Ferry tales and trails
By slow boat to a secret Scotland
Lowland Scots are a canny lot. All summer they watch coachloads of tourists streaming north to highland lochs and glens, then they slip away to scenic hideaways on their doorsteps, which they keep pretty much to themselves. They call it Argyll’s Secret Coast, a patchwork of peninsulas, islands and sea lochs with a haunting beauty to rival anything on the regular heather and whisky tourist trails.
Aficionados enthuse about the Five Ferries, a circuit of short crossings around the Firth of Clyde that leads to lonely hills, picturesque villages, ancient forests and crags where golden eagles fly. Getting there is half the fun on Caledonian Macbrayne ferries with ubiquitous black, white and red livery that’s as much a part of the west coast of Scotland as deer and rain. Keen cyclists whizz around the shortest but seriously hilly 82km route of the Five Ferries Challenge in a day.
I enjoy cycling, but not that much. A leisurely drive around the circuit over a few days, with time to stand and stare, explore detours, and enjoy fine cuisine, is more my cup of Argyll tea. Hence the dog, hiking boots and weekend newspapers in the back of our car when my wife and I set sail from Ardrossan on the Ayrshire coast on the first leg of our journey to Scotland’s most southerly island, a stepping stone to that secret coast.
On a clear, sunny day, beneath blue skies and a long white cloud, the Isle of Arran has a mystical allure. With its long profile dominated by craggy mountains, it rises from the sea like a make-believe land. Its attractions include woodland walks to a fairy glen and a fairy dell, burial cairns of Neolithic giants, and a Scottish baronial castle built for the wedding of a Bavarian princess.
It also has a newish boutique hotel, Altachorvie Island Retreat, owned by an amiable jazz singer that is our base in the coastal village of Lamlash for the next couple of days. From the windows there are views of an isle in the bay that has served variously as an early Christian hermitage, a Viking farm and a spiritual retreat for people of all faiths and none. The appropriately named Holy Isle is host to a Centre for World Peace, presided over by a Buddhist meditation master in the Kagyu tradition.
We opt for more temporal pleasures on a drive around the south of Arran. The island has a split personality, with the highland fault line running through the middle of it, dividing the wild highland north from the pastoral south. With some of the best of both worlds, it claims to be Scotland in miniature. The south is where we find the longdead giants. A stark jumble of huge stones that has marked their resting place on a windswept headland for 5000 years is a highlight of a walk to Glenashdale Falls above Whiting Bay. Within minutes we are in a world of wood, water and wind with only red squirrels for company, on a path winding through native rowan and willow to a 43m waterfall thundering down a sheer rock face.
On our return via the Neolithic graves, there are sweeping views of wild mountains rising in the north. It is as if we are standing between two worlds. Princess Marie of Baden came from another world when she took up summer residence in a Victorian pleasure palace built in 1844 by her father-in-law, the 10th Duke of Hamilton, who owned all of the island and much of central Scotland.
Brodick Castle is now open to the public, with a notable collection of renaissance paintings, and trails through woodland and landscaped gardens designed by the princess for pony trekking and picnics. Our dog is
The ferry arrives at Rothesay, Isle of Bute, main; Mount Stuart, the historic seat of the Marquis of Bute, above left; standing stones, Marchrie Moor, Isle of Arran, above right