The Castles of Argyll and The Road Trip of Champions
Fresh-faced and windswept, I return to the mainland at Oban ready for the final chapter of my west coast autumnal adventure. The weather has been kind beyond words but there is that nip in the air now, winter won’t be long away. It’s been a trip packed with island allure, seafood feasts and raw, rugged, spectacular coastal vistas. Argyll, my go-to in the road trip department, concludes things. This is immersion in deep Highlands. Misty glens, looming mountains, clan legends and the ancient castles of Argyll. Always end on a high….
While far from the most direct route between Oban and the Central Belt, the road north from the Gateway to the Isles does open up the possibilities for this particular Argyll road trip. I have time to play with, lochs to salute and castles to bag.
Argyll Castles – Appin and Castle Stalker
First stop, Castle Stalker. Dominating a tiny off-shore island off the mainland coast, this Monty Python favourite demands a scramble for the camera in this seemingly unlikely setting. Built by the Stewarts in the 1400s it stayed largely in their hands but saw plenty of unrest. The Campbells, Macdonalds, Macdougalls, Stewarts and more raided, murdered and destroyed each other over centuries in Argyll and Stalker often found itself caught in the crossfires. It was even besieged by the Campbells in 1690 and again during the 1745 Jacobite risings by forces loyal to the Bonnie Prince. The sturdy walls held strong on both occasions.
The Castle does offer boat trips and guided tours in the summer season – arrange this in advance.
The Glen of road trip dreams. I still remember my first night drive through this place, as the last of the day’s light was fading. I was in one of my mad rushes back to base after a campaign or other up north and was focussed on just getting home sharpish. But it was one of those moments, when the roads were completely clear and stags were eyeing me up by the roadside, that the power of Scotland really hit me. The scale, the history, the mood….more than anywhere else, Glen Coe is where it all collides spectacularly.
Where this trip really started at Glencoe Lochan already feels like a very long time ago. But, whether part of the beginning, middle or end of a west coast adventure, don’t come to Glen Coe without getting out the car, I implore you. Hillwalking routes are endless – the giants of Buachaille Etive Mor and neighbouring Beag, the nervy ridge of Aonach Eagach, the dominant Bidean nam Bian or the more leisurely trail to the Lost Valley or Devil’s Staircase. It does not get better.
The Argyll Castles of Loch Awe
Bossed by the quintessentially Scottish ruin that is Kilchurn Castle in the north, Loch Awe is for many the champion of our inland bodies of water. The longest, certainly, at 24 miles it is seemingly forever still. Soaking up the centuries of Old Argyll and his stories, a brooding melancholy lingers.
Kilchurn Castle is a 15th Century ruin and among Instagram’s favourites. Hanging on to just-about-enough of its structure to make things easy on your imagination, the loch-side setting under Argyll’s dutiful peaks is simply magnificent. Destroyed by fire in the mid-18th Century, the Castle has sat in this sullen state ever since.
Yet there is another, much lesser-known, ruin to be found on Loch Awe. Innis Chonnell island sits serenely on the water – around the mid-point of the Loch – and its self-named Castle has a story or two as well. The seat of the Campbells since the 11th Century, it served as a safe base of operations for the powerful Clan until the 15th, when it was then used as a prison. I don’t say this lightly, but Innis Chonnell Castle may hold even more atmosphere than Kilchurn. Only accessible by boat or kayak (I thoroughly recommend Loch Awe as a fishing destination by the way), you’ll not have too much competition for a poke about this particular relic.
Loch Fyne and Inveraray Castle
With the prospect of oysters never far from your mind, Loch Fyne is maybe the most majestic in Scotland. Helped no end by the presence of the eye-catching splendour of Inveraray Castle, the rugged remoteness of its eastern shore is balanced nicely by the touristy buzz you’ll find on the western. Plunging dagger-like into the heart of Argyll from the Firth of Clyde, it squeezes snuggly in-between the Kintyre and Cowal Peninsulas.
The Castle as it stands dates from the 18th Century and is an image of wealth and status. Seat of the Dukes of Argyll (Clan Campbell again) for several hundred years even before its construction, the relatively modern mansion is big on the visuals if not the history. Along with Aberdeenshire’s Craigievar it wrestles for top spot in the fairytale stakes. Wizard’s hat turrets, an ostentatious armoury and beautiful gardens complete the desired scene.
My route heading south took me down the scenic A819 which will drop you straight into bustiling Inveraray. The Georgian-styled village is a busy wee place in summer but makes for an ideal stop where the Castle and Inveraray Jail can be explored on foot, preferably with an ice cream in between. The generous effort vs reward ratio provided by the walk to Dun na Cuachie is a must for the best views over both the Castle and Loch.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
Scotland’s most famous – monster-free – body of water, the first of our National Parks is the welcome to the Highlands that all travellers seek. In this case, the Bonnie Banks represent the close of my West Coast Waters adventure, as familiar senses call me home. The largest lake in Britain, it’s a giant that hosts cruises, watersports, a golf course, overhead seaplane flights, a diverse mish-mash of little islands…..and generations worth of memories for visiting families from near and far. Glasgow would be lost without it.
If hiking at Glen Coe wasn’t enough there’s a jolly tribe of peaks on offer here too. Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich offer two of the pillars of the Loch’s north west, while The Cobbler overlooking Arrochar and Loch Long will forever be one of the hillwalking necessities of Scotland. The starting points for each are by the roadside, directly en route back to Glasgow. Although all exertive half-day climbs, a moderate level of fitness and experience should see you through comfortably in all but the worst weather conditions.
And so it ends…..
Very much the indirect approach to travel between Oban and Glasgow, this itinerary is the most rewarding. While it can be done in a day (if you’re not hiking), I’d take two or three and consider bases at Ballachulish or Glencoe and the Arrochar/Tarbert area to allow for a relaxed pace but plenty of scope to get the walking boots on.
What a trip. From the beaches of the Outer Hebrides to the cut-off wilderness of Knoydart and from our newest fledgling distilleries to our most ancient ruins, this has been the west coast at its best. It’ll also be the last of my significant travels for 2019 as things wind down for the year. It’s been a journey and experience that’ll sustain me nicely through what is likely to be another long winter. Where will my coastal adventures take me in 2020 I wonder……
This blog post is the result of a sponsored marketing campaign with West Coast Waters, promoting the endless highlights of Scotland’s west coast. The project is also part of a larger campaign to promote the Year of Coast and Waters across Scottish tourism in 2020. All experiences had and any recommendations within are, though, based purely on passing the test of my considerable experience working in this industry. I’ll stick my neck out and say that you’ll not be disappointed with what awaits you.
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