is famous for its exceptional seafood and views across Loch Linnhe. Nearby is the romantic 14th-Century Castle Stalker (from the Gaelic ‘Stalcaire’, meaning Hunter or Falconer), which sits alone on a tidal islet in Loch Laich. This romantic four-storey tower house began as a small fortress for the Clan Macdougall Lords of Lorne, before being acquired by the Stewarts and embellished when they took over the lordship in the following century. It was later held by Clan Campbell, having supposedly been won in a drunken bet from the 7th Stewart Chief, Duncan. In 1965 it was purchased by Lt. Col. D. R. Stewart Allward and he spent the next decade restoring it to its current state, which is fully habitable. As it is privately owned, Castle Stalker is not generally open to the public but a limited number of tours are run each year that can be arranged by appointment. The more direct ‘northern’ route takes the A85 west from Tyndrum to the village of Dalmally. This settlement was once part of the vast Campbell of Breadalbane estates and is situated on the old black cattle drove and military road between Tyndrum and the coast. From there, the A85 runs along the top shore of Loch Awe and passes the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, the 15th-Century headquarters of the Campbells of Glenorchy. This branch of the family eventually rose through the generations to become the earls of Breadalbane. Taynuilt, at the western entrance to the Pass of Brander, is where the River Nant flows into Loch Etive at Airds Bay. In the 13th Century, a small hill here accommodated the seat of the Bishop of Argyll. In Taynuilt one will also find the village’s former coaching inn, which is now known as the Taynuilt Etive Restaurant with Rooms and, after a change of ownership five years ago, has become known for its particularly fine Scottish cuisine.

Not far away is the Bonawe Iron Furnace, constructed in 1753, which once employed 600 charcoal burners and in 1781 manufactured 42,000 canonballs. It now features a visitor centre that gives insight into this fascinating site of historic industry. At Connel, on the southern shore of Loch Etive, there is a small airstrip. Connel is known for its large cantilever bridge at the Falls of Lora, which was built in 1903 to take the Callander & Oban Railway branch line to Ballachulish. From here there are delightful views across Loch Etive and out towards Ardmucknish Bay. The A85 continues southwest from Connel, passing the turn-off for the Isle of Eriska, a luxury resort on a private island (see: pp.32-34), and the imposing 13th-Century Dunstaffnage Castle, one of Scotland’s oldest stone castles, before heading south to Oban. Also nearby is Barcaldine Castle, built in 1609 by ‘Black’ Duncan Campbell. The tower house was restored in 1897 by Sir Duncan Campbell, 3rd Baronet of Barcaldine, and today is operated as a luxurious B&B.

The alternative ‘southern’ route to Oban is best accessed from Glasgow and takes the A82 from Dumbarton, heading north along the western bank of Loch Lomond, before turning west at Tarbet for Arrochar, which is found at the northernmost tip of Loch Long. Visitors departing from Glasgow who wish to take the ‘northern’ route outlined above may alternatively press on to Crianlarich. From Arrochar the A83 passes under the shadow of Beinn Ime and Beinn an Lochain, where one may find the beauty spot known as the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’. The site is 803 feet above sea level and divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe, making it an ideal photo opportunity.

As the road continues it follows the banks of the northern tip of Loch Fyne past the famous Loch Fyne Oysters Restaurant, tables at which should be booked in advance. Nearby is also the respected Fyne Ales brewery, which has both a shop and brewery tap (tours are available by appointment). Turning south, the A83 leads to Inveraray, which is well-known for the eponymous castle that is the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell. The building of Inveraray Castle was begun in 1746 to a baroque, Palladian and Gothic style and was designed by architects Roger Morris and William Adam. It was architecturally ahead of its time but, unfortunately, long before completion both Morris and Adam passed away. In the end it was completed, 43 years after the first stone was laid, by Adam’s sons John and Robert. However, the castle that can be seen today is the result of works commenced following a fire in 1877, which led to the creation of the third floor and conical roofs on the corner towers. It is open to the public for tours from April to October.

From Inveraray, the road follows the western bank of Loch Fyne southward to Lochgilphead, which is found at the head of a short loch called Loch Gilp, itself an offshoot of Loch Fyne. Much like Inveraray, Lochgilphead was a planned town built in the late 18th Century and following the creation of the road from Inveraray to Campbeltown, which is the primary settlement at the southern tip of Argyll on the Kintyre Peninsula. Lochgilphead developed significantly following the opening of the Crinan Canal, which acts as a shortcut across the Kintyre peninsula to the West Coast of Scotland and the open ocean.

Turning north, we soon reach Kilmartin Glen, which is home to an award-winning museum, and the Kilmartin Parish Church, which features a series of remarkable carvings and interpretations of the historic monuments of the area. Here visitors will also find Kilmartin Castle, which was built as a manse for John Carswell, Rector of Kilmartin, in the late 16th Century and later owned by Clan Campbell. This Z-plan castle has now been restored and is available as a holiday let.

Continuing north, on the final stretch to Oban are turn-offs for the purpose-built sailing port and holiday resort of Craobh Haven, the beautiful National Trust for Scotland gardens of Arduaine, and the quaint, sheltered anchorage of Kilmelford, on Loch Melford. At Kilninver is the turn off that leads to the small ferry terminals that take passengers to the Slate Isle of Easdale (see: pp.12–13), from Ellenabeich, and the larger Luing, from Cuan Ferry. Both are picturesque hideaways, rich in history, and well worth visiting if you have the time.

Finally, two miles south of Oban is the turn off for the ferry to the small island of Kerrera, which is four miles long and located across the Sound of Kerrera in the Firth of Lorne. The island is divided into small communities north and south, and its main historical attraction is the ruin of Gylen Castle, where Alexander II of Scotland died in 1249. Alexander had set forth to the Hebrides in 1248 to persuade Ewen, Lord of Argyll, to withdraw his support from Haakon IV of Norway. Haakon's subsequent invasion of Scotland was finally repelled by Alexander's son at Largs in 1263. There is a tea garden and bunkhouse by the castle, open Easter until October.

At last we reach the town of Oban, capital of the ancient district of Lorne. The town came into its own with the arrival of the railway in 1880 and, to some extent, with the tourism that followed. As the gateway to the islands of the Inner Hebrides and a terminal for steamboats and ferries, hotels and boarding houses sprang up along the waterfront. The town is nestled in a sheltered bay and rapidly became the largest town in Argyll. More recently, it has acquired a reputation for being the Seafood Capital of Scotland. However, it is arguable that the Oban we see today grew up around the Scotch whisky distillery founded in 1794 by brothers John and Hugh Stevenson. This distillery, which is open for tours and tastings of its single malt, is very active today and is now part of the Diageo portfolio. To the north, overlooking the main entrance to the bay, is Dunollie Castle, the ruins of which date from the ancient kingdom of Dalriada. In the 13th Century, the fortification was reinstated by Duncan MacDougall, a great grandson of the warrior Somerled. Powerful for generations, the MacDougalls sided with their kinsfolk the Comyns against the royal ambitions of Robert the Bruce. Following Bruce's victory at the Battle of the Pass of Brander, circa 1308, the MacDougall lands of Lorne were forfeit and handed over to Clan Campbell. Thereafter, Dunollie Castle changed hands to be recovered by the MacDougalls in 1661 but it was abandoned in 1746 in favour of Dunollie House, which sits downhill from the castle ruins.

Battery Hill, on the southern side of the town, provides the classic viewpoint of the sea and is where McCaig's Folly can be seen. Modelled on the Colosseum in Rome, with a public garden inside, the folly overlooks the town with views over to Kerrera in the horseshoe bay and the Isle of Mull beyond. John Stuart McCaig was Chairman of the North of Scotland Bank and, in order to create local employment during the winter months, decided that the town hillside needed a focal point. He originally intended for statues of members of his family to be placed within the 600-foot arena, but died in 1902 before he could complete the project.

The traditional Oban Games and Argyllshire Gathering, one of the largest of its kind in Scotland, takes place annually at Mossfield Park on the fourth Thursday in August. It is customary for all of the neighbouring clansfolk to attend, and commences with a march of Campbell chieftains led by the Duke of Argyll. From Oban we travel on to the Isle of Mull, which is Scotland's fourth largest island. Mull has some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery and is home to rare wildlife such as the enormous white-tailed eagle and the much-loved Eurasian otter. Made up of various peninsulas, it has the peak of the dramatic Ben More at its centre. The Isle of Mull is accessible in several ways but it is always sensible to plan and book your journey in advance, as spaces for vehicles on the ferries are often fully booked. The main ferry route is with Caledonian MacBrayne and departs Oban for Craignure, the principal passenger ferry port. Alternatively, Mull can be reached by car ferry from Lochaline on the Morvern Peninsula, which travels to Fishnish, and also from Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan, which travels to Tobermory (Mull’s principal settlement). In the 14th Century the Isle of Mull became part of the Lordship of the Isles, a virtually independent region under the Scottish Crown. For centuries after that, the island's economy depended upon farming, fishing and the processing of kelp (or seaweed). Then tragedy struck. Over the Highland Potato famine of the 19th Century, the population fell by two thirds, but was revived with the building of Craignure Pier in 1964, which opened up the island for commerce, tourism, and as a pathway to the Isle of Iona.

Duart Castle sits high on a headland overlooking the Sound of Mull and is best seen from the sea (see: Scotland Magazine #20). Dating from the 13th Century, this is the ancestral seat of Clan Maclean that came with the dowry of Mary, daughter of the Lord of the Isles, on her marriage to Lachlan, 5th Chief of Maclean, in 1350. Through the centuries, its formidable defences were regularly subject to attack: by Clan Campbell in 1647, by a task force sent by Oliver Cromwell in 1653, and twice more by Clan Campbell in 1658 and 1691, when it was eventually surrendered to the 1st Duke of Argyll.

But the Macleans are a resilient breed. Although Duart was allowed to fall into ruin and sold on, it was eventually bought back in 1911 and restored by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 26th Chief of Maclean. Today, the Great Hall and Clan Exhibition remains a major tourist attraction on the island. However, the castle’s exposed site makes the preservation of this magnificent fortress an ongoing challenge and a further restoration appeal was launched in 2014. For those interested in supporting the appeal, donation information is available at www.duartcastle.com. Within sight of Duart, on the A849, is the Scottish baronial style Torosay House and gardens (see: Scotland Magazine #25), which was built by the Scottish architect David Bryce for John Campbell of Possil in 1850. In 1865, the property was purchased by Arbuthnot Charles Guthrie, the prosperous younger son of the co-founder of a Dundee-based merchant bank. In the 20th Century, his heir Murray Guthrie enlisted Sir Robert Lorimer to create the three Italianate statue walks that connect the house to the old walled garden. The castle was sold by the Guthrie-James family in 2012 and is currently closed to the public. However, the 12 acres of garden are occasionally opened to visitors, but it is essential to check this out locally beforehand. From the car ferry terminal at Craignure, visitors have the option of following the A849 Ross of Mull road via Lochdon and south to Pennyghael and Killunaig on Loch Scridain, eventually reaching Fionnphort and the ferry to Iona. To describe the scenery along the route as ‘dramatic’ would be something of an understatement. Pennyghael takes its name from ‘pennyland of the Gael’ an ancient means of land valuation. Neolithic cairns at Burg indicate that there were occupants here as early as 4000BC. The first recorded Laird of Pennyghael was Archibald McGillivray, but the family seems now to have dispersed.

Fhionnphort, the ‘White Port’ is a small fishing port village and the point of departure for the ferry to Iona. Catches of lobster and crabs are landed daily and loaded on to lorries for transport to the mainland, but visitors may get a taste for themselves at the takeaway seafood bar known as The Creel. It must be said that enjoying a seafood platter from this establishment, while looking out over the water to Iona and its historic Abbey, is an essential part of any trip to Mull. Following the arrival of Saint Columba in AD 563, Iona became a lasting religious centre. Exiled from his native Ireland, Columba and twelve of his followers founded the monastery and set about the conversion of the indigenous Picts to Christianity, moving on to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Iona's reputation as a centre of faith and learning grew, but from 794 the monks came under frequent assault from Viking raiders and many of them fled to the Columban Abbey of Kells in Ireland. In 825, St Lathmac was martyred and the Abbey burned. As Norse domination of Scotland's west coast receded, however, a convent for Benedictine nuns was introduced with Bethoc, daughter of Somerled, as its first prioress. The Benedictine Abbey seen today was established in 1208 and many of Scotland's early kings were brought to Iona for burial. The monastery flourished until it was decimated during the Reformation. However, it was more recently revived as an ecumenical church. In 1938, the Very Reverend George MacLeod of Fuinary founded the Iona Community, which consists of men and women from different walks of life and tradition in search of the Gospel of Jesus in a modern world. To this end, the community runs three residential courses. In 1899, the Duke of Argyll transferred ownership of the Abbey and nunnery sites to the Iona Cathedral Trust, which restored the church. In the following century, the island, excluding the land that already belonged to the Iona Cathedral Trust, was donated and put into the capable hands of the National Trust for Scotland. Back on the mainland of Mull, off the A849 there is a cross country road through Fellonmore to Lochbuie, a distance of approximately 14 miles. Known as the ‘Garden of Mull’, this village lies at the head of Loch Buie, a sea loch. Mull's only stone circle can be found here and it is overlooked by the imposing Ben Buie. It is here that visitors will find Moy Castle, a 14th Century three-story keep that stands near to Lochbuie House, once the seat of the chiefs of the Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie. It was here that Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were entertained by the 17th Maclaine Chief in 1773. A medieval chapel dedicated to St Oran was rebuilt as a mausoleum for the Maclaine family in the 19th Century. Lochbuie has also appeared on the silver screen, as scenes for the well-known Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) were filmed here.

Tracing back to our landing point at Craignure, the A849 skirts the shoreline through Balmeanach and Fishnish to Salen where it become the A848. The village of Salen marks the narrow ‘waist’ of the island, and it is here that the B8035 splits off to Gruline in the west — this is the quickest way of cutting across Mull from coast to coast. This road leads to Knock House, on the Benmore Estate, and Gruline House, both of which provide visitor accommodation. At Gruline is the Macquarie Mausoleum, which is the final resting place of Lachlan Macquarie, who is known as ‘The Father of Australia’. Major General Lachlan Macquarrie was born nearby on the Island of Ulva in 1824 and, having joined the British Army, he became the fifth Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821 and was responsible for transforming the penal colony into a free settlement. Macquarrie returned to Scotland but died in London in 1824. His mausoleum, which contains his remains and those of his wife and daughter, are maintained by the National Trust of Australia.

Following the road from Gruline, along the northern bank of the spectacular Loch Na Keal, we come to the turn off for the Ulva Ferry. The charming Isle of Ulva once had a population of 600 living off the kelp industry, but is now privately owned by the Howard family. The island is open to visitors from Easter until October, with a passenger ferry service from Monday to Friday, and there is a popular licensed cafe called The Boathouse, which is an ideal spot for sampling some local shellfish. The grandparents of the explorer and missionary David Livingstone lived on a croft on the island and there is a small museum in Sheila's Cottage, a restored thatched croft house.

Alternatively, the southern road from Gruline (B8035) takes in the spectacular coastal vistas of the Ardmeanach Peninsula — be sure to leave extra time for driving this route as you’ll be in and out of your car for pictures regularly! The area is also home to MacCulloch’s Fossil Tree, the impression of a 50 million-year-old tree that was trapped in a lava flow. It’s an impressive sight, but be warned: the walk to reach it is very challenging and not to be undertaken by anyone with a four-legged companion or a fear of heights.

Back at Salen, on the east coast, the A848 heads north to the island’s main settlement at Tobermory, which is acknowledged as the capital of the Isle of Mull. Having been founded as a fishing port in 1788, its layout was designed by Thomas Telford. In 1588, the Florencia, a Spanish galleon carrying the treasure of the Armada and fleeing from the English fleet of Elizabeth I, was scuttled in the bay. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to find the wreckage. Picture postcard Tobermory excels as a Scottish waterfront with its brightly painted buildings, which are largely shop fronts and restaurants. The harbour town provided a colourful backdrop for the CBBC television show Balamory, which aired from 2002 to 2005 and remains popular with children today, while the fictitious town of Torbay in Alistair MacLean's When Eight Bells Toll was also based on Tobermory. Local attractions include the Mull Museum, open Monday to Saturday; the Tobermory Distillery, which produces peated and unpeated Scotch whisky; and Mull Aquarium, home to Europe's only catch and release exhibition. In 2012, An Tobar, the arts centre, merged with the popular Mull Little Theatre at Druimfin to form the Comar Performing Arts Theatre. While in town I suggest a visit to the Mishnish pub, which has been a popular social hub since 1869 and now has an adjoining seafood restaurant, called The Mishdish. Visible from the town is Calve Island, in Tobermory Bay. Privately owned, Calve Island humorously issued its own postage stamps in 1984.

To the west of Tobermory are the Mishnish lochs and the impressive country pile that is Glengorm Castle (see: pp.14–17). On the B8073, Dervaig and Calgary lie within the parish of Kilninian and Kilmore. There is a small stone pier originally built to allow small cargo boats to deliver coal, and for transporting sheep to the nearby Treshnish Isles. The ruins of croft houses on the landscape in this area indicate an abandoned crofting community, largely cleared in the 19th Century to make way for sheep farming. The silver sands of Calgary Bay make it a popular beauty spot for picnics and camping. Calgary Castle, which offers luxury retreats, was built in 1817 and once played host to Colonel James Macleod, Commissioner of the Canadian North West Mounted Police. It was he who took the name back to Alberta and, in 1875, named the defensive outpost at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers Fort Calgary, which is now at the core of the City of Calgary. From Mull's north coast there are wonderful views of the islands of Coll and Tiree, both of which are renowned for sunshine. While Tiree has become a haven for surfers, Coll is noted for its colony of corncrakes and for Breachacha Castle, ancestral stronghold of the Macleans of Coll. Now a Category A Listed building, it was restored in the 1960s by Major N. V. Maclean Bristol. Breachacha House dates from the 18th Century and was visited by Dr Johnson and James Boswell.

Tiree is the most westerly island in the Inner Hebrides and location of the 1st Century Dun Mor Broch and prehistoric Ringing Stone. It became a favourite haunt of Saint Columba. The habour at Scarinish was built in 1771, and Skerryvore lighthouse, 12 miles to the west, was built by the Victorian engineer Alan Stevenson between 1838 and 1844. Tiree's first inn was opened in 1801 and was publicized as a ‘temperance hotel’, reminding visitors that for many years Tiree was a ‘dry’ island. In other words, the consumption of alcohol was not allowed! You may be pleased to know that this is no longer the case. Finally, the superb boat tours to Staffa (see: p.77) and the Treshnish Isles (see: pp.42–47) come highly recommended as delightful culminations to this spectacular Argyll adventure.