Ferry tales and trails

By slow boat to a se­cret Scot­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - GAVIN BELL

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

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