WHAT was originally meant to be day four of our November trip turned into one of on/off drizzle in which it would have been dismal to walk. Consequently, we jumped into the Lemming’s car and did a ridiculous but enjoyable circular drive through a sizeable portion of Scotland, ending up in Arrochar and yet another hotel. Having thus, amongst other things, discovered how eerily orange Glen Coe is during autumn, we resumed walking the following day when the weather was altogether more clement.
Our first challenge was getting back to Kilcreggan, which was easily solved by the prudent application of the railway, followed by a bus from Garelochhead. And so, slightly later than we might have preferred, the Lemming and I found ourselves stumbling from the bus to stand next to Kilcreggan Pier.
While today Kilcreggan Pier is used solely by the Gourock Ferry, in the past it received all manner of steamers.
The oldest remaining wooden pier on the Clyde, it was opened in 1897 — replacing an 1850 predecessor — and served up to 39 vessels a day in its heyday. When the first pier was built, Kilcreggan was brand new, the Duke of Argyll having only opened the area up for housing plots the previous year. Wealthy Glasgow merchants and shipbuilders eagerly snapped them up.
Pier Signal Tower
In time, Kilcreggan’s humble pier began to see so much traffic that managing its flow became a problem. With competing paddle steamer companies vying to get their vessels in first, collisions soon became a very real risk.
The solution, constructed in 1888, was a traffic signal system comprising a short tower with black and white discs (or red and white lights at night) repeated on two faces for maximum visibility. Three discs were shown, one each for vessels in the inshore, middle and outer positions. White indicated that the vessel could approach and dock and black that it could not. This system was installed not just in Kilcreggan but up and down the Clyde; today the towers are long gone.
Having inspected the pier and its signal tower, we were now ready to be off. The walk began by following the shore road around a nearby point.
Fortunately the road (the B833) was provided with a pedestrian pavement, so we didn’t have to dodge traffic. Not that there was very much of that. We did see a seal but that was in the water, so its road sense wasn’t tested either.
The seal appeared to be taking it easy, which meant that we stood there for a bit and watched it doing basically nothing. After a while a local walked past and the Lemming enquired if this shore often had seals on it. The answer we got was emphatically ‘aye’ with heavy but unspoken undertones of ‘of course, doesn’t everywhere?’
The seal showed no sign of doing anything more interesting so we left it to its lazy morning and continued on our way. Soon enough we rounded the point and the road swung around to reveal…
Baron’s Point marks the entrance of Loch Long and is where our bit of the coastline straightened out to run up the eastern shore of that loch. The western shore comprised the Cowal Peninsula, upon which sits the town of Dunoon. A smaller sea loch — the Holy Loch — juts into that peninsula and was transformed into a submarine base during WW2. Then, from 1962 to 1992 it gained a new Cold War role, hosting the US Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines until the fall of the USSR made the base unnecessary.
But that was on the far side of Loch Long and we would be staying on ours, making our way through Kilcreggan and neighbouring Cove.
Cove Burgh Hall
The two villages united administratively in 1865 to form a single burgh, led by a provost, though for many years they lacked a proper venue in which to hold public meetings or social gatherings. Privately hosting them in people’s mansions was not a particularly workable solution so in 1891 one of the mansion-owners, Charles William Cayzer (1843-1916), decided to do something about it.
Cayzer was the co-owner of a shipping line — the Clan Line — and, though he lived near Paisley, he owned a summer house in Cove and took an interest in the village. He engaged a Glasgow architect named James Chalmers to build a village hall and this was completed and opened in 1893.
The hall remained in the ownership of the burgh and its successors for over a century but in 1999 it was little-used and badly deteriorating and Argyll and Bute Council decided it would just be better to close it. The community disagreed and formed a company to buy it, which they did for the token sum of £1. The company is run entirely by unpaid volunteers but they seem to making a good job of keeping Cove Burgh Hall going.
The Lemming and I passed the burgh hall and cross and continued our way along Shore Road, pausing to look at the more impressive buildings on the way into Cove village. Perhaps the most impressive — and deliberately so — was this one:
The house above is Craigrownie Castle, built in 1852 and the only castle designed by famous architect Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, who earned his nickname by mostly building Grecian-style things in Glasgow.
The castle was built as a holiday home for John McElroy, a wealthy Glasgow iron and railway magnate who also had significant property development interests. McElroy was one of the key developers of Cove, buying up land from the Duke of Argyll and commissioning Thompson to design the houses to put on it.
To serve these houses he also built Cove Pier though that, unlike his castle, is now long gone.
Compared to Craigrownie Castle, most of Cove’s houses were rather more modest, though still moderate to large in size compared to a typical modern home. They were served by a single village shop, though some of its immediate neighbours looked like they may have once been shops too.
I should probably stress at this point that it wasn’t just the buildings that we were looking at. The view up Loch Long also commanded its fair share of our attention:
As lovely as the loch was though — and it was — the occasional impressive building still deserved to be noted. Take for example, Clevedon House:
One of Cove’s more impressive mansions, Clevedon House was built as Hazel Cliff Villa sometime in the mid 19th century and was occupied by Glasgow landlord James Carswell in 1861.
In 1890, it was bought by Charles William Cayzer (he who had the burgh hall constructed). A self-made man who started out as a poor Eastender from London, he built up the Clan Line to dominate routes to India and South Africa and by 1890 was living with his family in Ralston Hall, a magnificent mansion near Paisley. The following year, he got himself elected Provost of the Burgh of Cove and Kilcreggan and then served as MP for Barrow-in-Furness from 1892 to 1906, Knighted in 1897 and made a baronet in 1904, his was a genuine rags to riches story.
In later years, Clevedon House became a hotel before falling empty; it has recently been refurbished as private apartments.
Rest & Relaxation
As we progressed through Cove, the Lemming and I happened upon a place where the loch-side comprised a broad swathe of grass with convenient seats to rest. So we rested. As we did so, I cast my eyes back down the loch towards the Firth of Clyde.
Cove takes its name not from being a cove, which it isn’t, but from a Norse word for ‘hut’. The Vikings built a watchtower on a nearby rocky outcrop, which is now occupied by the nineteenth century Knockderry Castle, built by architect John Honeyman in 1854 and remodelled by William Leiper in 1896.
I initially managed to miss sight of the castle completely and was slightly perplexed when the Lemming bade me look up. Bemused, I peered in all directions but the one he’d intended.
Knockderry House Hotel
Knockderry means ‘hill of oak’ and, in addition to lending its name to the castle, it did likewise to the Knockderry House Hotel next door. This was built in 1840 as a summer retreat and lived in by Glasgow cotton merchant David Anderson, who commissioned Leiper to extend it for him in 1890.
Once we were past Knockderry House, the buildings pretty much ended, to be replaced with trees and shrubs. The next stretch was just about walking the road beside the loch.
Ministry of Defence Road
Sadly we could only walk the road beside the loch so far because the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport blocked our way. Built during the Cold war, the RNAD stores and handles both conventional torpedoes and Trident nuclear warheads. Consequently, it has tight security and we had absolutely no choice but to go around it.
‘Going around’ meant in this case ascending a fairly steep hill and cutting across and then up the peninsula on a road built by the MOD. Because the road passed directly over the high ground between Loch Long and the Gare Loch, it gave us a pretty good view of the latter from its highest point.
Just to the left of the photo above was a magnificent elevated view of the Faslane naval base, where the submarines armed with Coulport’s warheads are based (I could have taken a photo but chose not to).
Armed Police Encounter
Given the pleasant view and the climb to get up to it, we decided to stop there and eat the sandwiches that we were carrying with us. I had taken maybe two bites when a police car — we had already been passed by several — pulled up beside us and two policemen got out. We greeted them warmly and asked if they wanted us to move; they, with equal cordiality, asked us what we were doing?
Now, there are some, in that situation, who might have bridled on some sort of ‘it’s a free country’ principle. That would have been idiocy — We were sitting on an MOD road overlooking a naval base that was home to nuclear-armed submarines; the two constables’ question was entirely warranted. We answered, truthfully, that we were walking and had paused for a rest.
A short conversation followed about the joys of walking in the area, our ambitious planned distance (as it seemed to them) and the lovely weather and then, satisfied, they sped off. We finished our sandwiches and departed at our rather slower pace. It was then that the Lemming and I remarked to each other that they had been MOD Police, not Police Scotland, and thus one of only three UK police forces whose officers are all armed. And, as we descended the hill towards Garelochhead, we agreed that we were quite content with how that encounter had gone; it was, we felt, how an encounter with armed police ought to go.
Not an Old Military Road
The MOD road we were on had been built in the mid 1980s to link Coulport and Faslane to each other and to the wider road network but was later opened to public access too. It was well-surfaced and very quiet, since it didn’t really go anywhere else useful, which made it very easy going to walk upon.
We didn’t actually enter Garelochhead for the road met the A814 to the north of the village at Whistlefield roundabout. The roundabout had a gated lane straight through the middle of it so that, while local traffic has to go around it, naval lorries needn’t bother. We turned left at the roundabout, joining the A814 on its northward journey.
The A-Road to Arrochar
Green Kettle Inn
The A-road was also pleasantly quiet and lightly wooded on both sides. It conveyed us to a B&B and café at which we hoped to grab a cup of tea and a sit-down but, frustratingly, the proprietor had nipped out and no tea was to be had.
Denied tea — is there any worse state for two Englishmen to suffer? — we plodded further along the A814, passing under a railway bridge and slowly descending down the side of the valley of Loch Long.
Other than the occasional house, the A-road remained flanked by trees, through which we caught occasional glimpses of the loch. The traffic remained sparse, although it did include the occasional lorry. Even these however, passed us fairly sedately,
The sign is left over from a Scottish motorcycle safety campaign called Operation Zenith, which was apparently successful in persuading bikers to travel at speeds less than those resulting in suicide-by-splat. Ironically, for a sign promoting adherence to legal speed limits, the sign itself is technically illegal since it isn’t authorised by the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002.
Finnart Oil Terminal
When the road had eventually finished descending, it joined the shores of Loch Long at the Finnart Oil Terminal, which provides a deep water berth for oil tankers. Two pipelines connect it across the whole width of Scotland to a refinery sited on the Firth of Forth.
The terminal’s boundaries include two country houses, Finnart House, which was built in 1832 for Glasgow shipbuilder John Macgregor, and Arddarroch House, which was built in 1838 for Glasgow merchant John McVicar. Arddarroch House is used as offices but Finnart House stands boarded up and empty.
From a pedestrian point of view, the oil terminal seemed mostly to comprise a long run of fencing, hemming in the road. Passing through it was a necessary evil though and once we’d put it behind us, we’d not see another lorry all day.
Back by the Shore
Fortunately, the oil terminal fence soon came to an end and we were once more stood beside the shores of Loch Long. Our route would take us all the way up to its head.
From here on, we continued to follow the A814 as it clung to the shore of the loch. There was a higher military road to which access is usually granted but we were quite happy with our A-road. The road was less happy with itself, feeling that maybe it had missed its calling.
We ambled our way merrily alongside the loch, marvelling that we had blue skies and t-shirt weather in November, especially given that the previous day had presented nothing but drizzle. Not only was it warm and dry but there was barely a breeze. The loch was like a mirror.
As we progressed the A-road calmed down, perhaps because the loch was showing it its own silliness. Instead it settled for autumnal and sweeping, which had a certain style.
In these surroundings, hours of walking flew by almost too quickly and soon we were looking across to the grandeur of the Ardgartan Hotel, opened in 2012 after more than a decade of dereliction.
We knew that we were now a stone’s throw from Arrochar, which was our destination. Our timing had proven surprisingly good, since the sun was just about to set when we arrived there.
Arrochar nestles at the head of Loch Long and, though it falls under the modern council area of Argyll and Bute, it marks the traditional boundary between Argyll and Dunbartonshire (it was historically in the latter).
We sat down in a handy pub, which provided us with beer served up with a side order of unexpected but highly amusing banter from the barmaid. This gave us the energy we needed for the final push to recover the Lemming’s car from the railway station, a mile east of the village.
Car collected, we repaired to our hotel for food, drinks and a general feeling of accomplishment. The following morning we would be heading south and to our respective homes.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,690 miles