OVER breakfast in Tighnabruaich, I learned two things. One was that it had rained all night; the other was that an unexpected General Election was now to occur in June. While it was the latter that aroused the most comment and interest, the former was of more immediate concern as it had the potential to make my day rather squelchier than planned.
Plans & Preparations
My plan for the day was a walk of two parts involving two ferries and ending on a different island. The first part involved doing the first stage of the Cowal Way, only backwards, a 6½ mile walk using a combination of road and footpath. But first, I availed myself of Tighnabruaich’s shops to stock up on things for the day.
I joined the Cowal Way on Tighnabruaich’s seafront, where the Isle of Bute was too shy to see me off, hiding its face in low cloud.
Turning away, I glanced down the coast towards Kames, where I would be going next, only to find that it too was wearing a cloud for a hat. Kames takes its English name from its Gaelic one, which is Camas nam Muclach where camas means bay and muclach means a herd of swine. Thus, Kames is the Bay of Pigs!
Fortunately, no CIA-backed invasions took place as I followed the road along the shore (I assume they got lost in the poor visibility). The road then cut slightly inland and climbed a little as it went, conveying me into the heart of Kames, where a T-junction gave me choices:
I could turn right after the Post Office and take the road to the hamlet of Millhouse or I could stay on the Cowal Way. The footpath would continue on through Kames before doubling back and climbing past a golf course on what was, by all accounts, a muddy path at the best of times.
Going by Road
I glanced up at the clouds. Thanks to their efforts, the bogginess of the off-road path would have increased exponentially. So, much as this walk wasn’t intended to be a repeat of the previous day’s roadfest, I decided to stick with the road for now in the desperate hope that the clouds might burn off and the ground might yet dry out.
The road in question was the B8000, the old road connecting Tighnabruaich and Kames to the outside world. It would take me as far as Millhouse before turning north to run up the coast of Loch Fyne. As with the A8003 that largely superseded it, the road was fairly quiet with most of the traffic coming in waves timed by the ferry at Portavadie.
In addition to being much easier going, taking the road shaved a mile and a half off the distance, which was helpful as I’d dallied a little too long over breakfast. Just one short mile after leaving Kames, I found myself approaching the hamlet of Millhouse, where the Cowal Way joined the road.
I had mixed feelings when I saw that it joined it from a farm lane marked only as a footpath on my map. That part, at least, did not look too boggy, though getting to it would probably have been as squelchy as hell (assuming hell had thawed after being frozen over).
Not to worry, I told myself, I’m here now and back on schedule. Besides, what’s this over here?
The bell in question is the Dolphin Bell, so named because as you can see it is held by two heraldic dolphins.
This was the timekeeping bell of the gunpowder mill that gave Millhouse both its name and its existence. It saw use from about 1839 until the mill closed in 1921. It was renovated in 2000 and placed at the entrance to the village cemetery as a memorial to those who died at the works.
The plaque on its post names sixteen people killed in various explosions plus another four who drowned aboard the works steamer, SS Guy Fawkes
SS Guy Fawkes
Launched in 1849, Guy Fawkes was an iron screw steamer purpose-built for carrying gunpowder. In 1864, she foundered after a collision, having passed in front of the Dublin steamer PS Earl of Carlisle to be struck amidships; only one man from her crew of five was saved.
Guy Fawkes was recovered and the hole in her side repaired. She then continued in service until 1888, when she was broken up for scrap.
High & Low Mills
At its height the gunpowder works was divided into two sites: the High Mills, which was north of the road and spread along the banks of the Craignafeoch Burn, and the Low Mills south of the road, surrounding where the cemetery now stands.
It was built where it was, like so many powder mills, because hardly anyone lived nearby, which reduced the risk of accidentally blowing up the public.
Powder mills typically employed stringent safety rules, including no smoking and the taking of no matches or any iron item that might spark into the mill. But, as the names on the plaque attest, it was still a risky business.
In addition to trying to avoid scattering the factory and workforce over an even wider area than it already covered, the works had procedures in place to assure the quality of their product. Testing was done by means of a fixed-position mortar known as an eprouvette with its barrel at 45°.
The mortar would be loaded with a standard charge of powder and an equally standard weight projectile then was fired. The tester would then measure the distance the shot travelled and compare it to their chart of ranges. Poor quality powder would literally fall short of expectations. If this happened consistently, the workforce might face disciplinary action.
Much less remains of this gunpowder works than of that at Clachaig, which I had seen the day before. They are similar however in that both now contain just a handful of extant cottages.
In the centre of Millhouse was a crossroads, at which the B8000 turned north while another road — now unclassified — led straight on to the Portavadie ferry, which was where I was heading. I paused there to peruse my map, deciding which way to go.
The road to the ferry was the most direct route and again offered the advantage of not being boggy and waterlogged but I had reasons for wanting to go another way, following the Cowal Way as it went squelchily off-road. Those reasons included a lochan and a castle and their lure proved too strong.
I turned north and followed the B8000 for not quite a quarter of a mile, just far enough to leave Millhouse behind. A Cowal Way sign pointed across a field full of sheep, through which a farm track snaked.
The track was boggy underfoot and the sheep were largely unperturbed by my presence. Rather than flee from my intrusion, as sheep tend to do, these unconcerned ovines stood their ground and waited until the very last moment before reluctantly stepping aside. Little lambs watched me from behind their mothers, learning the lesson that I was no threat worth wasting fear on.
The track soon veered off towards Auchoirk Cotts — a knot of dwellings for which it was the only road access — and I found myself following what marker posts insisted was the footpath. The evidence on the ground was rather less convincing, suggesting that it might not technically be ground at all.
It was shockingly boggy.
In places, boards had been installed to mitigate the worst of it but, on a morning such as this, following a rain-sodden night, they were fighting a losing battle. But I didn’t care…
To my left, a view over Asgog Loch emerged, the forlorn ruins of a castle on one bank.
Asgog Loch is a natural, freshwater lochan fed by streams off the surrounding hills. Though fairly small, it is nonetheless larger than it should be, having been dammed in the 19th century to create an impounding reservoir supplying water to Millhouse’s Low Mills.
Today, it’s mostly a handy spot for fishing, being stocked with pike, perch and roach.
I battled my way through the bogginess as the path led me to Asgog Loch’s northern shore. There stood the forlorn remains of Asgog Castle, whose boggy approaches had not saved it from its fate.
A square tower and courtyard, it was built in the mid-15th century as a stronghold for the Lamonts of Ascog and remained so for two hundred years. Its end came in the Civil Wars of the 17th century, when the Lamonts raided the lands of the Campbells, whom they opposed.
In 1646, the Campbells retaliated by besieging Asgog Castle and occupying Lamont land. Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll (1607-1661) offered the Lamonts an olive branch — if they promised to end their raids and surrendered the castle, he would lift his siege and allow them to go free and unmolested. The Lamonts acquiesced and opened their gates whereupon Argyll immediately reneged on their agreement and killed every man, woman and child. The castle was destroyed. This was hardly playing fair but Argyll was de facto head of the Scottish government and the two sides were at war. He could essentially do as he liked.
The Lamonts’ other key castle was Castle Toward, which was south of Dunoon, and this too was taken by perfidy. In all, around two hundred Lamonts were slain.
Things didn’t entirely go Argyll’s way though. After the Restoration in 1660, Charles II held him complicit in his father’s execution by the English and had him tried for high treason. Argyll was convicted and executed and his head placed on a spike in Edinburgh.
The new King gave the Lamonts their land back but Asgog Castle was too badly damaged to reoccupy.
Cnoc a’ Chaisteil
From Asgog Castle, the footpath ascended boggily to a forest road on the flanks of Cnoc a’ Chaisteil (‘castle hill’). I knew from my map that it would stay on this road for just a short distance, using it to round the hill before striking off west through what was doubtless more bogginess.
I decided to stick with the road, taking a route that was drier and easier-going. I’d already seen what I had been braving the mud for, now I just needed to get to the ferry.
I set off along the forest road, passing a group of horse riders as I went. The road dropped and then climbed again, passing over the flank of a hill called Barr Iolaich. Cresting the road’s highest point, I could suddenly see Loch Fyne with its fish farms and the Kintyre Peninsula beyond it.
The forest road eventually met the actual road and this snaked it way to Portavadie and the ferry to Tarbert.
Portavadie is a tiny hamlet with a marina situated within a surprisingly large harbour. The reason for this is that it was developed as a construction yard for concrete oil rigs in 1975. As it turned out, Portavadie built precisely zero oil rigs before it was decided that steel was what oil rigs should be made from and the construction yard became instantly redundant.
Vague promises were made about restoring the area to its original state but this was just hot air and the site was left to moulder and decay, eventually being purchased by a fish farm in 1988. This was later transformed into a marina, opening in 2009.
Something as yet untransformed is the nearby village of Polphail, which is not labelled on my OS map for the simple reason that no one has ever lived in it. Built to house 500 workers from the construction yard, it was never occupied and moulders empty and unused to this day.
Had I had more time, I might have investigated the ghostly houses of Polphail but as it was, I had timed my arrival to perfectly coincide with this:
MV Loch Linnhe
This fine figure of a ferry is MV Loch Linnhe, launched in 1986, eight years before this crossing route even existed.
The second of four ‘loch class’ sisters, she spent most of her 20th century existence serving the crossing between Largs and Great Cumbrae before briefly switching to this one. From 1999, she changed to a dual role, taking on the Tobermory to Kilchoan crossing in the summer and acting as a relief boat in the winter.
Rising traffic to Mull means that she has had to give up her summer job and now functions purely as a relief boat, standing in for other ferries where required. On this occasion, she was taking the place of the venerable MV Isle of Cumbrae, ten years Loch Linnhe’s senior.
For the princely sum of £2.60, Loch Linnhe conveyed me across Loch Fyne in about 25 minutes, which was a magnificent saving of time — without her the 80-mile detour round the head of the loch would have taken me several days.
On the far side of the crossing was Tarbert (An Tairbeart) the name of which is Gaelic for ‘the isthmus’ but which more literally means somewhere narrow enough to port boats over. Loch Linnhe thankfully made no attempt to try this, stopping instead at her slipway.
Tea & Cake
Tarbert is an old fishing village combined with a strategic stronghold, one of three guarding access to Kintyre. I glanced up at the ruins of its castle, which loomed on the hillside over the village, and resolved to give it some proper attention later. But first, I felt the powerful pull of tea and cake drawing me inexorably towards a quayside café. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
After having drunk tea and eaten cake — I find it’s best to do it that way round — I climbed the steps that lead to Tarbert Castle.
Tarbert has been a strategic location since the days of Dál Riata, the Gaelic kingdom that included what is now Argyll and Antrim. Indeed, the Annals of Ulster tell of violent struggle over the throne of Dál Riata that led to its former king, Dúngal mac Selbaig, burning Tairpert Boitir (‘tight isthmus’) in 731.
Later, the region fell under Norse domination and in 1098 King Magnus III of Norway had his longship ported over the isthmus as a symbolic gesture of his rule. Norse rule ended with Alexander III’s strategic victory at the 1263 Battle of Largs but Alexander’s death threw Scotland into the chaos of the Great Cause, in which every man and his dog had a claim on the crown.
Eventually John Balliol came out on top with the backing of England’s Edward I and one of his acts was to upgrade Tarbert’s hillfort into a proper Royal castle. In short time, John and Edward’s relationship failed, leading to English invasion and a rebellion spearheaded by John’s great rival Robert the Bruce. Robert became King himself in 1306 and in 1325 he had the castle repaired and extended.
In 1494, it played host to James IV, who was intent on curtailing the independence of John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. To this end he summoned his Parliament to Tarbert Castle, there to deliberate how best to pacify the region; the castle was once again repaired and upgraded.
The castle long retained its royal connections but by 1705 it was tenanted by the McAlisters, who had previously served as its constables. That year Queen Anne granted a charter permitting Archibald McAlister to hold an annual fair (one which is still held today).
Sadly, unlike the fair the castle had fallen into disrepair by 1760 and was used as a handy source of worked stone for the harbour that prompted Tarbert’s growth as a fishing port. What’s left of it looms over Tarbert as a romantic ruin.
Behind the castle, its grounds formed a sort of park through which snaked various marked footpaths. I followed one until it left the castle grounds and climbed slowly up the hillside. I was now walking the Kintyre Way and this initial section gave me much optimism, being a dry, raised and well-maintained footpath.
Tarbert to Skipness Walk
The Kintyre Way is a long-distance footpath that zig-zags its way across the Kintyre Peninsula. It was officially opened in 2006 but the part I was on was a little older, having previously existed as the Tarbert to Skipness Walk.
It gained height quickly, climbing to a cairn at about 180 m at which I paused for a breather.
Tarbert Millennium Cairn
A small plaque on the cairn announced it as the Tarbert Millennium Cairn, erected in 2000 by local man Andrew MacDiarmid to celebrate the birth of his nephews Robert and Kieran. One wonders if they ever go up there to see it. Not that it’s the cairn that one should probably be looking at.
Just beyond the cairn the footpath joined a forestry road, which more-or-less guaranteed easy going and good drainage. This curved lazily through a conifer plantation, climbing slowly and steadily as it went.
I knew that the road would keep rising, snaking its way round the hilltops, until it emerged from the treeline at about 300 m above sea level, some three miles onward from Tarbert. A series of Kintyre Way mile markers made keeping track of my distance easier than anticipated.
As expected, I emerged from the forest and found myself following the road across open moorland. I could see from the map that I had about half a mile of road left, after which it would end and dwindle to a footpath, which in turn would climb to the walk’s highest point (350 m) on the flank of Cruach Doire Lèithe (377 m). There, I would find a boggy plateau between the summits of Cruach Doire Lèithe and Cnoc a’ Bhaile-shios (422 m).
It was rather lovely being up there on the path all alone with views right across the hilltops. It was also perplexing. You know how I said the road would dwindle to a path?
Concerned, I checked the date of my OS map — revised 2015 and reprinted 2016. Well, either the last revision had missed something significant or they’d extended the forest road sometime in the last two years. This was both exciting and troubling as it meant I couldn’t entirely rely on my map. I wasn’t too concerned though — the Kintyre Way had been well signposted so far and I felt sure they’d tell me when it was time to leave the road. And they did.
The Path Returns — with a Squelch!
The path turned off from the road about three quarters of a mile from where I had expected the road to end. Even now, it showed no sign of ending, curving off to the right and disappearing into some more trees.
The footpath diverged to the left at a point where the path turned a corner on my map. It was once again a clearly defined and mostly raised affair but not exactly well-drained. It was soft and slightly boggy underfoot with frequent patches that could only be described as mud baths.
Meandering in a generally south-eastern direction, the path plunged back into the forest and wound its way slowly down the hillside.
I had been following it for quite a while when I emerged into a clearing to find an unexpected forest road neatly bisecting it in two. I checked and double-checked my map. Yep, this was indeed more roadway that my map knew nothing about.
A little way beyond it, I could see a mechanical digger doing repair work to the footpath. Having crossed the road, I carefully approached the digger and called out a greeting to its operator. Partly, I wanted him to stop working so that I didn’t suffer some horrible accident as I passed by and partly I just wanted to confirm that I was where I thought I was.
The Digger Man was happy to stop for a moment and talk, telling me that he hadn’t been up there for a while but yes, there were roads that he didn’t remember either. He also confirmed that I was on the right footpath, adding that it had been created specially and wasn’t an ancient track. Digger Man then warned me that his son was in another digger over the hill and promised to warn him via radio that I would be passing him shortly. I thanked him and moved on.
Son of Digger Man
Son of Digger Man was indeed a little further down the path but, whereas his father’s digger was only partially blocking the path, Son of Digger Man’s digger formed a perfect barrier. Not only that, but it was at a point where the path was flanked with drainage ditches knee-deep in foul-looking mud.
I made myself known to Son of Digger Man, who had taken news of my impending arrival as an excellent time to take a break, and asked him how best I might get past his digger since it was totally blocking the path.
‘Oh just hop up on the tracks,’ he said, ‘you’ll be fine.’
Staying On Track
Given my appalling sense of balance I wasn’t quite so confident but hop up I did, edging my way along the caterpillar tracks to jump back down at the front. As he’d said, I was fine. I also took far more childlike enjoyment from climbing over a mechanical digger than I had any right to derive from it.
Beaming all over my happy little face, I continued on my way.
Glimpses of Arran
The path had descended a fair bit by now and breaks in the plantation offered the occasional view; far ahead the Isle of Arran waited for my arrival.
After a while the path passed through a gate and became a surfaced track, not quite as robust as the forest road had been but leafier and more like an old farm lane. This passed through a high deer fence and past some ruined shieling-huts at Glenskible.
Shielings were summer huts for living in while pasturing livestock, part of a farming lifestyle that involved limited migration between summer and winter grounds. A similar system pertained in Wales, where hafod meant a shieling and hendre the main (winter) settlement. It was, if you like, the agricultural version of the second home.
Glenskible had comprised a number of shielings forming a seasonal hamlet but all had long since fallen into ruin. Leaving them behind, I passed through another deer fence and followed the road alongside the Skipness River.
Eventually, the trees gave way to gorse bushes, resplendent in their yellow foliage and filling the air with their coconut scent. The gorse-lined path conveyed me to some unruined, occupied cottages at Coalfin, a farm overlooking the village of Skipness. And then, before I knew it, I found myself staring down the final descent to sea level with Skipness marking its far end.
Since I was out walking on my own, I was simultaneously the first and last one down, which would confuse the scoring if I hadn’t disqualified myself twice for pushing.
In Skipness I was delighted to find a Post Office shop, from which I purchased a much-needed cold drink that I drank sitting on the beach. As I rested, I gazed across the Kilbrannan Sound at the lumpy-looking Isle of Arran.
I realised then that while the day had started with grey and uninspiring weather, since Tarbert it had actually been pretty bright and warm. This was now noticeably changing, with cloud descending on the mountains and visibility decreasing. Rain was rapidly becoming a real possibility. I had my cagoule in my bag, I knew, so I needn’t get too wet waiting for the ferry. Speaking of which, I checked the time. It was five o’clock.
The ferry I had planned to catch was at five forty, though there was a later (and last) crossing at seven. The thing was that the ferry didn’t sail from Skipness but from Claonaig two miles down the road. I had been taking it easy, sure I must be too late for the five forty crossing but now a suspicion grew that I might still make it yet. Two miles in forty minutes was entirely doable, even if my feet were a little tired. Grabbing my bag, I set off apace.
The temperature dropped noticeably as I walked but that was actually quite refreshing. The route from Skipness to Claonaig comprised the B8001, a narrow but well-surfaced coast road. Traffic was minimal — I only saw two vehicles though one of them went both ways — but then it would be; Skipness was where the road ended.
A Race in Earnest
Glancing to my left, I saw the ferry MV Catriona making her own way to Claonaig. If I had joked about racing myself down the hill to Skipness, this was now a race for real. My prize for winning would be a seat on the ferry. Losing would earn me a lengthy wait in the inevitable rain. Quickening my pace, I powered along the road as fast as my feet were willing to carry me.
This, it turned out, wasn’t all that fast but it was just enough to beat the ferry.
Catriona is a wonderful machine, the third diesel-electric hybrid vessel in the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet. Shiny and new, she was built in 2016 and named for an 1893 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. She and her sisters, Hallaig and Lochinvar, are the only three ferries of their kind, incorporating a low-carbon hybrid system combining diesel electric power with lithium ion batteries.
The benefit of her design comes in the form of a 38% saving in fuel consumption compared to a conventionally powered vessel of the same size. Carrying up to 150 passengers plus 23 cars or two HGVs, she took over the Claonaig-Lochranza service last September.
There wasn’t anywhere that number of cars or passengers on my trip but nonetheless, she conveyed me efficiently across to Lochranza over the course of half an hour.
I trotted up the slipway in what was now undeniably light rain and was delighted to find my hotel for the night was just a stone’s throw away.
A hot bath, food and whisky followed; not necessarily in that order.
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,766 miles