Thursday, 28 February 2013


Castle Sween, which lies on a low, rocky point by a sandy beach, was built to guard Loch Sween, which was strategically important for the sea-route from Ulster to Islay and Jura. The castle was built around the 12th century by Dugald MacSween. It was built mainly in the Norman style and is believed to be the earliest stone castle in Scotland. As an aid to its role in defending the loch, the castle had its own harbour where galleys were moored ready for action. This is the part of Argyll known as Knapdale, and Castle Sween is commonly referred to as the "Key of Knapdale". The castle's chequered history came to a climax in the early 14th century, when it was besieged and captured by Robert The Bruce, displacing the MacSweens, who had entered into the service of King Edward I of England. Its final demise came in the 17th century during the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms, when it was destroyed by Scottish soldier Alasdair Mac Colla. Although the castle is located in a beautiful spot on the lochside, nowadays it has been joined by a large caravan site, which may not be to everyone's taste. Those wanting to escape this rash of modernity on the landscape may want to head a bit further south to Kilmory where a ruined 13th century castle with a medieval cross and Celtic grave slabs offers spectacular views of the Paps of Jura.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Patrick Mackie, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 25 February 2013


Its position in a sheltered inlet called Loch a' Bhealaich on the east coast of a narrow peninsula at the upper end of Loch Sween has earned Tayvallich a reputation as an ideal place for watersports, and the village has its own Sailing Club. As well as regular races, the club holds a regatta with participants coming from far and wide, and the annual Jura Race. The beauty of the surroundings has also proved a magnet for artists. The peninsula at this point is only around 1 kilometer wide, meaning that Carsaig Bay on the west coast is just a short hop away, from where there are wonderful views across the Sound of Jura to the islands of Scarba and Jura. Nature lovers should head for the nearby Taynish National Nature Reserve, where the oak woodlands are home to the enchanting red squirrel, and the shoreline is visited by otters, while In springtime the reserve is carpeted with wild flowers. For hikers wanting to strike out in search of the diverse wildlife of the reserve there are walking trails, such as the elevated Barr Mor trail, with views over the peninsula. Each year in July the Tayvallich Weekend is held in the village of Tayvallich, with a range of activities and entertainment on offer.

Map of the area.

© 2008 E. Gammie, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 21 February 2013


Prior to the early 19th century people wanting to get from Loch Fyne or the Firth of Clyde to Oban and the West Coast and Isles by water were forced to wend their way around the considerable Kintyre Peninsula. It was with this in mind that work on the Crinan Canal was begun in 1793 and completed in 1817, thus saving passengers a journey of 120 miles. The canal, 9 miles long and crossing the northern part of the peninsula, became a favourite part of what came to be known as the Royal Route to Oban after Queen Victoria followed it in 1847. In those days the journey along the canal, made painfully slow by the 15 locks crammed into those 9 miles, ended with the passengers transferring to a waiting steamer at the small port of Crinan for the onward sailing to Oban. Cargo was transported via the canal by small steamers known as "Clyde Puffers".

I have been to Crinan a couple of times, and it is a delightful spot with, on the one hand, lovely views across to the islands of Jura and Scarba from the harbourside, and, on the other, the opportunity to take a walk along the canal, enjoying further wonderful views of the surrounding scenery. The first time we went there, we decided to go for a wander through the surrounding woods and found ourselves face to face with a deer - I'm not sure who was the more startled. The village itself is adjacent to a busy marina with a mixture of swanky yachts and fishing boats. In the summer there are seal and birdwatching trips available. One particular Clyde Puffer called the Vital Spark, with a skipper nicknamed Para Handy, was the subject of a series of stories by writer Neil Munro published in the early 20th century, and several television adaptations have been made, the most recent in 1994 with Para Handy played by Gregor Fisher (better known as Rab C Nesbitt). The vessel used in this series can be found in the boatyard at Crinan.

Map of the area.

Monday, 18 February 2013


The island of Luing, just six miles long and one and a half wide and lying at the mouth of Loch Melfort, is promoted as Argyll's best kept secret. The island, which is in the group of islands known as the Slate Islands, has a history dating back to at least the Bronze Age, with two hill forts one of which has yielded artefacts from that era. There are also remains of an early lake dwelling on the island. The ruined chapel of Kilchattan, dating from the 16th century, is surrounded by a graveyard with an interesting mix of graves and gravestones made of slate, the rock which makes up the bulk of the island's geology. The most notable individual buried in the graveyard is Alexander Campbell, a Covenanter - member of a Scottish Presbyterian movement - who performed an extraordinary DIY funeral service for himself, having not only dug his own grave, but also carved his own memorial stones, four of them in all. As well as a headstone and a stone over the grave, giving strict orders that no-one else be buried there after him, there are two stones on the outside of the graveyard, one of which promotes the Covenant to anyone passing by, the other threatening divine retribution to anyone who tampers with the stones.

The island can be reached by ferry from the southern tip of Seil. The largest of the island's villages, which grew up around slate quarrying, is Cullipool, which also has the island's only shop. The mainstay of the economy now is agriculture, including a particularly hardy breed of cattle named after the island, where the breed was developed. The hardiness of the Luing breed has proved to be a selling point for New Zealand and Canada, who are among the importers of the breed. Luing falls within the Firth of Lorn Marine Special Area of Conservation, and there is a wide variety of wildlife, from otters, hares, seals and porpoises, to buzzards, peregrines, hen harriers and eagles.

of the area.

© 2007 Eileen Henderson, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 15 February 2013


People associate Scotland with cold, harsh conditions, but time and time again as we meander down the west coast that preconception is blown out of the window. The mild climate brought about by the North Atlantic Drift allows surprising plants to flourish, as can be seen in a series of exotic gardens on the west coast. Ardmaddy Castle rises up on a conical piece of ground. The original tower house was built in the late 1400s by the McDougals, then in 1648 the castle passed into the hands of the Campbell family, and remained in their ownership until 1933. The castle presides over a formal walled garden with fabulous views of the islands. The plants grown here include rhododendrons, azaleas and climbing plants, interesting vegetables and cane fruits. There is plenty of interest all year round, from the autumn colours to the spring bulbs and bluebell woods, with additional features including water gardens and a "clock garden".

Further down the coast is another spectacular example of the influence of the North Atlantic Drift in the form of Arduaine Garden. The 20-acre garden juts out onto a promontory in Loch Melfort. The day we visited was a wonderful sunny April day, and on our way round we found a bench in a lovely quiet spot with wonderful views over the loch. The garden was started in 1898, and in 1971 it was taken over by a pair of Essex nurserymen, who passed it to the National Trust for Scotland in 1992. As well as rhododendrons, azaleas and such like, the garden offers trees and shrubs, some over 100 years old, towering over the glen where visitors make their way, agog at the beauty around them. Lower down are the ferns, primulas and numerous other plants following the watercourses and fringing the lawns.

of the area.

© 2009 Paul Farmer, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Looking at the map prior to writing up this blog post, I became confused. About 10 years ago we visited Easdale while on holiday in Kintyre, and the Easdale I remembered was a charming little village on an island reached by an ancient bridge. However, the map had Easdale marked as a small island reachable only by ferry, and I was sure we had not taken a ferry to get there. It turns out the village we visited was Ellenabeich, which is sometimes referred to as Easdale due to the proximity of the eponymous island. Mystery solved! The bridge we crossed to reach the island - Seil, one of the Slate Islands - was the famous Clachan Bridge, built in 1792 by Robert Mylne and designed by Thomas Telford. The bridge spans the Clachan Sound, a body of water so narrow that whales have been known to become stuck in it, and to look at the bridge in photographs it is hard to believe that it takes traffic, but it actually forms part of the B844 road. Somebody with a sense of humour once christened the bridge "The Bridge over the Atlantic", and this nickname has stuck. Meanwhile, visitors to Easdale Island can leave their cars behind, since one of the things the island is known for is a complete lack of roads or cars.

To add to the geographical confusion, the name Ellenabeich derives from the Gaelic for "Island of the Birches". This is because much of the village was once on an island, but the channel making it so was filled in by spoil from the slate quarries round about, and then built on, so that it is now part of the larger Seil. The village consists mainly of low, whitewashed buildings, mainly catering to tourists now that the slate quarry is gone, and including a microbrewery, bar and restaurant among the rows of charming cottages. One of the cottages, a former quarry worker's cottage, houses the Ellenabeich Heritage Centre. However, the biggest draw in the village, to judge from the number of coaches parked outside, is the Highland Arts Exhibition, with its extensive gift shop. Another popular attraction is wildlife watching courtesy of boat trips run by the Oban-based Sea.fari Adventures.

Map of the area.

© 2005 Jill Everington, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 9 February 2013


Gigha is the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides islands, and lies just 3 miles off the west coast of the Kintyre Peninsula, reachable via a 20-minute ferry journey from Tayinloan on Kintyre to Ardminish on Gigha. The island is long and thin in shape, 7 miles in length and just one and a half miles wide. The island was originally given the name Gudey, meaning "Good Isle" by the Norse King Hakon when the Vikings were rampaging around these parts, but the name was changed to Gigha (pronounced Geea) by the Gaels. Later on in its history, the island found itself at the centre of clan warfare between the MacNeills and the MacDonalds. The modern-day Gigha is owned and run by its residents, with a Trust whose Directors are elected from the islanders.

Considering its small size, the island has an impressive range of activities for visitors, It has its own golf course, where the panoramic views might make it hard for the golfers to keep their eye on the ball. Walkers can enjoy a number of designated walks along off-road paths, and there is no shortage of interesting sights to look out for: a large variety of birdlife, marine life including seals and otters, wildflowers, ancient duns or forts and standing stones. The ruined Kilchatten Chapel (St Cathan's) dates from the 13th century, although the saint himself came through here in the 6th century. Among the remains are a fine collection of carved graveslabs. Garden lovers should head for Achamore Gardens, where the mild climate permits the growing of azaleas, rhododendrons and palms. The House also offers bed and breakfast accommodation.

Map of the island.

© 2009 Gordon Brown, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Nestling in a perfect little circular bay with the Sound of Jura beyond is the ferry port of Port Ellen, linked to the mainland by a ferry to Kennacraig. Like Port Charlotte, the village was founded by the Laird of Islay Walter Frederick Campbell, and whereas Port Charlotte was named after his mother, Port Ellen was named after his first wife Eleanor. Port Ellen used to have its own distillery, but this has now closed, although there is a large maltings here which produces malted barley for distilleries throughout Islay and Jura. However, whisky connoisseurs need not despair, since just up the coast from here they can sample one of Scotland's most famous labels, Laphroaig, while there are two more distilleries a bit further still at Lagavulin and Ardbeg, making this a veritable "whisky coast". Towards the south end of the village is St Johns Church, built in the 1800s, with a simple white-walled interior and a venerable stone exterior. Near the Lagavulin Distillery is the ruined Dunyvaig Castle, a former stronghold of the MacDonald Lords Of The Isles, where several sieges took place during the 17th century before the Campbells came along and finished the castle off by demolishing most of it. Another point of interest lies beyond the Ardbeg Distillery: the Kidalton Cross, a fine example of an early Christian "high cross". The adjoining church and churchyard is a treasure trove of grave slabs, some bearing the images of knights.

Map of the area.

© 2004 J M Briscoe, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 3 February 2013


Laggan Bay on the east shore of Loch Indaal is one of the safer beaches for swimming on Islay, with a large, curved sweep of sand 6 miles long known as the Big Strand. The strangely named Oa Peninsula to the south of the bay is the southernmost part of Islay, reaching a height of 202 metres at Beinn Mhor, and with the Mull of Oa rising to 131 metres from where, on a clear day, the coast of Ireland can be seen. The shore mostly consists of cliffs and sandy bays, and there is good birdwatching to be had here, including choughs, golden eagles and peregrines, while otters can sometimes be seen just offshore. The Mull of Oa is dominated by the American Memorial, which was erected in memory of the huge loss of life resulting from two of the island's most famous shipping disasters involving the SS Tuscania and the HMS Otranto, both of which occurred in 1918 towards the end of the First World War (see also Port Charlotte). At Cragabus there is a chambered cairn with a standing stone nearby. The only other sign of human life on the peninsula are the abandoned houses dotted around it. The peninsula once had a population of 800, but following the Highland Clearances became deserted.

Map of the area.

© 2006 Julian Dowse, via Wikimedia Commons