AFTER an awesome breakfast, I emerged from the Kilberry Inn full of bounce and enthusiasm to embark upon my fourth day of walking in July 2017, which would be a 21-miler taking me from Kilberry — which had to be my start point on account of it being where I was — to Cairnbaan near Lochgilphead.
Midges, Mammals & Marmite
While I was determined to be a ray of sunshine, actual solar emanations were somewhat reticent. The skies were grey and thickly clouded while the ground was wet with overnight rain. And although it was warm weather it was also swarm weather for the midges were out in serious force. Scottish midges are always serious; there’s no need for a jocular midge.
Many might argue that there’s no need for midges at all and that clouds of bloodsucking beasties do nothing to improve the Scottish summertime experience. Well that’s nonsense. For one thing, they really make you appreciate those moments when you’re not being incrementally exsanguinated.
But that’s easy for me to say — I’m hardly ever dined on by diminutive diptera as they don’t seem to find me an agreeable taste. They’re known to dislike both garlic and marmite, two things that are staples of my diet. Midges are so picky.
Cool with the Weather
Not only was I unaffected by the massing midges but I was also undismayed by the ceiling of grey cloud. My skin was already a radiant red from sunburn and had there been direct sunlight I might well have gone the whole hog and burst into flame.
Hmm, with my dark clothes, pale skin (usually) and solar vulnerability, perhaps the real reason the midges avoid me is that they think they recognise a fellow vampire? But… but… the garlic, I tell you! I’m no creature of evil.
Knapdale Coast Road
The B8024 ran dead straight for a mile until it reached the farm of Coulaghailtro where an S-bend heralded an abrupt return to the usual winding coast road.
There, an unexpected riot of colour contrasted against the bleak, muted tones that I knew I’d see for most of the day.
Fuchsia is a genus of flowers that is definitely not native to western Scotland. It hails from the Americas and was first discovered on Hispaniola by French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704) — although I imagine the indigenous Taíno already knew it was there. Having identified it as a plant hitherto unknown to science, Plumier—the official royal botanist to King Louis XIV — eschewed self aggrandisement or national pride and promptly named it for Bavarian botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566).
Nine decades passed before the first fuchsias made their way to England, being propagated in a greenhouse in Kew Gardens in 1788. There are many species within the Fuchsia genus and several of these had reached British shores by the 1820s and ’30s. Being quite a pretty shrub it wasn’t long before it graced gardens the length and breadth of Great Britain and it has proven popular ever since. So much so in fact that there is even a British Fuchsia Society, established in 1938 for enthusiasts of the flower.
Of course, like so many ornamental plants, it escaped into the wild and can be occasionally found in sheltered areas such as the tight curves of the S-bend where I found it.
Cretshengan & Crear
The farm of Coulaghailtro, which also occupied the S-bend and from whose garden the fuchsia had no doubt escaped, was comprised of attractive low, white-painted buildings. Most of the farms I’d see during the day were of similar style, as exemplified by Cretshengan, which lay another mile along the road:
On the cliff edge by the shore nearest to Cretshengan leant a lopsided standing stone which is not believed to be ancient. Nearby stood a hill-fort — Dun na Clagnich — but its stones had been removed in the 1740s and used to build walls by Cretshengan farm.
Some Crumbled Cottages
Iron Age forts don’t have the monopoly on abandonment and ruination though, as illustrated by this nearby pair of cottages:
Actually, it seems that there probably were four. Consulting a 19th century Ordnance Survey map (1st edition, 6 inches to the mile 1843-82), the then-extant row of cottages is twice as long as the current ruin — these two cottages are actually the lucky ones; their next-door neighbours have completely disappeared!
Interestingly, the 2nd edition (1888-1913) shows the two remaining cottages and a part of the far end, meaning that some of the middle had gone. In fact, working through the map ranges that the National Library of Scotland makes available online, it looks like the now-vanished far end remained standing until about 1950.
Balure & Tigh-na-Gaoith
The two cottages above, near Miller’s Bay, were actually my second ruined building of the day, as I’d also spotted a small ruin hiding behind other buildings at Coulaghailtro — part of a complex where a smithy had once stood. Not only were they not my first, they wouldn’t be my last either; it was like some terrible epidemic had ravaged the local cottage population.
The above ruin is or was the farmstead of Balure, just half a mile from the previous cottages. And within the next half mile I passed the site of one abandoned cottage — named Stotfield on the old maps — of which there were no obvious remains and another named Tigh-na-Gaoith (‘house of the wind’):
Argyll & Bute Council is aware that these buildings are derelict. In a landscape capacity study of 2009, both the Balure site and the first one were highlighted as areas where development was possible, as opposed to most of the rest of the map which was considered no-go for housebuilding.
Big Yellow Crane
On my way between Cretshengan and Balure, I had encountered a huge yellow mobile crane parked at the entrance to a forestry road. Being enormous, it jutted out into the roadway of the B8024, which you’ll recall was only single-track anyway. The one car I’d seen on that road all morning was at the same junction cautiously edging its way past the crane, the driver’s face a mask of furious concentration.
Of course, being on foot, it had presented no such obstacle to me and I had skipped past both merrily and metaphorically — no actual skipping was attempted — and continued on to catalogue Knapdale’s cottage apocalypse.
Towards Loch Caolisport
North of Tigh-na-Gaoith, the coast began to veer northeast and the road naturally followed suit. Ahead was Loch Caolisport, a sea loch about six miles long that prevented direct progress north. As I followed the coast road around I saw the Point of Knap, the northern point at its entrance, come into view:
Port Cill Maluaig
The southern limit of Loch Caolisport is Rubha Cill Maulaig just beyond which is Port Cill Maluaig, a slight embayment where a burn runs into the loch. I paused and rested on the bridge over the burn watched by a disapproving couple who were stood beside a camper van by the access road to nearby Druimdrishaig.
Mr & Mrs Huffy Departure
I’m not sure if it was my pausing and resting they disapproved of or just my existence in general but whichever aspect of my being displeased them it did so to such an extent that they huffily got back in the van and drove off the way I’d just come. Slightly puzzled, I watched them go and dismissed the weirdness of strangers with a shrug.
Moments later, I saw them reverse all the way back up the B8024 and into the access road, returning to exactly where they had started. The expressions on their faces had by now escalated to thunderous fury. Almost equally thunderous in its rumbly road noise was the Big Yellow Crane I’d seen earlier, which now trundled slowly past. Mr and Mrs Huffy-Departure had clearly met it head on and been forced to retreat.
I treated them both to a beaming smile which served only to upset them even more. Then, figuring I’d wasted enough seconds of my life on their account, I turned my back on them and continued on my way.
The B-road continued northeast, passing a rather lovely cottage as it went:
The cottage was on the outskirts of Ormsary (Ormsaraidh), which is essentially another hamlet of white cottages and farmhouses. It also has a small industrial aquaculture site, which is home to Landcatch, a company that supplies salmon eggs and smolts (i.e. juveniles) to fish farms. The company was started in 1980 by Sir William Lithgow, proprietor of the former Scott Lithgow shipyard on the Clyde. His family sold it in 2011 and it is now owned by Dutch company Hendrix Genetics, which is one of the world’s largest animal breeding companies.
The road continued close to Loch Caolisport and parallel to its shore as it climbed out of Ormsary, gaining about 40 m of elevation over three quarters of a mile. This brought me to another hamlet, Baille Boidheach, whose name literally means ‘beautiful town’ but perhaps should be read as ‘pretty village.’
I had another sneaky rest in Baille Boidheach and was immediately enveloped in a cloud of frustrated midges as they homed in on my carbon dioxide and then, at the last moment, thought ‘yuck! I’m not eating that!’
When I’d had enough of tormenting the hovering haemovores and moved on, I realised that there was now a thick band of woodland between me and the shore. In fact, the road was flanked by trees on both sides and remained so for a mile and a half until it reunited with the shoreline near Tighnahoran. I was so glad to see the loch again that I just stopped and stared for a bit like the southern English tourist that I was.
Tighnahoran comprised a handful of houses and Achahoish Primary School, whose new building was opened in 2005. It serves Ormsary, Achahoish and Ellary, the latter being on the opposite shore of Loch Caolisport and Achahoish being about two miles further down the road — I would be heading there next. Previously, it had actually been in Achahoish in a building constructed in 1900; the institution of the school dates back to 1837.
I passed the relocated school and crossed over Baranlongart Burn, whereupon the road swung away from the loch, passed its head and kept going. A Land Rover suddenly pulled up beside me and I was asked if I needed a lift (I politely declined).
‘Out for a walk then?’ asked the driver, nodding approvingly, ‘I saw you way back on the other side of the [Ormsary] estate.’
Not only did I feel oddly validated but I noticed that, when he drove off, he didn’t get a faceful of giant yellow crane. There’s a lesson in there somewhere for camper van-owning couples.
At Achahoish Farm the road forked, giving me a choice. A coast-walking purist would have taken the left fork, passing through the village of Achahoish (Achadh a’ Chòis, ‘field of the nook’) then Ellary, Kilmory and Castlesween. I had in fact considered this but found it logistically challenging in terms of distance and accommodation, though that wasn’t in the end what swayed my decision.
The right fork continued on the B8024, climbing over the hills to drop down beside Loch Fyne. This route would take me to Lochgilphead but leave me on the ‘wrong’ side of Knapdale. And that brings us squarely to why I chose this route: to get back across I would follow the Crinan Canal. I had basically chosen to walk the canal and then adjusted and/or justified my route to make it happen. I’ve got form for doing that.
Cutting Across Knapdale
A two mile climb up the side of the valley of the Allt Claigionnaich (‘skull burn’) followed, topping out at 193 m when it reached Loch Arail, a fresh water loch half a mile in length.
The OS 6-inch 1st edition has the loch labelled as ‘Loch Errol’ but had corrected its error by the 2nd ed. These things sometimes happened as the surveyors filled their namebooks by asking the locals what things were called and then writing it down. They had a formal hierarchy of whose word to trust over whose, based largely on education and respectability. This helped to rule out some roguish wag giving rude names for a laugh but couldn’t prevent the occasional mistranscription issue, especially if the name-providers were not themselves literate. Additionally, many of these names had never really needed to be written down before.
The OS 1868-78 namebooks for Argyll show that Messrs William Wilson and Duncan Walker from Achahoish and fisherman Andrew Campbell from Ardrishaig were the authorities from whom the name ‘Loch Errol’ was taken. Chances are, they didn’t think it was ‘Errol’ they were saying. But was it down to poor diction or a fault with the surveyor’s listening skills?
I felt a warm glow of pleasure at reaching Loch Arail as it was both the halfway mark of my day’s walk and also its literal high point. The clouds above reacted to my satisfaction by dumping on it, giving me a chance to experience how Loch Arail gets its water.
It wasn’t a particularly heavy rain shower but it was enough to diminish visibility, reducing what should have been a long view across to Loch Fyne to a misty soft focus.
Actually, I thought the misty view was rather pretty and I continued to enjoy it as I slowly descended towards the distant shore. This was apparently not what the clouds had intended as they soon gave up their attempt to dampen my spirits.
Allt nan Nathair
For the descent, the B8024 was mostly straight, running down the wooded valley of the Allt nan Nathair. It also remained a single track road with passing places and I was thus surprised at one point to meet a coach packed with tourists climbing in the other direction. Either its driver knew that road really well or he didn’t at all and was regretting his choices. Or, more likely, his satnav system’s choices.
Putting the ‘Knee’ in ‘Agony’
There was a handy bank to sit on near that bend, so I chose it as a good spot to rest while I enjoyed the view. It was also a good spot to eat lunch. When I had finished I stood up and — to my own surprise — made one of those strange sucking-in-breath noises followed by a bout of heartfelt swearing. A sharp, stabbing pain had lanced through my knee and seemed determined to persist.
I injured it a few years ago and since then it’s never been great at descents (although, to be honest, my knees have never loved those). I suspect I had just tried to do too much and, had I taken a rest day between walking days three and four, I’d have been fine. But I hadn’t and I wasn’t.
I gingerly tried out walking a few steps and the good news was that it didn’t have that weird sensation of being sprained or torn; it was just a little inflamed. The initial pain quickly subsided into more of a general knee ache, which I judged I could cope with. It didn’t feel as if I’d cause major damage by continuing, so long as I took the rest of the descent really gently and didn’t try anything foolish like running or jumping. And this was just as well for I still had almost half the walk to complete.
And so the B8024 led me ever so slowly down to Achabraid, where a bridge crossed the Inverneill Burn. On it, watching me from the upstream parapet, was its faithful keeper. I half-expected to be charged a toll but I wasn’t.
Bridge Duck here is a Muscovy duck although why they are called that is a bit of a mystery as they don’t come from Moscow but Central and South America. They’re a tropical duck species so Bridge Duck must have been finding the Scottish climate something of a challenge. He sat placidly as I passed him by, possibly due to the ravages of hypothermia, and I soon left him behind as I completed the final mile of the B8024.
Loch Fyne & Loch Gilp
Sticking by the Shore
The B8024 ended on the shores of Loch Fyne, rejoining the A83 just north of the hamlet of Inverneill. I now needed to head two miles north to Ardrishaig and had two ways I could do it. One was a cycle route through the forest, running about a quarter mile inland from the loch shore. The other was the A-road. This was moderately busy and lacked a pedestrian pavement but did run directly along the shore. I was pretty torn between them but decided in the end to brave the traffic for the pleasure of walking beside Loch Fyne and Loch Gilp (an arm of Loch Fyne).
The A83 initially punished me for my decision by interposing some houses and private property between the road and the shore. This soon passed, however, and, verge-hopping as necessary, I made my way up the shore of Loch Fyne towards the village of Ardrishaig.
Creag a’ Ghuail
The village initially perplexed me by placing its boundary sign almost a mile south of the village and immediately before the tiny hamlet of Creag a’ Ghuail. This had the effect of my reaching the ‘Ardrishaig’ sign and then finding just a handful of houses and thinking ‘oh, is that it?’ But it couldn’t be it for a number of reasons, not least being the absence of a canal. I consulted my map, realised what had happened and plodded on for another mile, vaguely amused to be playing hide-and-seek with an entire Scottish village.
Ardrishaig’s name comes from the Gaelic àird driseig meaning ‘promontory of the small bramble.’ Given that brambles grow almost anywhere in Great Britain without the least need for encouragement, I’m impressed that whoever named it was able to single one out.
The brambles, small or otherwise, were cleared away in the 1790s when work began on the Crinan Canal, for Ardrishaig was to become its eastern end. The village owes its entire existence to the canal; there is no settlement shown at all on William Roy’s military survey map of 1747-55.
Why It Was Built
The Crinan Canal was excavated to provide a navigable route between the Clyde and the Inner Hebrides, saving ships a long and potentially perilous trip around the Mull of Kintyre.
The canal company was supported by powerful interests — its chairman was Field Marshal John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll (1723-1806) — and work began in 1794, enabled by an Act of Parliament passed the previous year.
Lock № 1
After various issues, upsets and false starts it opened for business in 1809 and Ardrishaig grew up around the sea lock at its eastern end. The village gained a proper harbour in 1873, the better to shelter the lock entrance.
Britain’s Most Beautiful Shortcut
There didn’t seem to be a great deal in Ardrishaig, perhaps because a number of its lochside shops and houses were knocked down in the 1970s to make space for a car park. In consequence, Ardishaig’s inhabitants now need to pop up to Lochgilphead to do their shopping. I resolved to do likewise by following the Crinan Canal.
Sometimes described as ‘Britain’s most beautiful shortcut’, the Crinan Canal made a lot of sense on paper when it was first mooted in the 1770s. Boats heading to the Hebrides from Glasgow had to detour all the way round Kintyre and risk the treacherous currents of the Mull. By cutting a direct route from Ardishaig to Crinan the canal company’s investors stood to make a fortune. On paper. Alas, that’s not how it worked out for them…
Surveys & Plans
Nine miles long, the canal certainly attracted some of Britain’s greatest engineering talent. The initial surveys were conducted by James Watt (1736-1819) before he went on to vastly improve the steam engine and thus accelerate the Industrial Revolution almost single-handedly.
It took about twenty years to get from the survey to the passing of the Crinan Canal Act, so new surveys were conducted and construction plans drawn. The architect of these plans was John Rennie (1761-1821), Britain’s foremost canal engineer.
Unfortunately, being prominent in his field, Rennie had multiple projects on the go and delegated the position of resident engineer to one of his employees, John Paterson (d 1823).
On the face of it, Paterson wasn’t an ideal choice as he’d never built a canal before and Rennie had to send to him England first so he could actually examine one. But from this less than promising start, Paterson managed to defy all expectations by being consistently even worse than anyone could have foreseen.
Not only was he corrupt and incompetent but he was also one of those delightful souls who would readily blame absolutely everyone else on earth rather than admit to the merest mistake.
His main scapegoat for his failings was Thomas Simpson, a surveyor also working on the project, but Paterson was also quite happy to blame and criticise Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who was brought in by Rennie as a consultant. Yes that’s the Thomas Telford — celebrated engineer and designer of the Ellesmere Canal and the Menai Suspension Bridge — but apparently Paterson knew better. Only he really, really didn’t.
There were leaks and delays and rising costs and when the Crinan Canal first opened in 1801 it didn’t contain enough water (a teensy bit of an oversight for a working canal). No water at all might have been better as there was just enough to cause a partial bank collapse, requiring significant rebuilding.
It took until 1805 before they replaced Paterson with James Hollingsworth (d 1828) and a series of reservoirs were completed in 1809 to keep the canal topped up. It finally opened fit for purpose that very same year and enjoyed just two years of service before disaster struck.
A powerful storm caused the reservoirs to flood and the excess water tore down the canal in both directions, ripping out all the lock gates and bridges. Thomas Telford designed a new set, allowing the canal to resume operations by about 1817.
Transfer of Control
By now, investment had long since run out and the canal had been further financed by government loans.
With the Crinan Canal Company defaulting on repayments, the government took it away from their control and placed it under the control of the Caledonian Canal Company, who were building another Telford-designed canal through the Great Glen, further north.
Even when finished and working correctly, the canal made a loss for its owners thanks in part to the brilliance of its very first surveyor.
James Watt’s improved steam engine had seen many implementations including as a form of marine propulsion. The first ever steamship, PS Comet, was launched on the Clyde in 1812 and from that moment onwards ships could be fast enough and powerful enough that diverting all the way round Kintyre was not only speedy and safe but a lot less hassle than dealing with all those canal locks. The canal’s commercial advantage had simply melted away.
It was only after Queen Victoria used the canal in 1847 that it suddenly became fashionable and received a huge boost. Visitor numbers eventually rose so high that a specially-designed steamer, SS Linnet, replaced the horse-drawn tourist barges and ran from 1866 to 1929.
All of which is stuff I found mildly interesting about a canal that I was walking mostly because it was pleasant and because it was there. In doing so — being myself a tourist with passing interest but no actual involvement in canals — I was being something I didn’t even know there was a word for.
In the lexicon of canal workers, I was being a gongoozler i.e. someone who idly watches the canal but doesn’t work on it. I love learning a new word!
A Brief Diversion
The canal runs parallel to Loch Gilp until it passes the loch head then turns west towards Crinan. As Lochgilphead sits on that loch head to its east, the canal doesn’t actually go through it. I therefore temporarily abandoned it at Miller’s (or Oakfield) Bridge, a swing bridge half a mile from Lochgilphead’s centre.
From there, I quickly strolled into town and availed myself of its shops for a cold drink (the sun had come out by then) and a packet of crisps. There were several benches arrayed along the park-like lochside and I rested there to devour both my snacks and the view down Loch Gilp.
Historic Transport Hub
Lochgilphead (Ceann Loch Gilp with exactly the same meaning) is a planned town laid out in 1790 on the then-newish Campbeltown to Inveraray Road (today the A83) and sitting slap bang in the middle of Argyll.
With the Crinan Canal arriving soon after, it was in the perfect place to be a something of a local transport hub. The 1830s brought a road to Oban and a pier for the steamer traffic, further cementing its position.
Today it still benefits despite its small size and is accordingly the headquarters of Argyll & Bute Council.
Crinan Canal (Continued)
Swing Bridge Signs
When I felt refuelled and rested and reassured that my aching knee would continue to convey me, I turned about and headed back to Miller’s Bridge. My brief diversion to Lochgilphead had been much-needed but now it offered me an additional bonus for, on the access ramp to the towpath, I found a pre-Worboys road sign.
The Worboys Committee redesigned Britain’s road signs in 1964, to better serve the increased, faster traffic of the new motoring age. It being important that road signs do their jobs properly, almost all of the old ones were replaced with the new, which better matched those used in Europe.
The photo below shows the pre-Worboys ‘Swing Bridge’ hazard sign at Miller’s Bridge. For comparison, I’ve also shown a modern sign from elsewhere on the Crinan Canal. You can see how the red triangular ‘warning’ finial of the old sign became the red border of the Worboys design.
Miller’s Bridge stands close to the junction where the 1830 Oban road (now the A816) meets the A83. Neither actually run across the bridge, which used to provide access to Oakfield House.
Oakfield was the home of John MacNeill, the landowner who’d had the foresight to plan and build Lochgilphead. He was a supporter of the Crinan Canal but that didn’t mean he wanted it to become a partial moat.
The resulting bridge is the oldest structure still standing on the canal, having been manufactured by P and W MacLellan of Glasgow in 1871. Its popular name comes from one of its bridge-keepers, William Miller, who tended and operated it in the late 19th century and wasn’t — to my knowledge — a duck of any variety.
The 1871 bridge replaced an earlier version, which had been one of those installed in 1817.
Turning a Corner
From Miller’s Bridge I had just two miles left to walk, all along the Crinan Canal. From the vicinity of Lochgilphead, it heads northwest to the hamlet of Cairnbaan (Càrn Bàn, ‘white cairn’) following a mostly straight course with one glaring exception. About halfway along the canal navigates an S-bend, with a 90° turn to the left being closely followed by another to the right.
This ridiculous chicane is actually the result of the 1805 collapse, in which improperly shored banks on marshy ground gave way and emptied what water the canal did possess all over the surrounding countryside. It was rebuilt to divert around the danger area, necessitating the two successive abrupt turns.
Looking at a modern satellite image, it is pretty easy to discern the original alignment and even on the ground the tree-line rather gives it away (especially when a handy sign there tells you what to look for).
The early 6-inch OS maps date from decades after the rebuilding but still show a pond in the centre of the hypotenuse where the canal used to run. Today that pond is long gone.
Cairnbaan Swing Bridge
Having passed the S-bend I had just one final mile to walk, progressing up a broad valley towards Cairnbaan with the A816 ever-present to my right. At the very last minute before reaching the village, the A-road veered northwards leaving a branch — the B841 — to pass through Cairnbaan and cross the canal on yet another swing bridge.
This bridge marked the end of my day’s travels for beside it stood the Cairnbaan Hotel, built in 1801 to serve the needs of canal traffic. I might only be walking the towpath but I figured it was only right to likewise put it to good use.
That evening, having washed and dined, I retired to my hotel room and placed a cold compress on my knee. With any luck, I thought and hoped, it would be better in the morning…
This time: 21 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,968 miles