HAVING sat out the winter weather, I was as delighted to see the arrival of spring as one can be when blossoming trees are trying to have sex with one’s nose. One of the best ways to avoid involuntary pollination is to go where that is less likely to be an issue, namely the coast (where a breeze off the sea should be safe to inhale). And so for the first time in 2017, I made my way back up to Scotland, ready to continue my chosen hobby of putting one foot in front of the other a lot.
Pollen & Snow
The timing required some judgment. On the one hand, London’s pollen count was just about to spike, while on the other western Scotland had just experienced snow. I needed most of the snow to have cleared — else any high paths would need suitable equipment — but not to have swollen the streams to impassable levels with melt water. So, what I wanted was there to still be a dusting of snow on the tops, which would look pretty from the distance that I hoped to stay from it.
To my great joy, there was indeed snow on the peaks when I returned to Arrochar but none on the lower slopes of the mountains and hills. This was perfect.
The other consideration that needed due care was the question of where I was walking to. A properly coastal perambulation would head south down the western shore of Loch Long, with a necessary diversion around Loch Goil. There was nothing particularly wrong with this idea but, having walked up one side of Loch Long already, I saw no particular need to do all of the other. But if not there, I mused, then where?
Another possibility was to join the Cowal Way, a long-distance footpath that links Inveruglas on the shores of Loch Lomond to Portavadie on the Cowal Peninsula’s tip. On the way it passes through Arrochar and I could easily pick it up there and follow it to Strachur on the shores of Loch Fyne. Having thus zigged across the peninsula on day one, I could zag back across it on day two to end my trip at Dunoon. Yes, that was a plan.
And so, last Saturday morning (as I write this), I ate a hearty cooked breakfast and ventured out into the chill morning air. It was crisp and refreshing, in a finger-numbing sort of way, but I knew that the blazing sun would warm things up soon enough. In the meantime, with my fingertips turning as blue as the sky, I set off along the road through Arrochar village towards the very head of Loch Long.
Arrochar nestles on the eastern side of the head of Loch Long and even with a nearby railway station (Arrochar & Tarbet) and A-roads linking it to its neighbours, it feels quiet and out of the way.
Arrochar Pier and PS Waverley
Before decent roads or railway it must have been pretty isolated, with the water being the only reliable way to get there. It certainly saw some boats: between 1817 and 1973 the village was visited regularly by Clyde paddle-steamers, bringing tourists and revenue. It formed part of the Three Lochs Tour, in which steamers would take passengers from Helensburgh up Loch Long to Arrochar, detouring via Loch Goil. From Arrochar, they would head overland the mile or so to Tarbet on the shores of Loch Lomond, there to take a freshwater steamer to Balloch.
The last paddle-steamer to run the Helensburgh-Arrochar route was PS Waverley, operated first by the railway and then by Caledonian MacBrayne, who sold her off — by the early 1970s her route was uneconomic and she required significant repairs. So too did Arrochar Pier, damaged in storms.
The service was withdrawn and the pier remnants crumbled away but Waverley was saved and restored by enthusiasts. She now cruises annually, overwintering in Glasgow, where the Lemming and I saw her.
Long before the earliest paddle steamers puffed their way up Loch Long, Arrochar was visited by other, more sinister vessels.
In 1263, some sixty Viking longboats sailed up the loch, despatched by Norway’s King Håkon IV as part of his war for control of the region against Scotland’s King Alexander III. They landed at Arrochar and, having raided the village, cut timber rollers to allow them to port their vessels to Tarbet and relaunch them on Loch Lomond, terrorising the settlements on that landlocked, freshwater loch.
The campaign culminated in the Battle of Largs later that year, which proved a strategic victory for the Scots.
The Scots in Arrochar and the nearest shores of Loch Lomond (and thus the recipients of the Viking raiders’ attentions) were those of Clan MacFarlane. The clan was sufficiently infamous for cattle theft and other crimes that not only was it denounced by the government in 1594 for robbery, murder and tyranny but it gave the moon — by whose light they made their mischief — the local nickname of ‘MacFarlane’s Lantern.’
Following a general pattern of Scottish history, the McFarlanes were often locked in conflict with foes far more hated than marauding Norwegians, namely other Scots. For example, they they fought against the Colquhouns in the 1624 Battle of Glen Fruin, earning themselves new infamy and a whole bunch of murder trials.
It is perhaps not surprising that this clan, which didn’t play well with others nor want any witnesses, would only allow fellow MacFarlanes to live on their lands until as recently as 1787. Today, by contrast, it welcomes strangers, tourism being its main industry.
At the western edge of Arrochar is the stream that empties into the head of Loch Long. This is the ancient boundary between Dunbartonshire and Argyll (Arrochar fell within the former though today it is part of Argyll & Bute). The stream goes by the name of Loin Water; make of that what you will.
Bodach means ‘old man’ but also refers to a trickster or bogeyman in Gaelic folklore, one that can also be an omen of death. See, I told you not to offend him. I was just glad that he wasn’t offering me socks.
Loch Long & Coilessan Glen
I crossed Loin Water by means of a small footbridge, slightly downstream from the road bridge. From it, I was able to gaze down Loch Long.
On the far side of Loin Water was the village of Succoth, not that I saw much of it from the loch-side.
I passed through a car park and joined the A83 for all of about thirty seconds. This was unexpected — I was anticipating two miles beside the A-road — but a forest track opposite was signed for the Cowal Way. I took the track, grateful to avoid the traffic, and was still feeling more-or-less grateful even after it had zig-zagged its way up 100 m of steep hillside.
I was now on the lower slopes of Beinn Narnain (926 m at its summit) and following a Forestry Commission logging road. Or at least I would be, once I’d got my breath back. Fortunately, the people behind the Cowal Way — the Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust — had anticipated that the climb from the A-road might come as a shock to the legs and had provided a bench. I gratefully sat on it.
At this point, honesty compels me to admit that for all that I had just climbed 100 m, the actual climb should not have been all that arduous. The problem was less with the path than with me. Four months of effective hibernation had had a detrimental effect on my stamina. This was not a surprise, however — it was why this particular trip would only involve two days’ walking.
As soon as my legs were persuaded that they were in fact legs, and not wobbly things just leg-shaped for the fun of it, off I went.
Loch Long Torpedo Range
The track was a typical forestry road, hemmed in by trees and formed of compacted earth and gravel. With the sun rising into the sky, it made for a pleasant, light-dappled stroll. This soon carried me past the narrow, ribbon-like waterfall of a stream — Allt a’ Bhallachain — hurling itself down the mountainside. Somewhere down below was the site of the old Loch Long Torpedo Range, a Royal Navy torpedo-testing station opened in 1912 and which became the scene of an espionage drama in 1915:
Augusto Alfredo Roggen
With WW1 raging, Uruguayan citizen Augusto Alfredo Roggen was arrested in nearby Tarbet with a revolver, invisible ink, a map of the local area and a contact list in his hotel room. Roggen was half-German and married to a German but neither looked nor sounded German himself. He had initially posed as a farmer before heading to Loch Long for a fishing holiday despite owning no fishing gear and Loch Long being restricted and under a fishing ban.
Unfortunately for him, his plans to spy for Germany had been pretty much doomed since before he’d headed north from London. While there, he had sent two postcards to Rotterdam, both of which had been intercepted by the security services who recognised the address to which they were sent (they copied them and released them, so as to arouse no suspicion that they were on to him).
He had posed little threat mooching about in London or discussing farming business — about which he knew little, it turned out — but the authorities decided that they didn’t want Roggen taking an interest in the torpedo range and other nearby facilities; he was arrested within five hours of arriving at the Tarbet Hotel.
Removed to London, he was found guilty of espionage and a plea for clemency from the Uruguayan ambassador was denied. He was subsequently shot at the Tower of London.
Ben Arthur Resort
The torpedo range remained operational for another 71 years, finally closing in 1986. Thereafter abandoned, it caught fire in 2007 and was partly demolished, with plans for a new hotel and holiday resort — to be called the Ben Arthur Resort — later being raised. The site was acquired by the resort developers and planning permission granted in 2013 but they built nothing and the planning permission lapsed.
With the site empty, it suffered from fly tipping and the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority recently served them with an Amenity Notice requiring them to tidy up the site and close vehicle access. The Ben Arthur Resort Company is said to still be keen to build there in the long term.
The Ben Arthur resort would take its name from Ben Arthur (Beinn Artair), also known as the Cobbler, one of the so-called ‘Arrochar Alps.’ Having crossed the Allt a’ Bhallachain, it was now the lower reaches of Ben Arthur upon which I was walking.
The forestry road forked but the waymarks were clear and I was rather enjoying my morning woodland stroll. Sun-dappled woodland is always a favourite but it helped that the Forestry Commission has a real thing for conifers, and they’re not the sort of trees that want to pollinate my nose.
After some time, the track emerged from the tree cover and started to wind its way back down towards the road. Freed from the screen of green needles, I could now see the top of the Cobbler, dusted with what was probably snow but also looked like it might be icing sugar. Or cocaine.
Coilessan Glen or Glen Croe?
As the path wound down to the A83, I had a decision to make. I could continue with the plan and stay on the Cowal Way, or I could follow the A-road up Glen Croe. This had been an option for if I thought the Cowal Way might be badly waymarked, but the Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust had done a really good job so far.
I was still a little concerned at whether I might find snow (or sugar or cocaine) on the ground in the Cowal Way’s pass though. Glen Croe, on the other hand, featured an old military road alongside the A83, and I have a fondness for those. It also led up to the Rest and Be Thankful viewpoint, named for an inscription left by Major William Caulfeild’s engineers upon completion of the road in 1749.
I was quite tempted to take the route via Rest and Be Thankful, if only because the last time I’d been there it was raining and the time before that my age had been in single digits. Also, it was less than half the height of the other pass. It did present some drawbacks though, not least of which were adding four miles to the journey and, while some of that would be on the Old Military Road, some of it would be dodging vehicles on the modern one.
The traffic on the A83 was looking murderous, while the Cowal Way appeared to be trying to tempt me with a delightfully gurgling stream.
I chose Croe Water, of course. The path ran along it for a short while before crossing via a bridge. I now found myself on a narrow road upon which the concept of vehicular danger, upset at having been shunned, decided to pursue me and show me what I was missing. A packed coach suddenly appeared as if from nowhere (actually the Ardgartan Hotel) and cornered in a manner that very nearly wasn’t. I watched it hurtle past to join the A83 and decided my choice had been the right one.
The path now returned me to Loch Long, beginning a leafy loch-side amble that only further cemented my certainty.
The shores of the loch formed small, gravelly beaches and I stood on one of these to look back up the loch and witness the many-windowed splendour of the Ardgartan Hotel.
Opened in 2012, it was purpose-built on the site of an earlier hostel, which had ceased trading in 2001 and then suffered a decade of dereliction. It looked rather splendid.
The hostel that preceded it was built on the site of a late 18th century house acquired by the Scottish Youth Hostel Association in 1936 It had had several owners before them, the first being the Campbells, who’d had it built as a three-storey home but sold it off in the 1880s. A medieval building had preceded it, for Clan Campbell had dominated Argyll for centuries.
I turned my back on Ardgartan Hotel and pressed on. The path veered slightly inland, conveying me past another waterfall — a stream descending from Cruach Fhiarach, a subsidiary 643 m-high peak of the mountain called the Brack (787 m) — before joining a quiet road. This led me towards the hamlet of Coilessan.
At Coilessan, the road forked, dropping down towards the houses on the left and continuing on the right to become a Forestry Commission road. This was not the loveliest of such tracks, seemingly having been made mostly out of grey mud. I followed it past some heavy plant machinery and onwards for a short distance before coming to a junction. The track I was on led off ahead into the distance while another, signed for the Cowal Way, branched off ninety degrees to the right.
Leaving Loch Long
Here, if I wished, I could make another decision: I could stick to the Cowal Way or continue ahead, taking a longer loop — the Duke’s Path — to get to the same destination. Well, I figured, I’ve stuck with the Cowal Way so far. And so, I turned right. The road began to climb immediately and I glanced back over my shoulder to bid farewell to Loch Long.
The Forestry Commission road climbed slowly up Coilessan Glen. Occasionally other roads would meet but I pressed onwards, pausing only to smother myself in sunscreen in an optimistic but ultimately doomed attempt not to go scarlet.
As I went, the trail rose and fell but kept climbing overall. Eventually, though, it became clear that I would run out of road before I ran out of mountain to ascend. Somewhere up ahead was a pass or bealach, and the minimum height it could be at was the lowest hill or mountain top I could see. This was a section between a 578 m sub-peak of the Brack on my right and the 761 m Cnoc Coinnich on my left. According to my map, the pass was merely 490 m, well below the level of a mountain, but that wasn’t all that great a relief as I didn’t reckon the logging road had exceeded 300 m. I could expect a pretty steep climb coming up.
Onwards and Upwards
As expected, a narrow footpath broke off from the road and quickly started to climb. As it gained height it also gained snow but this was in scattered clumps that never covered the whole path. The path veered off through the trees on the left of the photo above, quickly climbing almost 200 m. It ended at the top of the tree line with a gate leading out onto open moorland.
Here, the snow covered in much larger patches but could still be diverted around. I had just a few more metres of ascent and then I could pause and look back down Glen Coilessan.
The bealach itself was mostly on the level but tufty and boggy underfoot. A tiny lochan (a small loch or tarn) was mostly frozen and patches of snow were, as mentioned, plentiful. A stone cairn marked that this was indeed the pass and I plonked myself down on a handy rock and decided that it was time to break for lunch; the snow made an excellent drink-cooler.
I Meant to Do That
Seeing as how this ground was mostly flat and thus had no scope to fall off or roll down it, when I set off again I stopped walking around the snow and instead strode confidently across it. Which was a mistake.
‘Blimey, that’s cold,’ I thought as I faceplanted in it, ‘it’s also definitely snow.’
I picked myself up and squelched off across the bog, following the trail of marker poles that showed the way.
I soon encountered other people up there, heading in various different directions, and was warned that the way down would prove to be a bit muddy. This prediction was quickly borne out for the descent was not a distinct footpath as my ascent had been, but simply a hillside with marker poles, perhaps best described as ‘bog at an angle.’
I squelched down this slope while concentrating hard on not slipping over on the mud. After a while, the path plunged back into forest and followed a gurgling stream. If anything, this bit of path was even muddier than the bog, which had at least had the tufty grass to bind it all together.
‘It’ll be Fun,’ She Said.
On my way down, I met a couple coming up although not exactly together. She was forging ahead, springing lightly up the slippery path like some sort of mud-hopping gazelle. He was plodding sullenly behind, a mixture of anguish and determination etched into his face by adversity.
I stood aside to let him pass and he paused to greet me. And by ‘greet’ I mean ‘use me as an excuse to stop and rest.’ He was struggling, having just discovered the hard way that he was not physically accustomed to what he was doing, which was something that had clearly not been his idea. He seemed to have no idea how high the hill was nor what was up there and was hoping he was near the top (he really wasn’t). But, I have to give him full credit, he accepted the bad news with stoic resignation and forced himself onwards up the hill. I was impressed.
I, meanwhile, kept heading downwards. This required the opposite of forcing, in that the mud was extremely keen to hasten my descent.
Approaching Loch Goil
By the time I reached the bottom, the excitement had shaded into tedium and I was quite delighted to find myself on level ground. The path became a metalled track, winding through forest and fields and then suddenly I got my first glimpse of Loch Goil:
The path became crowded with all manner of outdoors types as it wound down to the village of Lochgoilhead (Ceann Loch Goibhle). There, I availed myself of a handy pub to stop and rest with a drink in hand; I may have also enjoyed a supplementary snack.
Lochgoilhead is ancient and has long been Campbell territory Its position at the head of an arm of Loch Long, which itself is an arm of the Firth of Clyde, historically made it a useful stop for travellers heading west. Boats would convey them from Glasgow to Lochgoilhead, from where a coach would take them to Loch Fyne for the crossing to Inverary. Today, the A83 bypasses it several miles to the north, though a single-track B-road connects it to Rest and Be Thankful.
For me, Lochgoilhead and the loch it takes its name from, marked the halfway point of my journey. I had done nine miles (of horizontal distance) to reach Loch Goil and I had nine miles still to go.
When I was ready to continue, the Cowal Way conveyed me around the head of the loch and along the far side from that at which I had arrived. At the outdoor centre at Lettermay it swung inward and joined another forest road, which I knew would take me to the next pass. Fed, rested and feeling accomplished, I strode along with a song in my heart and barely a backward glance for Loch Goil.
Bealach an Lochain
The road kept roughly in line with the Lettermay Burn, climbing to follow the stream from partway up the valley wall. After a while, the valley steepened, and the course of the stream rose to the level of the road. A footbridge carried me across it and, immediately after, the Cowal Way left the road.
Initially, it was on a well-made path but that section was clearly still under construction and soon came to an end. Thereafter, it was so wet and squelchy that it was like walking on sponge.
The path was following a small stream, a tributary to Lettermay Burn, which came down from a pass between the mountains of Beinn Bheula (779 m) and Beinn Lochain (703 m). And I do mean down. Bealach an Lochain (‘tarn pass’) was about halfway up those mountains, while where I was standing was no higher than 150 m. Coming out of the pass, the stream quickly dropped some 200 m in a glittering cascade of waterfalls known as Sruth Bàn (meaning ‘fair torrent’).
I looked upon Sruth Bàn with both joy and trepidation — it was clear that if the stream was coming down there then I would need to go up it.
And so it proved. The ‘path’ once again became a series of waymark poles between which one could navigate as one thought best. The route climbed a steep and squelchy hillside that essentially comprised boggy ledges and steps. I laboriously squelched my way up the first incline, glad I had taken my walking poles. Partway up, it levelled off, providing me with a place in which to pause and get my breath back before squelching up the next slope.
As I stood there, cursing my unfitness, I had the inverse conversation to the one I’d had descending from the other pass. A couple, equipped with poles and ice axes and all manner of kit, appeared at the top of the waterfall and quickly descended to where I stood. There they chatted amiably with me, providing me with a reason to rest a little longer. The route ahead was boggy, they said.
I looked at my feet, where a puddle had squeezed itself out of the bog and was trying to soak through my boots (it failed). As boggy or boggier, I queried? Very boggy, I was told. Boggier than last time they did this, although they were cycling then.
I tested the squelchiness underfoot with my toe and enquired, a little disbelievingly, how they rode on such a surface and indeed how they rode down the slope I’d just climbed up.
‘Oh, we carry our bikes for this bit,’ they said. They then asked where I was heading, and it was their turn to express disbelief. There was no way I’d reach Strachur before it got dark, they opined. I feared they might be right; my stop in Lochgoilhead had been a little more leisurely than I’d intended. It was time to press on.
Knowing that other people hopped up and down beside the waterfall while carrying bicycles and barely thinking anything of it could have been disheartening, but I chose to see it another way and powered up the last incline like a man unencumbered by a pedal vehicle.
Soon, Bealach an Lochain lay before me, the late afternoon sun reflecting blindingly off the waters of Curra Lochan. Dazzled, I turned about and looked back the way I had come, gazing out over the valley of Lettermay Burn.
Bealach an Lochain is named for its principal feature, Curra Lochan (‘heron tarn’). This lochan or tarn is half a mile long and takes up most of the pass. The path therefore must navigate its boggy edges in a further squelchy pole-to-pole adventure. I rather enjoyed it.
There had been no snow on my side of the lochan, perhaps because it was bathed in the afternoon sun.
As I left the lochan behind, the ‘path’ continued across the boggy pass to a stile and a left-hand turn, where it skirted the forest. It somehow contrived to get boggier still before requiring me to hop across Leavanin Burn. It then shadowed the burn, heading west until it met up with a forestry road.
By now, the sun was quite low in the sky and soon dipped behind the hill of Beinn Lagan ahead. The road I was on would take me around the base of that hill before connecting up with the public road that would convey me to Strachur.
The Home Stretch
I fairly bombed along the forestry road, even though I knew that the Bog-Cyclers had been correct; I didn’t now expect to reach Strachur in daylight.
Although the sun was occluded from me by Beinn Lagan, I could tell that sunset was nigh by the orange glow bathing the top of neighbouring Cruach na Cioba (a part of Beinn Lochain).
The orange glow faded to be replaced by the peculiar blueness of twilight as I rounded Beinn Lagan and crossed the River Cur. That too was fading by the time I reached Strachur, with full darkness falling just as I arrived.
My hotel, when I found it, was a very welcome sight and I reflected on the day’s achievements over dinner and a drink. It had been a good day.
This time: 18 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,708 miles