Friday, 30 November 2012


And so to Oban, one of the busiest ports on the west coast of Scotland. It is many years since I went there, but my over-riding memory of it is of a harbour bustling with the comings and goings of ferries linking the mainland to the islands, a feature of the town that has earned it the slogan "Gateway to the Isles". The town's skyline is dominated by McCaig's Tower, a folly built in the late 19th century by John Stuart McCaig, a "philanthropic banker" (something of an oxymoron nowadays). The tower was an imitation of Rome's Colosseum and was meant to house a museum and art gallery, but sadly McCaig died before this vision could be realised, and construction was stopped leaving an empty, though picturesque, shell surrounded by gardens with a viewing platform for gazing out over the harbour.

Oban and its surroundings played a vital role during World War II, when it was used by both the Merchant and Royal Navies. The Royal Navy had a signal station near Ganavan to the north of Oban, and there was also an RAF flying boat base there. The base operated in conjunction with RAF Oban at Ardantrive Bay on the island of Kerrera, which lies just offshore.  The base on Kerrera started off as a refuelling point, but World War II saw it elevated to full operational status.  The pier and some of the buildings remain as a reminder of that time.  Another important site near Ganavan was an anti-submarine indicator loop station designed to detect the passage of enemy submarines passing between Oban, Mull and Lismore by means of a submerged cable placed on the sea bed. There is a surviving World War II air raid shelter in the centre of Oban. Later on, during the Cold War, the Translatlantic Telephone Cable which carried the hotline between the US and USSR presidents passed near Oban.

Nowadays the town is a thriving tourist centre with a range of attractions for visitors. The War and Peace Museum tells the fascinating story of the town's past in and out of wartime as the name suggests. The Oban Chocolate Company offers visitors the chance to look in on its chocolate factory, while for those whose indulgences are more of a liquid nature the Oban Distillery runs guided tours as well as a shop and an exhibition. The Cathedral Church of St Columba is in the Neo Gothic style but is less than a hundred years old. Dunollie Castle is a ruin to the north of the town, and Dunollie House or the "1745 House" is a museum and cultural centre housing the Hope MacDougall Collection, a social history collection drawn from throughout the highlands and islands. As well as the ferries making use of the town's harbour there are boat trips available to some of the nearby islands such as Mull, Staffa and Iona and wildlife boat trips. Each August the Argyllshire Gathering is held in Oban, offering delights such as Highland Games and a Solo Piping Competition.  Those wanting to escape to somewhere quieter for some excellent walking can take the passenger ferry to Kerrera where the walks are rewarded with wonderful views of Mull, Oban and Lismore. 

For a list of events in Oban see here.

Webcam view.

Map of the area.

© 1994 Hartmut Josi Bennöhr, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Connel straddles the narrow mouth of Loch Etive and is divided in two: North Connel and Connel. The two communities are linked by the Connel Bridge, a cantilever bridge completed in 1903, originally built as a railway viaduct, but now carrying road traffic. Before the bridge was built there used to be a ferry service connecting the two shores, and the village in those days was called Connel Ferry. The name Connel derives from the Gaelic for "rough water", which is appropriate, since this spot is known for a phenomenon occurring with the ebbing tide named the Falls of Lora, which consists of dramatic rapids caused by a submerged rocky shelf. The Gothic Revival St Oran's Church, built in 1888, has an attractive interior with a timbered ceiling and fine stained glass windows, and a garden with wonderful views of Loch Etive.

A couple of miles from Connel, standing proud on a promontory near the mouth of Loch Etive, is Dunstaffnage Castle, founded by the MacDougalls in the 13th century. The castle was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1309 and remained in royal hands for some time before being granted to the Earls, and then the Dukes of Argyll. The well-known aider and abetter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora MacDonald, was incarcerated in the castle for ten days before being sent to London to go on trial for her part in assisting the Prince in his escape after Culloden. The castle was destroyed by fire in 1810, but its impressive curtain wall battlements remain, and a visit to the castle is rewarded with lovely views across to Lismore and Morvern.

of the area.

Dunstaffnage Castle © 2009 Sylvia Duckworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 26 November 2012


The village of Benderloch, which lies on the shore of Ardmucknish Bay, is overlooked by the forested Beinn Lora, which is just 308 metres high, but a walk to its summit offers wonderful views of the Firth of Lorn and Mull on the way up, and further afield from the top. There is a waymarked trail through the forest on the approach to the summit. As well as walking, there is a segway centre for those wanting to explore the area by gliding along on a Segway personal transporter. For golfers, the nearest course is at the Isle of Eriska Hotel, which also has a croquet lawn. Water-based activities include diving and fishing charters and sea kayaking. Near the village, in an arable field, is an ancient standing stone nearly 2 metres high which, it is thought, once formed part of a stone circle. There are a number of other stones buried nearby. Across the bay from Benderloch is Lochnell Castle, which includes architecture from four main periods between the end of the 17th century and the end of the 19th century, and is currently occupied by the Earl of Dundonald. During World War II, anti-aircraft gun positions were set up at the castle.

Map of the area.

© 1995 Colin Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 22 November 2012


When researching Barcaldine on Google, I kept seeing references to bushfires, which was perturbing, because you don't hear about many bushfires in Scotland. However, it transpires that there is a Barcaldine in Queensland Australia, where bushfires have been raging during the last week or so, so let's breathe a sigh of relief for Barcaldine Scotland, but say a little prayer for its Australian counterpart. Barcaldine is on the south shore of Loch Creran and its main purpose in life is the provision of boatyard and marina facilities. The 16th century Barcaldine Castle, otherwise known as the "Black Castle" was the ancient seat of the Campbells of Barcaldine. The castle now provides elegant holiday accommodation and wedding facilities. Just outside Barcaldine is the Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary, where there is a seal rescue facility and hospital, and otters and sharks are among the creatures on view. The kids will love watching the otters and seals at feeding time. Walkers can take the waymarked Glen Dubh forest walk, which passes a gorge on the way up and offers wonderful views of the islands and mountains on the way back down.

Map of the area.

© 1995 Colin Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Although the present population of the island of Lismore, separated from the west coast of Scotland by the Lynn of Lorn, is less than 150, the island has a long history of habitation going back to the Iron Age, with the Iron Age broch of Tirefour Castle serving as a reminder of that time. St Moluag, a contemporary of St Columba, arrived in Lismore around 560, in fact legend has it that the two saints raced each other to the island in coracles, with St Moluag winning the race by chopping off his own finger and throwing it ahead of him. He went on to build a monastery on the island. The parish church of Kilmoluag once formed part of a 13th century cathedral dedicated to St Moluag which was the seat of the bishops of Argyll. The spiky ruins of Castle Coeffin on the west coast also date from the 13th century. The castle was probably built by the MacDougalls of Lorn, although the name is thought to come from a Viking prince called Caifen. Following a familiar pattern around these parts, the population of Lismore was once much higher than it is now, reaching a peak in the 19th century, but severe depopulation thereafter led to a dramatic reduction in the number of inhabitants, with a large proportion of those remaining aged over 60.

The island's name comes from the gaelic for "great garden" or "great enclosure", possibly a reference to the fertile grazing land that makes up much of its acreage. Its position in the middle of Loch Linnhe means that as well as wonderful views of Mull and Morvern, a view reaching right to Ben Nevis can be enjoyed. Anyone who wants to get a feel for what life is like in a place such as this should check out the fascinating Lismore community website, which has photographs and stories such as one recalling childhood memories of the island in the 1950s, or an account of a country dance night. Visitors to the island can find out more about the island's life and history at the Heritage Centre in Port a' Charrain. There are two ways to get to the island by sea, either by means of a ferry link from Port Appin connecting with the northern tip of the island, or via a car ferry from Oban which lands at Achnacroish on the east coast.

Map of the island.

Castle Coeffin © 1995 Colin Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 18 November 2012


Port Appin occupies a prime position on the west coast, nestling under the mountains of Appin, with wonderful views to the island of Lismore and the coast of Morven as well as views of Castle Stalker (covered in the previous post). There has been a ferry service from here to Lismore since at least 1750, and it is still running, although only for foot passengers. The port's inclusion on a steamer service from Inverness to Glasgow via the Caledonian Canal contributed to its development into a stopover for visitors. The village is ideal for walking, whether heading towards the Jubilee Bridge across Loch Laich where better views of the castle can be enjoyed, or a shorter walk to Clach Thoull, a natural stone arch, taking in a shoreline path peppered with wild orchids and harebells in the spring. The port is ideal for those wanting to take to the water, being perfect for sea kayaking or yachting. Wildlife enthusiasts may spot sea otters or seals in the water, or a variety of birdlife including oystercatchers, kestrels and sea eagles. Bookworms who have read Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped will find plenty of interest here. The area featured in the novel, which centres around the true story of the Appin Murder in 1752, which occurred in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising.

Map of the area.

Saturday, 17 November 2012


In a previous blog post I waxed lyrical about the beautiful Eilean Donan Castle, sitting pretty on its island just off the shore of Loch Duich. Loch Linnhe has its own version of Eilean Donan in the form of Castle Stalker, which is also perched on a tiny island offshore. The original fort was built in the 14th century by the MacDougall clan, who ruled Lorn, as the area was then known, but after the Stewarts took over the Lordship of Lorn the following century, Duncan Stewart of Appin rebuilt it in the form we see today. The castle was used as a hunting lodge - in fact the gaelic version of the name, Caisted an Stalcair, means "Castle Of The Hunter - and King James IV, who was a keen hunter, was frequently entertained there by Duncan, who was his cousin. Like Eilean Donan, Castle Stalker has had its moment of fame in the movies: it featured towards the end of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, where it appeared as the Castle Of Aaaargh with John Cleese standing on its battlements taunting Arthur in a ridiculous French accent, followed by a battle scene. The castle, which is accessible on foot at low tide, is privately owned, but a limited number of tours can be arranged by prior appointment. Aside from stunning views of Castle Stalker, the village of Portnacroish has a yacht marina and windsurfing centre. Clan warfare is recalled in the churchyard, where a memorial commemorates a battle in 1468 between the Stewarts and the MacDougalls during which "many hundreds fell".

Map of the area.

Photo by Alan M Hughes, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


Fort William is the largest town in the Scottish Highlands, and second only to the city of Inverness in size. The fort of the name was a wooden citadel built by Oliver Cromwell after his invasion of the area during the English Civil War, and was named after William of Orange. The remains of the fort are just about still visible on the shores of Loch Linnhe. The town that grew up around the fort underwent a series of name changes before finally settling on Fort William as it is now known, although by the time this name was arrived at it was Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who was instrumental in quelling the Jacobite Rising at Culloden, that the town was named after. Meanwhile, on the banks of the River Lochy, Old Inverlochy Castle, which predated Oliver Cromwell's fort, is open to the public. The castle, although a ruin, has lasted better than Cromwell's fort. The West Highland Museum on the High Street has displays on the history of the area, in particular the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. St Andrews Church, built of granite with a slate roof, is known as the "Queen Of Highland Churches". This area is closely associated with the Cameron Clan, and monuments in the town include one to Donald Cameron of Lochiel, 24th chief of the clan and one to Captain Peter Cameron, commander of the Earl of Balcarres, of the East India Company. There is also a Cameron Square in the town centre.

Fort William is a major centre for lovers of the great outdoors, as can be seen from the number of outdoor gear shops in the town. The surrounding area offers mountain biking trails, and for walkers Fort William is the end point of the beautiful 95-mile West Highland Way long distance trail. Fort William also lies at one end of Scotland's newest long distance path, the Great Glen Way, the other end being Inverness, making it Scotland's very own coast-to-coast walk. The nearby Glen Nevis Visitor Centre has information for anyone brave enough to tackle the climb up Ben Nevis. Boat trips are available from March to October. For those more inclined to artistic pursuits, the Lime Tree An Ealdhain Gallery offers exciting art shows as well as providing accommodation.

For a list of events in Fort William and the surrounding area see here.

Map of the area.

Old Fort © 2005 Nathanael, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 12 November 2012


Look at any relief map of Scotland and you will notice one particular geographical feature standing out like a sore thumb. The big gash in the landscape which runs north-east to south-west with the Moray Firth at one end and Loch Linnhe at the other, otherwise known as the Great Glen, is a deep natural depression occupied by several lochs including the notorious Loch Ness. Running through this depression is the Caledonian Canal, which flows into Loch Linnhe at Corpach. The canal was begun in 1805 under Thomas Telford, and its most ingenious piece of engineering is Neptune's Staircase, on the outskirts of Corpach, a series of lochs, each with a drop of eight feet, which were built to overcome the problem of connecting Loch Linnhe to the much higher Loch Lochy. A walk along the shoreline of Loch Linnhe at Corpach offers fantastic views of Ben Nevis, which is a short distance to the south-east. The Snowgoose Mountain Centre is at the start of the Caledonian Canal and the Great Glen Ways, and is an ideal base for anyone wanting to make the most of the area's mountain scenery. Meanwhile, for those who are interested in geology, there is an attraction called The Treasures of The Earth, an exhibition of crystals, gemstones and fossils.

Map of the area.

© 2007 C L T Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 11 November 2012


As I mentioned in my previous post, Loch Eil is an extension of Loch Linnhe, starting where this stretch of water swings suddenly westwards near Fort William. Views of the loch can be enjoyed by passengers on the Jacobite steam train, which runs the length
of the northern shore, and the A830, also known as the Road To The Isles, also follows this shore. On the north shore is an Outward Bound Centre located in a former highland shooting lodge in an area described as the "Outdoor Capital" of the UK. The Centre boasts spectacular views of Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis and it has its own railway station. In 2008 a northern bottle-nosed whale managed to find its way into Loch Eil, where it appeared to be having a nice time swimming around and jumping out of the water, feeding on the herring and mackerel which are to be found in the loch. However, rescuers, concerned that a loch so far from the open sea was not the natural habitat for such a creature, attempted to guide it out into Loch Linnhe and towards the ocean. Sadly, the whale died before they could achieve that aim. There seem to be more and more incidents like this involving whales; experts believe that we are to blame, that the whales are becoming disorientated due to man-made noise from shipping and other operations.

Map of the area.

© 2006 Jim Bain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 8 November 2012


I remember watching an episode of the excellent TV series Coast in which one of the presenters - Neil Oliver I think - imparted the astonishing information that Scotland has 7,000 miles of coastline. Given that the British coastline totals around 11,000-12,000 miles (estimates vary), that is well over half. Looking at the west coast of Scotland it is easy to see where all these miles come from. Not only are there the numerous islands offshore, but this stretch of coast has the appearance of having been shredded, what with all the sea lochs which have formed around the mountainous terrain. One of the longest and widest of these is Loch Linnhe, which stretches for 31 miles from the Firth of Lorne to Fort William, where it hangs a left and turns into Loch Eil. Corran is at the narrowest part of Loch Linnhe, appropriately named The Narrows, and provides a ferry service to the eastern shore of The Narrows. The Tate website has a sketch by the artist Joseph Mallord William Turner depicting the Corran Narrows. Just above the ferry slipway is the Corran Lighthouse, a picturesque whitewash building with an adjoining lodge which offers self-catering accommodation. There is little else here apart from an inn, a scattering of houses and wonderful views up the loch.

Map of the area.

© 2005 Norrie Adamson, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


The chunk of land to the south of Loch Sunart, which on the Ordnance Survey map is all contours and forests, is known as Morvern. The coast of Morvern is largely bereft of habitation, or even roads, until one reaches the tiny hamlets of Drimnin and Bunavullin on the Sound of Mull. A few miles further on, we finally hit an A road at Lochaline, which lies at the mouth of Loch Aline. Across Britain it is depressingly common to come across stories of once thriving mines which have since closed down - Strontian in the previous post is a case in point. However, in the case of Lochaline it was recently reported that a quartz sand mine which shut down in 2008 is reopening, with the restoration of 11 jobs provided by the mine. On a hillside above the village is Kiel Church, with the Old Session House to the east of the church displaying intricately carved grave slabs, while further grave slabs and celtic crosses can be found in the graveyard outside.

A bit further out, at the head of Loch Aline, Kinlochaline Castle with its 14th century tower is a former seat of the chiefs of Clan MacInnes, restored in the 19th century. The nearby ruined Adrtornish Castle is in the grounds of the Ardtornish Estate, famous for its gardens. Also in the estate is the Gothic Victorian mansion Ardtornish House, which offers self-catering accommodation. The Sound of Mull offers some of the best wreck diving in Britain, and there is a Dive Centre in Lochaline catering for this and other forms of diving.

Map of the area.

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Strontian, which lies on an inlet off Loch Sunart, grew up around mining. During the 18th century there was a thriving lead mining enterprise here, and zinc, tin and silver were also mined. The village was created in order to provide accommodation for the miners, who at the peak of the extraction, around 1730, numbered 600. In the late 1700s French prisoners of war were working the mines, ironically producing lead for shot to be used in the war against France. It was during this time that another mineral was found which took its name from the village: strontium. The mining effort ended in the 1980s, by which time barite was being extracted for use in the North Sea oilfields. The decline of the village as the mining effort subsided reached the point, in 1968, where Strontian was included in a list of 2,000 dying Highland villages, and became the first of the villages to receive money for regeneration, resulting in a range of facilities including a shopping centre and a caravan and camping site. There is an interesting report in the Glasgow Herald from 1963 describing life in Strontian from the times when English "Landed Gentry" ruled the roost there, and discipline was such that whenever the laird and lady passed by the women had to curtsey and the men salute.

Map of the area.

Saturday, 3 November 2012


Ardnamurchan is a peninsula jutting out of the west coast of Scotland, so far west in fact that it includes the most westerly point on the UK mainland. The peninsula offers legendary sunsets and views across to some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides and, on a clear day, the Outer hebrides. The peninsula has been the scene of fierce battles in the past, including a Viking battle. Last year an extraordinary discovery was made at Port an Eilean Mhoir on the peninsula's north coast: a Viking boat burial site believed to be over 1,000 years old. The Viking whose body was found inside the boat is believed to have been a high-ranking warrior given the artefacts surrounding him. Ardnamurchan is home to a wide variety of wildlife, from deer to pine partens, otters to seals, and golden and white-tailed eagles. Activities available to visitors include sea kayaking, fishing, cycling and sailing. During the summer months wildlife watching boat trips and charters are on offer. The village of Kilchoan, towards the western end of the peninsula, is the most westerly village in the UK mainland and, although tiny, it provides a ferry service to Tobermory on Mull, operating out of a cute little ferry terminal with the appearance of a converted cottage. Nearby Mingary Castle was built in the 13th century and has seen plenty of action over the years, including a role in the Jacobite uprising, when the castle was used as a government garrison. Geologists will find the Kilchoan area of particular interest, as it was here that the minerals kilchoanite, dellaite and rustumite were first found, and there are also good examples of a type of igneous rock called a "cone sheet" to be found in the locality. Glenborrodale, on the south coast of the peninsula, has a castle which was formerly owned by Jesse Boot of Boots the Chemists fame, and is currently up for sale at a cool £3,750,000.  There is also an RSPB reserve here.

Map of the area.

Kilchoan © 2006 Stuart Wilding, via Wikimedia Commons