Mid Argyll; make sure you don’t overlook this West of Scotland jewel

Mid Argyll  could well be tagged as “Overlooked Scotland”; a little out of the way, no big towns or cities, not the easiest place to get to (certainly without a car), but, with its history, scenery, serenity, wildlife, culture and opportunities for walking and cycling, well worth the effort if you do go.

Dunadd Hill

OK, so you can’t get to Kintyre by train, but you can take the bus and, if you have a word with Citylink beforehand, you might even find they’ll transport your bike. Coach 926 leaves Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station four times a day for Ardrishaig and for as little as £6 single, the 2 hours 45 minutes journey won’t seem long enough to take in the view of all the passing lochs and mountains from the window

Indeed, if getting to your destination is as important as the holiday itself, why not make your journey into an epic?  Take the train from Glasgow to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon, bus to Portavadie, another ferry to Tarbert and a final bus to Ardrishaig. It takes just over four hours, but where else on mainland UK ( and, yes, you are still on the mainland) could you combine rail, road and sea with scenery to die for? Use Traveline Scotland  to organise your journey.

This jewel in the west of Scotland has the lot: as well as its unique history, relaxed pace of life and jaw-dropping scenery, it also has hotel/restaurant/cafe owners who actually seem to like and welcome visitors! What’s not to like?

Standing Stones in Kilmartin Glen

Confined to a weekend visit, my major problem was so much to see, with so little time to do it. So, taking my theme as the area’s rich vein of history, ancient and modern, I headed for Kilmartin Glen to find out more about its standing stones, burial cairns, rock art, forts and carved stones that originated in the Neolithic period (6,000-4,000BC). Mid Argyll has the densest concentration of cup and ring marked rocks in the British Isles and the Glen contains Europe’s largest cup and ring marked site at Achnabreck.

The Glen is also home to one of Scotland’s most important historic sites of any period; Dunadd Fort, thought to have been built and occupied by the Dal Riata people from about 500AD. This area is now believed to have been a cultural and social centre where people, ideas and power were exchanged between lands connected by the sea.

Burial Pits in Klimartin Glen

Check out the artefacts and interpretations at the award-winning Kilmartin House Museum  browse the rock art silver jewellery in the shop and sample the yummy home baking in the adjoining cafe.

But don’t be misled into believing the area declined in importance as time moved on: the first book to be printed in Scots Gaelic, John Knox’s liturgy, was translated by John Carswell, a 16th century Protestant reformer, in 1567 at nearby Carnassie Castle  an attractive two mile stroll out of Kilmartin.

The Crinan Canal through Ardrishaig

Head back to Ardrishaig to enjoy a later, but no less important, artefact; the delightful nine mile Crinan Canal  Known as “Britain’s most beautiful shortcut”, it was built in the late eighteenth century between Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne and Crinan on the Sound of Jura.

Crinan Bridge

The canal provided a lifeline between the islands of the west coast and the Clyde Estuary and enabled the puffer ships that transported coal, food and other essentials throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to avoid the long, arduous voyage round the south end of the Kintyre Peninsular.

Today, around two thousand mainly pleasure vessels, still pass through the canal and the waterway can also be appreciated, on foot or by bike, as an engineering marvel and an idyllic route through some stunning scenery.

When you reach Crinan, check out the top-floor gallery at the Crinan Hotel and, at certain times of the year, you might be lucky enough to see round one of the old puffer boats under renovation in the harbour.

 

Puffer under renovation

Walking opportunities in the area are virtually endless, from gently coastal and woodland strolls to a lesser-visited Munro not too far away,  while the Sustrans National Cycle Route 78   (Oban to Campbeltown) directly links Kilmartin, Crinan, Lochgilphead and Ardrishaig.

 

Loch Crinan with Paps of Jura in the background

 

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Discover Dumfriesshire: Walk/Cycle

 
View from Kirkland Hill, Kirkconnel

Where? Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, north Dumfriesshire

 

How? train from Glasgow Central (or Carlisle if travelling north) to Kirkconnel/Sanquhar, return buses from Wanlockhead/Thornhill/Carronbridge, if needed, run to Kirkconnel and Sanquhar

Why? one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets; the beautiful, unspoilt Nith valley, undiscovered by tourists, ideal walking/cycling country, direct access to Southern Upland Way http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/  on National Byway cycle route  http://www.thenationalbyway.org/welcome.asp  birthplace of the bicycle  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle/drumlanrig-castle/cycle-museum   yet, within easy access of Glasgow and Carlisle.

But: very isolated outside of the villages, can be bleak with high rainfall and infrequent transport, so vital to check timetables and plan in advance; proper equipment, sufficient supplies and spares are vital

Info: routes shown on maps; OS Explorers 320, 321, 328, 329

Terrain: steep gradients away from valley floor, often wet and muddy

Refreshments: hotel, pubs, cafes in Sanquhar and Thornhill, tearoom at Drumlanrig Castle http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle   . Blackaddie Country House Hotel in Sanquhar http://www.blackaddiehotel.co.uk/  is located in beautiful surroundings and has gained a very good reputation for its food

Baker's Burn, Kirkconnel

Separated by the bleak and brooding Lowther Hills from its more famous neighbour, the Clyde, the River Nith follows a southerly course from its source in East Ayrshire to the Solway Firth. Best known for its excellent trout and salmon fishing and associations with Robert Burns, the majority of its valley lies in Dumfriesshire; from the bleak, open vistas of Upper Nithsdale, through a dramatic, gorge-like stretch between Mennock and Carronbridge – Highlandesque, in terms of its spectacular  beauty – to the wide flood plain of Dumfries and thence into the Solway.

This is undiscovered Scotland; usually hastily bypassed on the M74 and West Coast Main Line 15 miles or so to the east.  Undiscovered, of course, also means unspoilt and non-commercialised.  But, linked by rail to Carlisle and Glasgow, with direct access to the Southern Upland Way and with world-class on and off-road cycling opportunities, it’s an excellent area for booters and bikers, with plenty of history, culture and even some foodie options thrown in.

Sunset over the Nith Valley

 It’s also a remarkably easy area to get to: change at Carlisle – about four-five  hours from London and around three from the Midlands on the West Coast Main Line – take the service to Glasgow via Dumfries and you arrive in Sanquhar/Kirkconnel (both villages have stations) in just over an hour. Similarly, the same service in reverse from Glasgow takes about 90 minutes.

Increasingly popular with off-road bikers as it’s right in the heart of the Seven Stanes series of world-class MTB courses, www.sevenstanes.org.uk  this corner of SW Scotland is also ideal for road cycling and touring and every type of walking, from the most testing long distance footpath in Britain to riverside rambles http://www.uppernithsdale-events.org/walking   A 15 mile trail focusing on the coal and lead mining heritage of the area has recently been opened linking Kirkconnel to Wanlockhead. It crosses rough moorland, with some spectacular views, but is strenuous, so proper equipment and hill-walking experience are necessary  http://www.geolocation.ws/nearby/en?loc=55.420516,-3.823472

Although not renowned for copious amounts of sunshine  –  it can be bleak and cool even in the middle of summer – it is usually mild and the area’s plentiful rainfall results in a lush, emerald vista of deciduous woodlands and fast flowing streams (as well, regrettably the ubiquitous midges).  It’s refreshingly untouristy and the evening light lingers long, from April right through to August.

Sanquhar boasts the oldest post office in the world http://www.networkun.co.uk/business/sanquharPO.html   and the town holds a historic Riding the Marches every year http://www.sanquharridingofthemarches.com/

The area, generally, is noted for its salmon fishing and, for admirers of Scotland’s national bard, it is smack in between  Robert Burns’ birthplace  near Ayr, and his grave and mausoleum in Dumfries.

St Conal's Cross

Definitely worth a look is the beautiful and historic church in Kirkconnel that dates from the early 18th century. However, the first church in the village is thought to have been established by St Conal in the eighth century.  Closed down during the period of Covenanter unrest in the 1680s, a Celtic cross now marks the site, about two miles out of the village, and a  recent renovation project has restored the site of the original kirkyard. http://www.kirkconnel.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=81&Itemid=211

 Both Kirkconnel and Sanquhar have strong historic links with the Covenanters – people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638 opposing any interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Scottish Presbyterian church. In 1680 the preacher Richard Cameron, issued the famous Sanquhar Declaration, renouncing allegiance to Charles II. This, and a second declaration in the town, by James Renwick five years later, set out the basis of future religious freedom in Scotland.

http://www.covenanter.org/CivilGovt/cameronandsanquhar.htm

 

Boot and Bike Options: 

i) walk along the Southern Upland Way out of Sanquhar east towards Wanlockhead – about 8 miles

From Sanquhar station follow the signs for the Southern Upland Way east.  http://www.southernuplandway.gov.uk/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=119&Itemid=322  Make sure you visit the award-winning Museum of Lead Mining  http://www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk/home.shtml  and return by bus to Sanquhar railway station. http://www.travelinescotland.com 

Sanquhar to Wanlockhead

ii) walk/cycle from Sanquhar along minor roads and forest tracks to Kirkconnel and back – about 11 miles, off-road bike needed

From Sanquhar station go down Station Road, cross the A76, then straight head along Blackaddie Road. Cross the bridge and keep straight ahead. The road then follows Euchan Water past a lovely waterfall. The scenery is superb and after about two miles you will reach a coniferous plantation.  Cross a ford (you may need to lift your bike over a gate here), keep on the track through the rest of the trees, descend to cross a burn and follow the track through the next plantation. Keep on the track until a cattle grid, turn right, cross another grid and then continue along the side of Corserig Hill.  Keep going until the track splits, bear left on the well-defined path and follow this through Librymoor Plantation until you see Kirkconnel Cemetery in front of you. Turn right on to the minor road that runs behind Kirkconnel and continue on this for approximately three miles. At Blackaddie Bridge, turn left and follow  the road back into Sanquhar.

Sanquhar - Kirkconnel - Sanquhar Off-Road

 ii) cycle from Sanquhar to Drumlanrig Estate near Carronbridge – 17-20 miles, depending on route, off-road bike needed if riding the forest trails at Drumlanrig

Follow above directions from Sanquhar station to Blackaddie Bridge, then turn left and follow the minor road with the River Nith on your left; past Menock and Eliock Wood the valley is spectacular. At Burnmouth the road heads south, away from the river. Continue for about half a mile to Burnsands where you can either turn left and follow the road direct to Drumlanrig Castle (about 2-3 miles) or go straight on for about five miles, where the road then loops round back to Drumlanrig. http://www.drumlanrig.com/drumlanrig-outdoor-activities/cycling 

Visit Drumlanrig Castle  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle sample the  mountain bike trails (variety of routes available, off-road bike needed), pop into the Scottish Cycle Museum (Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Drumlanrig blacksmith, rode a  bicycle he invented the 60miles to Glasgow in 1839, heralding the age of the bicycle),  http://www.drumlanrig.com/visit-drumlanrig-castle/drumlanrig-castle/cycle-museum or enjoy the many walking routes through Drumlanrig forest.

Sanquhar to Drumlanrig
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