An island fringe, and lochs that cut deep into Knapdale
South of Oban, the coast of Scotland looks as though it had dropped from a great height and shattered into a thousand islands, islets, promontories and sea lochs. The islands furthest out are called, with simple poetry, the Isles of the Sea, the Garvellachs. The nearest ones are known, more prosaically, as the Slate Islands; the quarries on them, abandoned now, were worked for hundreds of years, and have twice roofed Iona Cathedral.
Seil Sound, which separates Seil island from the mainland, is so narrow that it is spanned at Clachan by a bridge designed by Thomas Telford in 1792. Geographically the sound is part of the Atlantic Ocean, so the bridge is known locally as ‘the bridge over the Atlantic’. The hump-backed stone bridge arches between grassy banks little more than 50 yds apart and hardly warrants such a grandiose title.
On the west coast of Seil, at the village of Easdale, there is a viewing point – a wonderful place, if the weather is right, from which to contemplate the southern part of the Firth of Lorn and the islands.
South of Seil island, Luing island is another former slate-quarrying area. Between the islands the tides run fast and furious and wait for no man, and the visitor is better off searching the rocky beaches for semiprecious stones than risking bathing in the treacherous currents. There are safer beaches at the southern end of the island.
Sheltered by the Craignish peninsula, the village of Ardfern runs along the northern shore of Loch Craignish with its scattering of islands that offer many secluded moorings. Gently sloping shingle beaches are safe for swimming and boating.
In a little inlet off the Sound of Jura, and tucked under low, wooded cliffs, is Crinan, the north-western terminus of the Crinan Canal. There is not much of it, but what there is, is attractive – a complex of neat locks, quays and basins surrounded by lawns, a hotel outside which people in short yellow Wellingtons and orange anoraks watch the yachts coming through the canal with varying expressions of envy or amusement, and a few stone houses.
But Crinan’s chief joy and entertainment is the endless parade of boats through the locks. There are tough little fishing boats, festooned with nets or lobster-pots; sleek yachts and a dinghy that is a family’s pride; beginners trying to look like old salts, and local children throwing ropes round bollards with contemptuous ease; and the occasional 80 ft giant with brilliant brass, a gleam of perfect table linen through the porthole and a bar in the cockpit.
Across the loch is Duntrune Castle, one of the oldest inhabited houses in Scotland. It used to be a Campbell stronghold, and some years ago a skeleton was discovered beneath the floorboards. It was said to be that of an imprisoned MacDonald piper who, during the Civil Wars of the 17th century, played a wild pibroch from the walls to warn his fellow-clansmen of an impending trap.
Tucked into Loch a’ Bhealaich, an inlet among the shattered, heavily wooded collection of promontories and bays that compose the upper end of Loch Sween, is the splendid natural harbour of Tayvallich. The village that grew about its shores was once important in the herring and lobster fisheries, but now it concentrates mainly upon the energetic holidaymaker, offering fine walks into Knapdale, safe bathing from its pebbly shores and comfortable sailing and fishing in the loch. Less than a mile to the west is Carsaig Bay, which has a viewpoint looking over to the wild, olive-dun hills of Jura.
The Point of Knap is an unexpectedly gentle jut of land that separates the heavily wooded Loch Sween from the wilder Loch Caolisport. The Point consists mostly of crofting pastures, and the only settlement of any size is the pleasant stone-built village of Kilmory, which looks out over the Sound of Jura to the three conical mountains known as the Paps of Jura. The ruined church contains a magnificent collection of Celtic grave slabs portraying warriors, chiefs and hunters; outside stands the 12 ft high ‘MacMillan’s Cross’, whose intricate, medieval carving has been compared to the finest of the monuments on Iona.
Some 3 miles to the north up the coast are the bleak remains of the 12th-century Castle Sween. Its ruined condition is largely the handiwork of Colkitto MacDonald, the stormy Scots-Irish lieutenant of the Marquis of Montrose who, in the Civil War, raised the I lighland clans on behalf of Charles I.
In this busy, bustling port and resort, the masts of fishing boats and yachts jostle against a background of cafes and, in summer, the occasional harbourside fairground. Once Tarbert was the chief port of the Loch Fyne herring industry, and though this has declined, the Fish Quay is still busy every morning as the boats come in to unload their catches of prawns, clams and fish. The village takes fish seriously, and holds seafood festivals that present the harvests of all the west-coast fishing grounds, cooked, smoked or preserved in a dozen delicious ways.
The last relic of the days of sail is a square raised platform in the middle of the harbour known as the ‘The Beilding’. A capstan used to be mounted on it and cables run out to haul sailing boats into their berths. But the only sails to be seen now are those of dozens of yachts, whose owners use Tarbert as a base from which to explore Loch Fyne and the waters around Kintyre. They are well serviced by a boatyard and by the excellent harbour facilities.
The ivy-coloured remains of the 15th-century keep on the hill above the harbour is the latest of several castles on the site, most of which were built as a defence against the Vikings. Kintyre was in fact for many years a Norse province. It gained this status as the result of an agreement between King Magnus Barefoot and the Scottish King Edgar that King Magnus should hold any land that his longship could circumnavigate. In 1098 King Magnus had himself dragged in his longship across the isthmus of Tarbert-and so claimed Kintyre for the Norse. Norse rule ended in 1263 when Alexander III annihilated the Viking fleet at the Battle of Largs.
A mile across the isthmus are the headwaters of West Loch Tarbert, whose valley, bordered by dark, hanging woods, leads out to the Sound of Jura. At the north-eastern end of the loch there is a pier, with neat piles of lobster pots and net floats, and a dozen or so sturdy fishing boats. Thus the fishermen of Tarbert have the waters of both Loch Fyne and the Atlantic as their province.
The grey village with its handsome harbour and little lighthouse stands at the southern end of the Crinan Canal, and was largely created by it. Started in 1794 by John Rennie, the canal runs for 9 miles across the northern end of Knapdale, linking Loch Fyne with the Sound of Jura and the open Atlantic, so cutting out the 120 mile voyage round Kintyre.
From the beginning, the canal was much used not only by the herring fleets and the coasters but by the people of the West Highlands, who found the water route an easier way to get to Glasgow and the south than the wearisome journey by road or rail. Many of them came by paddle-steamer, the magnificent 300 ft Columba, pride of the David MacBrayne fleet. In the summer season she thrashed her way up from Glasgow at 19 knots, carrying up to 2,000 passengers in her luxurious saloon and cabins, and offering services that included bookstalls, a hairdresser’s saloon, and a post office.
Today the fisheries and the passenger trade have both declined, and in the basin hewn from solid rock yachts and dinghies outnumber the fishing boats. Now and then a little ‘puffer’ – one of the ubiquitous breed of Highland coasters – comes through as a reminder of greater days.
A pleasant half moon of Victorian and later stone houses stands on a slope of near-parkland at the top of Loch Gilp-an inlet off Loch Fyne. The Crinan Canal runs just outside the small town, and contributed to its 19th-century growth. It looks a pleasant place to live in, and there are some good, old-fashioned shops.
People have found the area attractive for a very long time, as is apparent from the large number of prehistoric monuments in the district. A mile to the north, at Achnabreck, there is a large standing stone just over the wall of the modern cemetery, and a little beyond there are rocks carved with enigmatic Bronze Age ‘cup and ring’ markings -hollows surrounded by rings. No one knows the significance of these symbols, but they are frequently found at ancient burial and sacred sites in Scotland and the north of England.
With the wild, dark hills of Argyll behind and the wide, restless waters of Loch Fyne in front, Crarae, some 12 miles south-west of Inveraray, hardly seems the most encouraging place to establish a collection of rare trees and shrubs. Yet the climate is kind and the rainfall high, and there, in 1912, Sir Archibald and Lady Campbell of Succoth began planting specimen trees round their house. The range was extended by their son and grandson, and today Crarae, with its rare mixture of wild Highland glen and exotic trees and shrubs, is one of the most delightful gardens in Argyll.
The pivot of the garden is the steep little burn that falls into Loch Fyne. Around the burn have been planted 20 species of eucalyptus, magnolias, and many other trees collected from as far away as Chile, New Zealand and the Himalayas. Visitors can follow an inner trail, or a more extended tour that involves some moorland scrambling. Plants and trees are offered for sale. Crarae is open daily and visitors with a taste for a spectacular display of rhododendrons should try to time their visit for late May or early June.