Argyle, the diamond-shaped pattern on your socks, is derived from the tartan of the powerful Campbell clan. They once controlled Argyll, a large chunk of western Scotland, including 25 inhabited islands and over three-thousand miles of torn and frayed coastline. The towering mountains and seemingly endless moors are dotted with castles, standing stones, ruined stone huts and distilleries. I set out to explore them, using Oban, the largest city in the Argyll region (population: 9,000), as my base.
Oban and nearby
As a jumping-off point, Oban is busy. Tourists, trains, ferries, coaches and fishing boats jam its downtown. Fresh seafood is available at stands on the piers. I tried a cup of cockles with vinegar. (Tasted like mussels.)
North of Oban is the valley of Glencoe, both majestic and mournful. Majestic due to the massive mountains lining the broad valley. Mournful due to its tragic history.
In an effort to finally shut down the rebellious Jacobites, British King William II/III offered the Highland clans amnesty on the condition that all clan chiefs swear loyalty to him before January 1, 1692. The clan leader of the MacDonalds was three days late. In response, the government decided to make an example of the clan.
They sent British soldiers, led by a rival clan commander, a Campbell, to stay in Glencoe. The MacDonalds shared their lodgings and food with the soldiers for twelve nights before their guests betrayed them. At 5 a.m. on February 13, the soldiers, as ordered, murdered 38 male MacDonalds in their beds. Other family members fled into the snow, where many died due to exposure. Many of the soldiers were Campbells. (There is no love lost between these clans.) There’s a monument to the McDonald clan in Glencoe village, where members gather every February 13 to lay a wreath.
Numerous hikers tackled the challenging Glencoe mountain trails while a search-and-rescue helicopter hovered overhead. I completed a short hike to Signal Rock.
Next day at the b&b, they offered me whisky on my oatmeal (porridge)–a Scottish tradition! I can only handle about one full Scottish breakfast a week: eggs, bacon, sausages including black pudding (look it up), baked beans, grilled tomato, sautéed mushrooms, a potato scone, toast, orange juice and coffee. Usually I stick with the porridge.
Behind the guesthouse, a woodland trail led to Dunollie Castle. The castle stands on foundations dating to the Bronze Age. It was once the capital of Scotland, as four kings ruled the new kingdom from here in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Lord of the Isles (more about him later) gave the castle to his eldest son Dugall in the 12th century. (He was the first MacDougall.) Eventually, the MacDougalls lost a battle with Robert the Bruce, the wrong guy to have for an enemy. Accordingly, they lost the castle as well.
Several companies in Oban offer sailing excursions. I joined a small cruise for a close-up look at a seal colony in the harbor. The captain, while demonstrating how to wear a life vest, said, “In the event of an emergency, the nearest exit from the boat is wherever you want it to be.”
On the way to the isles of Mull and Iona, I visited the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Scotland’s most western point. The landscape is pristine, mostly because its main access is a long, torturous single-track road past lochs and through mountains. Every turn presents a view more beautiful than the last. I visited Glenfinnan, where a monument marks the spot Bonnie Prince Charlie kicked off his campaign to retake the crown.
I stayed in Acharacle at a b&b overlooking a moor. One of the staff asked if the other guests and I would like to see the deer. She called them with a high wailing, “Come here.” One by one, they emerged from the trees. First the does and fawns. The fawns hung back but a few of the does crowded the fence. We fed them crackers, which they gently but eagerly took from our hands. They stuck their noses through the wire fence. One licked my camera lens. Then the bucks arrived, three of them, regal and a little more reserved. Fourteen red deer in all. They roam through 40-plus acres.
Isles of Mull and Iona
In the morning I drove onto the ferry between Kilchoan and the Isle of Mull. My car was one of only four. Tobermory was colorful and quaint and busy on a Saturday morning with a music competition in progress. Men and women in kilts strolled the main street, rehearsing their harmonies quietly so their competitors couldn’t hear. I wanted to stay and listen but had to hustle to the next ferry at Fionnphort at the other end of the island.
Somehow I circumnavigated the Ardmeanach Peninsula, a protected area. Again, jaw-dropping scenery. Drove under overhanging cliffs on a one-lane road on the side of a mountain with no guardrails. A glance at the waves crashing on the rocks below and I would join them. Hard to focus on driving while I wanted to stare at the phenominal seascape. Finally, I arrived at the ferry terminal in Fionnphort, parked my rental car in the overnight lot and enjoyed the fifteen-minute crossing to the Isle of Iona. The ferry docked in Martyrs’ Bay, named after the 68 monks who were massacred on the spot by Vikings.
Iona Abbey was founded in 563 AD by St. Columba, a hugely influential Irish missionary. From Iona, he succeeded in spreading Christianity throughout the British Isles. The revered Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript now at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, was created here. Most impressive are the massive carved-stone Celtic crosses, which make use of the same intricate designs employed in the manuscripts. Somehow Iona survived numerous vicious Viking raids. I toured the abbey (which was getting ready for Sunday morning mass), the huge collection of Celtic crosses and the site of Columba’s writing hut. Outside the chapel is the cobblestone Street of the Dead, where funeral processions were held. Many ancient kings chose to be buried here, including MacBeth!
After the daytrippers are gone, Mull is a peaceful, calming place. I took advantage of one of its hiking trails to the pebble beach at St. Columba’s Bay.
The next day, back on Mull, I toured the 13th-century Duart Castle, under reconstruction by the Maclean clan. Like many castles, it was occupied, lost in battle, destroyed and rebuilt multiple times.
Mull of Kintyre
The Mull of Kintyre is a peninsula, connected to the Scottish mainland by a narrow isthmus. According to legend, King Malcolm III of Scotland told Magnus Barefoot, the king of Norway, he could have any land on the west coast of Scotland around which a ship could sail. Magnus cleverly had his longship dragged the few miles across the isthmus while he stood at the tiller in order to claim the Kintyre as his own. Paul McCartney is a sometime resident. He recorded a tribute song called Mull of Kintyre.
On the way to Kintyre, I stopped in picturesque Inverary for two polar-opposite experiences. First, I toured the Inverary Jail, which houses a detailed exhibit on medieval crimes and punishments, including torture. The jail itself served as a prison in the 19th century. The tour highlights the deplorable conditions to which prisoners were subjected just a century ago.
On the lighter side, I toured Inverary’s fairy-tale castle, maintained by the powerful Campbells. The Duke of Argyll (including the current one) has lived here since the 17th century. An episode of Downton Abbey was shot here.
When I arrived in Tarbert at Kintyre’s isthmus, an end-of-summer festival was in progress. Area residents were enjoying music and food on a sunny afternoon. I joined them and listened to two bands as well as an Elvis impersonator. He was quite believable, despite dropping the Mississippi twang and speaking with a Scottish accent between songs.
Isle of Arran
On the ferry between Claonaig on Kintyre and Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, I watched dolphins in the channel. Arran has a population of less than 5,000. Once there, I toured the Lochranza castle ruins, then continued to the Aran distillery. Along the way, I found several red deer, calm and photogenic in the middle of town. At the distillery tour: “While you’re watching the video, you may as well have a drink. And as long as you’re having a drink, it may as well be whisky.” I circled the northern half of the island to enjoy views of the craggy mountains before hiking through sheep pastures to the standing stones at Machrie Moor. Six different prehistoric stone circles stand within sight of each other.
Isle of Islay
It was raining when I arrived in whitewashed Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay (prounounced EYE-la), an ideal day for doing laundry and touring the Laphroiag (la-FROIG) distillery. Islay is home to at least ten distilleries, three of which are in Port Ellen. The air, even in the rain, smells strongly of burning peat, used for roasting the barley. Islanders claim the peat is different on Islay, much saltier than the rest of Scotland, which contributes to the distinctive taste of the whiskies.
I stayed at a farm-based b&b near Port Charlotte. The owner explained that many of the island’s 3,000 residents are engaged in multiple occupations to make ends meet. His included cattle and sheep farming, running a b&b, transporting livestock and construction. Visited the twin villages of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss on the southern tip of Islay’s western peninsula. They are perched like post-card models on jagged rocks, complete with lighthouse and roaring waves. Every monster wave sprayed plumes of water high into the air as it smashed into the rocks. I spotted a seal fishing in the channel and then found twenty of his buddies huddling on a sandy beach across the water. They were moaning into the wind.
Toured Finlaggan, a mystical island in a loch on the larger island. It was home to the MacDonald clan for nearly 400 years from the 12th to the 16th century. From here, they ruled the Atlantic seaboard from Lewis on the Hebrides to the Mull of Kintyre. Their powerful king, the Lord of the Isles, was on equal footing with the kings of Scotland and England. On the tiny island are the ruins of several stone buildings, including a great hall and a chapel, containing grave slabs with warrior effigies.
Kilmartin Glen on the mainland is littered from end to end with prehistoric sites–cairns, standing stones, forts, henges and more. I toured the Museum of Ancient Culture to get my bearings, then hiked to Glebe Cairn, Nether Largie North Cairn, Nether Largie Mid Cairn, Nether Largie South Chambered Cairn, Temple Wood Stone Circles and Nether Largie Standing Stones. All of these sites are in a two-mile row through the glen. The five-thousand-year-old cairns were most likely used for burials of chieftains. Two can be entered through the tops. The stones and cairn entrances may align to seasonal risings and settings of the sun and the moon. I picked and ate wild blackberries along the way.
Next, I climbed to Dunadd Fort on top of a rocky knoll in the middle of the glen. Here, Fergus, king of Dalriada, ruled during the Iron Age (although the Picts were probably inhabitants earlier). He arrived from Ireland around 500 AD. Dunadd is a site associated with the ruling of Scotland. Coronation involved the placing of the king’s right foot into a carved footstep on a ceremonial stone at the top. (Of course, I had to follow suit, although the carved footstep is size six.) In addition, Scotland’s Coronation Stone, also known as the Stone of Destiny and the Stone of Scone, may have originated at or at least spent some time at Dunadd. Now it is at Edinburgh Castle.
Back in Oban, I turned in the rental car and began preparing for the next leg of my trip. The manager of the b&b told me about an American who went off the road while rubbernecking the scenery. He had an expensive repair bill and ruined his holiday. The good news: I didn’t kill any sheep on this trip. The bad news: Somewhere in Scotland a rental car is likely having its clutch replaced.