December Days in Argyll

A great weather forecast for the weekend saw us heading up to Glencoe one Friday afternoon in December, making for an Airbnb place we ‘d booked for one night.The vague idea was to enjoy a little road trip down the west coast next day, before Xmas pressures took up all of our spare time.
Saturday morning dawned cold (-6C) but with clear blue skies as we set off south towards Oban, the light hitting the mountains of Morvern across Loch Linnhe. The sea was like a millpond, just beautiful.
Castle Stalker looked great on its tiny island though we were too early to enjoy a stop at the excellent cafe above the site.

Castle Stalker

We had visited Dunstaffnage Castle at Oban earlier in the year so gave it a miss today and drove through the town towards Arduaine Gardens, a famous west coast garden that is in a gorgeous location and which I wanted to see again.A stop in the Loch Melfort hotel for coffee left us very impressed. It sits all on its own with beautiful views over the sea to islands, including Jura, Scarba and Islay. Arduaine (pron. arsht -dooan -yih) sits bang next door to the hotel and is run by the National Trust. An honesty box operates in winter but we are members, so no need to pay.

Loch Melfort hotel

What a beautiful place it is, even in winter! There was still colour in the herbaceous borders, the last of blue hydrangeas and even some roses.

It’s something the west coast is famous for, luscious gardens full of rhododendrons and magnolias and azaleas, plants brought here from China and the Himalaya by the collectors of times past and which love the moist, mild climate. Woodland trails led to a wonderful viewpoint over the Sound of Lorn where the mountains of Mull finally came into view. It was a perfect place to enjoy our flask of Minestrone soup and cheese, lettuce and mayo sandwiches. I could have stayed there for hours, just admiring it all and ‘being.’ Otters frequent the coast here, as do sea eagles though we didn’t see any at that point.

View down the coast from Arduaine viewpoint


Next stop, an hour south of Oban and after a rollercoaster ride through a tawny and gold landscape of knolly hills and little blue bays, was the excellent café at Kilmartin. I’d been to nearby Carnasserie Castle not so long ago so we didn’t call in this time. But I did want to see Kilmartin’s lovely church with its fine warrior grave slabs and carved stones.

Kilmartin Church

This area also has the greatest concentration of archaeological sites in mainland Scotland – standing stones, stone circles, carved stones, rock art. Plus the wonderful ancient fort of Dunadd where lies the Crowning Stone of the ancient Scottish kings.
I was desperate now for a scone and had a fine cranberry one in the café, a delightful place that serves good food and always deserves a stop.
The museum is excellent but it was decision time now – to drive home (2 hrs away) or stay somewhere overnight and enjoy what promised to be another good day tomorrow before rain moved in? But where to stay? One advantage of travelling in winter is that rates drop and it’s fairly easy to book in somewhere at short notice. Online I noticed that the lovely Loch Melfort hotel had an incredible deal of £70 for a double room, total price for the two of us with a full breakfast thrown in too. Too good to miss! So with that booked, we headed down to Lochgilphead, the main town in the area and stocked up with goodies – chicken tikka pieces, sourdough bread, tomatoes, olives and pickles, crisps and wine – then drove back up the way we’d come and 40 mins later, we were once more at the Loch Melfort Hotel. Before that though, there were some fine views of the winter sun beginning to set beyond Jura.

The Paps of Jura

Loved our abode for the night, tastefully decorated, a couple of lovely public rooms with big windows to enjoy the view and sunset. Our room was excellent with armchairs and a view over the gardens.


It was quite busy with everyone out in the garden enjoying the changing light as the sun went down around 4pm. Incredibly, as we sat with drinks admiring the vista, a sea eagle flew past leisurely, no doubt making its way back to its roosting site.

Towards Scarba and Jura

Excellent breakfast next morning – cereals, yoghurt, fruit juices, fruit plus full cooked though I opted for poached smoked haddock and a boiled egg and Chris had salmon and scrambled eggs.All for £35 each, amazing value.The dawn light was gorgeous as it lit up the landscape.

A little winding path through the garden led down to the rocky shore, the water smooth as glass. A difficult place to leave.


Back to Kilmartin and a walk to the Stone Circle of Temple Wood on a bitterly cold, frosty morning. The path leads across a field with more standing stones – I always need to touch them somehow, to feel a physical connection with thousands of years ago when they were first erected.Some have cup and ring markings, which no one is quite sure the meaning of.

An area with so many standing stones…..

Temple Wood is a beautiful spot, so peaceful. Then it was on to see other chambered cairns a few minutes walk away, before a saunter back to the car park. What a fascinating area.

Temple Wood Stone Circle

Another visit to the café which had opened by 10am then off to Dunadd, one of my favourite historical sites and always inspiring. It’s a 10 min easy clamber on a rocky path to the top of this ancient hill fort, capital of Dalriada and one of the most important kingdoms in the country around AD500- 900. Here lies the crowning stone of the Scottish Kings and the rock imprint on which they placed a foot, facing north towards Beinn Cruachan. The mountain’s twin peaks were just visible today. The carving of a boar and a small rock well is also visible.

 

The footprint
Twin peaks of Cruachan just visible

Having ticked off these sites which we never tire of visiting, it was time for a favourite west coast walk. We parked just off the single track Crinan Ferry road and headed off towards Duntrune Castle, sitting on a small promontory. It’s not an area of high drama or mountains, but a coastline of little bays, low headlands and the Isle of Jura framing the distant horizon. It’s utterly peaceful and unspoilt, there’s rarely another soul about, some nice holiday cottages and the chance of spying an otter on the hunt.The castle is privately owned and overlooks, on the other side of the loch, the Crinan Hotel.

Duntrune Castle 

This is a great walk all year round because it is on an old tarmac road which winds round eventually to a small farm. We made a quick detour to check out ‘otter bay’ but no sign of one.

 


Then round another bay, past some grazing cattle before we turned around and made our way back.A lovely, easy 90 minute stroll on a sunny, pleasant December day. It really did our hearts good to be here again.I am always happy to when I can see Jura, I’m not sure why, but it’s such a wild Hebridean island and the outline of the Paps of Jura, it’s three (not two as the name implies!) mountains so distinctive.We climbed the highest many years ago and the views of the western seaboard and the ocean were out of this world.

There was a land rover being towed by another land rover in the hope of getting it started and they had stopped just ahead of us at one point.We chatted to the two guys and I noticed that they had two dead hinds lying in the back of one vehicle, heads lolling and quite bloodied. They had just been stalking with a group of Norwegians. The deer were huge beasts, sad to see but necessary too – there are so many of them.
It was a 2 hour hugely scenic drive back to Glasgow from here, past Crarae Gardens which we didn’t have time to visit today if we wanted to be back before dark.

Loch Fyne near Inveraray
Inveraray Castle

Then Inveraray and the Rest and Be Thankful Pass, Loch Lomond and the busy, built up outskirts of the city. A wonderful couple of days, making the most of a little spell of perfect winter weather before Xmas madness.

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