DAY Five of my most recent trip began with an urgent assessment of the damage to my knee. The previous day it had chosen to protest — through the medium of pain — against my plan to walk six days straight. An evening of rest and a cold compress had reduced the inflammation to almost negligible levels and a tentative stroll up and down the hotel hallway revealed that while it was in some indefinable way not quite right, it didn’t exactly hurt.
Taking it Easy
While the best thing I could do would probably be to rest it some more and not walk twenty miles, I figured if I took things easy I could probably get away with it.
Since ‘taking things easy’ in this context really just meant ‘going slower’, I opted to skip breakfast and leave bright and early to give myself more time.
Lock № 7
Outside, beneath a clouded sky, the Crinan Canal displayed its ample charms in the most ‘come hither’ manner.
I willingly went thither, albeit at a gently dawdling pace. I left Cairnbaan swing-bridge and lock № 6 behind, passed lock № 7 (shown above) and came to lock № 8, all of which was reassuringly sequential. Would everything about the canal be so predictable, I wondered. And if not, what might it hold in store?
Cairnbaan House beside lock № 8 had hitherto been Cairnbaan Store, a purveyor of provisions to keep both boatmen and passengers fed and watered on their journeys.
I don’t know exactly when this venerable shop ceased trading but photos and postcards reveal that it was still in business in the mid 1980s but had become a cottage by 2008. That leaves quite a lot of leeway.
It was a shame that Cairnbaan Store had long-since closed as I’d gladly have bought myself something to munch otherwise. With my stomach rumbling like a tiny gastric thunderstorm, I pressed on past rows of little white cottages whose only access was via the towpath.
With Cairnbaan Loch Flight behind me, I was now walking the canal’s summit stretch at the vertiginous elevation of 20 m above sea level. Canals aren’t often big on verticality.
In fact, even at only a 20 m rise the Crinan Canal came in for some criticism because it gains and loses most of that height in two fairly close loch flights, essentially meaning that it has a hump in the middle. That it is so is partly topological and partly budgetary — spreading the locks out further would have required elevating the approaches, and that would have been more expensive to build. They were keen to avoid rising costs.
While mildly inconvenient for boats, the canal summit does provide for a perfect place from which to keep the canal topped up, for any water added there can flow down the canal in either direction. The water comes from an impounding reservoir created by partially damming the handily situated Loch a’ Bharain. This small loch takes its name — which means ‘the baron’s loch’ — from Dunardry Castle, former seat of the MacTavish barons of Dunardry, which now lies in ruins north of its shore.
MacTavish of Dunardry
Of uncertain provenance, the castle was renovated by Duncan MacTavish in 1704 but torn down a century later when the canal was built. Not that it was demolished around the ears of its occupants…
While part of the estate was compulsorily purchased under the Crinan Canal Act 1793, in 1797 a debt-ridden Lachlan MacTavish sold the rest to a relative in Montreal. And this was just the start of a low point for Clan MacTavish. Lachlan may have sold of their lands and castle but at least he was still the clan chief. His son, Dugald, lost even that when he failed to register as such with Lord Lyon King of Arms and the MacTavishes ceased to be a recognised clan.
Loch a’ Bharain
Meanwhile, canal construction changed Loch a’ Bharain in both size and shape and consumed its waters.
Two hundred years of dormancy having elapsed, Clan MacTavish had an unexpected revival in 1997 when the clan’s Canadian heir registered with Lord Lyon as chief. His son, Steven MacTavish of Dunardry is the current Chief of Clan MacTavish, although the ‘of Dunardry’ part now rather lacks a castle.
While tales of ruined castles are quite romantic — though their demolition by transport infrastructure projects adds a soupçon of mundanity — a small number of other ruins stood south of the loch. These were long-disused canal buildings that have not survived like the cottages.
One such building was the boathouse that once housed SS Linnet, the specially-built steamship that carried sightseers up and down the canal between 1866 and 1929.
Lock № 11
As I headed west from the summit, I descended past another flight of five locks whose mitre gates now pointed towards me since I was heading downstream. One lock in this flight, lock № 11, caused no end of problems during construction when it developed a persistent leak.
I discussed last time the appalling responsibility-shirking and finger-pointing of resident engineer John Paterson and his particular antipathy for surveyor Thomas Simpson; well, lock № 11 was one of their flashpoints.
Simpson opined that the retaining wall had been built on sand and its waterproofing was inadequate, an opinion backed up by visiting consultant (and prominent engineer) Thomas Telford.
‘I am of the firm opinion that he is wrong,’ responded Paterson, who had already tried to cover up the issue with a series of botched repairs. For good measure, he then went on to blame the lock-keeper, accusing him of being a drunkard who had let a fully-laden slate barge through with insufficient water levels thus allowing it to scrape the lock and damage it.
But it was not enough to merely throw up a smokescreen, he had to make sure that his rival was suitably implicated and so he added that Simpson regularly stayed at the lock-keepers house for epic drinking sessions. This resulted in a series of denials from Simpson, the lock keeper and the captain of the slate barge, the latter of whom could prove that he had unladen his boat before passage, since he was taking it for maintenance.
Paterson’s misbehaviour eventually got him replaced but the shoddy build of lock № 11 would continue to present problems down the years. A swing bridge installed there for instance, was found to be too heavy for the unstable lock walls to support and had to be replaced in 1900.
The new bridge was of a totally different design — a lightweight retractable cantilever bridge which served until 2015, when Scottish Canals found that it was worn out and damaged and needed urgent repair.
The urgency of Dunardry Bridge’s repair is actually a matter of some contention. Local farmer David Anderson of nearby Barnakill Farm rightly points out that its ongoing closure is an inconvenience and that the Crinan Canal Act requires the canal’s proprietors to keep its bridges maintained. It doesn’t matter that that Act of Parliament was passed over two hundred years ago nor does it matter that the owners are no longer the Crinan Canal Company but now Scottish Canals (which is actually just a public brand for what’s left of the British Waterways Board). It’s still law. And Mr Anderson is completely correct.
Scottish Canals, on the other hand, point out that while they are required to maintain bridges as appropriate, the act doesn’t actually name which bridges and where, so they have some wiggle-room. Furthermore, they point out that it’s going to cost at least £100 k to fix the damn thing and, while they absolutely intend to get round to it sometime, they have all of Scotland’s canals to maintain and a limited budget with which to do it.
Pedestrians can still cross using the lock gates and a little detour’s not so bad if you’re in a car. So in summary: Pffft! Priorities…
That doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable.
As the canal descended back to sea level and approached its western end at Crinan, the land to my right also flattened out becoming a broad, marshy plain. This was Mòine Mhòr — the Great Moss — the surviving remnant of a once-vast bog through which the River Add meanders. I regarded it with interest and a little trepidation, wondering if my natural distastefulness to midges would hold up for I knew that I would have to cross it.
I parted company from the canal at the tiny hamlet of Bellanoch, with its picturesque swing-bridge and dock:
It was time to cross the Add and brave the biting insects.
I took a moment to appreciate Islandadd Bridge, designed by an engineer named John Gardner in 1851. His cast iron bridge sits astride four masonry piers and, though it’s not much to look at, has been lauded by some as the best example of its type. I don’t know about that but it certainly succeeded in its purpose — getting me across the Add without needing to wade.
Having crossed the Add I found the B8025 — which was also cycle route 78 — stretching away before my eyes, straight as a rod and flat as a pancake.
The Great Moss
For all that Mòine Mhòr is but a fraction of its former self, I still had a couple of miles of it to cross. What looked like rugged fields on both sides turned out to be, on closer inspection, expanses of reeds and marsh grass growing out of a soil so damp you’d need a spoon to pick it up. Were I to divert off the road I might be swallowed without trace.
The long, straight road led out across the open bog and I was surprised to encounter the occasional car coming the other way. They seemed pretty surprised to see me too. I stood aside and watched them pass, not that there was much else to look at.
I mean, there was bog, obviously, and numerous bog birds, several of which were cheerfully eating the midges that thankfully weren’t eating me. But Loch Crinan, though not far on my left, was essentially invisible (as shown in the photo above). Meanwhile, on my right, the low hillfort of Dunadd — once a royal centre of Dál Riata — barely managed to peer over Mòine Mhòr.
As it happened, I was only treated to these open expanses of bogginess — which I actually rather enjoyed — for about a mile at most. Then the B8025 plunged into a small conifer plantation, where the air was cool and scented with resin. In the centre of the plantation I came to a crossroads at which I needed to go straight on if I wanted to continue perambulating. Or so I believed. The crossroads had other ideas:
Having ignored the sign and gone forwards, I emerged from the northern end of the plantation and crossed over Kilmartin Burn. I now found a patch of mixed woodland to my right, at the edge of which was a small car park for the Mòine Mhòr nature reserve.
Espying a picnic table, I availed myself of the chance to sit down and assess how my knee was coping. It was slightly stiff but still not painful per se, though I didn’t expect I was doing it a power of good.
Five Frightened Dogs
I consulted my map and generally prevaricated about setting off again until a woman emerged from the trees with five dogs, all on leads.
The dogs froze at the sight of me and then barked. It wasn’t an angry sort of bark, nor did it seem excited. If anything, I’d say all five dogs were scared; apparently I was the Frightful Mammal. I was perplexed by this canine cowardice but seeing as how neither woman nor dogs were showing any inclination to step any further into the car park while I was there, I decided it was maybe time to go.
I put away my map, shouldered my bag and set off, flashing the woman what I hoped was a reassuring smile. In return I got back a glare of pure fury. Frankly, I have no idea…
Kilmartin Glen & Bealach Mòr
A Monumental Landscape
The road soon curved away from the trees, it having given up on straightness, and passed fields dotted with ancient monuments. Cairns, tumuli, standing stones and stones bearing cup-and-ring marks had been scattered about the landscape with such abandon that it was like there had been an explosion in an antiquities factory.
The Right Choice
By now, Mòine Mhòr was behind me and I was traversing the equally broad, flat flood plain of Kilmartin Glen. Before long, a road junction presented me with a choice: I could go left to the hamlet of Slockavullin (Sloc a’ Mhuilinn, ‘hollow of the mill’), which was the route taken by cycle route 78, or I could go right and dodge traffic on the A816. Well, that sounds like a no-brainer, right? Except I chose to go right for reasons that probably made sense at the time but I don’t exactly recall.
Perhaps the Walker of Five Frightened Dogs had placed some terrible influence on me. Yes, that seems likely. Which is to say, it doesn’t seem likely at all but I’m taking a leaf from John Paterson’s book and blaming somebody else. Or maybe it was the megaliths. No, I won’t risk blaming them…
Nether Largie Standing Stones
The Nether Largie standing stones form an X-shaped pattern of five with a couple of outliers, one of which is now buried. They may or may not have something to do with the moon depending on whom you wish to believe. Or maybe their builders were blowing a kiss to the heavens.
In addition to interpretations both reasonable and crackpot, the stones have gathered various superstitions down the ages, such that it has been said to be lucky to camp near them but to actually touch them invites misfortune.
I, being a Rational Mammal, laughed at the very idea of such nonsense though careful observers might possibly have noted that I laughed from more than an arm’s length away. I was simply concerned that I might damage them. Yes, that clearly must be it.
Having carefully not damaged the stones, I walked the last few metres of the B8025 and experienced two motor-vehicle encounters in rapid succession. The first was the passing of a small car in which were crammed a really angry-looking lady and five dogs that barked loudly as they passed. The second was a far more friendly-looking woman who pulled up beside me at the junction with the A-road and asked if I needed a lift. I politely declined.
‘Are you sure?’ she asked me. I was sure. ‘It’s no bother,’ she insisted.
‘I’m out for a walk,’ I explained, hoping to forestall any further persuasion for fear that I might succumb. A veil of incomprehension dropped over her face, masking what had been an endearing smile.
‘Out for a walk?’ she repeated in much the same tone that one might say ‘poking your own eyes out?’ or ‘slaughtering all the kittens?’ Her smile returned in a rather more fixed-looking fashion. ‘Well… enjoy,’ she said uncertainly and sped off.
I enjoyed; I kind of felt I had to after that.
On the A816
The mile or so of A816 between the junction and Kilmartin was just busy enough to make enjoyment a bit of a challenge. Not helping was that the right-hand side of the road (where I was facing into traffic, as per the Highway Code) was right next to a steep, wooded bank that left no room for stepping aside. I was entirely reliant on the traffic dodging me and, while it had plenty of room to do that, it would only take one inattentive driver and suddenly I’d be going the wrong way at a speed not of my choosing.
Fortunately, no such thing happened — I didn’t touch the stones remember? — and I reached Kilmartin alive.
Kilmartin village perches on the lower slope of Bàrr Mòr (‘great peak’) overlooking Kilmartin Glen with all its megaliths below. Cille Mhàrtainn means ‘Church of St Martin’ though the current church — built in 1835 — carries no such dedication. It does, however, possess a memorial arch inscribed with the names of parishioners who died in WW1.
An interesting alternative to the usual war memorial it might be, but the church’s arched gateway is by no means the most remarkable carving it possesses. For there can be found the Kilmartin Stones, which include numerous gravestones and some impressive mediaeval carved crosses:
The cross on the left was carved around 1200 and shows on one side a robed Christ displaying his wounds and the crucified Christ on the other. The latter is surrounded by various creatures allegorically symbolising saints, such as the winged lion of St Mark and the winged bull of St Luke.
The cross on the right is older, having been carved around 900.
Both have been damaged over the centuries and were long ignored and forgotten but now are kept out of the elements within the church itself.
Next door to the church was Kilmartin Museum which had an extensive collection of archaeological finds from the Kilmartin area. They are, I have no doubt, fascinating but I’m afraid that it was not the museum’s exhibits which drew me but rather its accompanying café. I had skipped breakfast, remember? I made up for that with great enthusiasm, resting and refuelling while I consulted my map.
Considering Carnassarie Castle
The cycle path, the map told me, was bypassing Kilmartin altogether via a minor country lane. If I wanted, I could find a way to join it and visit Carnassarie Castle, a roofless, ruined, renaissance residence built for John Carswell (a 16th century Bishop of the Isles). This promised to be interesting but would add a small amount of extra distance. Alternatively, I could just keep following the A816.
I considered my knee, which was showing slight signs of soreness. It wasn’t bad yet but it threatened to become so before the day was out. And my nice cup of tea — the universal panacea — was failing in its appointed role as a miracle cure.
‘Ah well, seen one ruined castle, seen ’em all,’ I told myself, which was of course a blatant lie. I pretended to believe it.
On the A816 Again
And so I headed north from Kilmartin along the A816. It was moderately busy but oddly less so than it had been on my approach. I had walked about three quarters of a mile when cycle route 78 lunged out of some trees on my left and joined me on the A-road. This was my last chance to see the castle if I should change my mind…
…but no, I kept going. The cycle route was unimpressed by this decision and abandoned me in disgust at the next junction, branching off onto the B840. A surprising amount of traffic also headed that way, presumably out for a nice drive alongside Loch Awe.
Dun! DUN! DUN!
I, meanwhile, kept plodding along the A-road, passing the low rocky hill of Dùn Mhic Choish, once the site of a hill fort. The Iron Age builders of those things were not ones to let a suitable summit go to waste and there were a lot of suitable summits. In consequence, every other hill there has a name beginning with dùn.
According to old Victorian maps, had my forebears been walking in that area, they could have potentially abandoned the A816 for some interesting back lanes but I was denied the option as they no longer exist on the ground. Satellite photos suggest they may persist as unofficial paths but I didn’t see them and stuck with the A-road as it conveyed me past a small conifer plantation, which concealed the mound of Dùn na Nighinn (that’s one dùn).
It then crossed the burn between the corners of that conifer plantation and another and brought me face-to-face with Dùn Chonallaich (that’s another) behind which was hidden Dùn Subh (and a third). Looking at the slopes of Dùn Chonallaich, the fort-builders had a point.
The road veered left and left again, somehow endeavouring to cross Kilmartin Burn twice more in the process. It passed along a narrow valley flanked by steep hills, following a route named Bealach Mòr (‘great pass’). At the far end it wound back down to sea level near the head of Loch Craignish at a place called Kintraw.
Loch Craignish & the Craignish Peninsula
Kintraw Standing Stone
Watching over the head of the loch was a solitary standing stone. Flanked by some tumbledown cairns that have been plundered for stones down the centuries, the Kintraw megalith has kept its lonely vigil — ever watchful, never failing. Apart that is, from the time it got caught sleeping on the job!
Today’s bolt-upright standing stone is not entirely unaided; it had been badly leaning for decades, maybe even centuries, when a particularly severe winter in 1979 saw it finally collapse. Archaeologists took the opportunity to examine the now empty socket before the stone was re-erected by propping it up in a base filled with concrete.
Now, some might feel that a standing stone that’s been picked up and then concreted back into place is lacking in authenticity. It’s a reconstruction, one might argue. But wait, it gets better. When they plonked it back in its hole they didn’t check to make sure it was facing the right way. The stone’s alignment has been changed.
Danish King’s Grave
Local legend claims that the stone marks the burial site of a Norse prince, dubbing it with the alternative name of the Danish King’s Grave.
It’s probably quite a lot older than that and almost certainly wasn’t there to make sure some Viking stays where he’s put. So, turning it to the dark side won’t be the start of the zombie apocalypse at all. We can all sleep safe in our beds… Unless you live next door at Kintraw.
Kintraw comprises a farm and not much else so when its Norse neighbour wakes up and pops round, I guess he’ll know where to go. I too knew where I needed to go and in my case it was ‘away’.
I took my tasty, tasty brains past the head of Loch Craignish and crossed the small flood plain of the Barbreck River.
On the far side, the road climbed up into the hills but not before a turn-off — the B8002 — offered a side trip to Ardfern and Craignish Point. The northern shore of Loch Craignish is actually a peninsula, which is also named Craignish (or Creiginis in Gaelic).
Ardfern (Aird Fheàrna, ‘headland of alder trees’) is its largest settlement, lying about a mile and a half along the B-road. I had given some thought as to whether I should walk the peninsula’s shores but for most of its length it only had the one road. With only the merest tinge of regret, I strolled past the turn-off and continued onwards and upwards. Excelsior!
The road climbed gently as the countryside opened out to reveal green hills and a winding road. My map said that I was approaching Barravulin (Barr a’ Mhuilinn, ‘mill peak’), which appeared to comprise just a couple of buildings.
By now, the weather had brightened up considerably and the traffic had also eased off. In consequence, I really enjoyed this part of the walk.
I ambled along, slowly but happily, as the road crested its summit and gradually descended once more. It dropped down into a valley and headed for the coast, offering me a turn-off for Craobh Haven, a purpose-built marina village.
This was tempting, as the blue skies and sunshine had brought heat and thirst as well as happiness. The marina, I knew, had cafés and bars but it was two miles there and back. I sat by the road and weighed up if it was worth it, deciding that if I’d been going to go there, I’d have gone via Ardfern. No, a cold drink could wait.
I picked myself up and kept on towards the coast. There I found I could see Craobh Haven from a distance, as if it were showing me what I was missing.
My regrets on that score were few, though that was partly because other, knee-related regrets threatened to overwhelm my attention. Fortunately I had distractions in the form of an actual sea view, looking up towards Seil Sound.
Another thing that helped motivate me to keep walking was that I knew that a mile up ahead was the village of Arduaine (An Àird Uaine, ‘verdant headland’) and somewhere on the actual headland was a hotel with a bar. One which involved hardly any diversion from my route at all…
The hotel sat beside Arduaine Garden, begun in 1898 and containing all manner of what were then strange, exotic blooms like rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias (now of course, rhododendrons bloom everywhere as it turns out they really thrive in our climate to the detriment of everything else).
Just in case flowers were not sufficient to look at, the gardens also possessed a coastal viewpoint but I felt no need to find it; the view from the hotel bar terrace was quite enough.
Loch Melfort Hotel
When I was cooled and rested, I tested my knee and found it still to be working, more or less, though distressingly keen to let me know when it was moving. It was, I felt, good enough to attempt the home stretch — there were only three and a half miles left to Kilmelford (Cill Mheallaird).
For pretty much all of that way, the A816 ran alongside the shore of Loch Melfort, yet another sea loch on that oh-so-crinkly coast. And it was delightful.
I quickly covered the first two miles to Kames Bay, whose name (from Gaelic camas) is one of those that repeats itself in two languages. It means ‘Bay Bay’.
From Kames Bay, the A-road climbed about 20 m and passed slightly inland of a low headland. Somewhere along the way, the road had widened enough to gain a centre marking but traffic remained sparse.
Grateful, I plodded slowly towards Kilmelford.
Loch na Cille
The road dipped into a wooded valley and I caught glimpses of Loch na Cille, a short branch off the head of Loch Melfort.
I was limping by the time I completed the last half-mile, my knee having finally run out of patience.
I entered Kilmelford, which takes its name from a 15th century church dedicated to the Irish saint Máel Ruba (642–722) though its current church is a late-Victorian rebuild of an 18th century building.
I hobbled past it, heading for the centre of the village where I found my hotel and all but collapsed onto a seat in the hallway. I couldn’t have gone another step.
Except of course I had to. My room, according to the precepts of a Bloody-Minded Universe, was right at the top of as many stairs as the hotel could muster. Going up proved much less of an issue than I feared but coming back down again was… interesting.
That night, after dinner, I applied another cold compress without a great deal of hope. I fully expected to have to change my plans the following morning, where ‘change’ meant ‘probably abandon’. But that was tomorrow.
Until then, single malt whisky was the obvious cure for all ills…
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,988 miles