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.
Otter Ferry is a surprisingly popular destination considering its remote location. This is mainly thanks to The Oystercatcher, a popular pub and restaurant that sits on the east shore of Loch Fyne. It has become a destination for foodies due to its reputation for great seafood and real ale. A pontoon and scattering of moorings mean that it is also frequented by visitors exploring the loch by boat.
At one time it was possible to reach the western shore of Loch Fyne from here by taking a ferry which operated from a local quay built in the 1700s. The ferry ceased operation in 1948 and instead of a quick 1.5 mile crossing from shore to shore, the only way to reach the land opposite is by the long drive around the loch, although the lengthy journey does mean that you have more time to enjoy the scenery!
As I continued north from Otter Ferry I kept looking for places to pull over to take some photos and found a nice little lay-by just before a farm gate. I was able to hop down a few rocks to reach the shore where I was hypnotised by the perfect reflections on the water. I must have taken about 20 pictures of the cute little hand-made fence with seaweed hanging over it, drying out in the autumn sun. It was a physical reminder that Loch Fyne is connected to the sea, something that is easy to forget as you travel further inland.
A little further on I discovered a hidden bay which would make a perfect wild camping spot. The water was as still as glass and I climbed up some interesting rocks to get a view up the full length of the loch and what a spectacular view it was! The loch was crystal clear and with the day feeling unseasonably warm it was very tempting to follow the rocks down into a little cove which looked like an ideal place for a swim.
This was the perfect spot to enjoy my lunch and I really wished I could sit there for the rest of the day. I've made a mental note to return with my tent so I can spend much longer enjoying this idyllic little spot. The reflections really were something else!
I've not yet had the pleasure of eating at Inver Restaurant but pulling into the busy car park further along the road gave me an indication of how popular this place is. Much like The Oystercatcher it sits alone, tucked away in a quiet location, yet it tempts a steady stream of diners off the tourist trail to savour its renowned menu filled with local produce. On this occasion I was just there to savour the views across the loch to Old Castle Lachlan, the next destination on my road-trip, but one day I need to try this place for myself to find out what all the fuss is about!
The ruined Old Castle Lachlan juts out into Loch Fyne and was home to the chiefs of the Maclachlan Clan until 1746. It was abandoned after the death of the 17th Chief at the Battle of Culloden. It is said that his horse returned home alone after swimming across the loch to reach the castle and this is how those left behind discovered their clan chief had fallen. Legend tells that his horse can sometimes still be heard in the vaults and seen in the moonlight.
The castle is reached by a wooden walkway which was swarming with pretty dragonflies when I crossed. I had to be careful not to tread on them as they were literally landing at my feet. After a bit of research I think I have identified them as red-veined darters, however please correct me if I have got this wrong.
If you look across to your right as you cross the bridge you will see a white building peeking out from the trees, this is the new Castle Lachlan which was first built in the late 18th century and then transformed into the Scottish Baronial mansion that stands today later in the 19th century.
It is still the seat of Clan Maclachlan with the current chief residing in one part of the castle and the other part available for rent on a self catering basis for those that want to fulfill their dreams of staying in a Scottish castle (yes please!).
There isn't much left to visit inside the old castle itself but the short walk to reach it is still worth doing. The building dates from the 1400s although the tower that still stands today dates from the 15th century. The castle was well designed to be defended and the doorway that remains was the only means of entry.
Standing on the rocks that surround the castle you get an extensive view along Loch Fyne and it would be pretty easy to spot the enemy coming by land or water. After Culloden the castle was bombarded from the sea on the order of the Duke of Cumberland forcing the remaining Maclachlans to flee, however their lands were eventually restored to them which allowed them to construct the new castle.
Kilmorie Chapel sits between the two castles and is one of the few remaining medieval church structures in the west of Scotland. Thought to date back to between the 8th and 10th century, It is the ancient burial place of the Clan Maclachlan chiefs, including their only female chief, Marjorie Maclachlan, who died in 1996.
On a quiet autumn day it was a peaceful place to walk around with only the occasional sound of birds and falling leaves disturbing the silence.
Normally I am intrigued by ornate headstones in graveyards but this very simple marker stood out as I wandered around.
Kilmorie Chapel was abandoned around 1792 when a new church was built a mile further along the road. As you continue the drive north around the eastern shore it is impossible to miss the whitewashed building which has an unusual looking belfry.
I wish I could have looked inside as preserved church buildings have often changed little since they were built, but unfortunately it only seems to be open for services. Although I'm not religious, visiting old places of worship in Scotland fascinates me, as being at the heart of the community, they are generally brimming with the history of an area.
If you're a regular reader of my blog you will know about my fascination of abandoned places (if you're new to my blog, now you know!). So naturally I couldn't resist a closer look at this decaying old house opposite the church. My snooping got as far as the entrance way because it was in a pretty dangerous state and I didn't fancy having my nice day ruined by a sagging ceiling collapsing on my head!
Stepping through the front door was enough to provide a glimpse of the features that would have once made this a comfortable home. It is quite sad that it obviously hasn't been loved for a long time and I always wonder what previous occupants would think if they could see their former home in such a sorry state.
This was my last stopping point before I rejoined the main road and headed back to Bute, glad to have made the most of a beautiful autumn day and discover a few more hidden treasures on my doorstep.
Although I started this particular journey in Otter Ferry, I would actually recommend making a full day of it and starting (or ending) 12 miles further south on the east shore at Portavadie where you will find a spa resort, marina and the abandoned village of Polphail.
(If you choose to travel south rather than north along the eastern shore of Loch Fyne and finish at Portavadie then you also have the option of taking the ferry across to Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula if you want to continue your Scotland adventures.)
From Portavadie continue north to the historic village of Kilfinan and look out for another medieval church which houses one of the best collections of ancient burial stones in the west of Scotland. It is also the ancient resting place of the Chiefs of Clan Lamont. From here head to Otter Ferry and continue north looking out for all the points of interest that I've mentioned above.
2 renowned restaurants, 2 castles, 2 historic churches, a secret bay and an abandoned home. Choosing the 16 mile road less travelled on this occasion definitely paid off and that is without even starting on the spectacular scenery! Next time you are tempted to follow along the well trodden tourist trail, look for an alternative route to your destination and you never know what hidden gems you might discover...
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