Scotland's West Coast

Take a rewarding adventure Hebridean island hopping along Scotland's west coast. Cross sea lochs by ferry following seals and seagulls to a wonderful collection of rocky isles with their own distinctive character. White sandy beaches, busy fishing ports, castles that stand like sentinels in the landscape, a vast and breathtaking wilderness enhanced by welcoming villages and famous distilleries. Try a varied collection of Single Malt Whiskies and enjoy delicious fresh sea food, drive along secluded mountain roads and marvel at the beauty of the lochs, waterfalls and coastlines. Travel over the sea to Skye, to Arran, Islay, Mull and the Outer Hebrides, to the enchanting Fingal's Cave on the tiny isle of Staffa and take the pilgrims road to the holy island of Iona.

Heading out of Glasgow westwards you will take the A737 to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan. However, a short worthwhile side trip is to branch off the main road at Dalry, right onto the B714 and drive past the town of Dalry itself to the Lynn Falls nature reserve. Just after the town centre you will come across Lynn Bridge car park on your right hand side. It is rather small, fitting only about 15 cars, but if there is room then a delightful short walk awaits you.

There is a map on a signboard in the car park and it will show you a scenic, enjoyable walk for just under one and half miles (about 2km) through a wooded glen with stories and legends of ghosts and fairies, taking you up to the beautiful Lynn Falls, delightfully photogenic and tranquil, then a return walk a different way. A nice way to break your journey to the ferry and a chance to stretch your legs.

Stay on the B714 towards Ardrossan and join the A78, turning right and following signs for the harbour. Join the ferry to the Isle of Arran. The journey out into the Firth of Clyde and across to the island takes just under an hour. The island itself, the seventh largest in Scotland, is capped by Goatfell at 2,866ft (874m) the highest point on Arran. In fact the name of the island may well come from the Brythonic (old Welsh) word for a high place. The views as you approach Brodick are outstanding, as is the view across the Firth of Clyde with its numerous other islands and the distant mountains of the West Highlands. Look out for the PS "Waverley" which regularly cruises the Firth of Clyde from her home port of Glasgow in the summer months. Built in 1946, "Waverley" is the last sea going passenger-carrying paddle steamer in the world.

Docking at Brodick, it will be a short drive north out of the town on the A841 to Brodick Castle. The road will pass the foot of the gardens then you will make a left turn up the drive to the castle car park. Like Arran itself, Brodick and its earlier fortifications were claimed by the ancient Kingdom of Dal Riada, a powerbase that included what is now North East Ireland and South West Scotland. Later Brodick Castle and the Isle of Arran were administered by the Kings of Norway, under Norse rule, then by the rulers of the nearby Isle of Man. Brodick Castle had fallen into the hands of the English on numerous occasions but since the 16th century it has been the seat of the Dukes of Hamilton.

Work began on the present castle buildings from the 16th century although most of the present structure dated from 1844. Aside from the house there are woodland walks, waterfalls, gardens and an adventure playground.

Return to the A841, this road circumnavigates the entire island, a land mass of 167 square miles (432 square km) however, for a spectacular journey through the centre of the island and over the tops return towards the town of Brodick and then branch off right just before the town on the B880 in the direction of Blackwaterfoot. This road is called The String, disecting the island, and takes you over the moors with views to the right of Goatfell, through moorland and forest and into glens and over boisterous streams. This varying landscape is why Arran is known as Scotland in miniature.

Once at Blackwaterfoot turn north on the A841 and after a short while you will see a parking area on your left. This is Kings Cave car park, a small gravel parking area where you can leave the vehicle for a short meander through the woods and down to the coast. It will be a pretty woodland walk which will take you down to the sandstone cliffs where erosion has created numerous caves for you to explore. The largest cave is the King's Cave, said to be a hiding place for King Robert the Bruce in the early 13th century.

Further north on the A841 there will be another small car park on your left, this one is for the Machrie Moor standing stones. Here you will be rewarded by seeing no less than six stone circles and numerous burial cairns all from a period between 3500BC and 1500BC, from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Some megaliths are of granite, others of sandstone, but all stand stark and tall against the landscape. The car park is a fair way from the stones, though. You will cross the road and head inland on a farm track to an old ruined farm and undertake a circular walk of about 3 miles (4km), bearing in mind that this will be across tree-less open moorland with no shelter. For many, this historic site makes the hike worthwhile. There are some spectacular photo opportunities and a chance to stand amongst antiquity, more than likely, entirely on your own.

Back down at the car park continue northwards following the coast to Lochranza to get the ferry to Tarbert/Claonaig.

The crossing to the Kintyre peninsula could take you to Tarbert or Claonaig depending on the season. For passengers that end up in Tarbert you can join the road that circumnavigates this beautiful part of Scotland's western coastline by heading towards Claonaig. Leave south west on the A83 towards Kennacraig. Here you will pass the ferry terminal you will be using later on your journey but ignore it for now. Instead turn left onto the B8001 which is signposted for Skipness Castle. This mainly single track road will cut over the moors and down to Claonaig where there is a left turn to the ruins of Skipness Castle. If the ferry you use docks at Claonaig then simply make a right turn along the coast to gain access to the castle.

Skipness Castle was built by the MacSween clan in the 13th century and has been a ruin for almost 400 years. The views across the ocean from the derelict fortifications are memorable and the extent of the fortress, even though in ruined form, is quite impressive. From here you can return to Claonaig to join the B842 to travel around this scenic peninsula.

The Kintyre headland sticks out like a arm from the Scottish mainland leading out west into the ocean, it extends out by 30 miles (48km) and its highest point is Ben An Tiare at 1490 feet (454m). The B842 follows the eastern side of this body of land with delightful views of the shoreline with occasional sections that have views obscured by woodland. At Saddell you will arrive at a little car park on your right where you can wander over and explore the ruins of Saddell Abbey. This was founded by a man called Somerled as a Cistercian house of worship in 1160. Somerled is regarded as the forefather of the mighty MacDonald Clan who became the powerful Lords of the Isles, controlling much of this area by the 15th century.

Very little remains of Saddell Abbey and the ruined chancel and a couple of walls may seem little reward for coming here but take a look at the display of carved gravestones dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries. They are surprisingly intricate and expertly carved. Most of the stone from the Abbey went into the building of Saddell Castle just over the road, hidden down a narrow tree lined lane. The castle is essential a fortified tower house dating from the 16th century and is now owned by the Landmark Trust and can be rented as a holiday retreat. Its claim to fame is that it features in the video for Paul McCartney's 1977 hit "Mull of Kintyre". The ex-Beatle owns a farm nearby.

Further along the B842 you will arrive at Campbeltown, the largest settlement on the peninsula and famous for its whisky distilleries. It once boasted so many that "Campbeltown" was given its own special distinction as a whisky producing area. Only three remain in the town now, Glen Scotia, Glen Gyle and Spring Bank. Incidentally the word whisky is derived from the Gaelic phrase 'Uisge Beatha' meaning 'Water of Life'.

The original name for the town was Kinlochkilkerran and was renamed Campbeltown in 1667 after Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyle who became the major landowner in the area. Amongst the rows of old stone houses is the Heritage Centre on Glebe Street which deals with prehistoric discoveries in the area, tools, weapons and grave goods. There is a small park known as the Linda McCartney Memorial Garden, dedicated to the late wife of Paul McCartney and the Campbeltown Museum on Hall Street right by the harbour.

Return to the ferry at Kennacraig by heading up the west side of the peninsula along the A83. This is a more windswept coastline with less in the way of woodland. A pretty and photogenic stop can be made at Ballochroy to see the mysterious standing stones. An unsignposted farm track heads off to the right so accurate mapping is need here! This will take you on a short walk up to the monument. Although only three stones can be seen here, it is an impressive sight, aligned to the summer and winter solstice but its date of construction is, for the moment, lost in time. Nevertheless a great photo opportunity with the three stones standing up to 7ft (2m) against a backdrop of the sea and mountains.

At Kennacraig board the ferry to Port Ellen, your first calling point on the Isle of Islay. Look out for seals, dolphins and maybe even a minke whale as you make the crossing. Known as "The Queen of the Hebrides", Islay is an island at 240 square miles in size (622 square km) with its highest point being Beinn Bheigeir (sometimes known as Ben Vicar) standing at 1,610ft (491m). Over the centuries it has been ruled as part of Dal Riada, controlled by Norway and then part of the lands of the powerful Clan MacDonald. It is also well known for its numerous whisky distilleries, nine of which are currently operating and open to visitors.

Once you have exited the ferry turn right and make the short journey over to the Laphroaig Distillery which opened in 1815 by the Johnston family. They were, in fact, formerly MacDonalds who had changed their name after supporting the losing side in the Jacobite rebellions of the early 18th century. 

The whiskies of the Western Isles can be quite peaty and have a smoky texture. In tree-less areas the layers of rotting vegetation, in other words, peat is generally used as a combustible fuel source. In the making of whisky peat is used to dry the malted barley and its smokiness is reflected in the flavour of the whisky.

From Port Ellen head north on the A846 to the islands capital Bowmore on the banks of the beautiful sweeping bay known as Loch Indaal.  Here you will find the Bowmore Distillery, founded in 1779, the oldest on Islay. Follow the little road around the bay over to the delightful little village of Port Charlotte with its whitewashed cottages and former distillery buildings. This is surely the prettiest village on the island.

Some of the old distillery buildings have seen further use as a youth hostel and additional space for the Bruichladdich Distillery which is located back across the bay. You can drop in here on your way back to the A846 near Bowmore. The Bruichladdich Distillery was founded in 1881 and produces the most heavily peated whisky in Scotland.

Once back on the A846 make a left turn northwards to end up at the ferry terminal in Askaig. Here you can return to the mainland or make the short 5 minute crossing over to the Isle of Jura.

Arriving at the ferry terminal in Askaig you'll need to get into the correct lane. If you are heading to Jura follow signs for through traffic and the Jura ferry by keeping left. The larger area on the right is for vehicles waiting for the Kennacraig boat.

The crossing to Jura is short and expensive. £22 for a camper van with occupants charged extra. The journey is just five minutes. Once you have completed the journey you'll drive onto the A846, an 8 mile (13km) long road that is the only major one on the island. It links the ferry port of Feolin to the main town, Craighouse. Jura is the eighth largest Scottish Island at 142 square miles (367 square km), it is sparsely populated and has very little vegetation. It boasts a bare, bleak but breathtakingly beautiful landscape. One of the islands most famous residents was Eric Blair, better known as the author George Orwell, who completed his dystopian novel 1984 while living here in 1947/48.

Take the drive to Craighouse with its collection of cottages spread out over the sheltered eastern side of the island. The population of this little community stands at just over one hundred and you'll find one shop, one hotel and one petrol station. You will also find the famous Isle of Jura Distillery which opened in 1810 and a chance to take a tour on any given day apart from Sunday. Also in Craighouse there are RIB tours out around the island and its coastline, one tour takes you to the fearsome and dramatic Corryvreckan whirlpool, the world's third largest. It was here in the summer of 1947 that the whirlpool almost claimed the lives of George Orwell, his son and friends. Returning back from a boat trip the engine sheered off leaving them dangerously close to the treacherous and violent waters ahead of them. Ferocious paddling to the nearby rocks saved their lives and they were later picked up by a lobster fisherman. The trips out here won't feature such dangerous distractions! They are about three hours long and the guides make sure your safety is paramount.

Enjoy the vast wide open spaces and dramatic vistas as you leave Craighouse and take the narrow island road back to the ferry. This time you'll make the crossing into Askaig and join the line of vehicles for the two hour journey back to Kennacraig.

You are now back on the mainland driving north of the Kintyre peninsula on the A83, through Tarbert and along the shores of Loch Fyne. This is a sea loch extending some 40 miles (65km) inland and the road skirts the water's edge on your right hand side but more often than not lines of trees obscure the view. Eventually at the end of the loch you will arrive in the town of Inveraray. The whitewashed buildings leading down to the lochside jetties are quite handsome and the parish church of 1794 sits right in the middle of the main street. Most visitors here, however, are interested in visiting the enchanting and delightful castle.

Inveraray Castle is the seat of the Campbell Clan, the Dukes of Argyll, and the original 15th century fortress that once stood here was replaced by today's Gothic structure some 300 years later. Built in the 1740s and inspired by a sketch drawn by Blenheim Palace architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, this fortified stately mansion was the architectural work of William Adam. Adam didn't live long enough to complete his work so his son, the famous Robert Adam, finished off what his father had started. An extra floor and the eye-catching conical roofing on the towers were added in 1877.

The lavish interior of the house features displays of clan history and over 1,300 swords, pikes and muskets. The gardens extend to 16 acres with rhododendrons and azaleas. The River Aray has been used as part of the landscaping with numerous water features and cascades. Fans of Downton Abbey may recognise it as "Gleneagles" when it appeared in a special Christmas episode one year.

Inveraray town is also the junction for the A819, following signs for Oban and Crianlarich and leaving the A83 and Loch Fyne behind you. Driving uphill the trees and gardens of the Duke of Argyll's estate are on your right hand side. Eventually you will hit open country and moorland then descend down to Loch Awe, a freshwater loch 25 miles (41 km) long. The loch will be on your left side and you will follow it to a point just before the junction with the A85. Be ready to pull into a left hand lay-by allowing you to make the short walk to the waterside. There you will get a great view of the loch and the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, built in the 1450s for the Campbells and abandoned in 1770. A superb photo opportunity.

Just ahead lies the A85, turn left for Oban. You will come across the shores of Loch Etive on your right as you drive towards the town of Connel Ferry. As you drive along its main street you will see the stone arches of an old railway bridge ahead of you then by looking right you will see the impressive Connel Bridge. If you are interested in this sort of architecture it is worth a stop. Designed by John Wolfe Barry, just a number of years after he had won the competition to design London's Tower Bridge, this bridge was opened up for railway traffic in 1903. A road was added in 1914 sharing the bridge with railway trains, and then when the railway closed in 1966 the crossing became the sole preserve of cars. Its cantilever construction reminds one of a smaller version of Edinburgh's Forth Rail Bridge.

The A85 begins to turn southwards down into the beautiful harbour town of Oban which is a Gaelic name meaning the little bay. Originally a small village specialising in quarrying the local stone and sea fishing, it soon grew as a tourist attraction in the 19th century. Its popularity increased after it was central to the popular Sir Walter Scott poem "The Lord of the Isles" published in 1814. In addition to this, the coming of the railways in 1880 boosted the tourist trade considerably.

At the top of the town is the very distinctive McCraig's Tower, a large granite Colosseum-like structure built to provide employment to stonemasons and builders by local philanthropist John Stuart McCraig. It was built from 1897 to 1902 but the intended museum and art gallery that would have lay within its walls were never built. Instead the building lies within a pleasant park with pleasing views across the bay.

Just at the northern edge of the town is Dunollie Castle along with the adjacent museum and gardens. The remaining ruins date from the 15th century, a fortress built by the MacDougall Clan. The Laird's House and servant's quarters give an incite into the family history of the MacDougalls and more interest can be found in the Weaver's Cottage and pleasant strolls can be taken in the gardens and woodlands.

Oban town has a vibrant and lively harbour front with numerous restaurant and its whisky distillery, founded in 1794. The town fashions itself as the "Seafood Capital of Scotland". It is also where the ferry will depart for your journey westwards to the Isle of Mull and Iona.

Crossing the Sound of Mull on the car ferry from Oban is a enthralling experience. The harbour recedes behind you and the mouth of Loch Linnhe stands to your north. Duart Castle stands like a guardian on the banks as you approach the island. Mountains cascade down to the waterline and the island of Mull moves closer amongst a chorus of seagulls. Look out for the seals basking in the sun or swimming around the harbour at each end.

You will dock at Craignure and with just one road circumnavigating the island you won't find yourself getting lost! Mull is both the fourth largest island in Scotland and in the whole of the UK. It is 338 square miles (875 square km) and its highest point is Ben More at 3,169ft (966m). Incidentally Ben More (or Beinn Mhòr) is Gaelic for big hill and is a common name for a mountain in Scotland.

Mull, like most of the western isles would have come under the control of the Kingdom of Dal Riada and later by the Kings of Norway. After the Battle of Largs in 1266 the power shift meant that Scotland's king at the time, Alexander III, was able to purchase Mull from the Norwegian Crown for a large sum of money. However this didn't stop the rise of the MacDonalds as the self styled Lords of the Isles until such time as James IV stripped them of most of their powers in 1493.

The road you need to follow is the one followed by pilgrims and worshippers from far and wide, the road to Iona. This will mean turning left and following the A849 to Fionnphort. The drive is outstanding with beautiful wide vistas and stunning scenery. The road can be quite narrow in places and busy during the summer months. You will skirt the edge of Loch Beg and Loch Scridain and arrive with just about everyone else at Fionnphort for the ferry to Iona. Parking is available on your right hand side as you arrive. You might even be surprised to see several large touring coaches in the parking bays, especially during peak season. It is said that 130,000 visitors make the journey here each year. There are no private cars allowed on Iona so park up and cross to the island by ferry, the crossing takes 10 minutes.

Iona Abbey was founded by St Columba in the 6th century. He was born in Ireland in the year 521 and as the Kingdom of Dal Riada had linked both the north eastern coast of Ireland with these Scottish Islands it acted as a virtual bridge for Columba to bring the Christian message to Scotland in the year 563. His initial buildings were made of wood and have long since gone. The abbey buildings we see today are stone structures built from the 14th century onwards although the predominant Celtic Cross which stands outside is 9th century.

It was within this abbey that we would have seen a centre of art and learning from its earliest conception. The famous Book of Kells, now on display in Dublin, was started here. And it is here that many kings and clan chiefs lie buried, representatives of Dal Riada, Norway and Scotland, even Shakespeare's Macbeth.

The next island to visit involves taking a guided boat tour from either Fionnphort or Iona (depending on where you are) to the Isle of Staffa to visit the incredible Fingal's Cave with its amazing collection of hexagonal basalt columns, an inspiration to the writer Sir Walter Scott, the painter JMW Turner and the composer Felix Mendelssohn who's famous Hebrides Suite is known the world over by its more popular title "Fingal's Cave" composed after a visit here in 1829. This little island has been uninhabited since 1880 and is just half a mile long. Today it is a haven for puffins and other wildlife. The tours from Fionnphort also drop off in Iona if you wish to do the two islands in the opposite order. Each tour lasts approximately 3 hours including time on Staffa.

Take the ferry back to Mull and drive along the A849 again, but this time after Loch Beg turn left on a road signposted as a "scenic drive" to Salen, this is the B8035 which is a single track winding road that follows the west side of the island. A breathtakingly beautiful journey will bring you to Salen and the A849 where you will turn left for Tobermory, the island's capital.

Tobermory was developed in 1788 as a fishing port and is famous for its colourful houses that stand along the quayside. The delightful clock tower on the harbour is very photogenic. The Mull Museum on Main Street is a compact little gem of an attraction giving a concise history of the area, and at the south side of the bay is the Tobermory Distillery, founded in 1798. Try the unpeated smoother Tobermory or the peated smoky Ledaig. Distillery tours are offered 7 days a week.

The ferry from here will join the mainland at Kilchoan and takes half an hour. As you exit the ferry you will be on the B8007 which will be a narrow mountain road winding its way through the landscape until you reach the A861 at another place called Salen! The A861 will head north towards Loch Ailort, again following tree-less rugged mountain scenery where you pick up the A830 to the port of Mallaig, gateway to the Isle of Skye.