I have mentioned on my blog before that although I'm not religious, I love visiting old churches on my travels around Scotland. I find that they are one of the best places to learn about the community and history of an area.
Recently I made a trip to Kilmun Church and Argyll Mausoleum on the shores of Loch Fyne in the Cowal Peninsula. It turned out to be so much more than just an interesting place of local worship, I found it to be a fascinating attraction with a lot to offer anyone interested in Scottish history.
There is a small visitor centre which details the story of the site from a Celtic Monastery to the final resting place of the Campbells, one of the most powerful clans in Scotland. Volunteer guides are also on hand to show you around if you wish and I found the guide on duty during my visit a wealth of information (I wish I had gotten her name!).
The only thing I found disappointing was to hear how low the visitor figures are, as this really is a special place where there has been a lot of effort put in to enhance the visitor experience. I thoroughly enjoyed my morning there and spent way longer than I had anticipated, partly because I got chatting with the guide over some tea and biscuits after my visit which is optional but recommended!
I really urge you to seek out Kilmun Church and Argyll Mausoleum for yourself and support this great attraction. There is so much history to discover in this little unassuming place and these are just some of the things I found out during my visit...
I love Scotland in autumn. The landscape sheds its summer green and wraps itself in a tartan shawl of russet, burnt orange and chestnut. The golden light accentuates every magical detail and the sky frequently bursts in a blaze of colour from hot pink to cinnabar as the sun rises and sets. It is by far my favourite season to go exploring.
Last weekend brought perfect autumn weather, with blue skies and enough warmth to feel like summer had returned and to temporarily forget that winter is waiting in the wings. On days like this it would be criminal not to get outdoors and absorb some extra Vitamin D before the sun disappears on its annual vacation, so I decided it was a great excuse to embark on a spontaneous Scottish road-trip.
Living on the Isle of Bute means that making last minute plans usually limits the possibilities of where I can go in a day and I'm often forced into finding new ways to explore already familiar places. This is the kind of travel challenge I thrive on and from my experience, when the only new option left is to seek out the road less travelled, you often reap the best rewards.
Loch Fyne is a well frequented sea loch on the west coast of Scotland, with many a tourist stopping off for a refreshment at the historic town of Inveraray as they follow the road along its western shore, usually on their way from Glasgow to Oban. While this route can be a bustling one, especially in the summer, the eastern shore of Loch Fyne attracts far fewer visitors. Due to the geography of Bute, this is the side of the loch I find myself travelling along on a regular basis when I'm heading north.
In many ways the peaceful A886 from Colintraive to Cairndow could already be considered the road less travelled, however although it is quiet and pretty enough, it is not particularly memorable in my opinion. If you are travelling between these locations this well maintained road is definitely the quickest and most direct way to get from A to B but I decided this was the perfect time to explore an alternative route, the even less travelled parallel 16 mile single track road (B8000) from Otter Ferry to Strachur. It is definitely not the normal tourist route, yet it skirts along the fringes of Loch Fyne revealing not only superior opportunities to enjoy the scenery but also a few hidden historical gems and a couple of well regarded destination restaurants which makes the longer detour justifiably worthwhile.
My journey to the eastern shore of Loch Fyne started with the steep drive over Glendaruel to Otter Ferry. This is definitely the more challenging route to reach the loch as the single track road twists and turns on itself while heading upwards at a severe incline. Not for the faint-hearted and I couldn't help but admire the cyclist embarking on what must be a hellish leg burning uphill struggle but then again whether you reach the top on four wheels or two, the view over Loch Fyne at the summit is worth it.
Navigating the well worn and sometimes slippery stone steps that wind through the narrow woodland gorge of Puck's Glen is hazardous enough at times, but they are not the only reason you have to drag your eyes from the bewitching scenery to check your footing from time to time. Poca Ban is the resident spirit that disguises itself as a ball of wool and rolls around the glen looking for unsuspecting victims to trip up all in the name of some warped fairy fun. It seems quite fitting that a glen named after the mischievous sprite in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' has a playful spirit of its own.
Poca Ban is not the only mystical Scottish fairy that you might encounter on your walk through Puck's Glen, concealed in the trees you might spot a Ghillie Dhu, wearing clothes of leaves and moss or catch a glimpse of the nature sprites that dance in the leafy shade of the ferns.
It's very easy to believe that enchanted creatures are hiding in the shadows of this magical landscape and I mean magical in the truest sense of the word as it really feels like you have crossed an invisible barrier into an otherworldly dimension. Frothy waterfalls, bubbling pools, hanging moss, tumbled stones and tall shady ferns, Puck's Glen is prime real estate for fairy folk.
***UPDATE DECEMBER 2016*** After several failed attempts to redevelop the land, Polphail has now been demolished to make way for housing and a distillery. I'm glad I got to visit when I did before this piece of Scotland's history vanished forever.
Scotland has it's fair share of abandoned buildings in various states of neglect and spanning every era. It isn't short of crumbling townships either, many of which fell victim to the Highland Clearances. Yet even in a country full of deserted stone shells, Polphail Village is unique.
A relatively modern development at a mere 40 years young, it was built to accommodate 500 workers for a nearby oil platform construction yard but the village was never occupied. Despite the oil boom of the 1970s, logistical problems with the location meant no orders were ever placed and the yard never went into production.
Instead it has spent the last four decades at the mercy of nature, providing a home to a colony of bats and a blank canvas for street artists.
Despite it's scenic position on the shores of Loch Fyne, various plans to redevelop the land have all fallen through and it is hard to disagree with those that feel the village is a blight on an otherwise picturesque landscape. The ever expanding modern Portavadie Marina with it's elegant finishes sits on the doorstep of Polphail providing a stark architectural contrast. Yet there is something eerily fascinating about the dilapidated grey buildings with their artistically applied graffiti make-up, which provide an alluring appeal to the creative and curious.
A walk around the site provides a time capsule glimpse of a world that never was, with washing machines never used, beds never slept in and doors never opened. A waste of money, a sad place, hauntingly creepy, a health and safety hazard; Polphail is all of these things and yet it is also a uniquely intriguing place that continues to radiate a mysterious draw.
Scotland lends itself to campervan road-trips, small enough to navigate with ease but big enough to provide a variety of breathtaking landscapes and plenty of adventure. Scotland is a country where you don't have to travel far from civilization to discover areas that are not only free of people but feel like a forgotten wilderness. In my opinion the ideal way to explore these scenic, natural playgrounds is in the relative luxury of a modern campervan. Much more than a bed on wheels, they provide the freedom to roam wherever you fancy, the freedom to park among the mountains while you stick the kettle on for a cup of tea or the freedom to stop and watch the final rays of a sunset before climbing under your cosy duvet for the night.
When Rockin Vans offered me the use of one of their new funky VW campervans to head off on a Scottish road-trip I jumped at the chance. Having hired from them several years ago I already knew they were a great little Scottish company and I was delighted to see how much they had expanded and updated their vans since I first used them, a sign they are obviously doing something right!
With so many destinations to choose from I decided to venture into the unknown and embark on my first visit to the Isle of Mull. 2015 seemed to have a reoccurring theme for me of visiting new Scottish Islands and with two weeks left until the end of the year, adding another Island to my collection seemed a fitting final adventure. Another reason that attracted me to Mull was the recent introduction of the reduced RET ferry fares by CalMac which makes visiting many of the Scottish islands very affordable even with a campervan.
After picking up a dog friendly funky bright orange VW from the Rockin Vans headquarters, I headed back to my home on Bute to pack a few essentials and when I wasn't looking Mr Adventures Around Scotland had managed to sneak onboard while Willow, my lurcher, was giving me an expectant look, I guess they were looking forward to the road-trip too!
DAY 1 - ISLE OF BUTE TO ARDFERN
We set off as the sun began to rise with streaks of gold criss-crossing the horizon as we left Rhubodach and took the short ferry crossing over the Kyles of Bute. Although Mull was our ultimate destination, having a campervan makes it just as much about the journey and we decided to take the road less travelled along Argyll's Secret Coast. Taking another ferry from Portavadie across Loch Fyne brought us to the picturesque village of Tarbert where we savoured the therapeutic view of colourful fishing boats bobbing in the harbour as I popped the kettle on for the first cup of tea for the day, this has to be one of my favourite things about travelling in a campervan.
Fully refreshed we carried on north with a quick a stop at Ardrishaig to walk part of the Crinan Canal before continuing to Kilmartin Glen, the perfect place to enjoy a lunch break. This is one of the most historically rich areas of Scotland, with an abundance of standing stones, burial cairns, stone carvings and Dunadd Fort, once the power stronghold of the Kingdom of Dalriada. It is possible to climb to the top of the fort although the route is rocky and steep in places but well worth the effort if you are able. Look out for the notice boards which describe features of note and explain how the fort would have originally looked.
The view from the top down the ancient glen and across to the Isle of Jura is spectacular. As I stood alone, gazing around and imagining the people that once inhabited the land before me, my thoughts were interrupted by an almighty boom of thunder that seemed to go on forever! I couldn't help thinking that the powerful roar across the mysterious glen was some sort of message from the ancient world.
I quickly slipped and slid down the hillside, reaching the sanctuary of the van just as battering hail began to bounce off the ground and with darkness starting to descend, it seemed an appropriate time to find our campsite for the night further along the road in Ardfern.
On my recent trip around Kintyre I opted for glamping wigwam accommodation at Machrihanish Holiday Park. This was partly due it's location, partly due to the reasonable cost and more importantly the fact that it is dog friendly.
Machrihanish is on the southwest coast of the Kintyre peninsula and makes a great half way point to stop off if you are spending a couple of days exploring the area.
The site is next to the golf course and a short walk from the beach, making this is a pretty and peaceful location. All the wigwams have lovely open views across the fields to the water in the distance. The views from the wigwams are probably some of the best in the holiday park as they don't face onto anything.
The west coast is famous for it's sunsets I found the perfect place to view one just south of the site and past the sea bird observatory (approx 5 mins in the car).
The Old Clubhouse bar and restaurant is a short walk from the holiday park. if you need supplies Campbeltown is approx 4 1/2 miles away and has 2 supermarkets and a choice of places to eat. There is a regular bus service between Campbeltown and the park.
The Kintyre Peninsula gained it's title 'Scotland's only mainland island' thanks to King Magnus Barefoot in 1098.
A treaty between the Viking Magnus and the Scots stated that if his boat could pass between an island and the mainland, the island would be considered Norwegian - to pass between Kintyre and the mainland, Magnus stood at the helm of his longboat and his followers dragged it across the land. As a result Kintyre became part of Norway until it was returned to the Scots in 1266.
The Viking occupation is just one of the many historic chapters of this pretty peninsula and as you travel around today with the stunning and peaceful scenery unfolding around you it is hard to imagine that this area was the setting of another infamous MacDonald massacre in 1647 when approximately 300 men were murdered by The Covenanters at Dunaverty Castle in Southend.
Standing stones, ruined chapels, castles and prehistoric caves scattered around the landscape are reminders of the many civilizations that have called this place home over the centuries.
I'm ashamed to admit this was my first visit to Kintyre as I always thought it was a bit too far to travel to when I lived in Glasgow and I wasn't sure if it was worth the three hour drive to Campbeltown, the main town on the peninsula. Since moving to Bute last year, Kintyre is now my neighbour just across the water and it has been tantalizingly calling me over to visit since I arrived. It is also much easier to get to as a 30 minute drive on the mainland to Portavadie and a 25 minute ferry journey means that I can be at Tarbert and the head of Kintyre in approx an hour. Although the ferry is not the cheapest option I decided on this occasion that it was worth it to save time driving there and would give me more time to explore once I arrived.
I had booked accommodation at Machrihanish, about three quarters of the way down the west coast and other than that my only plan was to drive clockwise and follow the coast around the peninsula, stopping off anywhere that sounded interesting and trying to visit all the main settlements to see what they had to offer.
My first stop on arrival from the ferry was Tarbert, a pretty fishing port with a picturesque harbour and a hilltop castle makes this the most photogenic little town. On arrival I made my way up to Tarbert Castle, a short. easy climb. There is not much of the building remaining, although it was once a Royal Castle of significant importance with connections to Robert the Bruce. The views from the hilltop are some of the prettiest I've come across in Scotland and a pleasant introduction to the area.
Tarbert has plenty of eating options, pubs and a small selection of shops. Walking around the harbour provides the opportunity to admire the varied boats including a couple of traditionally designed Loch Fyne Skiffs.
I really enjoyed the short time I spent in Tarbert and it is a place I immediately fell in love with so I know I will be returning sooner rather than later and giving myself more time to savour the scenery.
The Cowal Highland Gathering is billed as one of the biggest and most spectacular Highland Games in the world. Staged in the west coast Scottish town of Dunoon, flanked by elevated green hillsides and the busy waters of the Firth of Clyde, the setting is certainly a picturesque one.
As I joined the meandering crowd heading to the stadium we were met with 'greeters' high fiving people with giant foam hands. This reminded me of my time at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games when I was welcomed by cheery volunteers at every venue and was certainly a first for any Highland Games I've attended. Once in the stadium I made my way around the various stands selling food, gifts and clothing although I was a little disappointed that there wasn't a wider choice of Scottish products available.
Being a Highland Games pro I whisked out my trusty picnic blanket and joined the many spectators on the hillside overlooking the main arena. Thankfully the weather was kind and this was a perfectly pleasant place to enjoy the action. Many people even more prepared than me (or maybe just more pessimistic than me!) had brought tents to keep sheltered from any rain which thankfully never materialised.
Highland dancers, pipe bands, heavy athletics and wrestling were the main activities taking place in the arena below. Personally heavy athletics is my favourite element of any Highland Games and there were some impressive competitors taking part.
For fans of Highland dancing the world championships with the best competitors from around the globe was a real highlight and the Cowal Hill Race is another draw with runners taking part in one of the toughest 5k races in the country.
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