Cut off for centuries from the rest of Scotland by the mountains and sea lochs that characterize the region, Argyll remains remote and sparsely populated, its scatter of offshore islands forming part of the Inner Hebridean archipelago. Geographically and culturally, this is a transitional area between Highland and Lowland, boasting a rich variety of scenery from subtropical gardens warmed by the Gulf Stream to flat, treeless islands on the edge of the Atlantic. It’s in the folds and twists of the countryside, the interplay of land and water and the views out to the islands that the strengths and beauties of mainland Argyll lie – the one area of man-made sights you shouldn’t miss, however, is the cluster of Celtic and prehistoric sites near Kilmartin.
The eastern duo of Bute and Arran are the most popular of Scotland’s more southerly islands, the latter – now, strictly, part of Ayrshire – justifiably so, with spectacular scenery ranging from the granite peaks of the north to the Lowland pasture of the south. Of the Hebridean islands covered in this chapter, mountainous Mull is the most visited, and is large enough to absorb the crowds, many of whom are only passing through en route to the tiny isle of Iona, a place of spiritual pilgrimage for centuries. Islay, best known for its malt whiskies, is fairly quiet even in the height of summer, as is neighbouring Jura, which offers excellent walking. And, for those seeking further solitude, there are the more remote islands of Tiree and Coll, which, although swept with fierce winds, have more sunny days than anywhere else in Scotland.
The traditional county town of Argyll, and a classic example of an eighteenth-century planned town, INVERARAY was built in the 1770s by the Duke of Argyll in order to distance his newly rebuilt castle from the hoi polloi in the town and to establish a commercial and legal centre for the region. Inveraray has changed very little since and remains an absolute set piece of Scottish Georgian architecture, with a truly memorable setting, the brilliant white arches of Front Street reflected in the still waters of Loch Fyne.
Squeezed onto a promontory some distance from the duke’s new castle, Inveraray’s “New Town” has a distinctive Main Street (set at a right angle to Front Street), flanked by whitewashed terraces, whose window casements are picked out in black. At the top of the street, the road divides to circumnavigate the town’s Neoclassical church, originally built in two parts: the southern half served the Gaelic-speaking community, while the northern half served those who spoke English.
Bute’s only town, ROTHESAY, is a handsome Victorian resort set in a wide sweeping bay, backed by green hills, with a classic palm-tree promenade and 1920s pagoda-style Winter Gardens. Even if you’re just passing through, you should pay a visit to the ornate Victorian toilets on the pier, built by Twyfords in 1899 and now one of the town’s most celebrated sights. Rothesay also features the militarily useless, but architecturally impressive, moated ruins of Rothesay Castle, built in the twelfth century and now hidden amid the town’s backstreets.
Bute’s highlight is Mount Stuart, seat of the fantastically wealthy seventh marquess of Bute (aka former racing driver Johnny Dumfries). The mansion, built for the third marquis between 1879 and World War II, is an incredible High Gothic fancy, drawing architectural inspiration from all over Europe. The sumptuous interior and lovely gardens – established in the eighteenth century by the third earl of Bute – are extremely impressive.
The fish-shaped rocky island of Coll, with a population of around a hundred, lies less than seven miles off the coast of Mull. The CalMac ferry drops off at Coll’s only real village, ARINAGOUR, whose whitewashed cottages dot the western shore of Loch Eatharna. Half the island’s population lives here, where you’ll find the hotel and pub, post office, churches and a couple of shops.
On the southwest coast there are two edifices, both confusingly known as Breachacha Castle. The older is a restored fifteenth-century tower house, and now a training centre for overseas aid volunteers. The less attractive “new castle”, to the northwest, is made up of a central block built around 1750 and two side pavilions added a century later, and has been converted into holiday homes. Much of the area around the castles is now owned by the RSPB, with the aim of protecting the island’s small corncrake population. A vast area of giant sand dunes lies to the west of the castles, with two glorious golden sandy bays stretching for more than a mile on either side.
The long, whale-shaped island of Jura is one of the wildest and most mountainous of the Inner Hebrides, its entire west coast uninhabited and inaccessible except to the dedicated walker. Jura’s distinctive Paps – so called because of their smooth breast-like shape, though there are in fact three of them – seem to dominate every view off the west coast of Argyll, their glacial rounded tops covered in a light dusting of quartzite scree. The island’s name is commonly thought to derive from the Norse dyr-oe (deer island) and, appropriately enough, the current deer population of 6000 far outnumbers the 180 humans. With just one road, which sticks to the more sheltered eastern coast, and only one hotel and a smattering of B&Bs, Jura is an ideal place to go for peace and quiet and some great walking.
Anything that happens on Jura happens in the island’s only real village, CRAIGHOUSE, eight miles up the road from Feolin Ferry. The village enjoys a sheltered setting, overlooking Knapdale on the mainland – so sheltered, in fact, that there are even a few palm trees thriving on the seafront. There’s a shop, a post office, the island hotel and a tearoom, plus the tiny Isle of Jura distillery, which is very welcoming to visitors.
In April 1946, Eric Blair (better known by his pen name of George Orwell), suffering badly from TB and intending to give himself “six months’ quiet” in which to write his new novel The Last Man in Europe (later to become 1984), moved to a remote farmhouse called Barnhill, on the northern tip of Jura. He lived out a spartan existence there for two years but was forced to return to London shortly before his death. The house, 23 miles north of Craighouse up an increasingly poor road, is as remote today as it was in Orwell’s day, and is now let out as a self-catering cottage.
Tiree as its Gaelic name tir-iodh (“land of corn”) suggests, was once known as the breadbasket of the Inner Hebrides, thanks to its acres of rich machair (sandy, grassy, lime-rich land). Nowadays crofting and tourism are the main sources of income for the small resident population. One of the most distinctive features of the island is its architecture, in particular the large numbers of “pudding” or “spotty” houses, where only the mortar is painted white. The sandy beaches attract large numbers of windsurfers for the Tiree Wave Classic every October. The ferry calls at Gott Bay Pier, now best known for An Turas (The Journey), Tiree’s award-winning artistic “shelter”.
But for the mile-long isthmus between West Loch Tarbert and the much smaller East Loch Tarbert, the little-visited peninsula of KINTYRE – from the Gaelic Ceann Tire, “land’s end” – would be an island. Despite its relative proximity to Scotland’s Central Belt, Kintyre remains quiet and unfashionable; its main towns, Tarbert and Campbeltown, have few obvious attractions, but that’s part of their appeal. In many ways, it’s a peninsula in a time warp, where you can hole up in perfect solitude.
Gigha – pronounced “geeya” – is a low-lying, fertile island three miles off the west coast of Kintyre, reputedly occupied for 5000 years. Like many of the smaller Hebrides, Gigha was bought and sold numerous times after its original lairds, the MacNeils, sold up in 1865, and was finally bought by the islanders themselves in 2002. The island is so small – six miles by one – that most visitors come here just for the day. The real draw, apart from the peace and quiet, is the white sandy beaches.
The ferry from Tayinloan, 23 miles south of Tarbert, deposits you at Gigha’s only village, ARDMINISH, where you’ll find the post office and shop, and a lovely beach. A mile and a half south, the Achamore Gardens were established by the first postwar owner, Sir James Horlick (of hot-drink fame). Their spectacularly colourful display of azaleas is best seen in early summer.
Mid-Argyll is a vague term that loosely describes the central wedge of land south of Oban and north of Kintyre. The highlights of this gently undulating scenery lie along the sharply indented west coast, in particular the rich Bronze Age and Neolithic remains in the Kilmartin valley.
The Kilmartin Glen is the most important prehistoric site on the Scottish mainland, whose most remarkable relic is the linear cemetery, where several cairns are aligned for more than two miles, to the south of the village of Kilmartin. These are thought to represent the successive burials of a ruling family or chieftains, but nobody can be sure. The best view of the cemetery’s configuration is from the Bronze Age Mid-Cairn, but the Neolithic South Cairn, dating from around 3000 BC, is by far the oldest and the most impressive, with its large chambered tomb roofed by giant slabs. Close to the Mid-Cairn, the two Temple Wood stone circles appear to have been the architectural focus of burials in the area from Neolithic times to the Bronze Age. Visible to the south are the impressively cup-marked Nether Largie standing stones (no public access), the largest of which stands more than 10ft high.