IT’S been a bit of an unsettled summer and I kept a careful weather eye on forecasts for Scotland with a view to picking the timing of my latest trip carefully. This turned out to be entirely pointless, though not because of the omnipresent threat of showers. Rather it was because, as a non-parent, I totally failed to account for the school holidays and their effect on accommodation.
As rooms became scarce and their prices skyrocketed I realised that my schedule would have to be dictated by when—or if—I could find anywhere to stay. And if that meant enduring an unending deluge then I would just have to get wet.
And so, in late August—when the Scottish school holidays had ended though the English ones were still in play — I found myself back in Kilmelford, standing outside the Cuilfail Hotel in which I’d not stayed on account of it being full. I found a way to make use of it anyway, standing in its lee while I consulted my map.
Braving the Weather
Tempting as it felt, I couldn’t hide behind the hotel forever. Sooner or later I would have to emerge and renew my acquaintance with Scotland’s rain.
Whereas last time — which was pointedly not walk CLXXVI — I had headed north along the A816 to Loch nan Druimnean, this time I headed south, retracing the last half-mile of walk CLXXV until I reached the turn-off for Melfort.
A narrow country lane led me along the shore of Loch na Cille to Fearnach Bay, which together formed the head of Loch Melfort. The loch was home to a small marina and dotted with yachts and the like whose sleek lines faded in and out of view as bands of drizzle swept in from the sea.
High Water Mark
It was a little grim but there was still plenty of scope to get wetter. This point was literally underlined by a marker post which showed the highest water recorded in Melfort, when November storms and high tide converged in 1881.
I considered its import for a moment or two and concluded that raincoat weather, while not fun, was a hell of an improvement on lifejacket weather.
Over the next few days I would see quite a lot of montbretia (Crocosmia sp.), an ornamental plant turned invasive species.
It hails from East Africa but was introduced by Victorian gardeners and promptly escaped and ran riot. Both it and fuchsia — which comes from South and Central America — seemed determined to add a dash of colour to the hedgerows throughout this trip.
I made my way around to the tiny village of Melfort, which had once been a possession of the Campbells (as had much of Nether Lorn, as that part of Argyll was known).
The Melfort Campbells seem to have made it their mission to attempt to populate the British army and navy officer corps entirely on their own, throwing up ridiculous numbers of admirals, generals and other brass. Even when they sold up and left, their successors had something of a martial bent, being Harrison Ainsley and Co, manufacturers of gunpowder.
Harrison Ainsley & Co
The estate was perfect for their needs, being secluded enough that any mistakes would blow only their workers into oblivion, and being blessed with a plentiful supply of scrub oak for charcoal and a deep enough port to ship other materials in and gunpowder out.
The factory thrived for a few decades but Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite made it largely obsolete and it eventually closed.
Melfort then reverted to farming through most of the twentieth century until its owner started to offer its cottages as holiday accommodation in the 1970s. This proved popular and successful and, by the close of the century Melfort, had become entirely composed of timeshares, managed by an association of owners, which it remains today.
In Melfort, I came dangerously close to going the wrong way but quickly realised my error and regained the proper route, passing Melfort Pier and the hamlet of Ardenstur. As the road began to climb, the last of the rain bands passed overhead and in seemingly no time at all the clouds had become white fluffy things in a blue sky.
The road continued to climb alongside Loch Melfort, reaching about 60 m as it rounded a bend to overlook Kilchoan Bay and the island of Eilean Coltair.
That island and the Kilchoan Estate, of which it is part, were up for sale in 2015 for £2¼ m. The estate agent handling the sale described it as ‘the most picturesque estate I have been instructed to sell in Scotland.’
The Road Forks…
The road dropped again along Kilchoan Bay and then came to a fork. To the left it dropped further, heading down to Kilchoan House, while the right-hand fork continued round the bay.
This was not the most ideal of developments as the right-hand fork was definitely the one that I wanted. I stood and considered my options for a moment and found that they mostly involved me ignoring that sign. That should be okay, I reasoned, it probably only applied to motor vehicles. Probably. At any rate, I’d find out soon enough…
The road turned out to be closed on account of some longitudinal cracks that suggested that part of it wanted to slide down the hill shouting ‘wheeee!’ I could see why you might not want to run anything as heavy as a car over that, lest it and half the hillside drop into Kilchoan House through the roof.
Fortunately, even with my sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy diet, I still weigh less than a car does. I could also choose to walk on the landward side of the cracks. In this manner, I soon put the closed section behind me and came to a crossroads of sorts in Kilchoan Farm.
At the farm, the surfaced road — cracked or otherwise — came to an end with only an unmade track continuing. Passing through a gate, I followed this for a mile or so, rather enjoying the solitude. Beyond the reach of any traffic — of which there had been almost none — there was no one else in sight; just me and a Highland cow with enormous horns. Wait, what?
The cow, which had been minding its own business munching at some lovely trackside vegetation, was just as startled to see me as I was to see it. We both stopped doing what we had been doing and watched each other cautiously. It was sporting some magnificent head-mounted stabbing weapons while I was regarding it with the binocular gaze of a predator. I decided that perhaps I should stop doing that.
‘Hello,’ I said with a confident tone, slightly averting my terrifying gaze but not so much that I couldn’t see it just in case. ‘Hear how unthreatening I am,’ I said, ‘I won’t hurt you. Don’t hurt me.’
The cow relaxed a little but decided I might be lying — for all it knew, I might be an estate agent — and so it backed off and went to hide behind some shrubbery. With my path now clear, I strode off as nonchalantly as anything, wondering again that an animal so large and so spikily-headed could be the more fearful of the two of us.
Ascending Dùn Crutagain
As it approached the farmhouse of Degnish, the track doubled back such that I came down one arm of a Y-shaped fork and then headed up the other. It then rose steadily, climbing the flank of Dùn Crutagain towards the pass of Bealach Gaoithe (‘windy pass’).
Dùn Crutagain peaked at 273 m but the track through the pass topped out at about 180 m. On its way up, it gave me a view back up Loch Melfort and I saw another side to Eilean Coltair:
The Windy Pass
At the top of the pass, the trees, ferns and brambles were left behind, becoming an open landscape of scrubby moor grass.
Actually, there was one tree, a gnarled-looking hawthorn sprawled out beside the path within its own little enclosure. This was the Wishing Tree.
Local tradition holds that a votive offering in the form of a coin, if hammered through the bark into the wood, will grant a wish for each coin so offered. The tree — or what’s left of it — looked like it wishes that people would stop forcing coins into it.
A Vista of Islands
I decided against contributing to the tree’s torture and instead pressed on, soon cresting the high point of the path. Before long, I was able to see, in the distance, across the Seil Sound to a succession of islands.
The patch of water in the photo above between the viewpoint and the headland with the trees is Ardmaddy Bay. Set back a little from its shore was Ardmaddy Castle and, given a choice of routes downwards, I resolved to take one that took me closer to that.
My route took past me the hamlet of Caddleton (all three houses of it) and the shores of Ardmaddy Bay, where the track once again met a paved public road. It was this that conveyed me past Ardmaddy Castle and out of the Ardmaddy Estate.
The castle was built as a medieval tower house in the 15th century for the MacDougalls of Raera, the principal landowners of Nether Lorn. A cadet branch of Clan MacDougal, they could claim descent from Dugall, eldest son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles. But Scottish history is ever full of strife and they feuded with the MacDonalds, who were descended from Dugall’s brother Ranald.
The MacDonald Lords of the Isles were opposed to the Campbells, who then inherited a bunch of MacDougal lands through marriage. But that was far too simple a state of a affairs to continue so the Civil War naturally saw Campbells and MacDougals on opposite sides. The net result was that the MacDougals of Raera lost Ardmaddy and took refuge on Lismore, while the Earl of Argyll (a Campbell) took possession of the castle in 1649.
Its roof was repaired in 1676 and the timbers and Easdale slates then used are still in situ today.
The Earls of Argyll found themselves on the wrong end of an uprising against James VII in 1685 and, their circumstances being much reduced, were forced to sell Ardmaddy to their relatives the Breadalbanes in 1692.
They initially allowed it to moulder though some repairs were carried out in 1737. In time, however, it became more important to the Breadalbanes and the building was extended in 1790 and 1837.
It remained in Breadalbane hands until the family died out in 1933 when it was sold on. The first buyer — Kathryn McKinnon — having died in 1938, the castle was bought by Major Jim Struthers, formerly of Bonawe Quarries, whose daughter-in-law still owns it.
She greatly developed its gardens and is today a trustee of Scotland’s Gardens, a registered charity created in 1931, which facilitates the opening of private gardens to the public to fund good causes.
I sadly did not have time to explore the gardens but could only pass them by as I headed north.
The single track road led me past farmhouses with names like Bàrr Aille, Barnayarry and Ardshellach until it met the B844 beside the farm of Auchnasaul. At the junction, I turned left and followed the now much wider B-road for about half a mile as it led me down to Seil Sound.
The sound is a channel of the Atlantic separating Seil from Great Britain. But it’s hardly a mighty limb of the sea; it’s even dwarfed by the Swale.
Spanning the sound is a humpback bridge, commissioned by the Earl of Breadalbane in the early 1790s to replace a ferry. A causeway was briefly considered but the sound was navigable at high tide and filling it in would have ended that.
The initial design by Oban builder John Stevenson was for a bridge with two arches but the final version boasted only a single arch and cost £450 to build. It was constructed by accomplished civil engineer and architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811) who in 1760 had designed London’s first Blackfriars Bridge.
Though markedly — one might even say pointedly — humpbacked such that buses and coaches need to take care, the bridge’s span is actually less so than it first was, having been slightly levelled off in the 1980s.
The parapets are also higher than designed, having been raised because it allegedly was found out the hard way that sheep could leap over the sides.
Bridge over the Atlantic
Clachan Bridge — named for the nearby village of Clachan Seil — has been a bit of a mixed blessing for the island. It’s certainly picturesque and because it crosses a sound not a river, canny promoters have been able to call it — with technical correctness — a ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’. This has doubtless boosted local tourism revenue but that’s just as well.
In 2011 the bridge’s existence led the Scottish Government to cut £400,000 in local authority funding on the basis that Seil wasn’t really an island was it? I mean, you could drive across to it.
Though the islanders were outraged, the Scottish Government probably had a point. Seil is not that remote and inaccessible nor dependent on an unreliable ferry. Well, not any more (thanks to Lord Breadalbane). And even when it did rely on a ferry for access, you didn’t really need it at low tide.
Since the bridge was there and I had no wellies — I was in fact wearing a rugged pair of trainers which were far more comfortable for road walking than my walking boots — I nipped over it onto Seil. It seemed rude not to.
Seil (Saoil) is one of the Slate Islands, a number of small islands of the Inner Hebrides where slate was formerly quarried. But I had less need for a slate than a plate for I was starting to feel hungry.
Tigh an Truish
Fortunately, directly over the bridge was the Tigh an Truish (‘House of the Trousers’), an 18th Century inn that served me up a sandwich and that ultimate fuel of walking, the gin and tonic.
Tigh an Truish’s rather odd name relates to the Jacobite Rising of 1745 when the Catholic Stuarts, having been supplanted by the Protestant House of Hanover, attempted to regain the Crown. Many of the Highlanders sided with the Stuarts and their defeat led to an attempt to crush them culturally as decisively as they had been militarily.
Act of Proscription
The Act of Proscription 1746 not only disarmed the Highlanders but forbade them from wearing Highland dress. The penalty for so doing was six months’ imprisonment on the first offence and for any subsequent offence transportation to the colonies to work as an indentured labourer for seven years. The law was harsh but highly effective in suppressing the Highlanders.
Hidden pockets of cultural resistance persisted however, especially in islands like Seil. Highlanders travelling to the mainland would stop at the inn and change out of their kilts — which were banned — and into a pair of perfectly legal trousers. On their return the hated trousers would be switched for a kilt.
The Act of Proscription would remain in force for nearly forty years, being finally repealed in 1782.
Clachan Seil & Balvicar
When I felt sufficiently fed and rested, I strode away from Tigh an Truish in my Englishman’s trousers and headed south along the B844 as it traversed the island’s eastern edge. I passed through the hamlet of Clachan Seil and then alongside Balvicar Bay, which I earlier had espied from afar.
The village of Balvicar (Baile a’ Bhiocair, ‘vicar’s town’) contained a handy shop, where I purchased more water and some tasty though strictly unnecessary snacks. A former slate-mining village, Balvicar now hosts a boatyard, a langoustine-processing factory and a golf club. There is also, as its name suggests, an old church.
In Balvicar, the road came to a crossroads and presented me with a choice. To my left was a dead-end road to a farm, an option I quickly dismissed. Ahead the road became the B8003 to Cuan and the ferry to Luing while to my right the B844 turned north towards Ellenabeich.
This created a situation that the website of the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts (SABRE) calls TOTSO. The acronym stands for ‘Turn Off to Stay On’ i.e. the road straight ahead does not bear the same number as the route you are currently following and you have to turn off that road to stay on the numbered route. On the general basis that almost everything is interesting, I find SABRE’s wiki a useful resource for research whenever my route involves roads.
Standing at the crossroads my immediate question was did I want to TOTSO? I certainly wanted to end up at Ellenabeich but it was still early afternoon and I had plenty of walk left in my feet. I decided to do the opposite (stay on to turn off?) by wandering down the B8003 towards Cuan.
B8003 to Cuan
The road changed quickly in character as I did so, narrowing to single track with passing places and losing most of its accompanying fringe of houses. It wound through Seil’s countryside for a couple of miles, leading me past the island’s current church, which was built in 1866.
As I approached the hamlet of Cuan, I passed by Ballachuan Farm where, opposite the farmhouse, two other structures had fared less well against the ravages of time. An imaginary estate agent, haunting my thoughts since Kilchoan, offered an alternative perspective:
A steep descent at the southern tip of Seil dropped me into the hamlet of Cuan from where a regular ferry makes the five minute crossing to Luing (Luinn).
Larger than Seil but less populated, Luing’s only road access is via the ferry from Cuan and this position as an island accessible only from another island (or by boat), makes it rather more remote than its location merits.
I had given some thought to crossing to Luing and walking on at least part of it but reluctantly concluded that while I had time, I probably didn’t have that much. A glance at the sky, which was clouding back over, firmly cemented that decision. I was as close to Luing as I’d get, which was roughly 200 m.
I sat and watched the ferry MV Belnahua come in and go out again. She had a slightly odd mode of operation in that she moored against the corner of the slipway and vehicles boarded or alighted diagonally across her bow.
Footpath to Ellenabeich
As Belnahua set off on her three-minute crossing of Cuan Sound, I turned away and set off in the opposite direction, retracing my steps to the church.
From there, according to my map, a footpath led north to join up with the road to Ellenabeich. I quickly found the start of the footpath but, before I ventured into the mass of bracken that flanked it, I paused to gaze back towards the mainland from outside the door of the church.
The footpath was initially hard going and quickly deteriorated into no going at all. Though others had clearly been there before me, there had been a whole summer of bracken growth and the stuff was now chest height. Even where I could see the path, I had to physically push through the stuff and that is one the best ways of picking up deer ticks I know of.
It wasn’t long before I completely lost sight of where the path was going and rather than forge ahead uncertainly under darkening skies, I opted to turn about and go back to the church. Sure, retracing my steps to the crossroads would be longer in distance but it seemed pretty clear that it would be quicker in time. And so it was.
Port a’ Mhuilinn
Just as it had when I headed south to Cuan, heading west from the crossroads the road changed in character again. Not only was it sparsely inhabited but the terrain became hillier and rockier and the road developed a series of blind bends. I rounded one of these to descend a hill at the bay of Port a’ Mhuilinn and saw the island of Easdale (Èisdeal), which Ellenabeich faces.
The front of the dark cloud was gaining overhead.
Easdale & Ellenabeich
Shaped by the Slate Industry
Easdale and Ellenabeich have been quite literally shaped by the slate industry. Ellenabeich takes its name from the Gaelic Eilean nam Beitheach meaning ‘island of the birch trees’ though the actual island it is named for was completely quarried away.
A former quarry, flooded in the same storm that inundated Melfort, is now essentially a bay while a former bay, blocked by a barrier of flint spoil, now forms a lagoon. And looming over all are the rocky outcrops that yielded the slate.
I made it to the outskirts of Ellenabeich just as the rain began to fall in earnest. Fortunately the edge of the village is also where my B&B awaited and I gladly took refuge within it. Later, when the rain had passed, I would go in search of dinner but, for today, my walking adventure was over.
This time: 18 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,006 miles