The Western Way - Mull of Galloway to Oban
IT’S not often the opportunity arises to visit five different islands in the course of a long distance walk, but that’s what my latest route for television offers.
This year sees the seventh of our annual Christmas television walks through Scotland, and since we’ve previously walked from one end of the country to another, across the breadth of the country twice and completed other routes on Skye, in Sutherland and in the Outer Isles we had to scratch our heads a bit to come up with something new for this year.
Thanks to my producers at Triple Echo Productions, Richard Else and Margaret Wicks, we came up with a brand new route of about 260 miles that begins on the most southerly point in Scotland, visits five islands and ends at one of the most popular towns in the western highlands. We’ve decided to call it the Western Way.
The start point came about after Richard and Meg had taken a well deserved holiday to Galloway. They were so taken with the walking opportunities down there, and the number of new walking trails that have appeared in recent years, they suggested to me that we should think of using the glorious Mull of Galloway for a starting point.
Several evenings of pouring over maps and sipping red wine eventually gave us our route, a wonderful journey that took me into some familiar areas and best of all, into some areas I didn’t know at all.
Essentially we wanted to follow an area of coastline that would also give us the opportunity to climb a few hills, explore some old tales and historic links and give us the opportunity to discover something new about this marvelous country of ours. I think we achieved all these things.
On the Merrick
Our route took us from the Mull of Galloway, from where we followed new footpaths to Portpatrick. We then picked up the start of the Southern Upland Way and followed it to Stranraer where the Loch Ryan Coast Footpath took us to Glen App and the beginning of the excellent Ayrshire Coastal Path. But before heading north we took a bit of a diversion to climb the highest hill in the southern uplands, the Merrick in the Galloway Forest Park.
After an incredibly windy day on the tops we re-routed to the coast and at Girvan I managed to achieve something that’s been on my bucket list for a long time – a visit to the bird sanctuary of the Ailsa Craig, one of the real highlights of the journey. The sight, and smell, of all those gannets took my breath away and I was amazed to learn that early last century day-trips to the Craig were so popular that the wives of the men who worked in the quarry, collecting granite to make curling stones, had a tea-room to entertain tourists. Nothing like that today – indeed, the place has an abandoned feel to it…
Fellow Scots Magazine columnist Keith Fergus joined us for a section of the walk along the Ayrshire Coast and gave us an excellent description of the full Ayrshire route. And he should know – he wrote the guidebook to it!
We left Keith at Irvine and I then wandered through the landscapes , and the beaches, of my youth as we approached Ardrossan. My family had a little static caravan in Saltcoats and I spent all my holidays and most of my weekends on this part of the Ayrshire Coast. I clearly remember, as a youngster, wandering along the Saltcoats promenade gazing across at the hills of Arran, wondering if I would ever get the opportunity to cross the Firth of Clyde and climb them. In those far off days the hills of Arran seemed as remote as the Himalaya. Curiously, there is a connection today…
Arran is always a delight and an ascent of Goat Fell coincided with some good weather, which made the summit views even more spectacular than usual. We followed that with a visit to our second island, just off the coast of Arran at Lamlash.
Just off the shores of Lamlash Bay lies a smaller island, home to a community that has embraced a somewhat different, older, culture. A tiny ferry had whisked me across the bay to Holy Island, just off Arran’s south-east coast and a line of glistening white chortens and fluttering multi-coloured prayer flags led up the grassy slopes to the whitewashed ‘Centre for World Peace and Health’
Holy Island is run as a centre for wisdom and learning within the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and is open to people of all faiths and none, but that’s not why it’s called Holy Island. The place has a spiritual heritage that stretches back to the 6th century. The earliest recorded name for the island was Inis Shroin, or island of the water spirit, but when the Celtic missionary who became known as St Molaise lived on the island at the end of the 6th century, the place was named after him. During the early part of the 19th century the island gradually became known as Holy Island.
After Holy Island our route became slightly convoluted. A ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig led to a walk over the Mull of Kintyre to the ferry port of Kennacraig where another ferry carried me down West Loch Tarbert and across the Sound of Jura to Islay and an appointment to explore the ancient seat of the MacDonalds of the Isles at Finlaggan. For me, this was one oif the highlights of the whole journey.
With Dr David Caldwell, a former Keeper of Archeology at the National Museum of Scotland, we explored the island remains of what was once a hugely important place in the history of the highlands and islands. Here, in the 13th and 14th centuries, was the administrative centre of the Lordship if the Isles
The Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles, were descended from Somerled, a 12th century prince, and these lords, the chiefs of Clan Donald, chose Finlaggan as their home and the centre of their lordship.
The Lords of the Isles ruled the islands and part of the west coast of Scotland, from Kintyre to Lewis, virtually independent of royal control. The heir to a strong Gaelic and Norse tradition, the Lord of the Isles -ill Innse Gall -was one of the most powerful figures in the country with the small islands in Loch Finlaggan a centre of symbolic and administrative importance.
The lordship came to an end in 1493 when the 4th (and final) Lord of the Isles, John MacDonald II had his titles stripped from him by King James III.
David Calder was a wondeful guide and with my head full of mediavel tales I relctantly left Islay crossed the narrow stretch of water to Jura where I was keen to refamiliarise myself with the wonderful Paps of Jura. The quartzite domes of the three Paps are split by low cols and surrounded by low-lying moorland, much of which is extremely boggy. The name Jura is taken from the Norse words that mean deer island and the terrain is much more suited to those fleet-footed beasts than man. These are not easy hills by any means, and their traverse, including an add-on, Cora Bheinn, necessitates about 1,650 metres of climbing in about 10 miles. A big day by any standard with many long slopes of greyish-white scree to negotiate…
Tighnabruiach on the Kyles of Bute
Sadly the weather did not co-operate with my plans. Rain, wind and low cloud put paid to another traverse so instead I returned to Kennacraig and set out on the second half on my long walk – along the excellent Cowal Way from Portavadie to Tighnabruaich and the lovely Kyles of Bute, along Glendaruel to Glenbranter, Lochgoilhead and the big hills of the Arrochar Alps.
I felt I was amongst old friends again as I crossed the high bealach between Lochgoilhead and Ardgarten, before cutting through the hills to Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside. Yet another ferry took me to Inversnaid and a visit to the lovely falls where the Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins write his homage to wild places…
“What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness?
Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Inversnaid was the beginning of a long stretch on the hugely popular West Highland Way - north to Crianlarich and an old and much loved haunt, the Crianlarich Station Tea Room, before heading for Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy. I hadn’t seen so many people since I left the Ayrshire coast…
The Falls of Falloch
Over the hill from Bridge of Orchy I stopped for a while at the lovely Inveroran Inn, an old drovers’ halt where Dorothy and William Wordsworth once stayed and Dorothy, a bit of a professional whinger, complained about the food. The present owner of the Inn, Elaine Muirhead, agreed with me that Dorothy would have been a nightmare if TripAdviser had been around in the seventeenth century…
From Inveroran it was into the wilds of the Blackmount Deer forest for a couple of days. In the shadow of the towering Stob Ghabhar, Stob Coir’ an Albannaich and Beinn an Aighenan I followed Glen Kinglas round a big dog-leg, past GlenKinglass Lodge to lovely Loch Etive, rejoicing in the autumn colours and the roar of stags. From Armaddy a broad track took me down Etiveside past the old bloomeries at Bonawe before making my way to Taynuilt and the Royal Road to Oban.
This route was much celebrated between the 9th and 11th centuries as the funeral procession route of Scotland’s dead kings. They were carried down the length of Glen Lonan to Oban, en route to Mull and Columba’s holy island of Iona, their final resting place. As if to celebrate the antiquity of the place I passed an ancient standing stone, the Clach Diarmid, which some believe marks the final resting place of Diarmid, one of the great heros of Celtic mythology. Diarmid was one of the Fianna warriors but had the audacity to elope with Grainne, who was betrothed to the Fianna leader, the mighty Fionn Macumhail. It’s said that Diarmid eventually died on a wild boar hunt when the boar’s tusk pierced him on the ankle, his only weak spot!
Clach Diarmid in Glen Lonan
My finish point was the bustling town of Oban. Always a delight to visit it was good to stop and put the feet up in a nice hotel and reflect on what had been an outstanding long-distance walk. It was also an opportunity to look forward and I suspect Oban might be the starting point for a new adventure in 2015. Unfortunately you’ll have to wait until Christmas to find out what it is…
This article was first published in the Scots Magazine where I write a monthly column - Cameron's Country