WHAT defines a coastal walk? Does it have to be along the coast or in sight of the coast or just near the coast? And then how much so? Does starting and ending at the coast count? And what about the shore of a freshwater lake? Isn’t that a sort of inland coast? Does it matter? With these questions very much in mind, I consulted my personal rules of walking…
…And got the answer NULL, which is what happens when you not only lack any actual rules but also design databases for a living. Duly freed from the parameters of perambulatory philosophy, I resolved to care not one fig but simply to do what seemed fun and made sense.
A Cunning Plan
With regards to the latter consideration, I wanted to end my walk in Dunoon as from there I could take a ferry to Gourock and access the railway network, enabling me to get home. The most direct route from Strachur to Dunoon involved walking the seven-mile length of Loch Eck, a freshwater loch that almost bisected the peninsula. Yes, that seemed like fun; I’d do that.
So I did. It was great.
The day began with a hearty breakfast in my hotel in Strachur. This village faces onto the sea loch of Loch Fyne, though its oldest part — known as Clachan, meaning ‘hamlet’ — is further inland. Where the name Clachan is quite literal, Strachur (Srath Chura) is a little more poetic, supposedly coming from Gaelic srath chorr, which means ‘heron valley.’
Initially a fishing and farming village, the villagers built themselves a pier to allow access from puffers (coal-fired cargo steamboats) and later passenger steamers.
By the early 1900s, tourism was in full swing and a popular ‘Loch Eck Tour’ had become established, whereby passengers from Glasgow would disembark at Dunoon and be conveyed by carriage up the road alongside Loch Eck. On reaching Strachur, they would board a ferry across Loch Fyne to Inverary.
The ferry had steamed from directly opposite the hotel in which I was staying but both it and its pier were long vanished (the latter demolished with explosives during the 1960s). Fortunately, I didn’t need them since I was going the other way — essentially I was doing the coach portion of the Loch Eck Tour, only backwards and on foot. Despite this, the sea loch beckoned temptingly with its blueness, trying to get me to change my mind.
Shopping & Sunshine
I resisted Loch Fyne’s watery charms but was totally waylaid by Strachur’s village shop, in which I purchased snacks and additional water (I already had half a bottle I’d liberated from my hotel room). The shopkeeper correctly deduced that I was walking and opined that I had the weather for it. She wasn’t wrong. The forecast had been for sunny intervals but the number of those intervals was looking to be singular; there would be blue skies and sunshine for most of the day.
Having stocked up on provisions, I rejoined the Cowal Way. For the first three miles I would be following the exact same route as that footpath as it made its way down country back roads.
A Smashing Time
With exquisite timing near the edge of the village, just as I passed the local primary school, the water bottle I’d taken from my hotel room somehow made an escape bid from my bag. It leapt for freedom with suicidal style — for the bottle was glass — and smashed upon the floor. I looked down at the shards of glass, artistically arranged within an expanding puddle. I looked up at the school. I’d probably not have just walked off anyway but there was no way whatsoever that I was leaving a patch of broken glass for a bunch of kids to discover the hard way come Monday morning.
It turned out that only the top two thirds of the bottle had shattered, which meant that with care I could carry the pieces using the bottom third. And so, carefully clutching a collection of razor-sharp glass shards, I continued on my way hoping to find a litter bin somewhere along the way.
The road ran down the valley of the River Cur, which flowed somewhere off to my left. After a couple of miles, the road and river ran close together and it would probably have been delightfully gurgling had it not been drowned out by intermittent traffic noise. The A815 — the modern incarnation of the old coach route — ran on the opposite side.
Before long, I came to the hamlet of Glanbranter, where the Cowal Way and I parted company. Other things from which I parted company there included the A815, which simply bypassed the hamlet, and the hazardous handful of glass shards, for which I finally found a suitable bin.
At Glenbranter I entered land that was not only owned by the Forestry Commission but was in fact the first land acquired by them in Scotland, purchased in 1921 from entertainer Sir Harry Lauder.
Lauder, a music hall singer and comedian and the highest-paid performer in the world at that time, had harboured ambitions to be a landowning laird. Sadly, his son’s death in WW1 drained all the joy from it, leading him to sell up and become something of a recluse. Following the sale, houses were built for the forest workers, thus creating Glenbranter village. Lauder’s mansion house — the only original building — was demolished in the 1960s and its site is now a car park near Glanbranter visitor centre.
The visitor centre was closed when I got there, it being both a Sunday and a little early for tourist season. The public conveniences were conveniently open but beyond answering a call of nature, there was little else to do there.
There were multiple possible routes from Glenbranter. The Cowal Way struck off southwest along the actual Glen Branter. Another route, directly south, headed into Glen Shellish. A farm, inevitably named Glenshellish, stood at the foot of that valley and my route took me past its gates. The farmhouse didn’t look particularly noteworthy to me — and so I took no photo of it — but I now gather that it is unusually formal for a rural house that lacks a great estate.
It was built in 1826 for marine engineer David Napier (1790-1869) who ran daily passenger steamers from Glasgow to Kilmun (on the shores of the Holy Loch). Connecting services led on to Inverary and he even put a small steamer on Loch Eck. This vessel — Aglaia — was launched in 1827 and built to Napier’s own design and was one of the earliest iron steam passenger ships in the world. That sounds impressive but is slightly misleading, as she was actually iron-bottomed with timber sides.
Napier sold off his steamboats in the late 1830s after a series of embarrassing boiler explosions killed a number of passengers. He put his steamer empire (and Glenshellish) behind him, moving to London to run a shipyard in Millwall.
Miscellaneous Motorbike Noises
The track set off east then swung southeast, as you can see in the photo. It was now heading for nearby Loch Eck, whose waters were quiet and still.
Slightly less quiet was the A815, which ran along the far shore. Mostly it was just far enough away that traffic noise did not reach me but, it being Sunday, groups of weekend bikers were out and about, letting everyone with ears know that they were there.
The hill in the photo is Beinn Dhubain (649 m), just one of several rugged peaks hemming in the seven-mile loch. Others included Beinn Ruadh (664 m) and Beinn Bhreac (623 m) on the eastern side and Clach Bheinn (643 m), Beinn Mhòr (741 m) and Beinn Bheag (618 m) on the west. The names of the latter two translate as ‘great peak’ and ‘little peak’ respectively.
Hemmed in on both sides by these mountains, Loch Eck owes its existence to glacial action. Today, of course, the glaciers of the last ice age have long since receded but they leave their mark on not just the geography but also the ecology of Loch Eck.
The loch is one of only two places in Scotland — the other being Loch Lomond — that forms a natural habitat for the powan. And what’s that (you probably ask)?
The powan (Coregonus clupeoides) is a relict of the ice age, a freshwater whitefish related to the salmon and presumed to be descended from migratory salmonids land-locked in the distant past. In Loch Lomond, it is losing to an invasive species (the ruffe) but in Loch Eck it still thrives. Not that I saw one, of course.
The Unseen Eck
Having paid insufficient attention to the contour lines on my Ordnance Survey map, I was expecting the forestry road to run right beside the loch. In truth, it wasn’t set back all that far but it climbed quickly so that it was displaced as much up as away. Being Forestry Commission land it was also unsurprisingly planted with forest and for much of the first few miles the trees often hid all sight of the loch. It hardly mattered.
The sky was blue, the birds were singing and sunlight was dappling through the trees. Occasional waterfalls splashed beside the path as water cascaded off the peaks. It was glorious.
Lunch on a Log
Bounding along joyfully, I followed the track for a couple of miles until my grumbling stomach compelled me to stop and eat lunch. A handy felled tree served as both makeshift bench and table.
The nice lady in Strachur’s shop had said I’d be glad of my purchased snacks later and she was entirely right.
My lunch devoured, I sat there for a moment, simply watching the world go by. From the evidence of my eyes, very little of it did, except perhaps the odd insect. At intermittent intervals my ears begged to differ — some parts of the world were still going past on two wheels.
Eilean a’ Chocaire
Looking at my map, I saw that somewhere across the loch from my position, and experiencing every decibel of motorbike noise close up and personal, was Island Farm.
The farmhouse is not itself on an island, being situated on the loch shore; the island in its name is a crannog — an ancient artificial island, usually fortified — about 50 m off the shore. Or at least it was. Formerly known as Eilean a’ Chocaire meaning ‘island of cooking,’ local tradition holds that Robert the Bruce was once entertained on it. Since then, not only has time seen its structure crumble but the erection of a small dam at Loch Eck’s outflow in the 1970s has raised the water levels enough to almost submerge it.
Today, it barely breaks the surface, notable only as a site of a few dead trees sticking forlornly from the waters, a feature too small to be recorded on my map.
Eventually, I arose from the comfort of my tree trunk and set off once more along the forestry road. It was not long before I came upon another reminder of the ravages of time:
This was once the farmhouse of Stuck, nestling beside Stuck Burn and part of the Bernice Estate. It has stood on the western shore of Loch Eck since at least 1675, when it shows up in tax assessment documents.
In the 1860s, it and Bernice — another farm further down the shore — were advertised for sale in the Glasgow Herald. Stuck comprised two buildings, both in stone, and a walled yard.
Once, it was somebody’s home. I’ve been unable to find out when it was abandoned but it looks like it’s been quite a while.
South of Stuck and about halfway down the length of Loch Eck, the forest road descended to the level of the shore as it passed the farmhouse of Bernice. Unlike its companion, Bernice is still occupied although those occupants change with dizzying frequency.
Built in 1778, it now belongs to the Benmore Centre for Outdoor Learning for which it provides accommodation. Accordingly, the path became busy with walkers and cyclists as I passed it.
With the abandonment of Stuck, Bernice is now the only settlement of any kind along Loch Eck’s western shore. The centre’s own literature warns would-be guests — who I suppose by definition are learning about the outdoors — that Bernice is remote: The next nearest habitation by road is in Benmore, four miles to the south and Bernice possesses no telephone.
And if you think you’ll just use your mobile, you can think again; all those lovely hills make a great barrier to signal. I’d discovered this earlier (not that I was surprised by it) when I had remembered that it was Mothering Sunday; my mum would have to wait for any call from her son.
Walking, by Eck!
As my feet carried me past Bernice, I saw that the path ahead was making no effort to regain the elevation it had lost. For the second half of the loch, I would be walking close by the shore much as I’d originally expected.
Sharing the Splendour
The density of people enjoying the loch-side decreased as I put Bernice behind me, but never entirely returned to the solitude I’d had beforehand. Plenty of others were keen to make the most of those four miles of forest road linking Benmore and the farm. I didn’t begrudge them their presence one jot; there was a lot to enjoy and it wasn’t as if they were using it all up.
The path conveyed me past a dilapidated wooden shed that may have once been used by the farm but now stands empty and forlorn. There is still some farming on Loch Eck’s western shore but it is no longer the province of Stuck or Bernice. Benmore Home Farm, just south of the loch’s foot, waters its cattle along the south-west shore. I know this because I was surprised to suddenly find a herd of cows blocking the lane as they shuffled slowly towards the water.
The road, which had been robust and dry until that point, suddenly became a foul-smelling ankle-deep quagmire in the way that only a place walked on by cattle can be. The cows, clearly used to people passing by them, barely looked up as I squelched my way past. I, at least, had the foresight to still be wearing waterproof walking boots. The family of four I passed shortly after were about to put their trainers to the test.
End of the Loch
Once I’d passed the cows, I didn’t have very much loch left to walk. At its southern end, where the loch empties into the River Eachaig the shore was occupied by a water treatment works, taking in loch water to turn it into drinking water. An accompanying low dam, less than a metre high, was built in 1973 to turn the loch into an impounding reservoir to be a source of fresh water for Dunoon.
Benmore Botanic Garden
At the water works the road became properly metalled and continued away from Loch Eck along the valley (Strath Eachaig). The road was leafy and cool, overshadowed by trees and flanked by mossy woodland. It soon conveyed me to an old Victorian stable block beside which were metal gates. I had reached Benmore Botanic Garden, through whose grounds I intended to cut.
Originally a hunting estate of the Dukes of Argyll, the Benmore Estate was sold and passed through the hands of several owners during the 19th century including wealthy American James Piers Patrick — who planted an avenue of decidedly non-native Giant Redwoods — and Edinburgh brewer Henry Younger.
Younger’s son gave the estate to the nation in 1924 and the Forestry Commission snapped up most of the land. Benmore House and its grounds were acquired five years later by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh as an outstation for some of its more humidity-dependent plants. They still own it today.
A sign on the gate indicated that I needed to have bought a ticket to roam the gardens, while a map just inside the gate — and which I could therefore only look at by sneaking in without a ticket — revealed that the ticket office was at the other end of the gardens. I should, in theory, have detoured around the garden’s perimeter and joined the A815 to get to the ticket office but I figured that — in keeping with my reverse Lock Eck Tour — I could probably get away with doing things backwards. I thus entered the gardens anyway, intending to purchase a ticket when I got to the main entrance.
It was perhaps a bit too early, too far north for the gardens to be spectacular, but they were pleasant nonetheless. And I was more than happy to strain my neck staring up at the tops of the sequoias.
Just Take My Money, Please!
I made my way through the gardens to the café and ticket office. In the latter, I bemused the lady behind the counter with my honesty as I tried to pay for the walk through the garden that I’d already had.
In response, she pointed out that I’d missed most of the interesting things and that sections of it would soon start closing anyway, it being quite late in the afternoon. Because you’d miss so much, they didn’t bother charging if you turned up right at the end of the day and so, if I spent long enough in the café, I wouldn’t actually need to pay.
Good to know, I thought, but I’d already wandered through it when I should have paid. We compromised and I chucked several pound coins into their donation box.
Tea & Cake
A leisurely tea followed in the café; there may also have been cake. The sun was still splendid and I saw no need to hurry — I’d already walked twelve miles and I wanted a bit of a rest before I attempted the last seven.
The Old Road
When I felt suitably fed and rested I left Benmore Botanic Garden and crossed the A815. The A-road wasn’t roaringly busy late on a Sunday afternoon but it wasn’t exactly ideal for walking on either. Having studied my map over tea and cake I knew that a cycle path / forest road ran more-or-less parallel to it for the first mile and it was this along which I now strode. The A-road remained visible, off to my right, but my route was considerably quieter.
For all that the path I was on was not the A815 it did seem suspiciously convenient and rather well-situated for the few houses it passed. I quickly began to suspect that this was the old road alignment and at some point the A815 had been straightened. My suspicion was confirmed as I passed the start of a footpath up Puck’s Glen, a delightful wooded gorge with tumbling waterfalls. While the glen itself looked inviting (though sadly in the wrong direction for my needs), I found what stood in front of it more interesting.
Here Be Dragons
Having confirmed that I was indeed on the old road, I soon found myself on the new one as the path ended at a car park. For the next half mile or so, I had no choice but to brave the traffic. Fortunately there was a fairly broad verge and I kept my eye out for hazards.
This magnificent beast stood with various other forms outside a property in the hamlet of Rashfield, the sign of which proclaimed it to be ‘Chainsaw Craft’. Opened in 1998, this is the studio of sculptor and ex-forest worker Andy Maclachlan, who discovered an unexpected talent during his twenty-odd years as a chainsaw operator.
The sculptures I could see from the road were spectacular and I didn’t dare hang about in case I bought one on impulse. I mean, how the hell would I carry it?
After a while the A815 was met by the A880 and the latter road brought pedestrian pavement with it, which was nice.
The road then conveyed me past a petrol station or, as I preferred to think of it, a purveyor of ice creams. Merrily munching my ice cream, I strolled along to the hamlet of Invereck and the boundary of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Immediately — and, I thought, amusingly — the moment I left the national park (where so many people go to cycle and walk) the pavement became broader and much better-maintained, transforming into a combined cycle and foot path.
Regaining the Coast
I followed the path as it snaked towards Dunoon and, glancing to my left, saw the actual coast:
The sight of the sea gave me an entirely false feeling of being almost there and I positively strode into Sandbank.
A village on the shore of the Holy Loch, Sandbank witnessed development as a resort during the heyday of the Clyde steamers. A pier was constructed at nearby Ardnadam (Àird nan Damh—headland of the deer/oxen) in 1858. At 60 m (200 ft), this was the longest pier on the Firth of Clyde and amazingly, though the steamers are gone, the pier persists today.
Former Submarine Base
One thing that helped keep the pier intact and in use was war. First, WW2 brought Royal Navy submarines to Sandbank and then, after a post-war lull, the Cold War brought the US Navy. Between 1961 and 1992 the Americans based their Polaris-armed subs in the Holy Loch and Sandbank and Dunoon came to depend on their trade.
Sandbank War Memorial
Sandbank War Memorial was completed in 1922, paid for by public subscription to the tune of £800. Further names were added to its inscriptions in 1947 — not just the names of locals who fell in WW2 but also the names of subs that never returned.
The memorial’s position on Lazaretto Point is suitably prominent but was also badly affected by erosion. It started to experience serious problems during the 1990s and, by 2003, was facing imminent collapse. Fortunately, it proved possible to not only repair it but improve its immediate environs, thanks to £45 k raised from grants and donations.
In keeping with a conurbation that developed as a Victorian resort, most of the buildings that I was passing were typical seaside houses of that period. Most, but not all. Rising above its protective wall and hedges, I saw the turrets of something a little bit different from its neighbours: Hafton Castle.
Hafton House, as it was originally named, was indeed earlier than Victorian but not that much. It was built between 1816 and 1820, when George III was on the throne. Not that it looks particularly Georgian.
This kind of castellated house was often built for a socially aspirant industrialist and in this case that person was a man named James Hunter. The architect he engaged to design it was Glasgow-based David Hamilton, who would later come third in the competition to design the new Palace of Westminster when the old one burnt down in 1834. At about the same time, James Hunter, who had become involved in the Clyde Steamer business, would be building Dunoon Pier. Today
Hafton House —or Hafton Castle as it is now marketed—is available for private hire. It is essentially a 19-bedroom holiday cottage, hireable for a smidgin over £6 k a week (but bring your own towels for the swimming pool).
Unlikely Olympic Venue
Hafton Castle is located in Hunter’s Quay (Camas Rainich), which like Sandbank, Ardnadam and its neighbour on the other side, Kirn, is a village largely subsumed into Dunoon’s conurbation.
In 1908, Hunter’s Quay played unlikely host to the Olympic Games, when the 12-metre class yacht race was held there for convenience — there were only two entrants, one from Liverpool and the other from the Clyde. The Royal Clyde Yacht Club (RCYC) moved to Rhu in the 1950s, so, today at Hunter’s Quay, you are more likely to see a different type of vessel entirely.
Operated by Western Ferries, the vehicle ferries from Hunter’s Quay cross the Firth of Clyde to McInroy’s Point in Gourock, which would otherwise be a road journey of over 80 miles via Dumbarton and Arrochar. Both the ferry points are somewhat peripheral to their towns but a different, foot-passenger-only ferry operates between the centres. I would be using that in the morning, after staying overnight in a hotel.
My hotel would also be more central, though Hunter’s Quay did its best to persuade me I’d made a mistake.
Royal Marine Hotel
This magnificent building is Victorian but styled to look somewhat older. It was built in 1856 as the Marine Hotel and acquired by the RCYC in 1875. It didn’t look as it does originally but a devastating fire in 1888 gave the club a chance to engage a new architect and rebuild it. The architect they chose was Thomas Lennox Watson (1850-1920) and he certainly delivered. Renamed as the Royal Marine Hotel, it reopened in 1890.
Since I was not staying in the Royal Marine Hotel, no matter how enamoured I was of its mock-Tudor style, I pressed on.
East Bay Promenade
The pedestrian pavement along the shoreline soon broadened out into a proper seaside promenade. Periodically, steps would lead down to a pebbly beach or else they wouldn’t — for while the promenade itself was well-maintained, Dunoon appeared to have selected just some of the access steps as worth keeping. The rest, crumbling and forlorn, were themselves blocked from access by the promenade’s railings.
The sun had just set and daylight was giving way to twilight when I paused beside those railings and looked across the Firth of Clyde to Gourock and the lighthouse at Cloch Point. I recalled that I had been there seven walks ago. That’s about 130 miles of walking for anyone who’s counting.
I quickened my pace, aware that the twilight was finite, and soon enough I was approaching the centre of Dunoon. Ahead I could see Dunoon Pier — an 1895 rebuilding of James Hunter’s 1835 original — and the motte of what had once been Dunoon Castle. I looked upon them with relief, for I was now feeling quite weary.
For a defensive structure, Dunoon Castle had quite a history of getting captured or otherwise changing hands.
Built atop a 24 m (80 ft) volcanic plug by Clan Lamont in the 12th century, the castle was one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland and had a triangular plan with a tower at each corner. The Lamonts had long dominated that part of the Cowal Peninsula but their fortunes faltered during the Wars of Scottish Independence.
Wars of Scottish Independence
In the decades that followed the death of King Alexander III in 1286, rival claimants vied for the throne and — with a tremendous lack of foresight — invited England’s royal psychopath and conquest addict Edward I to adjudicate, which went about as well you’d expect.
One of the key candidates was Robert the Bruce, another was known as the Red Comyn. The Lamonts were supporters of the latter, which proved a bit of a problem when Robert the Bruce murdered him and became king. They lost much of their land including Dunoon, which fell into the hands of the Campbells.
No man lives forever though, and Robert’s death in 1329 kicked off another succession crisis. Edward Balliol, a kinsman of the Red Comyn and son of John Balliol — Robert’s predecessor and bitter rival — made a bid for power with the backing of Edward III (Edward I’s grandson). He recaptured Dunoon Castle from the Campbells and turned it over to his English backer but couldn’t hold on to the whole country. Eventually defeated, he fled and Robert’s son David II became king.
The Campbells retook Dunoon Castle and were confirmed as the hereditary keepers of what came to be considered a Royal residence. Their nominal annual rent was a single red rose.
The Rough Wooing
The Campbells briefly lost the castle again in 1544 during the Rough Wooing, as Henry VIII of England’s invasion was known.
Henry was trying to force the infant Mary, Queen of Scots to marry his son Edward. In line with the usual infighting amongst Scotland’s nobles, the Earl of Lennox — a staunch Catholic and Henry’s natural enemy — swapped sides to become his ally and captured the castles of Dunoon and Rothesay by siege. Sadly for him, he then lost the Battle of Glasgow and had to flee Scotland.
Dunoon Castle returned to Campbell control and Mary Queen of Scots, whose half-sister was the (Campbell) Countess of Argyll, visited the castle herself in 1563.
Tension endured between the Campbells and their Lamont neighbours and the Campbells took advantage of the Civil War to commit what became known as the Dunoon Massacre. They gained access to Castle Toward by perfidy, requesting hospitality and then slaughtering their hosts in their beds. The Lamont wells were poisoned and over two hundred men, women and children who subsequently surrendered were simply murdered.
The Campbells were now the masters of the area but the Earls of Argyll would completely overestimate their power and influence in 1685, when Archibald Campbell, the 9th Earl, launched the Argyll Rising — a rebellion against King James VII and II timed to coincide with the Monmouth Rebellion in England. If he metaphorically lost his head in thinking it would succeed, he literally did when it failed.
Dunoon Castle then mouldered empty and abandoned until 1822 when its stones were taken to build a new home for Lord Provost James Ewing of Glasgow. The architect was David Hamilton.
Castle House (pictured above the morning after my arrival) later became the chambers of Dunoon Town Council and then a public library. It is currently a museum.
Not far from Castle House, on the slope of the old castle motte, stands a statue of a young woman gazing over the Firth of Clyde to Greenock. She was Margaret Campbell (1763-1786), better known to many as ‘Highland Mary’, with whom the poet Robert Burns had an affair.
Mary was born in Dunoon, the daughter of a sailor on a revenue cutter, but moved south to Campbeltown when she was five. She later lived in Greenock, where she met Robert Burns and he dedicated a number of poems to her. One — Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, and leave auld Scotia’s shore? — suggests that they planned to emigrate together but it was not to be for Mary fell ill and died. The statue, sculpted by David Watson Stevenson (1842-1904), was erected in 1896.
It is perhaps poignant that the statue of Mary, who never got to sail away, overlooks Dunoon Pier. The pier, with the Clyde’s only surviving steamer signal tower apart from Kilcreggan, was long a point of departure (and arrival) although today its only visitor is the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer, PS Waverley.
It has recently been undergoing refurbishment but, surprisingly, is not from where the Gourock foot ferry sails. That is the breakwater, slightly further along, from where the pier looks like this:
This time: 19 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,727 miles