Ports and resorts where the Highlands meet the Clyde
Ships and sailors dominate this part of the Clyde. There are ghosts of Viking longships in Loch Long. The Cutty Sark was built in the shadow of Dumbarton Castle crag. And Comet, one of the earliest steamships, came from Port Glasgow. Tall black submarines slip in and out of Faslane and Holy Loch, and the shipyards of Greenock, sadly not so busy as they were, are areminderof what the world’s merchant fleets owe to Clyde-built ships.
The village is a pleasant collection of white stone hotels and guest houses, a neat church and a general store that also sells fishing tackle – all gathered about the head of Loch Long. But Arrochar’s main preoccupation is with rock climbing and hill-walking among the irresistible mountains crowded on every hand – Beinn Ime, 3,318 ft; Beinn Narnain, 3,038 ft; and Ben Arthur, better known as ‘The Cobbler’, 2,891 ft.
From Tarbet pier, on Loch Lomond, a little over a mile away to the east, there are cruises that take in all the sights of the loch from its ‘Bonnie banks’ and golden eagles to Rob Roy’s cave. It was the closeness of Loch Long and Loch Lomond that tempted the Vikings into a brilliant foray in 1263, when King
Haakon of Norway led a fleet against Scotland. Part of the fleet was diverted up Loch Long, and when the ships reached its head, the crews dragged them across land into the fresh waters of Loch Lomond, enabling them to raid deep into Scotland. But despite the cunning ploy, it was the Scots who were eventually victorious, when Haakon’s armada was annihilated at the Battle of Largs.
The road from Garelochhead to Arrochar climbs high on the eastern side of Loch Long, and looks out over the wide sheet of water that is the parting of the ways, the place where Loch Goil begins its wander into the hills to the north-west. On the steep promontory that divides the lochs, the dark, pine-clad slopes of Ardgartan Forest lead the eye up to the spectacular wilderness of the Ardgoil Estate, the peaks of Beinn Reithe and The Saddle and, west of Loch Goil, a majestic grey ridge dominated by Sgurr a’ Choinnich, lifting its shoulders to more than 2,000 ft. Near at hand, on the eastern shore, the scene is gentle, with oaks and birches, and beneath them, wild flowers, tall grass and bracken sweeping down to the salty waters of the loch.
The Royal Navy has a torpedo range in Loch Long, but there is still plenty of room for fishermen. Cod, dabs, flounders, plaice, congers, rays and mackerel are among the species that may be tempted by bait obtainable in Garelochhead, and boats may be hired in several places on the shores of Loch Long. the village – white, slate-roofed cottages, antique shops and a tea-room or two – is charmingly set upon tree-clad slopes that reach up to the wild, bare hills behind. Hills rear high all round; the whole panorama is best seen from a picnic place and viewpoint about a mile north of Garelochhead on the road to Arrochar.
There is sailing and windsurfing at the loch’s end, and a useful, if weed-covered, slipway.
The plan of this largely Victorian resort was laid out in 1776 by Sir James Colquhoun, who named the town after his wife. The beach is too rocky to encourage bathing, but sailing is the true passion in Helensburgh, and boats of all shapes and sizes are catered for at the sailing club or at the marina at Rhu, 2 miles up Gare Loch. The obelisk on the front is a monument to Henry Bell, designer of the Comet, Europe’s first commercially successful steamship, whose flywheel stands in Hermitage Park. Bell’s wife managed what is now the Queen’s Hotel while her husband worked at his ship designs. He died in 1830, and is buried in the churchyard at Rhu.
Boat trips to Holy Loch and up Gare Loch start from the pier. In the old, regular paddle-steamer days, Helensburgh’s port was Craigendoran, slightly to the south, but its pier is derelict now, and falling into ruin.
Created on an unstormable crag of volcanic basalt above the lowest fordable point of the Clyde, Dumbarton has a longer recorded history than any other stronghold in Britain. In the 6th century it was the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde that ran from Loch Lomond to Lancashire. The successive castles that were built on the rock that reaches 240 ft above the meeting of the Clyde and Leven were never far from the heart of Scottish history.
Besieged in innumerable wars, Dumbarton also had a role in the tragic affairs of Mary, Queen of Scots. She stayed there for a few months at the age of five before being sent to France. Much later, after Mary’s flight into England in 1568, the garrison held out on her behalf until 1571. Little of the castle that Mary knew remains, since most of the present fortifications date from the 18th century. The view from the top of the rock is airy and breathtaking.
Distilling is Dumbarton’s chief industry now, but it was once equally famous for its glass and shipbuilding. The windjammer Cutty Sark was launched there in 1869, and named after the swiftest of the witches, distinguished by her short shirt or ‘cutty sark’, in Burns’ ballad Tain o’ Shunter,
Robert Bruce, having commanded Sir James Douglas to carry his heart to the Holy Land, died near Dumbarton, in a castle whose site is a matter of considerable controversy. The most favoured spot seems to be by Dalmoak Farm, just south of the A82, on the west bank of the River Leven.
Though the present church dates only from 1812, the parish is of immense age. The first known church on the site was built about AD 800. Tradition has it that St Patrick was born in the village, as a holy well dedicated to him, and the name of the place, bear witness. The western end of the Roman Antonine Wall, built about AD 143, lies under the Shell oil terminal by the shore; though there is nothing to be seen at that point, the base of a rampart and a few stones of an Antonine fort stand in Duntocher Park, 2 miles to the east.
Floating high over the line of the wall, and over Old Kilpatrick, is the Erskine Bridge, the westernmost bridge over the Clyde. Its narrow ribbon of road soars 180 ft above countryside and river, borne on seemingly delicate towers that carry 30,000 tons of concrete and steel and are designed to withstand winds of up to 130 mph.
The town, which grew out of the old village of Newark, was intended to serve as Glasgow’s port, as its name implies. But the Clyde was deepened to take big ships into Glasgow, and Port Glasgow turned to shipbuilding. Among the coppices of cranes stands Newark Castle, a turreted mansion built by the Maxwells in the 16th century.
The centre of the town consists of tall red closes – tenements – gathered about the worn but elegant Municipal Hall. In pride of I place is a replica of the Comet, the steamship designed by Henry Bell of Helensburgh. The original was launched in Port Glasgow in 1812, and worked between Glasgow and Greenock until she was wrecked in 1820. The replica was built in the same yard in 1962.
In the 17th century, Greenock shipped herring to France and the Baltic; hence the town’s motto ‘Let herring swim that trade maintain’. During the next two centuries, Greenock added shipbuilding and industry to its dock facilities. A few graceful old buildings, such as the early 19th-century Customs House, emerge through the tower- ing cranes and derricks. Such buildings are not plentiful, however, for Greenock suffered badly in a savage two-night blitz in March, 1941.
James Watt, the discoverer of steam power, was born in Greenock in 1736. There is a statue of him, and a dock, a lecture hall and a scientific library are named after him. The McLean Museum contains a number of Watt relics, and has an adjoining art gallery.
The Clyde roadstead off Greenock, known as Tail of the Bank, was one of the most important assembly points for Atlantic convoys during the Second World War.
Red-stone houses that climb steeply up the hills from the water ring this pleasant busy Clydeside town. On Lyle Hill, between Gourock and Greenock, there is a monument in the combined forms of an anchor and Cross of Lorraine; it commemorates the Free French sailors who died in the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. By Castle Mansions is a monument of a very different kind – a prehistoric monolith that young couples used to embrace to ensure that their marriage would be blessed with children. In 1662 a number of women were condemned and burned for attempting to throw the Granny Kempock stone into the sea as part of a spell that was intended to sink ships by witchcraft.
The town looks out across the Clyde to the hills that on a calm evening look as unreal as a stage set, an effect heightened by the twinkling lights of Kilcreggan below. It is a quietly pretty place, with many attractions for the visitor, including moorings, bowls and an outdoor swimming pool.