Before I first visited Argyll - so before 1996 - I had imagined it to be characteristically highland Scotland: full of muscular, bare crags heaped upon each other with scree slopes crashing down into lochs overlooked by impossibly romantic ruined castles. This betrayed uncharacteristically rank research on my part. Argyll was not like that at all. I usually made an exhaustive study of the nooks and crannies of any of my potentials destination long before making a booking. On this occasion, I was under-prepared and poorly informed. But as this was a honeymoon stay, maybe other matters were legitimately clouding my mind.
I do not wish to suggest that I was in any way disappointed with the geography of the area. Far from it. I was thoroughly pleasantly surprised. Our cottage was in a remote spot off the road between Crinan and Achnamara, perched above Loche Choille-Barr. The one-bedroom bungalow, converted from a threshing barn, had acres of land sloping away to the shore. The air was sharp with the Spring-fresh coniferous smell of the enveloping Knapdale Forest. A large farmhouse, on the same site but well away from our view, was occupied by the owners.
They ran a trout farm across the valley.The owner was hairy and friendly. I resisted the urge to swap trout-gutting stories with him based on my experience one summer working on a fish farm. In hindsight this was a mistake. He would surely have been impressed with my boast that I could take the innards cleanly out of a dead rainbow trout with nothing but my bare hands and a rusty razor blade. Useful skills in the wilds of Scotland, I felt.
Our aspect was south-westerly and we spent whatever fine weather April offered us out on the terrace immersed in the landscape. Barn owls called to each other at sunset, whilst the sounds of animated deer reached us from the woodlands. Romance clearly extended beyond our honeymoon abode. This gentle pastime was aided by one of the wedding presents we had brought with us: a case of scarlet-label Chimay Trappist beer.
Bringing all 24 bottles seemed a little excessive at first. Particularly as there was a squeeze on to fit everything in to one of our other wedding presents: a five-litre Mercedes Benz SL Convertible, leant to us for the duration of our honeymoon. The classic 1975 metallic-gold bullet was in rip-roaring shape, but didn’t offer as much flexible space as our trusty old Vauxhall Astra. Apportioning over half the snug boot recess for the beer and a wicker picnic hamper (another gift) might have been impractical, but was judged to be overwhelmingly necessary. None of the beer came home…
Mrs A (no longer Ms M) loved gunning the beast around the narrow lanes and steep drops of Argyll, despite the long front end adding a small risk element to the hairpin bends. This was a new thrill. Even on the way up the M6, I had felt the rush as we joined the motorway from a service station slip road at an unholy rate of acceleration. As soon as I could prise myself off the seat against which I was g-force-pinned, I looked back down the track for any sign of my stomach, last seen by the petrol pumps nervously thumbing a lift in the opposite direction.
Mrs A noticed how drivers were happy to drop in to the middle lane from the outside when we cruised up behind them in the Golden Shot. A deferential experience not seen very often (…at all) on the rare occasions the old Astra warhorse huffed up behind an outside lane crawler.
Cruising round the coastline was a joy. One evening, we followed our noses and dived off the A83 down a typically twisting lane through coniferous woodland and round a headland to reveal a perfect Kintyre fishing village of Carradale, clinging to a spit of land overlooking the Isle of Arran. (I’ve still not set foot on that island, though I have now enjoyed the same profile from the opposite side on the Firth of Clyde.) Picture postcard, they used to say, in the days when people actually sent them. The low April sun was even glinting off a couple of fishing boats making their way home as we passed a dozen or so houses on the descent to the harbour.
A short way beyond fishing vessels on their calm moorings, the road petered out at a tiny boat yard with bits of fishing net, lobster pots and sealskin kit strewn about the beach. I was reminded of a Chris Rea song, ‘Chisel Hill’, in which our gravelly throated hero rasps “Happy I will be/When the road goes no further than what I see/When past here/Is no where to go”. He could have been stood on this spot when those words came to him. He wasn’t, though. The rough-hewn fame-shy singer-songwriting legend had North Yorkshire’s Roseberry Topping in mind, but we can overlook the actual facts in this instance.
A plaque on the harbour wall paid tribute to the crew of the Carradale-based fishing vessel Antares which was lost to the sea off Arran in 1990. A sobering reminder that for all its charm, Carradale was no chocolate box community.
The two street lights had blinked into a half-hearted glow as we polished off a pint each of 60’ Shilling in the hotel bar, back up the hill. We headed home. The quiet coastline had plenty of fishing villages like Carradale back then, though most were easier to get to.
Kintyre was lovely without being showy. Pretty without being sickly. Rugged without being daunting. The peninsula extends for 40-odd miles from the Mull of Kintyre in the south and is no more than ten miles at its widest point.
Not far from our comfortable cottage near Lochgilphead, a spur of Kintyre struck out in a south-westerly direction, on which we found Tayvallich gently rolling out of low granite hills into an east-facing natural anchorage. The Tayvallich Inn served us the best food of our entire trip. Tucking into scallops with black pudding and spring onion mash whilst looking out to the harbour as the light dwindled were moments to live long in the memory. Black pudding on honeymoon! Who says romance is dead?
The village of Crinan more or less marks the northern extent of Kintyre. We walked there one fine morning over pleasant open moorland. The route was rather more ambitious than anticipated. The track became barely discernible and bore little resemblance to the reassuring dashes on my OS Explorer. We ploughed on through thorn and fescue, bog and marsh, before we dropped down into Crinan a little grazed and damp. Rather less well-known than canal from which it takes its name, the village of Crinan was buzzy, active and full of boaty-types wearing lemon sweaters casually draped over their shoulders. We were rather unprepared for this in our besmirched anoraks, stained combats and all terrain trainers. The experience was a bit like Motorhead bumping in to The Beach Boys at a village fete.
We took the safe route back along the road. Hairy trout man was on his way home too, and pulled his Land Rover over to give us a lift up the hill. Now’s a good time, I thought. “I wanted to tell you about my fish-gutting skills…” No, don’t.
The Crinan Canal starts at Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne nine miles distant from the village, on the Sound of Jura. It was designed to provide a quick link between the west coast and islands at one end with the Clyde Estuary at the other. This would avoid the long voyage around the south end of the Kintyre peninsula. Investors included the family of Neill Malcolm III, 13th of Poltalloch, a local power-broker and MP for Boston. We will meet him again in a minute. The canal never really fulfilled the promise of its original commercial concept, but like most inland waterways, it has found a second life serving chrome-knobbed pleasure craft guided by pastel-knit-wearing visitors.
The area offered plenty of decent lowland walking: heath and forest rich with wildlife, revealing pretty loch and coastal views at every turn and incline. Dodgy, 27 year-old pics, but just look at these fresh-faced young honeymooners!
We’d heard owls and deer from our cottage and now we explored a landscape where, if we were as shallow as to tick-off fauna on a list, we would have noted Grey and Common Seal, Grebe, Eider, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Redshank, Turnstone, Common Tern and Buzzards… Otter, Red Squirrel and Golden Eagle were in residence too, but they remained unticked on that trip.
The walk up to Arichonan Clearance Village was dramatic. Once we got there, the sense of quiet desolation was almost overpowering. The Highland Clearances are controversial. The ‘second wave’ of clearances were hastened by the Great Highland Famine between 1846-48. Only the efforts of charities, landlords and the state prevented widespread mortality among the destitute population, and crofting rents collapsed. Many Highland landowners were bankrupted.
However, others saw the crisis as an opportunity to re-organise their estates along more profitable lines. Step forward Neill Malcolm again. There’s a moving and impassioned account on the ‘ImagineAlba’ website that describes how, in 1848 he served a notice to 40 of his tenant farmers that they were to “flit and remove themselves” by the next month. The Malcolm family had acquired vast wealth in the colonies and the story runs that he saw an opportunity to repeat the plantation model in Scotland by removing his tenants to Australia and opening up the glens for sheep grazing. This is how the Highland Clearances played out for real families who were deprived of the only life they knew.
The remains of the village ran down a ridge sweeping towards Loch Sween and the sea. The stone ruins were roofless and overtaken with moss, ferns and shrubs, but the structure of the dwellings was clear to see. Chimney stacks standing, roof lintels intact, shapes of the rooms evident. The strongest feeling was of remoteness and emptiness.
Exploring south again, in the sleek convertible, Tarbert made for a rewarding visit after another bracing, wind-blown drive. The town sits on an inlet of Loch Fyne providing a sheltered harbour for a healthy fishing fleet on almost exactly the same latitude as Glasgow, 60 miles west. We scoffed locally caught haddock with locally fried chips (ie from the chippy right behind us on the harbour) whilst evading the inevitable attentions of persistent Herring Gulls. Straight in to my Top Ten fish and chip destinations that also includes Weymouth, West Bay and Whitby. And Barmouth, but that doesn’t help with the alliteration.
Further down the road, Campbeltown was also worth a stop. Albeit briefly. The port and fishing town lay in a natural harbour sheltered north and south by hills. Whisky used to play an important part in trade hereabouts and it is one of Scotland’s five malt whisky producing districts. In fact, most of the distilleries have now closed. The harbour was still busy though and the waterfront afforded a pleasant stroll in the warm Spring afternoon.
We continued our open top tour of Kintyre’s west coast. Our guidebook declared that the pretty Dunaverty Bay was close to the spot where in AD 563 St Columba first landed in Scotland after being exiled from Ireland. His journey to Iona is allegedly marked by footprints in the rock at Keil Head.
Kiel was the next marker on our journey to the Mull of Kintyre, though we didn’t spot any evidence of St Columba’s feet. We turned south-westerly along the peninsula. After sniffing the air and feeling the wind on our faces, we decided that it was chilly enough to put the canvass roof back up. These classic cars are all well and good, but where’s the little button that automates the task? Eh? Tsk.
From the southern tip of the peninsula at the Mull of Kintyre, Ireland is only 12 miles away and is theoretically visible on a clear day. We didn’t have a clear day any more. Thick cloud had descended and taken the thermometer mercury with it. This exposed promontory seemed to have its own microclimate. The road sign announcing our arrival at the end of the line was partially obscured by snow, stuck fast to the metal by a howling sub-zero wind.
Ninety minutes earlier, the top had been down on the jalopy and we had been entertaining bemused sheep with screaming shreds of Jimi Hendrix. Four seasons in one day. But this time the weather had changed for good. We didn’t pack away the vinyl roof again until we hit Skipton on our journey home.
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