A Six-Day History Extravaganza: Going Wild About Argyll

When it comes to Scottish regions, travel writers – like parents – are not supposed to speak openly of having favourites. After all, as Calvin & Hobbes rightly proclaimed, there’s treasure everywhere. Every town, glen, crag and coast has its wonders. And yet, over years and countless miles of exploring Scotland, some places do inevitably call out to you with a stronger siren call than others. For me, that place is Argyll.

From the machair of the Isles to the Mull of Kintyre, the Coast of the Gael has me enchanted. It is a place where the elements – sea, stone, and sky – dance together until one becomes nearly indistinguishable from the other. Every clod of earth seems to hold the promise of archaeological discovery. Every shore holds visions of lands near and distant, all woven together like a tapestry by the meandering waterways that run through Argyll like veins. Its hills are not the highest in the world, nor even in Scotland, and yet they are perhaps the most hypnotically beautiful. The castles are not as mighty as massive or mighty as those of, say, Edinburgh or Stirling, and yet their stones, often strewn with moss and backed by the ever-shifting light amidst the hills, are easily the most atmospheric. So, when Wild About Argyll asked me to spend six days exploring and sharing the historic sights of Argyll, my decision was a foregone conclusion.

By journey’s end I had travelled over 200 miles, seen over a dozen castles and countless ancient monuments, made several new friends in pubs and hotels, taken many roads I’d never been down before, and all by a combination – as with all of my adventures – of trains, ferries, and cycling. Over two parts, this post will take you along for the ride. This first section begins, as I did, by departing Edinburgh for Glasgow and then on to Loch Awe, and ends with arriving on the Isle of Bute on the third day. Part two, separated from this part by an upcoming post on Scottish history and Game of Thrones, will pick up right where it left off and begin by exploring Bute, taking an urban break in Glasgow, and then venturing onto what had for me been hitherto uncharted territory in Dunoon and eastern Cowal.

Without further ado and with all the legwork done for you, let’s begin our six-day experience of going Wild About Argyll!

 

Day One: Edinburgh to Kilmartin via Loch Awe

 

Edinburgh Waverley station

 

Having prepped my trust two-wheeled steed, I set off from Edinburgh on a 7:15 train that would have me at Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe by 10:45, including a stop for breakfast in Glasgow on the way. Three and a half hours, especially by my Canadian standards, is not bad at all, especially since the West Highland Line has been repeatedly voted amongst the most scenic train routes in the world.

I alighted at Loch Awe, a village upon the northern banks of the loch of the same name. My first stop was at St Conan’s Kirk, an architecturally eccentric and exceeding beautiful kirk less than a mile south from the train station. Despite looking like it’s from the medieval period, a few hints give away its 20th century genesis. Alongside stain glass windows and an effigy of Robert the Bruce are drain pipes shaped like rabbits and stone-carved owls perched near the roof.

 

 

In preparation for the long ride ahead I stopped at the Ben Cruachan Inn for a coffee and brownie. I only intended on popping in for fifteen minutes, but ended up chatting with the Inn’s international staff for nearly an hour about everything from local attractions and favourite Scottish castles to Game of Thrones theories and the best strategies for dealing with midges (which thankfully weren’t out in time for this journey). Charged and ready, it was time for the first castle of my Argyll adventure, and the iconic Kilchurn Castle certainly set the bar high.

Established in the 15th century, Kilchurn, like many castles in this area of Argyll, was a Campbell stronghold. What began as a classic castle morphed into barracks by the 17th century, and with the construction of the Cromwellian fortress at Fort William its lairds’ aspirations to make Kilchurn into the regional power centre were scuttled. It has sat for several centuries as a ruin of precisely the type that 19th century Romantics spilled oceans of ink over, and that modern photographers have dedicated untold amounts of hard drive space to. You can see why by visiting it, then heading along the A819 and walking down to the shores of the loch for the quintessential viewpoint.

 

 

It was then time for the first serious round of pedalling. Now, it must be said, I am not a ‘cyclist’ in the way you’re likely imagining. I never have and never will don lycra, my bike is no souped-up speed demon but a second-hand, £120 workhorse, and I’m never ashamed to hop off and walk up the better part of a steep hill. I did just that several times while cruising along Loch Awe, but it was never overly challenging and the unrelentingly gorgeous scenery provides great motivation. There were also several pleasant surprises to stop and enjoy along the way, including a waterfall and several castle ruins, and over the course of the entire afternoon I shared the road on the loch’s eastern shore with perhaps saw perhaps 5 cars. One of those castles, Innis Chonnel, is on an island and cycling past it I was almost tempted to swim out to it if it wasn’t for the chill still hanging in the air. You can, in fact, rent boats and kayaks on Loch Awe from Loch Awe Boats and land on the island, or simply cruise the loch itself and enjoy the views.

 

 

The 25-odd miles flew by, and with Loch Awe behind me I emerged into one of Scotland’s most remarkable and historically rich places – one that, to my constant shock, is almost never found on touring maps or lists of must-see locations: Kilmartin Glen. For me, Kilmartin ranks right alongside far better known historic epicentres like the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. In fact, there is talk in Kilmartin village of acquiring World Heritage status for the glen – something that, whether or not you are supportive of the move, it most certainly has the potential for.

There are over 600 historic monuments in and around Kilmartin Glen, ranging from multiple castles and standing stone circles to medieval grave slabs depicting Hebridean warriors and enigmatic rock art from 5,000 years ago. By the time I arrived and received a very warm welcome at my wonderful wee accommodation, the Old Manse, dark had set in. Most of the glen would have to wait until tomorrow to be explored, but I did manage a quick stop at Carnasserie Castle and one or two of the glen’s ancient chambered cairns.

Carnasserie Castle was the residence of the powerful Bishop of Argyll, and commands the northern entrance to the glen. It earned its spot in history as the place where the first ever book written in Scottish Gaelic – John Knox’s Book of Common Order – was published. It is open inside and out year-round.

 

 

I’ve taken a real liking to (safely and responsibly) exploring historic sites at night lately. Admittedly you do have to steel your nerves, as every shadow and every snapping twig can easily morph into a monster if you let your imagination run away with you. That is perhaps especially true then the place you’re exploring is a medieval graveyard or a Neolithic burial mound! Do make sure to go in to the old church at the centre of the village. Not only is it an important space for the community, but it – like every other neuk in Kilmartin Glen – has historic artefacts including early medieval carved crosses from the dawn of Christianity in Scotland. The Gaels of Argyll, after all, brought that faith with them from Ireland, while the Picts to the northeast with whom they contended were a bit slower to give up the old ways.

 

 

After a little nocturnal snooping and a fantastic meal at the Kilmartin Hotel where I made friends of some of the regulars and an American couple travelling through the area, it was time to turn in and rest up for a second day of history hunting.

 

Day Two: Kilmartin Glen to Tarbert

 

Having castles and standing stones within a 10 minute walk of my front door was something I could only dream of as a child in Canada, and at Kilmartin that dream became a reality. The only question was which sites to prioritise, given that one day is nowhere near enough to see it all. A fantastic way to orient yourself in the wonders of the glen is to visit Kilmartin Museum. It is a hub of local expertise and knowledge, with its Director and Curator Sharon Webb having written the definitive guidebook to Kilmartin Glen. There is, of course, an exhibition of artefacts and interactives, but there is also a stellar cafe and gift shop, archives that can be accessed through prior arrangement, and a massive refurbishment planned in the coming year. In fact, the best way to do Kilmartin Museum justice here is to share with you a video that I presented with Dig It! TV, the outreach arm of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

 

 

Upon leaving the museum I saw a message on Instagram from the folks over at Kilmartin Castle, a 16th century tower in the centre of the village. I didn’t have much time, but the day I pass up an opportunity of seeing a castle is the day I turn it in altogether. So I met with Simon and Stef, the delightful owners of Kilmartin Castle who rescued it from 200 years of ruin and now run it as exclusive accommodation. Simon’s from Australia and Stef is English, so we bonded over our mutual experience of starting our lives somewhere else but falling in love with Scotland. Their exceptionally fluffy cat, Frank, promptly stole the show and struck poses on the lawn.

 

 

Reluctantly I departed Kilmartin Castle and proceeded to cycle along the quiet paths that criss-cross the glen and stop of at any stones and mounds that looked remarkable. In these parts, that’s most of them. Amongst the better-known sites of Kilmartin Glen are the standing stones and cairn at Temple Wood and the Nether Largie standing stones. The proximity of each site to the next makes exploring the glen feel almost overwhelming, with something new around every corner and in every field.

 

Nether Largie standing stones

 

Kilmartin Glen is graced by three castles: Carnasserie, Kilmartin, and my next stop, Duntrune Castle. Duntrune has a reasonable claim to being the oldest continually inhabited castle in all of Scotland, dating to the 13th century and still functioning as a private residence for the Malcolms of Poltalloch. It is a classic ‘castle of enclosure’, comprised of a single thick wall enclosing (hence the name) a courtyard and with a 16th century tower added on to it. It has commanding views over Loch Crinan looking out to the sea, a vital asset for any castle of Scotland’s west coast – 800 years ago, after all, the Norse were still ravaging swathes of Scotland, and the sooner you could see them coming the better your chances of survival.

 

 

For me, however, the epicentre of Kilmartin Glen is undoubtedly Dunadd. The at first unassuming rocky crag is the key note in the song of Scotland, being the royal centre of the early Scots kingdom of Dál Riata. Though now quiet, it once buzzed with the coming and going of chariots and wagons laden with luxury goods, diplomats and clerics from the four corners of Scotland coming to treat with the resident king, and spear-wielding warriors assembling to do battle with the Picts. Blue dyes from Afghanistan were discovered at Dunadd, shattering the myth that Britain after the fall of the Western Roman Empire was cut off from the world. For a time, at least, it seems that the world had no trouble coming to Argyll.

Of many moments that made me feel a tangible connection to Scotland’s past, placing a foot in the impression atop Dunadd was the most powerful of all. An imprint of a human foot is clear to behold upon a stone near Dunadd’s peak, into which the kings of old would place their feet to ceremonially bind them to the land and its people. The faint impression of a boar, as well as Ogham script, can also be seen on the stone. Place your foot into the print, behold the vast expanse of the Moine Mhor stretched into the horizon, and know that at Dunadd you are in the cradle of Scotland itself.

 

 

Leaving Kilmartin Glen always gives me a heavy heart, and yet there were many miles still to cover to reach my ultimate destination for the day, Tarbert, so I cycled along the Crinan Canal into Lochgilphead for lunch and a few moments rest by the shore. The Canal is a key artery for the region, developed in the same period as the Union Canal that links Edinburgh and Glasgow.

 

 

The stretch between Lochgilphead and Tarbert was the longest of day two, a little over ten miles of uninterrupted road. The miles sped past, however, aided by the lack of any major hills and the ceaselessly beautiful shoreline that the road skirts along. Cycling, for me, has never been about getting from A to B as fast as possible but about having the freedom to stop wherever you like and soak in the atmosphere.

 

Shoreline south of Lochgilphead

As with Kilmartin, I arrived in Tarbert as the last of the day’s light dwindled behind the hills. I checked into my accommodation at the Starfish Rooms in the centre of town, grabbed a bite to eat at one of the many local cafes and restaurants, and fell asleep with dreams of the castle looming over the seaside town.

 

Day Three: Tarbert to Rothesay via the Loch Lomond & Cowal Way

 

Tarbert is at a pinch point in the land separating the Kintyre Peninsula from Knapdale. This has made it strategically important since earliest times. One tale, for instance, relates how a Viking named Magnus Barelegs came to an agreement with Edgar, King of Scots, stipulating that Magnus could lay claim to any land that he could circumnavigate with a ship. The canny Magnus came to Tarbert and had his men drag his longship over the narrow isthmus while he himself stood at the helm, and so Kintyre was his by right.

The building of a major royal castle by Robert Bruce put an end to such shenanigans and established Tarbert as a crucial power centre for the kings of Scots in the west against the powers of the Hebridean sea kings. Bruce’s castle is entirely ruinous today, though its foundations and earthworks still create a labyrinthine complex on the high hill above Tarbert punctuated by a later tower.

 

Tarbert Castle

 

From Tarbert it is only a quick ferry ride across Loch Fyne to the Cowal Peninsula and the aptly and evocatively named ‘Secret Coast’. Argyll still embodies an ancient principle that most of us have since forgotten. For the vast majority of human history, waterways were not barriers to travel but superhighways that were far faster and safer than overland travel. Looking at Argyll on a map, it is criss-crossed and intersected by innumerable bodies of water, making it seem difficult to get around. Far from it – the region is linked by a great many ferry routes that make reaching Cowal from Tarbert as easy – if not more so – as getting a train from, say, Glasgow to Stirling. Argyll can seem to be a world apart, and yet in my considerable experience of exploring the area getting from one part to another can be less of a hassle than getting a bus from one part of Edinburgh to another.

So it was that I sailed across Loch Fyne and set foot for the very first time upon Cowal. Seeing a new part of the country is always exciting, so I embarked on the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way, a beautiful trail leading from the ferry at Portavadie all the way across the peninsula and beyond.

 

Bicycle on the Cowal Way

 

One of the first stops along the Way was at the ruins of Asgog Castle, a crumbling and overgrown castle on the banks of Asgog Loch. A few miles further and I emerged in towns of Kames and Tighnabruaich. In the former I stopped at The Little Kitchen, a delightful place that I came across entirely by chance. While enjoying a delicious lunch and strong coffee I spoke with the owner, Scott, who shared stories of meeting Nelson Mandela and settling in Cowal after years as an educator. You never know who you’ll encounter on these kinds of journeys, and strange as it may seem in a trip filled with epic castles, ancient monuments and stunning landscapes, my short stop at The Little Kitchen stands out in my mind.

 

The Little Kitchen

 

Then came a climb. The road from Tighnabruaich up along the Secret Coast is incredibly beautiful, but was also the most physically challenging of my trip. Just as I started to wonder if I was perhaps slightly daft for choosing to cycle across one of Scotland’s largest regions, I reached a series of viewpoints that removed any doubt from my mind as to whether it had all been worth it. I strongly suspect that if more people knew about the beauty and, above all, accessibility of Argyll’s Secret Coast that it would not remain a very well-kept secret for much longer.

 

 

What goes up must come down, and the steady slope downwards along Loch Riddon towards Ormidale allowed me to catch my breath. Once at the bottom I took a slight detour to Kilmodan Church in Clachan of Glendaruel, where a collection of carved medieval grave slabs much like those in Kilmartin can be found.
Kilmodan Church carved stones

 

Admittedly by this point my legs were starting to cry out for rest, so I cycled along the gentle coast to my second ferry port of the day at Colintraive. This is surely a contender for the shortest ferry ride in Scotland, with the crossing to Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute taking all of five minutes.

 

Colintraive ferry

 

From there it was just a few miles along yet more lovely coastlines to Rothesay, the largest town on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay and Bute more generally are fascinating places, and this was perhaps my fifth or sixth visit to the island. Still, there was much on it that I had never seen before, including several medieval castles and the jewel in Bute’s crown, Mount Stuart. I, however, was absolutely knackered, so that will have to wait for Part Two of this blog post which will be coming out on the weekend of 27-28 April. In Part Two I will include a map marking each and every historic site and viewpoint that I’ve shown you.

I arrived at my accommodation, the fantastic Bayview Hotel on Mountstuart Road, which gave me a warm welcome and one of the single best views from a bedroom that I have ever experienced. The prospect of a good dinner was the only thing that pried me out once again, and I enjoyed one at Rothesay’s drink and dining institution Harry Haws, which I’m especially partial to not least because it is directly across from Rothesay Castle with many tables affording a fine view of it. From there I meandered through Rothesay’s streets back to the Bayview, tucked in, made my preparations for the next day, and fell asleep to the sound of the waves gently lapping the shore.

 

 

Disclaimer

This blog post, and my six-day adventure through mainland Argyll and Bute, is part of ‘The Heart and Soul of Scotland’ campaign with Wild About Argyll and People Make Glasgow.