IT HAD been raining when I reached Oban and it rained through the night with thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. I knew then, when I woke bleary-eyed in the morning, what the cold, grey light seeping through the curtains must mean. The only real question was how bad would it be? I hesitated, my hand halfway to the window, not at all sure that I was keen to find out…
The weather, as if just to mess with me, had developed a whole new type of rain that was invisible to the naked eye. This was perplexing, so I dealt with it by ignoring the notion and having breakfast instead.
When I eventually ventured outside to investigate the mystery only deepened. Not only was the rain invisible but it was intangible too. It fell without impact, leaving no mark and making nothing any wetter than it already was. it was almost as if — and this was clearly a notion too ridiculous to contemplate — it wasn’t raining at all. As if it had stopped. Clearly it had to be some sort of trick.
I stared accusingly up at the sky and, as far as I could tell, did not receive a faceful of cold water. I wasn’t fooled.
The plan for the day was to head north from Oban but even before I set off I knew I’d be making a teensy diversion. For looming over Oban was what appeared to be a misplaced Coliseum, a structure I knew to be called McCaig’s Tower. It needed investigation, I felt, and so I climbed half a mile of hill just to find out what it was.
Built in 1897 on the site of Oban’s old battery, it was originally intended to be much more than the empty shell that it is. It was designed and paid for by a local wealthy banker and philanthropist named John Stuart McCaig but never completed on account of his death. It was an act of monumental folly — not because it was crazy to build it (when a madman is rich, we call that ‘eccentricity’) — but because it’s a folly built as a monument.
It was intended, in part, to commemorate his family, who were farmers on the Isle of Lismore, and in part as a philanthropic gesture by providing work for Oban’s stonemasons during the winter, when they had little else.
The interior, which was originally intended to house an actual tower and statues of his relatives, now contains a public garden.
On the seaward side, one of the arches functions as a doorway to lead onto a viewing platform looking out over Oban Bay. This was the field of fire once covered by the 3rd Argyllshire Artillery Volunteers. Sadly, their guns have long since been removed.
What goes up must come down and so I tore myself away from the view and descended the hill with care — I really didn’t want to bust my knee again.
At the bottom, I returned to the seafront and made my way north past St Columba’s Catholic cathedral (completed in 1959 and visible in the photo above).
The water was calm as I wandered along the promenade but then it would be: the bay is almost completely shielded by the island of Kerrera. Although the ferry to the island crosses south of Oban, the shortest distance between the town and Kerrera is actually at the island’s northern tip. More or less opposite that point stands this:
Oban War Memorial
With its sculpture by Alexander Carrick (1882-1966) portraying two Highland Regiment soldiers carrying an injured comrade, Oban War Memorial makes a striking change from the usual commemorative cross and reminds us that each of these far too many names was once a living human being. The memorial was unveiled on Armistice Day 1923 and its Gaelic inscription — mairidh an cliù agus an ainm gu siorruidh — means ‘your name and reputation will endure forever.’
Tragically, because WW1 was not the War to End All Wars, a list of the dead from WW2 was subsequently added, as was the name of a Royal Marine who died in the Falklands War. The gilding on the letters was also a later addition.
Immediately beyond the war memorial was a small green space with park benches and the diminutive shape of Dunollie Lighthouse. This dinky little 6 m beacon marks the entrance to Oban Bay and was built in 1892 by David Stevenson, whose family were Scotland’s most prolific — and I’m starting to think only — lighthouse engineers.
Now, you might expect that such a structure in Oban would be named ‘Oban Lighthouse’ but really, where would be the fun in that? Besides, Oban is just a distillery town and ferry port. Far more prestigious — at one time, anyway — was Dunollie Castle, from which the lighthouse takes its name.
The shelter which Kerrera provides has long made Oban Bay and the Sound of Kerrera safe anchorages for all manner of vessels. Oban was important during WW2 as a base and port serving the Atlantic Convoys but that was hardly its first taste of war.
This stretch of water once claimed the life of a monarch of Scotland — King Alexander II — who decided during the 1240s that the Western Isles should really be his and not, as they then were, the property of Norway.
First, he tried to buy them, but Norway’s King Håkon IV had no desire to sell. Next he tried to persuade Eóghan (or Ewan), King of the Isles, to betray his allegiance and when Eóghan wasn’t biting he straight up decided to take them by force. Alexander assembled a fleet and it was lurking in the Sound of Kerrera, ready to invade and conquer, when he suddenly developed a terrible fever and died.
The fleet dispersed and the war was postponed, put off until 1263 when his son, Alexander III, had come of age.
Kerrera might not have a war memorial but it does possess an obelisk, visible as a sticky-up spike on the right-hand side of the photo above. It stands as a reminder that boats going to the isles are rather more benign in modern times, having been raised in memory of David Hutcheson (1799-1880), who set up a regular steamer service in 1835.
In those days, he worked for G&J Burns — operators of the largest of the Clyde steamer fleets — but in 1851 the Burnses decided to concentrate on transatlantic traffic and split off the river and island steamers into a new company; Hutcheson, hitherto their operations manager, became its senior partner and David Hutcheson & Co was born.
The company remained so-named until 1870 when Hutchinson retired and handed it over to one of his partners, David MacBrayne (a nephew of the Burnses), prompting a change of name. In 1928, his family sold the company to a consortium headed by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, which was nationalised in 1949 to become part of British Rail.
Subsequent administrative reorganisations saw the MacBrayne ferries fall under the aegis of the Scottish Transport Group, along with the rival Caledonian Steam Packet Company. The two were merged in 1973 and the new company — Caledonian MacBrayne — painted its boats’ funnels with the red and black livery of MacBrayne and the Caledonian red lion on a yellow disc.
CalMac, as the company is generally known, still serves the Hebrides and still boasts the same colours today, forty-four years since the merger.
Dunollie & the Ganavan Road
Moving on from the blunt headland on which Dunollie Lighthouse stood, I found an unexpected choice of route:
However I progressed, I would have to journey around the curve of a bay named Port Mòr, and I had assumed that only way to do so would be to follow the coast road (which had, at that moment, run out of promenade). Certainly, that’s the solution that National Cycle Route 78 had plumped for.
I, however, had spotted the entrance of an old carriage track:, which was the driveway of Dunollie Castle. And although it was too early in the morning for the castle itself to be open, the carriageway was available for use. Ah, but should I take it?
Clach a’ Choin
In addition to showing Dunollie Castle again, the photo above contains a big rock. But this is not just any old rock because this rock has a name. Or two, if you want to be bilingual, plus a legend to go with them. The rock is called Clach a’ Choin (‘stone of the dog’) in Gaelic or Fingal’s Dog Stone in English, presumably because Anglophones need to be told whose dog.
The dog in question is Bran, the mighty hound of mythical hunter and warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill — hero of the Fenian Cycle — known as Fingal in Scotland and often anglicised as Finn McCool (which roughly approximates how ‘Fionn mac Cumhaill’ is pronounced). The legend says that it is this rock to which Fionn would tie his mighty hound and Bran, like many a canine, was not all that keen on being tied up. As he circled and struggled, secured by a great chain, that chain wore into the base of the stone, carving it into the shape that it is.
It certainly didn’t get that way through being an old conglomerate sea stack long eroded by waves and weather until post-glacial rebound raised it out of the sea. I mean, that would be preposterous.
Heh, I love a good myth.
The Damp Price of Mockery
As I made my way along the carriageway I became aware of a mysterious phenomenon affecting not Clach a’ Choin but the bag slung over my shoulder. My bag appeared to be raining. This seemed strange and could hardly bode well — perhaps, I feared, I had been enchanted for mocking Gaelic myth. Well, if so, the curse was manifesting in the disappointingly prosaic manner of my having not sufficiently tightened the lid on my water bottle. Whoops.
Fortunately, only a small volume of water had leaked out and everything in my bag was wrapped in plastic bags anyway. I quickly refastened the lid of the bottle and scolded myself for my carelessness. Still, there was no harm done, I thought.
And then, as if summoned by sympathetic magic, I felt the first tentative droplets falling out of the sky. It wasn’t particularly heavy but it was rain nonetheless and that meant one thing…
Dunollie Castle (Dùn Ollaigh) is the ancestral home of Clan MacDougall, which traces its ancestry to Dougall (from dubh-gall, ‘black stranger’) who was one of the sons of Somerled, the 12th century King of Mann and the Isles.
The existing castle ruins date largely from the 15th century, a rebuilding of a 13th century fortification that may have been built by Dougall himself or his son Duncan (father of the Ewan whom Alexander II couldn’t sway).
With the exception of 17 years in the mid-17th century, when it was seized by the Campbells, it remained a MacDougall stronghold until 1746, after which they abandoned it and built the nearby (and presumably more comfortable) Dunollie House.
That might make Dunollie Castle sound pretty old but the thing is that even when Dougall or Duncan was building it in the 13th century they were just refortifying what had already been a stronghold for centuries.
The Cenél Loairn
Dunollie goes way back to at least the 7th century, when it was the royal centre of the Cenél Loairn — the descendents of the 5th century Dál Riatan king Loarn mac Eirc, for whom the region of Lorne is named. And, if the Annals of Ulster are anything to judge by, they needed a sturdy stronghold.
In fact, they needed a sturdier one than they had because Dùn Ollaigh was attacked and burnt by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria in 686. They rebuilt it, of course, but that just meant that it could be destroyed again in 698 and 701 when internecine strife afflicted the Kingdom of Dál Riata.
King Selbach mac Ferchair, who burnt it on that last occasion, eventually rebuilt it in 714 and the castle then managed to persist until the mid-10th century.
Returning to the Road
A rainbow as weak and insubstantial as 7th century Dùn Ollaigh sounds, was mostly failing to manifest over the water as I returned to the coast road. Known as Ganavan Road, this was officially the C66 but C-road numbers aren’t used on maps or signs.
The road curved around the promontory on which the castle sat and played a merry game of ‘now you have it, now you don’t’ with the pedestrian pavement.
It led me past the bay of Camas Bàn (‘white bay’) — which I hardly saw on account of roadside vegetation — and then down to the hamlet of Ganavan, where a beach faced onto Ganavan Bay. The rain was still spitting half-heartedly at this point and my heart was gladdened when I saw a van selling refreshments as it meant that I could have a cup of tea.
The van and a nearby public convenience constituted pretty much all of Ganavan’s facilities and I perched on a slipway looking over the beach while the hot tea reenergised my core.
End of the Road
The road had ended at Ganavan but NCN 78 didn’t care. It continued on its way via a dedicated cycle path and I followed this up what a sign warned was a ‘steep hill’ (it wasn’t on foot; on a bike might have felt differently).
It then snaked its way across country to the village of Dunbeg, forming a lovely stretch of the day’s walk, which was made all the better when the rain gave up its efforts. I ambled blissfully along, enjoying the lushness of the greenery and trying my best to ignore the sounds of the busy A85 (our routes were converging on Dunbeg).
Dunbeg & Connel
Dunbeg (An Dùn Beag, ‘the little fort’) is a village sitting on the shore of Dunstaffnage Bay and indeed used to be called Dunstaffnage (Dùn Stafhainis). It is home to the Scottish Association for Marine Science, which is one of the oldest oceanographic organisations in the world, having been founded as the Scottish Marine Station following the 1872-6 Challenger Expedition.
The village’s other claim to fame is Dunstaffnage Castle — the basis of both its names — which dates back to the 13th century, making it one of Scotland’s oldest stone castles (as opposed to Dunollie, for instance, which was rebuilt in the 15th). Like Dunollie, it occupies an older Dál Riatan site and, also like Dunollie, it was a MacDougall stronghold built for Duncan MacDougall, Lord of Lorne.
Seized by King James I in 1431, it spent much of the 15th century swapping back and forth between Stewart and MacDougall ownership depending on the vicissitudes of fortune. Eventually, King James III gave it to Colin Campbell, Earl of Argyll in 1470 and it remained a Campbell possession from then until 1810, when it was gutted by fire.
It was then abandoned until 1903, when restoration started but legal issues and WW1 meant they were never completed. Today, it is maintained by Historic Scotland.
Not Enjoying the A85
Very much unlike Dunollie, I never got close to Dunstaffnage castle as NCN 78, which I was following, led me through several suburban streets and then onto the A85 to skirt one side of the bay.
While the road was busy (and the traffic noisy) ,this was okay to begin with because there was a pedestrian pavement. Sadly, that wasn’t to last. Had it not been for a reasonably wide (though very damp) verge, I think that road could have been terrifying. Indeed, I was just admitting to myself how much I was not enjoying the experience when the heavens opened up once more to prove — because I needed reminding in the dampest way possible — that things can usually be worse.
Well, okay, but I’d already proven once that day that I knew how to counter wet weather: the answer is always a hot cup of tea. So when I saw a sign for a café in a garden centre I had no hesitation in making a pit stop to drink tea and eat bacon sandwiches until the rain went away.
Old Shore Road
When it had and I was fully fuelled with tea and bacon, I re-emerged and continued verge-hopping along the A85. After about a mile, I saw a turn-off named Old Shore Road and I gratefully took it.
It was, as the name suggested, the old course of the shore road and followed two sides of a triangle where the A85 now cuts straight across the hypotenuse. It was quiet and lined with beautiful houses and, by the time it met back up with the A-road, the latter had pedestrian pavement again.
I had now reached Connel, which would have been the destination of the previous day’s back-road, had I not turned off for Oban at Barranrioch.
Connel (A’ Choingheal, ‘the white dogs’ — a poetic description of white water rapids) is a village in the southern shore of Loch Etive (Loch Eite) at a point where the loch constricts to a narrow channel at its mouth.
Despite certain dangers — its name means ‘the rapids’ for a reason — because Connel sits at one of its narrowest points it was long home to a ferry that would convey travellers across the loch, thus saving a lengthy detour. Indeed, the village grew up around the ferry and was known as Connel Ferry for years.
In 1903, the loch was bridged by the Callander and Oban Railway, who constructed a cantilever structure that was, at the time of its completion, the second longest girder bridge in the world (after the Forth Bridge). It was narrow, built to carry only a single track but this didn’t stop the railway from cashing in on the desire of motorists to take the bridge and not the ferry: a bizarre shuttle service was instituted in 1909 using a specially modified charabanc to pull a wagon onto which a single car could be loaded, essentially turning the railway into a transporter bridge.
This was still less than ideal: you could also think of describing this service as a ‘single car rail ferry’, hardly better for motorists than using an actual ferry. The railway company laid a narrow road beside their track in 1914, though there was insufficient clearance for trains and cars to use it at the same time, so the bridge acted like a linear level crossing complete with gates.
Then, along came the 1960s and minister of transport Ernest Marples made the fateful decision to close a number of railways on economic grounds. Granted, the economics driving his decision were personal and corrupt — he was co-founder and ex-managing director of road-building firm Marples Ridgway — and he appointed Dr Richard Beeching to take the blame oversee the cuts, but the decision was taken nonetheless.
The line from Oban to Ballachulish was one of those closed and suddenly cars could have the bridge to themselves. The track was torn up and road surface relaid, which no doubt made Marples very happy.
The Bridge Today
The railway may be gone and the level crossing gates with it but access to Connel Bridge is still controlled by signals—there are traffic lights at either end to allow alternating one-way traffic. This is because it still hasn’t got any wider.
Though I am neither a train nor a car (nor a charabanc), I made my way across the bridge with some gratitude. Loch Etive is almost 20 miles in length and a 40-mile detour to get round it was not at all what I wanted.
Falls of Lora
One thing that I did want was to see the Falls of Lora, the phenomenon that brought about Connel’s name. Basically, not only does Loch Etive narrow at its mouth but there’s also a rock ledge restricting its depth. The upshot of this is that water can’t flow through the constriction fast enough to keep pace with the tide. A visible difference in water level occurs, leading to white water in the centre of the flow.
How dramatic this is depends on the size and state of the tide and I was really hoping that I’d catch it at a moment when the falls were doing their thing. Y’know, falling…
Between Two Lochs
On the far side of Connel Bridge, the road, which was now the A828, followed the old railway alignment since that’s lined up with the ends of the bridge. The traffic was now considerably lighter, much of it having continued along the loch’s southern shore on the A85. This would later be a source of great relief but for now it proved largely irrelevant as NCN 78, which I was still following, branched off into North Connel (the hamlet that grew up around the other end of the ferry).
Old Road to the Ferry
It then headed north along a narrow, quiet lane signed as a no-through road. The lane was leafy and flanked by several houses but it made it less than half a mile before it ended abruptly as promised. A cycle path offered non-motorists an escape but, before I took that, I stopped to examine the road end. It looked like someone had just thrown a crash barrier and bank of earth across a perfectly good road. Nearby, I could hear the traffic on the A-road and suddenly it made sense: I was standing on the old ferry road.
The modern A828 had crossed on the railway alignment, not the ferry, but was now swinging back to take over the road, cutting off its predecessor. An old OS map confirms this, with the switchover being where the one used to cross the other on a bridge. Mystery solved, I followed the cycle path route down a short ramp to find…
The cycle route passed in front of the airport (which has flights to various islands in the Inner Hebrides), headed through its car park and then out along a dedicated foot and cycle path. This was, I soon realised, the old railway alignment, meaning that the A828 and NCN 78 had basically swapped places with other. I merrily ambled along it for a while — not once seeing a cyclist — until it took a right-hand turn and spat me back onto the A-road.
Reluctant Road Use
I hesitated at this point. The railway alignment obviously continued, though it was gated off and looked muddy as hell. The road meanwhile had no footway and was fairly busy, though nowhere near as dangerous as the A85 had been. I reluctantly concluded that there was no guarantee that the railway alignment would not prove impassable, whereas A-road traffic-dodging was a familiar challenge.
So, I took the road and a little further north, at the hamlet of Ledaig, I found myself at least partly vindicated. There, the cycle path returned to the railway alignment and, looking back along it, I could see that it was overgrown as I’d feared.
Creag an Eig
Looking forwards, the road and cycle route, though now separate, were not exactly far apart for both needed to squeeze their way round a rocky outcrop — Creag an Eig — that sits near the foot of Beinn Lora:
Once round the corner, the cycle route ceased being separate, running directly alongside the road, before then splitting off again. At one point, I found a small public garden and bench from which to sit and look over Ardmucknish Bay.
I sat. I looked.
In the Mood for Food
As I sat and looked at the bay I came to the conclusion that I was ready for more food. This could have been a problem as none was going to be forthcoming on that bench but I was pretty sure I’d find some in Benderloch, where NCN 78 was about to convey me. I thus allowed myself to be conveyed, striding along the old railway route with purpose. I had just one objective now and that was to find food.
As hoped-for, the cycle route passed right by a café and, even better, there was also a shop on the opposite side of the A-road. I stopped for a late lunch that may have ended with cake and milk-shake and then stocked up in the shop for more portable snacks. A meal and a rest make all the difference.
Benderloch, the village in which I was stuffing my face, derives its name from the phrase ‘Beinn eadar dà loch’ meaning ‘peak between two lochs’, the lochs in question being Etive and Creran. I guess the peak is Beinn Lora, though it’s only 308 m.
This was a village that grew up around the railway, so losing it in 1966 must have come as a shock. There are signs of much older habitation in the area though, including a vitrified fort — Dùn Mac Sniachan — to which numerous myths are attached.
Dùn Mac Sniachan
Some claim Dùn Mac Sniachan as an ancient Pictish capital — whose inhabitants would execute people by throwing them off Creag an Eig — and others as the location of the Halls of Fingal (Bran must have been a really loud barker, to need to be tied up six miles away).
Interestingly, ‘Dùn Mac Sniachan’ is a shortening of Dùn Mac Uisneachain, meaning ‘Fort of the Sons of Uisneach’, the Hill of Uisneach being a site in Westmeath considered the symbolic (though not geographical) centre of Ireland.
Dierdre of the Sorrows
The Ulster Cycle of Irish legend includes the tale of Dierdre, daughter of the bard of Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster. It was foretold that she would grow so beautiful that wars would be fought over her and much blood spilt, so (the tale says), Conchobar had her taken and raised in seclusion both to avoid this and to keep her beauty for himself.
Naturally, things didn’t go as Conchobar planned and Dierde ended up meeting and falling in love with his nephew, Naoise. The couple fled Ulster with Naoise’s brothers Ardan and Ainnle (he and they were the Three Sons of Uisneach) and went to live in Alba (i.e. Scotland), where they lived happily ever after until lured back, betrayed and murdered. Celtic myths aren’t big on happy endings, something that tends to add credence to the idea that somewhere under the poetic elaboration there are actual events that inspired them.
So, did Deardrie and the Sons of Uisneach live in Benderloch? Who knows? It’s a nice thought (well up to the bit where they get murdered, anyway). Or maybe the name just got attached to the fort to explain it away, much like Fingal, Bran and the Clach a’ Choin.
It’s certainly all too easy to attach the wrong name and speculate ideas into existence.
The 16th century Scottish historian and philosopher Hector Boece (1465–1536) identified Benderlock as ‘Beregonium’ in his 1526 Scotorum Historiae, making claims for a Pictish city between Dùn Mac Sniachan and nearby Dùn Bhaile an Righe, though no archaeological evidence supports this.
Even if the city existed, poor Boece was mistaken in labelling it thus, for ‘Beregonium’ was a transcription error for ‘Rerigonium’ in the 1486 Ulm edition of Geography (the 2nd century gazetteer written by Claudius Ptolemy). Worse still, Ptolemy gave us enough information to confidently place Rerigonium on the shores of Loch Ryan in Galloway, that lock being known in Latin as Rerigonius Sinus, meaning ‘Rerigonium Bay’.
Just as Boece allowed himself to be led astray, it was soon time for me to likewise veer from the path. The cycle route continued north from Benderloch towards Loch Creran but I had resolved to take a more circuitous path. I thus crossed one of the old bridges over the railway alignment and set off northwest down a narrow country lane…
Initially, this road was dead straight and lined with what had once been farms but were now all holiday sites. After about a mile, it turned northeast and took me through the tiny hamlet of Barravulin (Bàrr a’ Mhuilinn, ‘summit of the mill’). This looked like most other rural Argyll villages, comprising a handful of white cottages, but my attention was taken by a road sign you don’t often see:
A warning sign for ‘horse-drawn vehicles likely to be in road ahead’ was not exactly in huge demand when the Worboys signage was implemented in 1964; today situations prompting a need for it are few and far between. I have to admit therefore to being somewhat disappointed that no such vehicle was anywhere in sight. Perhaps they were all at the cartwright’s, having their rears reattached?
From Baravulin, I followed the narrow lane to a crossroads, which offered three choices (as they do). To my left, a road led to the island of Eliska while straight on was South Shian and shore of Loch Creran. Both of those were probably lovely but they were also dead ends. I turned right onto a road that led back to the A828. On the way it took me past Barcaldine Castle, which was most of the point behind my taking this diversion.
The castle was built by Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy (1550-1631) — who was known as ‘Black Duncan’ — and was completed in 1609.
Black Duncan seems to have been keen on building things as the castle was just one of many projects; another involved work on Achallader Castle, which he acquired in 1587 by nefarious means.
It had been owned by one of the Fletchers but Black Duncan (allegedly) sent an English servant to pasture his horse on their land and refuse to remove it. Fletcher warned the servant off in Gaelic (which he didn’t understand) and then shot him dead. Black Duncan warned the laird that he would be hanged for the killing (presumably while not admitting that it had been his man) and urged him to flee abroad. In the meantime, Achallader was signed over to Duncan as a ruse so that, it not being Fletcher property, it could not be forfeited in punishment. Duncan then kept it, having got it for the knockdown price of needing to hire a new servant.
Allachader was burnt by the MacGregors in 1603, which I suppose explains why Duncan needed to work on it. It might also explain why he felt he needed an entirely new castle near Barcaldine.
Black Book of Tayside
Perhaps aware that history might not reflect all that well upon his actions, Duncan later commissioned a family history — the Black Book of Tayside — which portrayed him and his father, Grey Colin, as the best of their line. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?
Duncan’s descendants remained at Barcaldine Castle until 1709, when they abandoned it for a larger and more comfortable residence in the form of Barcaldine House. The castle then deteriorated into ruin but was restored in 1911 and now operates as a luxury B&B.
It might have been nice to stay at Balcardine Castle but that wasn’t in my plans and I still had several miles to go. I continued along the country lane, now heading east towards the A828. I’d not gone far beyond the castle when Loch Creran came into view.
Dalrannoch & Barcaldine
The road met with the A828 by crossing another old railway bridge, Looking down, I could see that the railway alignment was far too overgrown to force my way along it. Fortunately NCN 78 had come to the same decision and was running beside the road as a separate cycle path. I followed it gratefully for more than a mile before coming to a place called Dalrannoch.
There, the cycle path briefly reverted to following the railway before giving that up and crossing the A-road. Once across it took a wide detour round the hamlet of Barcaldine (Am Barra Calltainn, ‘hazel summit’).
On the far side of Barcaldine, the cycle route rejoined the old railway alignment and passed through some cuttings that must have been blasted through the rock. It was at this point that the weather developed a new and hilarious game of raining if, and only if, I got my map out of my bag. Seriously, it was uncanny.
I was looking at my map not because I was lost — I was following a waymarked cycle route and had little chance of that — but because I was trying to gauge how far I had come. The answer to that question became abundantly clear when I suddenly found myself approaching Creagan Bridge.
This bridge, like Connel’s, was originally constructed in 1903 by the Callander and Oban Railway. Unlike Connel Bridge, it lay derelict after the line closed and motorists had to drive around Loch Creran for another 30 years despite that route often flooding. Eventually, this was seen to be a bit daft and the railway bridge was rebuilt as a road one.
The result — opened in 2001 — looks much like any other boring, modern road bridge but that’s not really a problem when you’re on it.
A Sudden Soaking
In addition to sweeping views up and down Loch Creran, Creagan Bridge also showed me a clear view of the sky. It was dark and the cloud was low and preparing to drop a ton of water onto everything in sight. The downpour began just minutes after I’d crossed over, and I was almost immediately so utterly soaked through that I looked at a handy pub and shrugged as if to say ‘what’s the point? I can’t actually get any wetter if I stay out.’
I pressed on, splashing my way through one continuous puddle.
The Back Road
About a mile and a half from Creagan Bridge, I found myself at a T-junction where the A828 continued on to Appin (as did NCN 78, though that chose this point to return to the railway alignment). To my left, was a turning that followed the shoreline of Loch Creran, leading to my destination of Port Appin via a narrow, quiet back-road. That sounded good. The rain, as if in approval, immediately ceased.
And so, still soaked to the skin, I set off down a narrow, leafy country lane dotted with scattered farms. From it, I gazed back across the loch and saw that the rain had moved on to Barcaldine Forest, where it was drenching the cycle route that I’d followed earlier.
I had four and a half miles of what Port Appin’s residents call ‘the back road’ to traipse along before I’d reach the outskirts of that village. This offered plenty of time to start to dry out, though the road did become flanked by woodland, providing the opportunity for really big droplets of water to fall off branches and go right down the back of my neck. Which they did. Every. Single. Time.
The woodland mostly kept further views of either the lock or the countryside from me, collapsing my world into a tunnel of green. This meant that when there were breaks in the trees, I appreciated all the more the vistas that were revealed.
My day’s walk ended with a steep ascent to the old Victorian country residence of Druimneil House. I don’t know why the hill surprised me, it was there in the name: druim means ‘ridge’.
Built in 1850, the house stands in ten acres of garden, which are open to the public and whose restoration is the result of a quarter century of hard work by Druimneil’s owner and her gardener.
It was certainly one of the quirkiest places I’ve stayed: not so much a B&B as literally someone’s home in which strangers pay to stay the night. That night I slept the sleep of the righteously exhausted. Come morning I’d be off again…
This time: 22 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,045½ miles