Exploring the Heart and Soul of Scotland: Going Wild About Argyll & Next Stop Glasgow (Part Two)

This post covers the second half of my six day-long adventure through mainland Argyll, Isle of Bute, and the city of Glasgow. To catch up on Part One, click here.

Day Four – Rothesay and the Isle of Bute to Glasgow

Had I woken up in Rothesay in the year 1019 rather than 2019, it likely would have been to the bemusement of a crew of Norsemen. For centuries the Isle of Bute was a flashpoint in the power struggle between the Kingdom of Norway and the Kingdom of Scotland. By the late 1090s the Norse King Magnus Barelegs – so named possibly because of his affection for the local style of dress – had built a wooden castle here. Along with a harbour it commanded the mouth of the Firth of Clyde, easy striking distance from Glasgow and the fortress of Dumbarton. From Vikings and sea kings to prehistoric peoples and castle builders, Bute has a long and dramatic history.

 

The very first thing I scheduled after a night’s rest at the Bayview Hotel was an appointment with a castle – the breakfast of champions. Shaking off the morning malaise with a quick cycle ride along the shore to Port Bannatyne, I arrived at the gates of Kames Castle. The proud tower is nestled in a veil of trees and flanked by a courtyard of historic cottages that it is possible to stay in. An exact date for the first castle here is hard to pin down, but Robert Bruce granted the lands to the Bannatynes in the wake of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The question ‘when was that castle built?’ is almost always more complex than pointing to a single year or builder, and the tower that stands here now is from the 16th century with additions being added over the centuries including the cottages and walled garden. 

Kames had been described to me as ‘raw’ prior to my visit since there are major works underway to restore and repurpose the castle, however far from being a negative I saw this as a rare opportunity to tour a castle in a transitional state. I saw a great deal of potential in its corridors and halls, and was very excited to learn from Donald, my guide, that the owners are mulling over a number of options for how best to use the tower going forward. I will be consulting with them on this and cannot wait to see what creative approach they end up taking. Whatever the case, Kames is a beautiful and well-preserved retreat and a must-see for any castle hunters on the Isle of Bute.

Wester Kames Castle

St Colmac standing stones

Upon leaving Kames I quickly popped over to a standing tone circle at St Colmac and Wester Kames Castle, a slender tower within sight of Kames Castle, before realising that I had only left 45 minutes to cycle the eight miles to my next stop, Mount Stuart. Off I rode, having almost no idea what to expect when I arrived. I had been on Bute twice previously yet had never visited Mount Stuart, opting instead for the island’s medieval and ancient sites. Man, was I ever missing out.

Simply put – and I genuinely struggle to find the words here – Mount Stuart is not just one of the most marvellous structures in Argyll, but I would argue in Scotland and even in all of Europe.

Mount Stuart blue ceiling

The culmination of the 3rd Marquess of Bute’s staggering genius and vision in the late 19th century, you can take your preferred descriptor – magical, awe-inspiring, wondrous – and multiply it. Its architecture weaves in philosophy, the classics, mathematics, astronomy, biology, and myriad other intellectual and scientific disciplines, all within a 300-acre estate with vast gardens. The 3rd Marquess was the richest man in Europe, and didn’t blink in the face of almost absurd expense. Every tiny detail and feature is the result of expert craftsmanship. Where, for instance, some architects would include hints of the natural world in their work, the 3rd Marquess and Robert Rowand Anderson, whom he commissioned to build Mount Stuart, included an entire ecosystem in the form of carvings of plants and animals all interlinked with each other. The cathedral-esque blue ceiling, which feels like staring at the night sky through a crystal ball, is regarded by many as the inspiration for Hogwart’s enchanted ceiling in Harry Potter. It has its own resplendent gothic chapel that borders on hyper-real, feeling more like a fantastical film set than almost any other Scottish interior I’ve seen. There are countless fascinating facts about Mount Stuart, including its possession of the world’s first heated indoor swimming pool and it being the first house in Scotland to be lit by electricity. 

There really is no doing Mount Stuart justice through words alone, so be sure to watch the YouTube video linked to below and watch from 12:12. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Mount Stuart’s café and restaurant, which sources many ingredients from the estate’s own garden and works with local suppliers wherever possible. I had a fab veggie platter and the café’s green credentials earned bonus points with me as I became vegetarian ten years ago largely due to environmental and ethical concerns.

It was already time to depart Bute and head for the mainland, so I cycled back into Rothesay and caught the ferry to Wemyss Bay. The Wemyss Bay rail station would make a brilliant Wes Anderson film set. Its soft orange and cream palette and almost hypnotic, radiating design make it a place worth seeing in its own right rather than somewhere to merely pass through. The station opened in 1865 and, along with the introduction of an associated steamer service in 1870, reduced the journey from Largs to Glasgow from over five hours to just one and a half at a third of the cost. The building of the railways contributed to a tourist boom on Bute and nearby Cowal as wealthy urbanites favoured both as what we would now refer to as ‘staycation’ destinations. It’s now easier than ever to take a quick trip ‘doon the watter’, but after three days of cycling through the hills I was due a city break so I transferred my bike from the ferry to the train and went full steam ahead for nearby Glasgow. 

Day Five – Glasgow to Dunoon

It was a bit dizzying at first, having gone from the quiet roads and paths of Argyll straight into the centre of Scotland’s largest city. Central Station’s cavernous concourse sees around 38 million people pass through it every year and there is a continuous flow of arrivals and departures from the surrounding streets, like unlike the ventricles of a great urban heart. Here again the genius of Victorian architect Robert Rowand Anderson, who also oversaw Mount Stuart, is on display with the prestigious Central Hotel directly adjoining the concourse.

Staying there as a guest felt like stepping on to the set of a turn of the 19th-20th century period piece. To be candid it’s not a period of history I’ve ever been overly interested in, and yet I found myself thoroughly charmed and eager to wander the endless corridors punctuated by little library neuks and grand halls. I wondered how different my journey would have been had I embarked on it a century ago – I don’t think I’ll be cycling along Loch Awe on a penny-farthing any time soon, but the journey by rail would not have been vastly different save from the steam engines. The hotel room itself offered a perspective on Central Station that relatively few have ever had, looking down upon the vast translucent glass ceiling with suggestions of shapes coming and going beneath. Glasgow from this height seemed a stirring giant of towers and lights, and I drank in its prospects (as well as the wee sample bottle of single malt on the table) before lying down and dreaming of electric sheep.

A day in the city to me means a whirlwind of museums, galleries, and quirky corners, and Glasgow has enough of each to keep you going for weeks, never mind a single day. Leaving through the Central Hotel’s main entrance, the buzz and pulse of Glasgow kicked in immediately. A fifteen-minute walk brought me to Kelvingrove Park. It was a warm, sunny day so families were out in droves making the most of the city’s green space. The park is expansive and surrounded by attractions, with the spires of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and the University of Glasgow peeking out above and behind the many blooming trees. The University was my first call. Anyone who thinks that Glasgow can’t rival Edinburgh for architecture is in for a real challenge here. The two main courtyards, divided by the Cloisters, are positively Hogwartsian (in fact, many Harry Potter fans visit the University for just that reason). The University of Glasgow is very well-regarded, having high student satisfaction rates and a progressive tilt, and its beauty alone was enough to make me second-guess my choice of going to Edinburgh instead nearly a decade ago.

Within the University and accessible through the Cloisters is the Hunterian, a museum and gallery. It had a special exhibition on about the Antonine Wall, the great Roman frontier built at the pinch point between the Clyde and Forth to defend against the ‘barbarians’ to the north. This was serendipitous as I had just finished writing my book on Game of Thrones and Scottish history which discusses the Antonine Wall at length. The wall ran not far to the north of central Glasgow, extending westward towards the ancient Brythonic fortress of Dumbarton Rock. Like the Romans, however, I could not linger here long, so I made my way through the park to the prestigious and picturesque Kelvingrove. It is a museum that tells many stories, from those unique to Glasgow such as the 19th century artists known as the ‘Glasgow Boys’ to those of universal human significance including great works of art like Salvador Dali’s ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’. Its famous resident, Dippy the dinosaur, presides over the entrance and I had the good fortune to pop in just as a live organ recital was booming through its halls.

I filled up at Mother India’s Café, featured on the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’ series, and then trekked across the centre of the city to two historic hubs, Glasgow Cathedral and the adjacent Necropolis. Glasgow Cathedral is one of few survivors from medieval Glasgow, with the city having been shaped and reshaped many times over through centuries of tremendous fortune and upheaval. Any local schoolchild can tell you that Glasgow’s patron saint is St Mungo, who was allegedly buried on the site of the cathedral in 612 CE. His symbols of a robin, salmon, a bell and a tree are ubiquitous throughout the city. The cathedral is a gothic wonder, every bit as historic and impressive as its seemingly more vaunted counterparts in Edinburgh and St Andrews.

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Perhaps the best vantage point for the Cathedral is from the heights of the Glasgow Necropolis. A satisfying mishmash of monumental styles, the Necropolis was not built as a place for morbid reflection but for celebration of the lives of the sons and daughters of the Clyde. Built in the Classical Revival style, many of its tombs would fit right seamlessly in Rome or Athens, which was precisely the idea. A monument to john Knox, who is buried in Edinburgh but nonetheless has a profound impact on Glasgow given his role cementing the Protestant Reformation, dominates the hill.

And yet, Glasgow is so much more than buildings and names and dates. There is a reason that they say ‘people make Glasgow’ – as a community it has come together through thick and thin to create an irreplaceable identity. Glasgow is the workers in the old Clyde dockyards, whose creative labour once powered the better part of all ships afloat on the world’s waters. It is the artists and eccentrics who bedeck its buildings with whimsical, profound, and powerful art. Glasgow is not just the monumental cathedral and Merchant’s Quarter but the personal histories unfolding every day in local institutions like the Barras market, the Barrowland Ballroom, and the beloved Clutha Bar. Perhaps most of all, Glasgow is the Clyde itself, upon whose waters countless hopes and dreams drifted, and from which thousands set sail – some voluntarily and some under great duress – to the four corners of the world to places like New Zealand and Canada. Visiting Glasgow and just seeing monuments and museums is like going to a concert and just staying long enough to watch the warm-up act; the real hits require a bit of patience, but more than pay off in the end.

Within an hour and a half of checking out of the Central Hotel I would be once again in Argyll. Argyll can so easily, and mistakenly, be thought of as far away from life in the Central Belt, and yet a quick train ride and ferry sailing was all it took to be whisked to Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula. The ferry brought me into Dunoon just as the last light went down behind the hills. I love arriving to a new place by night – it preserves a bit of mystery for the next morning and guarantees that upon waking you’ll step outside to a world of surprises. It was a balmy night and the local palm trees, Victorian pier and seaside vibe of Dunoon combined to give me the sense of having somehow crossed the Clyde and been transported to some southern shore.

Many of Dunoon’s most distinctive buildings were built during the Victorian tourism boom, and the Argyll Hotel where I was staying was no exception. It has been welcoming visitors since the 1820s, and though the crowds are not arriving in the same numbers as they used to it retains much of its grandeur. The welcome, not to mention the dinner, was warm and top notch, and being situated in the centre of town within view of Dunoon Castle makes it a perfect base from which to explore the town and surrounding area. That said I was once again craving nothing more than a quick stroll and some sleep, and I fell asleep with the window open and the gentle sound of the waves lapping the pier.

Day Six – Dunoon & Cowal and home to Edinburgh

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel I continued my habit of kicking off the day with a castle and walked all of five minutes to Castle House Museum. The museum is in a castellated Victorian manse and covers the history of Dunoon from the Neolithic through to the Cold War and beyond. It is a valuable repository of knowledge for the many people who visit Dunoon from around the world seeking information on their local ancestors. As is the case with many independent museums, in my experience, it is curated and run with love by dedicated locals and what may be lacked in terms of resources is more than compensated for by a genuine desire to share and celebrate the town’s story. I found my visit to be excellent for grounding my exploration of the area, and you need not stray far from it to check off your first local castle.

Highland Mary with ruins of Dunoon Castle in background

Castle House Museum is a stone’s throw from the former site of Dunoon Castle, of which a high mound and some foundations remain (which isn’t bad considering it was built nearly 900 years ago). A tall flagpole bearing a saltire marks the hill, and a bittersweet statue can be seen casting its gaze out to the waters beyond. This is Highland Mary, a lover of Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns. Unfortunately Burns’ appetites could not be contained by Dunoon, and Mary is ever looking towards his birthplace of Ayrshire in vain awaiting his return.

Argyll seemed to save the best weather for last, and I enjoyed unrelenting sun, blue skies and an easy breeze while cycling along the picturesque coast of Dunoon north towards a site that now ranks amongst my favourite lesser-known Argyll spots, Historic Kilmun. Featuring a church, an ivy-clad ruinous tower and a striking mausoleum, Kilmun is the spiritual heart of Clan Campbell and has been in use as an ecclesiastical site for nearly 1,500 years.

Dunoon to Benmore coast

Kilmun has seen everything from mesolithic peoples and St Munn with his placid monks to marauding Vikings and vengeful clansmen. It became known as ‘the Rosslyn of the West’, and generations of Campbells would be laid to rest here. These include several extraordinary figures, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman certified as a doctor in Britain, and Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy who fell alongside the flower of Scotland’s chivalry at the calamitous Battle of Flodden in 1513. The Campbell Mausoleum is a veritable who’s who of prominent Campbells, and when taken in combination with the tranquil church, somewhat brooding tower house, and intimate kirkyard makes Historic Kilmun a firm favourite for me in the second half of my Argyll journey.

Next up was Benmore Botanic Garden. I’ve never been one for gardens, personally, liking my historic and scenic locations to be grittier than the average flower arrangement, but much to my delight Benmore turned out to be far from your average botanic garden. As I was led around in a small group by an incredibly knowledgeable guide, I felt like I was on the botanical equivalent of an open-air safari, with exotic and impressive trees such as the titanic coastal redwoods and flowers blooming in bursts of vivid colour around every turn.

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The gardens are divided into sections such as the Tasmanian Ridge, Bhutanese Glade, and a fernery. I’ve always been partial to ferns – perhaps watching too much Jurassic Park as a kid made me equate them with dinosaurs – and the Victorians were, as well. They spent vast sums to have curated ferneries, and the fernery at Benmore, reached by a zig-zag path up a crevice, is amongst Scotland’s finest examples. All the while you are surrounded by beautiful and rugged hillsides, and there is even a fairytale-esque chateau nestled within it. I arrived at Benmore Botanic Gardens expecting to be interested, but not blown away. Upon leaving I immediately messaged my partner to say that we have to return on our own time, and when it proved impossible to explore the nearby Puck’s Glen due to a landslip I already felt as though my desire to be out in the wilderness had been satiated.

And so I cycled the short and scenic road back to Dunoon and caught the ferry back across the Clyde to Gourock. I would arrive back home in Edinburgh just before dark, having begun my day in a place that I had hitherto considered to be too inaccessible to reach with ease. I had failed to think like the ancients, who – as I described in Part One – saw waterways not as barriers but as highways. Add in the modern rail network and a two-wheeled steed in the form of my bicycle and much of Argyll proved to be not nearly so far, though every bit as impressive, as I had expected. The Coast of the Gael will call me back before long – the hills and history of Argyll are irresistible to me – and hopefully this six-day adventure has inspired you to answer its call, too.

Watch the full video covering all six days of my trip below:

Other #WildAboutArgyll Blog Posts

Believe it or not, all this is just one part of Argyll – there’s still all the Isles, hundreds of miles of coastline, and plenty left on the mainland that I didn’t cover, not to mention nearby Glasgow which everyone has their own impression of. Take a look at Kathi Kamleitner’s post about outdoor adventures at www.watchmesee.com/blog/outdoor-adventures-in-argyll/ as well as her take on Glasgow at www.watchmesee.com/blog/outdoor-activities-in-glasgow/. Kay Gillespie’s post on the delights of Islay can be read at https://www.thechaoticscot.com/islay/, ditto for Jura at https://www.thechaoticscot.com/isle-of-jura. Her Glasgow highlights are at https://www.thechaoticscot.com/glasgow-visit/ and a street food special can be consumed at https://www.thechaoticscot.com/street-food-glasgow.

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.