Argyll’s wild mountains and tranquil lochs are a stunning refuge for a host of precious sights, from ancient forts to pods of porpoises
Traditionally ‘the Highlands’ refers to the part of Scotland that lies northwest of the Highland Boundary Fault, which crosses the mainland in a roughly straight line from Helensburgh, Argyll in the southwest to Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire in the northeast. This makes Argyll the most southerly, and arguably the most easily accessed, corner of proper Highland countryside.
Here you can tick off many bucket-list sights: red deer roam free; hairy ginger Highland cows are common; and ruined castles cut sharp silhouettes against bright gorse and heather-clad hills. Yet with 3,723km of coastline, you should also expect the unexpected:
any route across Argyll will not only traverse mountain and glen, but dip and dive sporadically across countless sea- and freshwater lochs too.
Just a 50-minute drive from Glasgow, the seaside town of Helensburgh is a gentle introduction to the region. Its handsome promenade overlooks the Firth of Clyde, the river to which Scotland’s second city is so indebted. Founded at the end of the 18th century, Helensburgh’s own success was tied to a historic ferry crossing to Greenock (now not in service), which once enabled Glasgow’s wealthy merchants to live on the more appealing north side of the river and commute to work.
Helensburgh’s sophisticated reputation was an obvious choice for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s finest domestic creation, The Hill House. To save this national treasure from rain damage, the National Trust for Scotland has constructed a giant steel-framed ‘box’ around it, which provides protection but also rooftop viewing platforms. With your new head for heights, the lofty peaks of the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park beckon.
The coast-hugging journey along the west bank of Loch Lomond is calming, and there are many stopping places to enjoy the idyllic sound of the water lapping against the shore. Be sure to visit the conservation village of Luss, where neat rows of stone cottages, the earliest of which were built the 18th century to house workers from the nearby slate quarries, are covered with climbing roses in summer.
Before you reach the northern end of Loch Lomond, follow the road west to explore the Arrochar Alps at the head of Loch Long, one of several sea lochs that eventually feed into the Firth of Clyde. There is no better place to appreciate the region’s water-woven landscape than from the top of one of these craggy mountains.
Ben Arthur, also known as The Cobbler due to the shape of its rocky summit, is a short but sharp climb with panoramic views on a good day. That said, there’s much to enjoy loch-side too. Bottle-nosed whales have been known to swim this far inland, or you might be lucky enough to spot a shy sea otter.
From here it’s not far to Inveraray, which sits on the west side of Loch Fyne and is home to the Gothic Revival Inveraray Castle. Concealed in the forest just out of town, it is the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Argyll, Chiefs of Clan Campbell, whose family have resided here since the early 15th century – Torquhil Campbell, the 13th Duke, and Eleanor, his wife, currently live here with their family. The fairytale turrets are a bit of a misnomer considering its infamous Armoury Hall, which showcases around 1,300 pieces of historic weaponry. Some of the swords preserved here are from the Battle of Culloden, one of the most harrowing battles in British history, whose 275th anniversary was commemorated earlier this year.
To continue the castle trail, head north to Kilchurn, first constructed in the mid-15th century by the Campbells of Glenorchy. It may be a gnarled ruin, but it maintains pride of place on a picturesque peninsula at the northeastern end of Loch Awe and is a popular subject for both amateur and professional photographers. Meanwhile, travelling west from Inveraray, a sand-lined stretch of Loch Fyne’s east bank is just a warm-up for Argyll’s Secret Coast, which is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, yet still flies under the radar of most tourists. The expansive views open up from the head of Loch Ruel; on a fine day they’ll extend beyond the Kyles of Bute towards the Isle of Arran.
Just past here, you can stop off at Tighnabruaich to visit Argyll Coffee Roasters, which supplies many local venues such as the quaint Kilberry Inn on the Kintyre Peninsula, where we head next. To get there, hop on a small ferry and bob from Portavadie to Tarbert. Oban, known as the “Gateway to the Isles”, is just an hour’s drive away and more or less marks the northernmost boundary of Argyll, but there is plenty to see along the way. First up is the Crinan Canal, “Britain’s most beautiful shortcut”, a major feat of engineering begun by James Watt in 1771 but not opened to traffic until 1822. Don’t miss the two surviving Clyde Puffers, Auld Reekie and Vic 32, at Crinan’s canal basin. These nifty cargo vessels were specifically designed for the Crinan Canal (and the Forth & Clyde) and tasked with carrying produce – mainly whisky – between the islands and the mainland.