THE early part of April 2017 was gloriously bestowed with blue skies and sunshine but, for one reason and another, I wasn’t able to head back up to Scotland until the latter half of the month. The weather afforded me just one further day of unusually summery spring, that day being the one I used to travel up. The following morning, as I threw back my hotel room curtains, a world of greyness stared back.
At Least It’s Not Raining
Fortunately, this was not unexpected and my initial flush of disappointment was easily remedied by the consumption of an excess of breakfast. And thus, duly fortified against meteorological monotony, I set off for the day. I quickly found that while it may have been grey outside, it wasn’t cold at all; the clouds were like a fluffy blanket keeping the warmth in below. And as long as all that water stayed floating in the sky, I was fine with that.
I could have headed south from Dunoon, passing through Innellan and rounding Toward and Ardyne points to walk up the eastern shore of Loch Striven. I could have but I didn’t.
Instead, I was once again playing fast and loose with the theme of coastal walking, beginning by retracing my steps into the centre of Dunoon (Dùn Omhain). There, I went looking for a shop that was open — it was still only eight in the morning — and stocked up with snacks and a bottle of water.
Meeting & Greeting
There were plenty of others up and about in Dunoon at that time and they wished me good morning as I passed. I find this small town politeness rather charming, though it’s taken me a long time to get used to it. In London it would be seen as an intrusion, disrupting the privacy of strangers just trying to stay sane and do their own thing amongst 8.6 million others.
Dunoon, with its population of less than five thousand, has no such taboo and, not wanting to be rude, I ‘helloed’ and ‘good morninged’ with the best of them even as my inner Londoner cringed in horror. But as the saying goes, when in Rome…
The High Road
I navigated Dunoon’s streets until they led me to one that was also the A885 and followed this north out of the town. The A885 — also known as the High Road —is basically a short cut through the middle of Dunoon that connects two parts of the A815, missing out a part of the latter A-road that curves around the coast. I was heading for Sandbank, a couple of miles north of Dunoon, and having taken the coastal route last time, I was now taking the direct route.
I can’t pretend that the A885 was particularly delightful, it being a busy main road, but it did at least have a pedestrian pavement. It led out of Dunoon and then through mixed woodland, passing the grey-reflecting waters of Loch Loskin.
Better described as a lochan (a small loch), Loch Loskin is roughly six acres (2.4 ha) in size. It is fresh water, as one would expect of an inland loch, and its waters pass down the Milton Burn into the Firth of Clyde.
A bench overlooked it and I sat awhile and gazed over the lochan, not because I needed a rest but because it seemed a waste not to.
A small sign nearby indicated that fishing permits could be bought from Campbell’s Paint & Hardware Shop, which I’d passed in Dunoon. Loch Loskin is mostly stocked with freshwater brown trout although sea trout also make it up Milton Burn to spawn there.
The Great Road
Lost amongst the trees on the far side of Loch Loskin was the line of an old road connecting Dunoon to Otter Ferry (which was, as its name suggests, a ferry from the late 1700s until 1948).
The so-called Great Road was built in 1775 and is long disused and mostly vanished though part of it forms a farm track on Dunloskin Farn, which lies just south of the loch. After running along the western side of Loch Loskin, the Great Road veered northwest and climbed towards Glen Lean on a route now obliterated by afforestation.
Loch Loskin was a perfectly pleasant small lake but, for all that it offered the mystery of long-lost roads, I wouldn’t have said it was particularly amazing. Others in the past have felt differently, chief amongst them being Pipe Major John McLellan (1875-1949), who wrote the tune Lochanside inspired by Loch Loskin.
McLellan served in the Highland Light Infantry and fought in the Boer War before later joining the Govan Police Pipe Band. He returned to the army in the Great War, becoming a piper in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and remained there afterwards, becoming the 8th battalion’s pipe major from 1919 until 1930 when he retired.
He wrote a fair number of tunes for the bagpipe but neglected to formally publish them, making their proper attribution more difficult than was necessary.
I’m afraid the only inspiration I received as I sat there was the eventual impetus to continue on my way. I followed the A885 through the trees and then down to the shores of the Holy Loch at Sandbank. There, I joined the A815 heading north.
The tide was out as I walked beside the Holy Loch, which presented an unsightly expanse of mud unimproved by the greyness of the sky. I was now retracing my actual route from last time but I knew that I would only need to do so for about a mile and a half.
Clachaig to Stronafian Timber Transport Route
Soon enough, I reached the turn off for the B836, which was also the route for National Cycle Network route 75. Not that the road was necessarily safe for cyclists. It was, it was true, much quieter than the A-road and the road surface was well-maintained. But its excellent state was thanks to ‘co-funded improvement works’ as the Clachaig to Stronafian timber transport route.
‘Caution’, the signs warned, ‘timber vehicles.’
I made a mental note to do as bidden—should I see any vehicles made of wood, I would indeed warn them as instructed.
Little Eachaig River
The B836 carried me westwards, cutting across the finger of the Cowal Peninsula upon which Dunoon and Sandbank sit. The road ran alongside the Little Eachaig River, climbing up the glacial valley of Glen Lean.
Little Eachaig Bridge
As I headed upstream, the river twisted and forked as the Glenkin Burn fed into it. There, the road crossed over the stream and it too forked immediately before the bridge. I stuck to the main road up Glen Lean and took little notice of the unmade road that veered off to the left, which is perhaps a shame — it would have taken me across an older bridge before rejoining the modern road alignment.
I followed the B-road up Glen Lean towards the outskirts of the hamlet of Clachaig (meaning ‘stone place’). There, a stone wall ran along the roadside and I espied ruins amidst the trees.
Venturing to investigate, I found numerous ruined buildings laid out along a clear though now boggy and long-abandoned road running parallel to the B836. As I picked my way through the trees, something I had read about the area came back to me and I knew immediately what I’d found.
Glen Lean Powder Mill
Clachaig was constructed in about 1840 as accommodation for the workers of the Glen Lean Powder Mill, which was owned by gunpowder manufacturers Curtis & Harvey. The works was surrounded by a wall and operated for half a century, closing down in 1892.
I realised that I was exploring the old mill workings and some of its twenty-two houses, almost all of which had long since fallen into ruin.
What’s left of Clachaig today is a handful of cottages which have been maintained and/or restored, one of which is the old schoolhouse. These neatly whitewashed survivors give a sense of how the ruins might look today had they not been abandoned.
What, with all the excitement of finding a ruined village, not to mention the last two miles being nothing but uphill, I decided that it was time for a breather. I paused for a rest beside one of the burns that feed into the Little Eachaig and, prompted by the sound of running water, rummaged in my bag to find a drink. When I looked up, a bloke in a high-visibility jacket was standing in front of me.
‘Good view,’ he said, waving expansively towards the hill of Leacann nan Gall.
I looked at the hillside. It was a pretty good view by most standards but not the best Scotland had to offer. I was feeling agreeable so I agreed with him anyway.
Our Little Chat
High-Vis Man lived in one of those shining, white cottages and was just about to inspect their private water source when he had seen me and stopped for a chat. He confirmed that it was indeed the old powder mill in which I had been blundering about and we chatted amiably about Clachaig’s history for a while
There were more buildings across the Little Eachaig, he told me, but subsequent afforestation had silted up the burns and changed their flow, making the ground between them boggy. Plans to preserve or redevelop the works had been mooted but never came to anything and now the old buildings were slowly falling apart.
On that cheery note, High Vis Man went off to do his inspecting — presumably to figure out why his water source wasn’t sourcing any water like it should — and I set off further up Glen Lean.
Suitable for Heavy Goods Vehicles
Once again, signs proclaimed the road to be a timber route but the improvement works gave it a strange character. Brief sections were beautifully made standard single carriageway, with one lane each way like most ‘ordinary’ roads. These, I assumed, were the improved bits. Between them were sections of that rural Scottish favourite, the single track road with passing places.
As I made my way along the B-road, stepping aside periodically to let any massive lorries past, one of the aforementioned lorries pulled up beside me to offer me a lift. The driver peered down at me from his cab and asked if I needed a ride or was hiking, correctly identifying the two essential possibilities — either I was walking for the fun of it, or I was likely wishing that I wasn’t.
I thanked him but declined and he gave me a look that I read as ‘one of those, why do they do that?’ With a suitably mighty rumble, the lorry sped off into the distance leaving me to continue at a pace that was literally pedestrian.
Loch Tarsan Aqueduct
After a while, I approached the top of Glen Lean, which branches off from Glen Tarsan. Somewhere off to my left in the trees was an aqueduct (in the sense of a leat, rather than a bridge) carrying water to Loch Tarsan, which sat where the two glens met. Off on my right, and equally invisible was the long-disused course of the Great Road to Otter Ferry.
The road bent northwest and then west again and I passed Glenlean Farm, beyond which I saw what looked like a low stone wall across the valley. As I got closer, I saw what it really was.
Col Dam is an embankment dam made from rockfill with a concrete core and was built around 1951 when the valleys of Glen Tarsan and Glen Lean were part-flooded to create Loch Tarsan.
The loch is about 273 acres (110 ha) and serves as an impounding reservoir for the Cowal Hydro-Electric Power Scheme. Like Loch Loskin, it is stocked with brown trout.
A Loch-side Amble
The old course of the road had passed directly through what was now the loch, as was betrayed by the lie of the land near the dam. The modern B836 detoured to the left to pass alongside the loch’s southern shore, first crossing over a stream fed by the aforementioned aqueduct. I had been looking forward to this loch-side amble and was disappointed to find that trees screened the view for much of its duration but the glimpses of the loch afforded through their branches were possibly heightened by their scarcity.
In all too short a time I saw Loch Tarsan’s other dam come into view. A 17.6 m high buttress dam, Tarsan Dam mostly blocks off the Glentarsan Burn while simultaneously piping water to the nearby Striven Power Station.
From my position on the B836, I could see an access road winding its way to the bottom of the dam. This was not only the course of the old road from before the loch was created in 1951 but also that of the Great Road to Otter Ferry.
From Tarsan Dam, the Glentarsan Burn descended steeply down Glen Tarsan to empty into Loch Striven. The B836 also descended, though slightly less steeply, curving around the hillside towards Lochhead. It should take no great leap of imagination to deduce where that was in relation to Loch Striven.
Loch Striven (Loch Sroigheann) is a sea loch. Today used as an occasional anchorage for laying up ships, in WW2 it saw much secret activity as a testing ground for both X-Craft midget submarines and Highball — an anti-ship version of the bouncing bomb, never actually used in anger — though hopefully not at the same time.
Striven Power Station
After the war, in 1951, the loch became the site of one Scotland’s earliest hydro-electric schemes when the single-turbine Striven Power Station was built by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. It receives water via a pipeline from Loch Tarsan and has an output of 8 MW.
Now operated by Scottish & Southern Energy Plc, the station was fully refurbished in 2002.
The station building, designed by Reginald Fairlie (1883-1952), is intended to blend into the landscape, with a steeply pitched roof and a window pattern that give the impression of a chapel from a distance. Fairlie also designed the nearby staff cottages, further guaranteeing that it would match its environment.
I stopped near the head of Loch Striven to eat my lunch and take a break. Flowing into the loch there was Balliemore Burn, which was roughly the halfway mark of my walk.
Leaving Loch Striven
The road looped around the top of Loch Striven and headed south down its western shore a short distance, beginning to climb as it did so. I knew it had to ascend to head west through the pass between A’ Cruach and Dun Mòr and the map marked the road as having a gradient, so I was expecting there to be a steep bit. When I then saw a road sign proclaiming 12% I thought ‘oh that’s not too bad’. And it wasn’t.
I plodded my way up the incline without too much difficulty and was just prematurely congratulating myself, when I saw the next sign that read 20%. Ouch. There was more of the 20% ascent than was entirely comfortable but I stomped resolutely up it, pausing to stop for breath partway up.
The road climbed laboriously to 149 m but then levelled out before starting to gradually descend. As it went, it resumed its strange trick of switching between new-looking two-way sections and older single-track sections with passing places.
A patch of forest on my left was being felled and I paused in utter fascination to watch the harvester at work. Looking at first glance like a mechanical digger, the harvester had at the end of its arm not a bucket but a complicated grabber with an inbuilt chainsaw. It grabbed the trunk of a standing tree and cut through it, then turned it 90° so that the severed trunk was held parallel to the ground. The felling head, which at this point was holding one end of the trunk, slowly passed the rest of the trunk through it, stripping off branches with inbuilt knives and sawing off desired lengths of log.
According to the Forestry Commission, harvesters can fell 400 tonnes of timber per week and cost £250,000 apiece. The particular harvester I was watching was actually owned by a private company, the forest it was in having been sold off by the commission in 2013.
Watching the first few trees get felled was new and exciting but the novelty soon wore off, spurring me to continue on my way.
The B836 continued to descend into the valley of the River Ruel, crossing over Auchenbreck Burn, and dropping to meet the A886. This road would lead me to the Colintraive Ferry and the Isle of Bute if I turned left and went south but that was not my intention. I turned to head north — for a while, at least — but not before I’d glanced southwards towards Loch Ruel.
I only planned to head north for just over a mile, which was far enough to reach the junction with the A8003. This latter A-road would then take me south along Loch Ruel’s western shore. The A886 was busier than the B836 had been but traffic was still fairly light and I amused myself by timing the intervals between vehicles (roughly two minutes apart was the mean). This was plenty of time for one of the cars to come to a sudden stop beside me as its driver offered me my second lift of the day. Again I politely declined and continued my journey on foot.
The A8003 was immediately different in character from the A886. Its longer number had implied a less important status (the Great Britain road numbering scheme is surprisingly, though not entirely, systematic) but that didn’t prepare me for an A-road immediately becoming single track with passing places.
Much of the A8003 is a relatively new road, built in the 1960s to access the remote communities of Tighnabruaich and Kames — which lay at the end of a minor road that curled round from the other side of the peninsula — but the initial section was pre-existing as a minor access road for coastal farms. It was pretty clear that they’d never upgraded that bit, merely slapped an A-number on it.
The traffic on the A8003 came in pulses, its timing partly dependent on the ferry to Kintyre that lay at its far end. Dodging these periodic groups of vehicles, I followed it past farms and hamlets: Waulkmill, Ormidale and Lochead. This last was, once again, exactly where its name would lead you to expect and I sat down on the shore of Loch Ruel and took another well-earned rest.
Sheep Without Fear
As I made my way along this loch-side road, I encountered numerous sheep roaming freely about. This didn’t surprise me but it certainly shocked some of the drivers, who thought they were in speed-camera-free heaven and weren’t expecting ambulatory clouds to suddenly impede their progress.
These sheep, it transpired, had no fear of cars and no regard whatsoever for irate car horns.
A sound they did have regard for was the plaintive bleating of their tiny lambs, as I found when one tiny lamb approached me, bleating for all its lungs were worth. It had lost sight of its mother and, perhaps used to its shepherds, seemed like it thought I could help. I, on the other hand, was acutely aware that these were sheep with big curly horns and that Mum, were she to appear, would likely not assume that I was helping (even if I were able to). I backed away from the lamb. It approached me again.
I was mentally protesting that I am not a saviour of sheep (except that one time in Cumbria), when a bellowing bleat of alarm nearby indicated that Mum had just noticed that her precious lambkin wasn’t there. I quickly left them to their joyful reunion and resumed my journey.
Which is Better — Barking or Boring?
About half a mile south of Lochead the road forked, giving me options. The old coast road, now little more than a farm track, continued directly along the coast past Shellfield Farm to Craig Cott and Craig Lodge. The Cowal Way, which had joined the A8003 at Waulkmill, left it at this point and followed the coast road. It would, I knew, be fairly easy going until the road ended and then would become a ‘strenuous’ woodland path, all ups and downs, before joining another shore road. That was one option.
The other was to stick with the A8003, which from here on in would be a broad, two-way ‘new’ road. This was probably less interesting but promised to be a lot easier going and I wrestled with this decision for several minutes.
Other considerations to take into account were some frenzied and frankly alarming barking from the vicinity of Shellfield Farm and the map indicating two viewpoints on the A8003. And so, with some misgivings, I opted for the A-road. It was a long walk, I told myself, and I didn’t need to make it any harder. Besides, it had all been road so far. The road, as if to mock my decision, immediately began a long, slow climb to just under 250 m. Nonetheless I plodded on.
I had not gone very far when a noise behind me made me turn. As if from nowhere, I had gained a dog. She was a large dog and golden-brown in colour and she trotted up to get her head scratched and generally say hello. Realistically, she could only have come from the farm track not taken, from which furious barking could still be heard.
The dog was very quiet and very friendly and, I suspect, probably quite old. She mooched about at my feet, investigating things as dogs do, and I decided to leave her to it. I was slightly uncomfortable about leaving her on the A-road but my attempt to walk her back to the farm track just saw her follow me both ways.
‘Ah well,’ I thought, ‘she’ll get bored soon enough.’
The Friendly Dog followed me along the A-road, investigating the verges and keeping pace at my heels. She was clearly enjoying this impromptu walkies and ignored any suggestions I had that perhaps she should go home. She kept this up for over a mile. On the way, she showed exceptionally good road sense, retreating to the verge every time a car approached, so that reduced one worry at least.
Eventually, I resigned myself to that fact that I’d accidentally stolen someone’s dog and started to wonder how best to remedy that should she still be with me when I reached Tighnabruaich.
The friendly dog reached her limit at about the mile and a half mark, where she stopped and investigated a particularly interesting patch of grass before giving me the sort of mournful look that it’s hard not to read as ‘don’t leave me.’ I left her. She appeared to be heading back.
I continued, now dogless, up the last ascent to the first viewpoint and just as I reached it, determined to sit upon its handy bench, two cars whizzed past me into the lay-by and disgorged their occupants to coo over the view.
I claimed the bench anyway, noting that they had dealt with the hill the easy way. They acknowledged that driving was cheating, and we all admired the view, which showed us the Kyles of Bute. Out of interest I asked them of they’d seen the friendly dog. They had not; she had already left the road.
The car people returned to their vehicles and sped off but I stayed where I was for a while, enjoying the view and the rest.
When I felt ready, I resumed my trek, following the A8003 as it gently undulated for another mile and a half. Down below, mostly hidden from my sight by trees, was a lighthouse on the shoreline, close to the island of Eilean Dubh (meaning ‘black island.’)
The Shore Road
A Monster Challenge
I knew that there was a now a shore road — unmade like a forest road —running near the water’s edge. There was also another viewpoint coming up but after the access to the shore road. Which way should I go? I resolved that since last time I chose the A-road, this time I should choose the minor route. But when I reached the junction, access was not as easy as I’d hoped.
In addition to the monster, someone had felled several trees across it in order to make it completely inaccessible to cars. It looked pretty inaccessible to pedestrians too, unless I wanted to clamber over the tree trunks, which I didn’t.
Disappointed, I continued along the A-road but I hadn’t gone more than a stone’s throw when I encountered a footpath sign pointing down to the shore road. I took the footpath.
The path was quite steep and slippery with mud and snaked its way through undergrowth that seemed to consist entirely of rhododendrons. But that’s what rhododendrons do. Lovely as it looks when in bloom, R. ponticum is not native; introduced by Victorian gardeners, it quickly escaped and is one of the most virulent invasive species to overrun British woodland.
Not So Shore
At the bottom of the Path of Multitudinous Rhododendrons was the Shore Road, which at first wasn’t really all that shore-like.
Isle of Bute
The Shore Road conveyed me past a waterfall — where the Allt Dubh (black stream) cascaded down from Beinn Bhreac — and then ran along the shoreline. The Isle of Bute loomed across the water.
The End in Sight
Before long, as the road snaked around the shoreline, Tighnabruaich came into view.
On the outskirts of Tighnabruaich (Taigh na Bruaich, meaning ‘house on the bank’), the Shore Road became a proper road and led me into the village.
On the way, it passed Tighnabruaich Pier, built in 1885 to replace an earlier 1830s version. Today, it sees little use except by PS Waverley — the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world — when she cruises the Firth of Clyde each summer. Waverley only visits during July and August, when she calls in twice a week, but that still means that Tighnabruaich Pier is in use for its original purpose.
Waverley also calls in at Dunoon and can do the trip from there to Tighnabruaich in just under two hours. I had taken almost eleven. But I don’t feel too bad about it; she’d have had a devil of a time getting up that 20% slope…
This time: 24 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,751 miles