Forested hills above the lochs of Cowal and lowland Bute
For centuries the Cowal peninsula, between Loch Fyne and Loch Long, was dominated by Clan Campbell. Its dominance was frequently challenged, which accounts for the number of ruined fortifications and for the dark tales of murder and treachery that lie behind the sunny visages of the little resorts. Piers clad in barnacles and weeds rise out of the glass-clear water on which yachts heel to the wind, their sails white as gulls’ wings.
To say that Auchindrain is a museum is to do it less than justice; rather, it is a time capsule that affords a glimpse into the life of the most basic of communities – the communal-tenancy farm. The site may well have been occupied from prehistory, but the little stone cottages and sheds that can be seen today are mostly about 200 years old. For the greater part of its history, the farm of Auchindrain would have supported about ten families who grew potatoes as their chief crop, grazed a few cows and pigs, shared the labour and lived only a little above subsistence level.
Auchindrain was typical of thousands of Highland communities that were swept away in the Clearances of the !830s and 1840s to make way for sheep. But
Auchindrain was not swept away; it continued in the same manner until 1935 when it was taken over by a single tenant, and now it is being restored to its state of a century ago to show what ingenuity Highlanders are capable of in the face of adversity. There are home-made dyes and soaps, good homemade furniture, and a loom made of driftwood in 1760 and still in working order. There is also the community’s still, discovered a few years ago, to show that its life was not entirely bleak.
After a visit to Auchindrain, the visitor sees the hundreds of roofless crofts scattered through the Highlands with a more understanding eye.
Some 6 miles from the head of Loch Fyne, down its western shore, stands the blue-grey, Scots-baronial Inveraray Castle, surrounded at a respectful distance by the perfect little Georgian Royal Burgh of Inveraray itself. The grouping is the headquarters of the Clan Campbell, one of the most powerful of all the clans throughout the long, turbulent history of the Highlands, and the castle is the seat of its chieftains, the Dukes of Argyll, who for centuries were monarchs of this part of Scotland in all but name.
Town and castle, both built at about the time of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, when the Campbells fought for the Government, reflect their power. The castle’s interior is glorious; the Drawing Room hung with Beauvais tapestries, the State Dining Room bright with delicately painted panels, the
Armoury with its array of 1,300 swords and firearms, the Gainsboroughs, Raeburns and Landseers, and the furniture, make it one of the most exciting houses in Britain to visit. The grounds, too, are immensely attractive, with garden and woodland walks, and there is a splendid view of the whole glen from the watchtower on top of the 800 ft Dunchuach. Far to the north-west rises the 3,700 ft bulk of Ben Cruachan, whose name is the Campbell war-cry.
There has been a village on the site of the present burgh since the days of legend, but no trace of it remains. Georgian Inveraray looks across a wide swathe of turf to its war memorial on the edge of the loch. It is approached from the north-east over a pretty, hump-backed bridge, and its buildings, with the exception of the great bell tower on the Episcopalian church, form a harmonious whole. The ancient cross in the Main Street is said to come from Iona.
The village’s name means ‘The House on the Hill’, and its cottages are not ranged along the shore, but scattered up a hillside of woods and gardens. Tighnabruaich makes few concessions to the seeker after general seaside amusements, and concentrates wholeheartedly upon sailing. The Kyles of Bute Sailing Club has its headquarters there; it welcomes visitors and organises a visitors’ racing series in summer. At the northern end of the village, a long wooden pier runs out to greet the steamers.
About a mile to the north, a viewpoint presents a panorama of airy splendour down the entire Kyles of Bute. Beyond that again, along the A8003, there is a forest trail from which may be seen blue hares and deer, heron and wild geese.
The town has been a holiday resort since 1779, when a family named Reid hired a boat and set forth to spend the summer in the wild Gaelic village of Dunoon, With the coming of the paddle-steamers, Glasgow’s merchant princes began building their summer retreats there, and a little later, humbler folk came to enjoy the esplanade, the gardens and the tea shops. Thus it was that Dunoon, and places like Morag’s Fairy Glen, with its little waterfalls, to the south, entered Glasgow’s folklore. Today the town offers every conceivable amusement, entertainment and shop to the visitor.
Once Dunoon had a castle, but it was burned in 1685, some 20 years after a horrendous massacre in which the Clan Campbell slew hundreds of Lamont prisoners on Castle Hill. The castle is no more than a tumble of stones now, but the hill is a fine viewpoint. At its foot is a bronze statue to Robert Burns’s ‘Highland Mary’ – Mary Campbell, who was born in Dunoon, and was a nursemaid in Ayr when the poet met and fell in love with her in 1780.
There is some notable sea-fishing at Dunoon, especially from the rocks known as The Gantocks, some 600 yds off the end of the pier, where the wreck of a Swedish ore carrier provides a home for – so it is said -cod of up to 46 lb, and giant angler-fish.
Though more or less a suburb of Dunoon, tiny Hunter’s Quay has a personality all its own. Named after the Hunter family who cannily bought large stretches of the Cowal coast in the early steamship days, and built the first Dunoon pier, it consists of little more than a few handsome Victorian houses, a pretty little post office and the terminus of the Gourock Ferry. But it has long been famous in the annals of yachting, and provides a fine anchorage where the Sandbank Sailing School moors its dinghies and offers boats for hire to experienced sailors.
The story goes that the name is derived from a shipment of earth despatched from the Holy Land as a foundation for Glasgow Cathedral; but the vessel carrying it sank in the loch before it could make delivery. Holy or not, this inlet off the Clyde is certainly majestic – deeply cut into the Argyll hills whose steep northern slopes have been clothed in varying shades of pale and dark green by the Forestry Commission. These woods, that climb from the loch shore to almost 1,000 ft, are part of the Kilmun Arboretum, a magnificent collection of trees from all over the world, including cypresses, Sitka spruce, eucalyptus, hemlock, cedars and a large number of pines and firs. A number of walks of varying lengths have been laid out through the arboretum.
The green hills make an oddly serene backdrop to the US Polaris submarine depot ship in the loch, from which clangings echo across the water. Sandbank, a pleasant village on the southern shore, is world-famous for ocean racing yachts and smaller sailing vessels. Britain’s beautiful but unsuccessful challengers for the America’s Cup, Sceptre and Sovereign, were built there.
ISLAND OF BUTE
Visitors may reach the Island of Bute all the year round by way of the Colintraive-Rhubodach Ferry, or by the big car ferry from Wemyss Bay. But whichever route they choose, it will bear them swiftly to Rothesay, the largest, and perhaps the best loved, of all the Clyde resorts. The buildings backing the long, broad esplanade and the little curving, sandy beach are mostly gracious 19th century, and this too is the era to which the pier and harbour complex largely belongs.
The old Winter Garden, known to generations of top music hall acts, is closed now; but it wears its shabbiness with an air, and the gardens and putting greens surrounding it are as immaculate as ever. There are bus tours, pony trekking, boat trips, and fishing charters. Bicycles can be hired. Evening concerts and ceilidhs are presented at the Pavilion.
At the back of the town are the massive red-sandstone remains of Rothesay Castle, much of which dates back to the 13th century. Near the castle is a museum that tells the story of Bute from prehistory to paddle-steamer, and includes an excellent section on the island’s natural history.
With the mountains of Arran to the south, and those of Argyll to the north, Bute is a lowland island in a Highland setting. Loch Fad, running south from Rothesay’s boundaries, is placid and shallow, with rich, steep woods on one side and rising pasture on the other. The actor Edmund Kean lived at Woodend on the northern shore, and though the house is private its gates bear the portraits of actors and dramatists. Much of the island consists of low hills, rounded like those of Dorset, patterned and divided by hedgerows and stone walls, and there are quiet beaches everywhere – such as Kilchat-tan Bay, to the south, and St Ninian’s Bay, with its standing stones and ruined chapel, to the west.
The wide, empty curve of Ettrick Bay, 2 miles north of St Ninian’s Bay, is so quiet that the voices of children playing at the water’s edge 400 yds away come clearly across the sands. Opposite, on the eastern shore, is Port Bannatyne, a village no more than three streets deep that rises up from the coast road. It runs almost down to Rothesay, yet has a character all its own – part Highland village, part sailing centre, with a boat-builder’s yard and chandlery. There are seldom fewer than 20 yachts and dinghies moored offshore.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Younger Botanic Garden, Benmore. 5 miles NW of Dunoon. Woodland garden. Daily in summer.
Carrick Castle, 5 miles S of Lochgoilhead, on Loch Soil. 14th-century keep. Daily.
Scottish White Heather Farm, Toward, 6 miles SW of Dunoon. Weekdays except Won.
Strone, Cairndow, 7 miles £ of Inveraray. Shrub garden and pinetum. Daily in summer.