I kicked off Part 1 of this series describing how the heck I got so lucky as to score a day in Argyll and Bute with Scottish Gaelic Language Consultant Àdhamh Ó Broin, who works on the Outlander STARZ TV show, among other projects. I also offered readers and fans the tip to take the chance, too, if you get it.
The “First Foray” of our “Morning in Argyll”? A serpentine drive from Arrochar lodging (Seabank B&B) in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park along the A83 outline of Loch Fyne’s west bank toward the country’s west coast. Maps and several of my photos in Part 1 help tell the story of our adventure’s beginning on September 20th, 2016.
My husband at the wheel and Àdhamh riding shotgun, I sat in the back diagonally from Àdhamh so we could talk easier. He asked us what sorts of things we’d like to see and then planned our stops in his head as we passed lochs, mountains, riverbeds, the storied Glen Kinglas, the town of Inveraray, the 18th-century township museum of Auchindrain, and other landmarks. During our drive through the glens, I spotted a group of deer below us in the distance. Àdhamh complimented my keen eye and said they were probably fallow deer.
Morning in Argyll
A canal runs through it
Argyll’s principal town and county seat of Lochgilphead, population 2,300, is named for sitting at the head of Loch Gilp, an offshoot of Loch Fyne. We passed the town and took the A816 northwest into Knapdale, north of the base of Argyll’s Kintyre Peninsula. It had taken about an hour and a half to drive from Arrochar to the Knapdale coast, so before reaching the main attractions of the morning, we stopped for coffee at Crinan Coffee Shop and relaxed before a view at the basin of the Crinan Canal.
Built in 1801 and peppered with 15 locks, the 9-mile Crinan Canal connects the Sound of Jura at the tiny west-coast port of Crinan village to Loch Fyne, a sea loch, in the east at Ardrishaig. The canal also bisects the ancient kingdom of Dalriada and serves with Loch Crinan and Loch Gilp as the northern boundary of the district of Knapdale. A unique engineering feat, the canal grapples with the ocean tides on both ends of its length. Recently, drought in the area was restricting Crinan Canal’s use to one hour before and one hour after high tide (see Crinan Canal Restrictions).
The shop has a low-angled roof on one side that gives it almost a wedge shape. Part of the Crinan Hotel, the Crinan Coffee Shop offers fine confections and soothing percolations, as well as a public restroom and outdoor seating on the quay. The canal was quiet at that hour on a fall Tuesday, which makes sense in hindsight as its use long ago teetered from mostly commercial to mostly recreational.
Under a bright but overcast sky in balmy weather by the water, my husband and I sat in chairs at a café-side table facing the canal basin. Àdhamh sat opposite us and the shop with its black roof and gleaming white face.
I don’t recall many details of our conversation, but I remember we fell easily into casual chatting, having become acquainted during our 50-mile meandering drive to the coast. We touched on several topics, most about Scotland, and dared to wander in to the typically fraught American subject area of politics. Our trio had the advantage of not knowing each side of the table quite well enough to get into trouble by making provocative declarations but of sharing just enough fellow feeling to be able to sympathize with each other’s views.
At the time, Àdhamh seemed to lament a current of complacency in the Scottish people, as if wishing some would more often back up their cultural pride with stronger political will. He also muttered annoyance at the Aberdeen golf course construction by then not-yet-elected Donald Trump.
From watching the Dundee Rep Theatre’s live performance of the classic Scottish political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil three days before, my husband and I already had a basic sense of the issue of who controls Scottish lands and environment—Scotland, England, or multinational corporations—reflected in Àdhamh’s viewpoint. Depicting Scots’ complicity in non-native appropriation of Scotland’s resources across the centuries, the tragicomic musical production even went so far as to update the play, for example, by inserting Trump as a character.
Terms such as “sheep,” “croft,” “forestry,” “stag hunting,” “North Sea oil,” “referendum” (for Scottish independence), and “Brexit” raise just a few of the lightning rod issues of land use, sovereignty, natural resource exploitation, and economics for Scots over the centuries and today.
For our part, we asked Àdhamh questions, noted our own leanings, and shared thoughts from home. I related my friend’s sentiment from her July 2016 trip to Scotland: When the locals would find out she was American, they promptly expressed their sympathy about our having Trump as a candidate, which at that time was more funny than sad.
It wasn’t long before all three of us had finished our cups of comfort in the face of world chaos and were on the road again to our next Scottish cultural curiosity. After discussing Scotland’s national challenges and the similarities between our societies, I became mindful of how very much things connect and intersect within Scotland.
The mainland district of Knapdale would be a peninsula but for the isthmus connecting its south side to Kintyre Peninsula. Knapdale is bounded on the north by the Crinan Canal, the east by Loch Fyne, the west by Sound of Jura, and the south by West Loch Tarbert. As if that weren’t enough water, some 20 inland lakes, along with rivers and rivulets, further infuse the district.
Gazetteer for Scotland has a fascinating piece about Crinan Canal’s origins, engineering challenges, development and different uses, and connections between parts of Argyll, Loch Fyne, and the Sound of Jura–from tidal factors to the canal network, boom to bust, British to Scottish management, and commerce to recreation.
In my last post, I described how the inland freshwater lochs north of Arrochar spread finger like up through the Trossachs. In like fashion, the headlands of Knapdale reach their tentacles out to sea through the Sound of Jura, interlacing most deeply with Loch Sween to the north, but also with Loch Caolisport to the south. After our coffee break, this was our target destination.
In North Knapdale, “the extent of coast, including the shores of Loch Swein, is almost fifty miles: the rocks in the north rise precipitously to a height of 300 feet; in some parts the coast is bounded by low ledges of rocks, and in others by a level sandy beach.” – Samuel Lewis’ 1846 Topographical Survey
With nearby sites such as Castle Sween and activities like ferrying to islands, but with just a day to spare, we focused on a blend of Àdhamh’s cherished enclaves and our main interests, including breathtaking vistas. For this, we sought a great view of major islands across the water. We stopped somewhere just north of the Point of Knap, a coastal headland into the Sound of Jura where it meets Loch Sween. Midway up a vacant hill at the roadside, we parked, stepped out, and gazed upon the scene across the Sound of Jura and took in the panoramic sweep of the coast.
On a map of the region, Knapdale and Jura look almost like a pair of lungs, divided by the rather wide sternum or spinal column of the Sound. Each lobe forms a tear drop shape with a tapered north and rounded southern end, although Loch Sween gives Knapdale a bit of a diseased appearance as lungs go, and then it has this large, elongated growth hanging off the south end—Kintyre Peninsula. Okay, so the analogy isn’t perfect, but in approximating a lung, Jura’s shape does well. If that metaphor holds, I suppose it’s only fitting that the island should have on its surface some mountains in the shape of breasts.
From our perch on land between two lochs and a sound, Àdhamh introduced us to those dome-like mountains called the Paps of Jura, which jut roundly up from their island of the same name. As goofy as he can be–American accent imitation, spontaneous ditties on the drive out–Àdhamh was tasteful or proud enough of the scenery not to joke about the breast-shaped hills.
Unlike most such hill groupings across the globe, these peaks are triplets, not twins. Compared to Scotland’s other examples in places like the Scottish Borders, Fife, Perth & Kinross, Caithness, and the well-known Pap of Glencoe, the Paps of Jura viewed from the east appear to be more uniformly molded. Jura’s trio includes Beinn an Oir (highest of 3, its Gaelic name meaning “mountain of gold”), Beinn Shiantaidh (east of Oir), and Beinn a’ Chaolais (south of Oir)–all centered in the rounded southern half of an elongated Isle of Jura oriented northeast to southwest.
The smudge of sunlit distance gave the prominent globes a chalky, dream-like aura. As we looked, our faces relaxed into a mouth-open moment. Perhaps it was the near-perfect conditions, perhaps it’s because we hadn’t seen a beautiful coast in years, or perhaps it really was a singular vision among the Highlands and Islands. Whatever created it, our instinct made us stand in awe of the interplay: rocks, sun, blue water and sky, nearer strips of yellow-green hatch-mark islands, and the broader, farther canvas of magenta-tinged blue mountains.
A few solitary sheep sauntered in the grass close to us. At first sight, I thought one of them that lay nestled in the taller tufts might be ill or injured. Even if it was, I didn’t ask for fear of sounding foolish, sheep being so ubiquitous in Scotland. They bore reddish spray-paint marks on their backs, which looked like vandalism but were almost certainly a method of identification. Most likely, they would be found, safe and sound. Below is a panoramic slide show of Jura, the Sound, and Loch Sween, with some of those sheep visible on the hill.
Besides the mountains, the island boasts abundant wildlife and Europe’s third largest whirlpool, at its north end. The sparsely populated island’s rugged terrain and boggy flats keep most residents and visitors along its single-track road or at the town of Craighouse in the south, its west coast being notoriously difficult to access.
Although the Outlander STARZ TV show has not used the access challenged Argyll for filming, it doesn’t take long-distance travel in the British Isles to come across not only famous and ancient historical sites but also literary places. English author George Orwell once lived on the northern end of Jura at Barnhill farmhouse, presumably giving his most iconic dystopian novel 1984 a peaceful atmosphere for its birth.
“People disappear all the time,” the opening of Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander tells us. And if you’re really looking to make yourself scarce, why not hike the Isle of Jura’s truly wild west of otters, eagles, and red deer, or its remote Orwellian north, crowned by a forbidding whirlpool?
South of Jura’s thousands of deer, 200 people, and one whisky distillery, the island of Islay (pron. I-luh) holds more whisky makers than most of Scotland’s larger islands, at nine distilleries and growing. Laphroaig whisky, for example, is one of Sam Heughan’s (Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser) favorite brands.
These whiskies tend to be earthy, with a peat-based aroma and flavor. My husband had to do the honors of finishing our bottle of Lagavulin single malt (no, not all in one sitting), purchased from duty free on our way back home. My dad, a seasoned taster, and I preferred the Dalwhinnie 15-year Highland single malt, made just south of the Cairngorms in central Scotland. He’s more used to Crown Royal blends, though, and none of us could be considered connoisseurs. My husband’s more of a craft beer, gin, and bourbon man, and I prefer wine, hard cider, and sometimes cocktails.
During our brief visit to this coast of whisky on the morning of 20 September 2016, the wind was strong, the sun was bright, and Àdhamh took a picture of his guests with the Sound and the 30-mile long, 7-mile wide Isle of Jura behind. Through the haze farther south, half of the isle of Islay was just visible, the other half hidden behind Jura’s heights. The view was a true highlight of the day, well worth the effort to reach, and my husband’s favorite spot from our time with Àdhamh.
Although my photos hardly do it justice, for more Isle of Jura images, see my previous post about the Paps of Jura. Several Scottish tourism websites offer a variety of ways to wrap this prominent feature of the Isle of Jura into your itinerary along the lower west coast of Central Scotland. Learn more about the Paps of Jura and other features of the island at an Islay resident’s Isle of Jura website.
To visit the Isle of Jura, you can catch the ferry from Tayvallich on the mainland, but to bring your car, you’ll have to ferry it to Islay first. A good general resource about the Isle of Jura is The Jura page at Undiscovered Scotland.
Chapel museum, rich with history
Along with the port of Crinan, Knapdale district holds the village of Tayvallich where we stopped for lunch and the settlement of Kilmory in South Knapdale Parish. On the hillside of one of Knapdale’s extensions into the Sound of Jura, Kilmory Knap Chapel, also known as the chapel of St. Mary at Kilmory Knap (or simply Kilmory Chapel), bides between Loch Sween and Loch Caolisport, about where the mouth of Sween meets the Sound. This coastal water is also the Loch Sween Marine Protected Area.
The chapel was built in the first half of the 13th century and is both more complete and fancier than proximal chapels from the same era. Very near our view of the islands, its close quarters tightly pack a collection of late medieval grave slabs (14th-16th centuries) and early Christian cross slabs from different parts of Argyll.
Many of the slabs lean against the chapel walls, and a Celtic cross stands upright on the chapel floor. Several medieval schools of the West Highland style of carving, influenced by Romanesque sculptural and architectural works, are represented in the collection. Although the chapel is without its original roof, a solid, clear covering with drainage protects the artifacts.
A tiny sprig of fern fighting its way through cracks most of the way up the wall inside the chapel, even as the fall season began turning green fern to brown bracken, recalled for me the cycle of life in that museum of unique death markers that was once an active house of worship.
Nestled into a hillside, the graveyard of Kilmory Knap Chapel oversees adjacent farmland and its flock of sheep, yet it still affords a distant view of the Isle of Jura across the Sound. In the first shot below, the tops of the Paps, isolated from their island, peek over the mainland hills. In the second picture, a long stretch of the wild island of Jura poses in all its voluptuous grandeur for Kilmory residents and visitors alike.
So far during our trip, we’d seen quite a bit of Scotland. During the first stay in Edinburgh, we snagged Edinburgh Castle, several wonderful museums large and small, the highly entertaining theatre performance mentioned earlier, and our amazing day tour with Slainte Scotland among Outlander STARZ filming sites.
On that day, from South Queensferry, we traveled with them along the Firth of Forth north and west of Edinburgh, through the Kingdom of Fife, and out to the eastern edge of Stirling, seeing Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Blackness Castle (Fort William), Culross (Crainsmuir), Falkland (Inverness), and Doune Castle (Castle Leoch).
September 20 was only day 4 of our 14-day vacation, and in the morning alone Àdhamh gave us a great introduction to some of Scotland’s most engaging, peaceful, and gorgeous offerings: a remote and “heavily indented” coast with rolling countryside glens and hills, freshwater and sea lochs, mountains, a canal, the sea, some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides, and a unique chapel museum overlooking farmland and neighboring shores.
There was much more we could have seen, given time which always runs short, some of it designed for tourists and some inherent threads of everyday Scottish life and living. Of course, those things also intersect sometimes.
The Scotland experiences Àdhamh made possible next, however, rivalled or exceeded the beauty and wonder of nearly every place and monument we’d already visited. In my next post, I’ll first explore a glistening and mysterious historic treasure more recently cradled in an evergreen forest; second, enjoy a cozy, idyllic village inlet and ferry port full of sail boats at lunchtime; and third, discover an ancient, elevated landmark surrounded by a vast plain and winding river bathed blue in mid-day sunshine and made complete by our host’s cliff-top bagpiping.
Thank you for visiting Crinan, Knapdale, Kilmory, and Jura with me. I hope I’ve inspired you to learn more or to visit western Argyll in person. I’m excited to bring you Part 3 of Argyll with Àdhamh and some of the day’s most captivating highlights. Stay tuned.
Sources Consulted and Cited
Crinan Canal Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, accessed through Lochgilphead link on the site’s Argyll and Bute Overview page – http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst1169.html
Crinan feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crinan/crinan/
Local Attractions page at Cairnbaan Cottage – http://www.cairnbaancottage.co.uk/attractions.html
The Landscapes of Scotland, Descriptions 51-60, Scottish Natural Heritage: 52 – Jura, 53 – Knapdale and Kilmartin
“Kintyre and Knapdale” from Lewis’ 1846 Topographical Survey: “An 1846-published gazeteer giving an interesting insight into the area south of The Crinan Canal” – https://www.scribd.com/document/5996965/Kintyre-and-Knapdale-Samuel-Lewis-1846-Topographical-Dictionary
“The Land of Knapdale,” The Scots Magazine, Tom Weir – https://www.scotsmagazine.com/articles/tom-weir-knapdale/
“Just back from: Jura, Scotland,” Lonely Planet blog, Alex MacLeish – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/blog/2017/11/20/just-back-from-jura-scotland/
“Playing Scotland’s most exclusive new course requires approval from ‘Wizard’,” Golfweek, Martin Kaufmann – https://golfweek.com/2018/02/23/playing-scotlands-most-exclusive-new-course-requires-approval-from-wizard/
“Millionaire Greg Coffey’s Jura golf resort sees island’s population surge by 50 per cent,” Herald Scotland, Moira Kerr – http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14530566.Golf_resort_plan_drives_Jura_s_population_to_new_high/
Kilmory Knap Chapel
Kilmory Knap Chapel feature page at Undiscovered Scotland – https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/crinan/kilmoryknapchapel/index.html
Argyll and the Isles – General
Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php
Argyll and Bute Overview at Gazetteer for Scotland, http://www.scottish-places.info/councils/councilfirst4.html
Argyll Guide at Travel Scotland – http://www.scotland.org.uk/guide/regions/argyll-holiday-guide
Argyll, Scotland at The Rough Guides – https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/
“Population: Where We Live,” at Argyll and Bute Council – https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/info/population-where-we-live
“4. The Inner Hebrides” at “Top 10: cities and places to visit in Scotland,” The Telegraph, Travel | Destinations – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/Top-10-cities-and-places-to-visit-in-Scotland/
Argyll and the Isles – Specific Areas and Activities
“Lighthouses of Scotland: Argyll and Bute” – http://www.ibiblio.org/lighthouse/sctw.htm
Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles – “Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.”
The Kintyre Way from Tarbert – https://www.inspirock.com/united-kingdom/kintyre-peninsula/the-kintyre-way-a5385829581
Walking Scotland, Easy Ways Ltd. – https://www.easyways.com/mull-of-kintyre/
Mull of Kintyre Webcam Live – http://www.camsecure.co.uk/kintyre-webcam.html
Walk Highlands: Argyll, Bute and Oban – https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/
Arran Coastal Way – https://www.easyways.com/walking-holidays/arran-coastal-way/
UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap. Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division.
Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote of An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3, under the heading “Notes on Area Names.”
OpenStreetMap – https://www.openstreetmap.org/
Google Maps – https://www.google.com/maps
“Scotland” entry page of Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias – http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/16523
numerous topic pages at Wikipedia.org
Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…