Cumbrae in a Day: Castles, coasts, and a solitary cetacean in the Clyde

The word ‘adventure’ is so tied up with concept of straying far from home that it is all too easy to neglect the possibilities in our own backyards. I, too, am susceptible – as I write this I am on hour six of an eight hour train journey to Caithness in search of scenic and historic thrills. In the same amount of time, however, I could have left home, boarded a different train, hopped on a ferry, and spent several hours cycling, beachcombing, and history hunting on the Cumbraes in the Firth of Clyde. Hills, coasts, standing stones, welcoming locals – all that I seek up north are there, too. While I shuffle from side to side in my seat attempting to regain feeling in my legs, the advantages of exploring closer to home become increasingly tangible.

After years of saying “Ah, I’ll go there one day”, I finally visited the Cumbraes on 28 September as part of the #WestCoastWaters campaign which aims to let more people know about the opportunities and adventures to be had on Scotland’s west coast, from the Mull of Kintyre to the Butt of Lewis. As with all of my journeys, my main means of exploring the Cumbraes was by bicycle. I got a lift with ScotRail from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then on to Largs, less than two hours all told; the CalMac ferry from Largs to Great Cumbrae takes a mere seven or eight minutes and runs constantly throughout the day. Hence the moniker given to Great Cumbrae of being ‘Scotland’s most accessible island’. It’s clearly a hit with cyclists, as there were more boarding the ferry here than anywhere else I’ve been to by boat in Scotland. The fact that the one road round Great Cumbrae is only about 10 miles in circumference, and that there’s really only one hill right in the middle, certainly encourages many day-trippers.

While I would later get the ferry back to the mainland, my day began with a private charter sailing round the Cumbraes led by John and Lindsay Teale at Sea Clyde. Had I done absolutely nothing else that day, this alone would have made the trip unforgettable. Possessing knowledge and passion in equal measure, they arranged for me to land on Little Cumbrae, which is privately owned and run as a yoga and mindfulness retreat. While that’s not my cup of tea (I tried yoga once and it was nearly the end of me), I can certainly see why Little Cumbrae was chosen for such a place. More pressingly for history geeks is Little Cumbrae Castle, one that I had long wanted to cross off my list but never knew how to access. Proving that nowhere is out of reach with the right team backing you up, Sea Clyde skilfully moored along the stony shore while I did some castle hunting.

There’s not too much on the record for Little Cumbrae Castle. It stood as a royal retreat from 1300, with a visit paid by kings Robert II and Robert III in the following century. However, the castle we see today – a satisfyingly squat stone tower rising to a height of four storeys fitted with numerous gun loops and decorative machicolations – is likely from the late 14th century.

My need for a castle fix sated, Sea Clyde brought me to a jetty on Great Cumbrae so I could begin exploring the larger of the two islands. Believe it or not, the castle was not even my favourite part of the journey – as much as I love castles, few moments in my entire time in Scotland have been quite as special as when they introduced me to Kylie the dolphin.

Around half way between Largs and Great Cumbrae is the hangout of the world’s loneliest dolphin. Kylie entered the Firth of Clyde a decade ago, perhaps ostracised by her pod or due to an inability to connect with other dolphins (I feel ya, Kylie). She has even adapted her frequency to be able to communicate with the local porpoises – an accomplishment thought to be completely unique amongst the dolphins of the world. At 25 years old Kylie is in her twilight years but has clearly lost none of her zest. She adores swimming alongside boats to say hello which is exactly what she did with us, emerging from the water with a dramatic leap barely more than an arm’s length away. For more than five minutes Kylie kept us company, following in our trail and occasionally breaching the surface. As far as wildlife encounters go I have never experienced anything quite like it, and I was left spellbound by the clear intelligence and personality of this star of the Clyde. 

Arriving on Great Cumbrae, there are three choices: turn right and traverse the island counter-clockwise passing through the area where the Norwegian king Håkon IV camped before the Battle of Largs; turn left going clockwise, passing through Millport sooner than later; or take the steep-ish road straight up the one and only hill in the centre of the island. I did the third option, wanting to orient myself in the surrounding landscape. The short climb to the top yields spectacular views to Bute, Arran, Kintyre, the mainland, and beyond. It was here that I first realised how much like a more remote isle the Cumbraes feel like – the same delicate interplay between stone and water, the same island pace, the same natural magnificence. A slice of island life within a day’s easy reach from home.

Though I had never been to Millport before, the sense of familiarity and belonging was uncanny. Much of my childhood was spent in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, a picturesque seaside town of fewer than 800 people. Catching salamanders in the woods or crabs along the shore, popping in to the now long-gone Bill’s Store to spend my allowance on toy dinosaurs, and returning home muddy and proud were all in a good day’s play. Mapes of Millport is Millport’s version of Bill’s Store, an anything-goes emporium (with over 400 bikes available to hire, including eye-catching and family-friendly ‘quadricycles’). Like Mahone Bay, Millport is brimming with artisanal talent – I enjoyed what was quite possibly the best hot chocolate I have ever had, not to mention a delicious veggie lunch, at Brewbaker café and chocolatier.

Eccentricity is one of Millport’s calling cards, and you need look no further than Millport’s own Crocodile Rock for the prime example. Painted in 1913 by enigmatic retired architect Robert Brown, the grinning croc was once one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions. If that sounds unlikely, recall that traveling ‘doon the watter’ to seaside destinations like the Cumbraes and the Cowal Peninsula was an immensely popular pastime for Scots, especially those living near Glasgow, during the Victorian and pre-War eras. Crocodile Rock was still getting plenty of attention when I visited, and nearby children scoured the sands for treasure – with no glaring phone screens to be seen as far as I could tell – reminding me very much of my own upbringing on the other side of the Atlantic. Also worth a look is The Wedge, a sliver-thin property certified by Guinness World Records as the narrowest house in the world, and the the Cathedral of the Isles which holds the title of Britain’s smallest cathedral.

When it came time to sail back to the mainland I did so in a decidedly satisfied and reflective mood. It’s good to know that a little sanctuary is so close at hand. In fact, I have been toying with the idea of relocating, at least for a while, to one of Scotland’s closer isles to see if the lifestyle fits. I never would have guessed it only a week ago, but I think Cumbrae may well have made it on the list. 

Disclaimer

My trip to Cumbrae was part of a paid promotional campaign, West Coast Waters, itself a part of 2020 Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters. The West Coast Waters 2020 Campaign is a partnership initiative and has received funding from the Visit Scotland Growth Fund – more information at www.westcoastwaters.co.uk/about. As ever, all recommendations are sincere and I will only ever work with, and share with you, places and services that I believe showcase the best of Scotland.

        


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