Medieval grave stones, Kilmartin
This walking trip will take us to Argyll in Western Scotland. Inland Argyll has evolved as a landscape of gentle farmland and wide peat bog surrounded by rugged hills, secret glens and hidden lochans. At the edge is a unique seascape, wild and rugged, dotted with islands large and small. The Isle of Islay, once home of the MacDonald 'Lords of the Isles', is famous for its malt whiskies and birdlife as well as for its farming, fishing and shooting. Hills, moors and machair* are edged by an infinitely varied coast, with rocks, beaches and dunes, salt marshes and cliffs. Good walking country.
* Machair is fertile ground on wind-blown shell-sand; well-drained and not acid, it can support a lovely short green turf with flowers.
The very name 'Scotland' derives from the Roman name for the Iron Age Celtic people who, by the 6th century, occupied both Ulster and Argyll (Irish and Scottish Dalriada), perhaps colonising one from the other. Islay would have been one of the richest parts of Scottish Dalriada, from whose ruling group came the first king of a united nation in the 9th century.
Later, though, especially from the 13th to the 15th centuries, the centralising Scottish state was very effectively resisted by the MacDonald Lords of the Isles - by then practically an independent kingdom. Their power base was at Finlaggan on Islay, which thus has an historical significance that demands a visit. In between times the western seaboard underwent a series of Viking raids. Unlike most of the mainland, raids here were followed by extensive Norse settlement and a period (from 1098 to 1263) under the Norwegian crown. Evidence survives in numerous place names of Norse origin.
But Argyll also has far earlier links with Scotland’s past. Prehistoric remains are found in unusual concentrations throughout Kilmartin Glen, thirty miles south of Oban. The work of Bronze and Stone Age people, these remains take us back as far as 4000 BC and the time of our first settled farming communities.
Modern Islay is a land of farms and of beautiful and distinctive planned villages whose whitewashed houses are a particularly attractive feature. These characteristics, differentiating the island from others in the Hebrides, are partly the result of its geology, topography and relative fertility, but also partly of the management policies of a succession of landowners.
Mull of Oa, isle of Islay
If you appreciate how intimately scenery can unite aesthetics and science, you can think of Argyll as a perfect artist’s studio and laboratory in one - a unique volume where the evolution of Scotland itself is written in the rocks and the living biosphere above. Glen Coe, in addition to offering one of the most stunning views in Scotland, is also one of the best-exposed and earliest-studied classic examples of volcanic cauldron subsidence, set where a volcano punched through ancient rocks about 400 million years ago. These ancient so-called ‘Dalradian rocks’ record a continental collision around 500 million years ago, and therefore symbolically unite early America and early Europe.
Islay has a complex geology, with major differences between the land west and east of a fault between Lochs Gruinart and Indaal. Westwards, in the Rhinns and Ardnave, the rocks are extremely old (their age being measured in thousands of millions of years - say nearly half the age of the earth). East of the fault, the slightly less ancient rocks (a mere 600 or so million years old) are also mainly metamorphosed sediments - part of structures that continue north-east through Jura and on into the Grampian highlands.
As well as being blessed with superb views, we will also have the opportunity to see wild flowers and to look for many of our native animals in their natural habitats. During our trip to the Garvellachs and on Islay we will have a good chance of seeing sea eagles, golden eagles, seals, puffins and possibly otters.
The programme of hikes and visits will be tailored to your wishes and interests, but this is an example of how the holiday may look like.
We can change it to meet your interests, how much hiking you would like to do, the number of days you would like the adventure for and any specific places or islands you would like to visit. You can also choose the type of accommodation you would like to stay in: B&Bs/guest houses or (luxury) hotels.
Please send us an email with your requirements and we'll design a bespoke itinerary for you.
Day 1: Glasgow - Oban
Day 2: Isle of Kerrera
Day 3: Glen Coe
Day 4: Ganavan Bay and Dunstaffnage Castle
Day 5: Kilmartin Glen - Kennacraig - Islay
Day 6: Port Charlotte, Finlaggan and Ardnave
Day 7: Distillery, Kildalton and The Mull of Oa
Day 8: Islay - Glasgow
Meet in Glasgow in the afternoon and journey from Glasgow via Loch Lomond and the Pass of Brander to Oban. We will stay 4 nights in Oban.
A circuit of the south end of the Island of Kerrera via the dramatically situated Gylen Castle. Scenically beautiful, with new views constantly opening out as we follow successive turns of the coast clockwise from the ferry landing, there's a lot of historical and geological interest on this walk. The confined Sound of Kerrera gives way to more open views south towards the islands of Seil and Scarba, followed in turn by the sudden appearance of Gylen Castle, its prominent silhouette backed by the hills of Mull across the wide Firth of Lorn. Turning north reveals yet more new views towards Lismore and the hills beyond, lining the long, straight rift where Loch Linnhe leads towards the distant Great Glen.
6 miles/10 km and 700ft/215m of ascent
Northwards to Glen Coe where we can choose from a number of walks. We’ll probably do a circuit above Rannoch Moor, out along an old military road and back along a section of the West Highland Way. We will be surrounded by the impressive mountains all the time with great views of Buachaille Etive Mor, the Black Mount, Beinn Achaladair and on a clear day as far as Schiehallion.
5.5 miles/8.7 km, 990ft/300m of ascent
Ganavan Bay is a beautiful sandy beach just north of Oban. This will be the start for today's walk following the shore through little hills to Dunstaffnage Castle. There will be great views all around us and across Loch Linnhe and the Firth of Lorn to Ardgour and the Isles of Lismore and Mull.
Dunstaffnage Castle, the mighty stronghold of the MacDougall lords of Lorne, built before 1240 on a huge rock above the Firth of Lorn. It guards the seaward approach from the Firth of Lorn to the Pass of Brander – and thereby the heart of Scotland.
The castle has been held since the 15th century by Clan Campbell. To this day there is a hereditary Captain of Dunstaffnage, although they no longer reside at the castle.
We'll then visit the ruins of Dunstaffnage Chapel, tucked away in the trees, which was built together with the castle in the 13th century.
Our walk back to Ganavan Bay takes us again through the little hills, again enjoying 360 degree views.
4.5 miles/8 km and 585ft/180m of ascent
Kilmartin House, our first stop, sets out the story of Kilmartin Glen down the ages with an inspired combination of imagination and clarity. Worth an hour of anyone's time and not to be missed.
Our walk takes us along a good cross-section of Kilmartin's prehistoric and early historic monuments - a stone circle, burial cairns and iron age forts and sculpted stones.
Dunadd was the capital hill fort of the Scots - Iron Age Celtic colonists from the Irish kingdom of Dalriada - from at least the 6th century to the 8th and probably longer. No visitor to this area with a feel for the history in a landscape should miss it, so we stop there before we continue our journey. A short walk and a little climb to the top of the hill rewards you with the opportunity to place your foot in the carved print where kings of Scots may well have placed theirs on being crowned.
Up to 5.5 miles/9km and little ascent
Finlaggan, Isle of Islay
We then take the road to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay. This is a very scenic trip down the shores of Loch Fyne to the charming village of Tarbert. Here there may be time for a wander about to admire what must be one of Scotland’s prettiest villages.
The ferry crossing to Islay takes 2.5 hours. We will have our evening meal on the ferry.
Accommodation for the remaining three nights is on Islay.
We will start exploring Islay gently with a visit to the museum of Islay life in Port Charlotte, followed by a drive north to Finlaggan. These ruins, on a now accessible island in Loch Finlaggan were once the home of the chiefs of clan MacDonald. The Macdonald 'Lords of the Isles' flourished in late medieval times, when the Gaelic lordship was, in effect, an independent kingdom sufficiently powerful to rival the kings of neighbouring mainland Scotland.
We will then drive to Ardnave, overlooking Loch Gruinart, for our walk around the coast via Ardnave Point. Easy walking over short, dry turf amongst sand dunes is followed by stretches of sandy beach interspersed with short stretches of (easy) rocky shore. This is spectacular open country, with wide views east across bird-rich Loch Gruinart and north to Oronsay and Colonsay. Plenty of seals and sea birds, and we may also see otters. It's also worth popping in to the medieval chapel of Kilnave, with its high cross; a peaceful place now, but once scene of a bloody clan massacre.
5 miles/8km and little ascent
The Old Church at Kildalton (often called the Kildalton Chapel) is the site of the Kildalton High Cross. This is the only surviving complete Celtic high cross in Scotland. It was carved about AD 800, probably by a sculptor from Iona. The biblical scene on the front include the Virgin and the Child, and David and the Lion, while on the back are animals and carved bosses.
Ardbeg whisky distillery, isle of islay
After this must be as good a time as any to investigate the world-famous Islay whisky industry - if we haven't already been doing just that each evening through a glass or two. What better than a visit to one of the island's nine malt whisky distilleries.
In the afternoon, to round off our outdoor week, we will enjoy an airy cliff top walk around the Mull of Oa ('oa' pronounced simply 'o'). The stretch between spectacular Dun Athad, on its narrow headland, and the American Monument on the Mull itself is as grand a stretch of coast as any in the islands and should certainly blow the cobwebs away and allow us to walk off lunch. If visibility is particularly good we will be able to see both the Irish and mainland Scottish coasts to remind us of the close ancient links between Scotland, Islay and Ireland, perpetuated in Gaelic place names and the Gaelic speech of many Ilich.
4 miles/6.5km and 330ft/100m of ascent
Depart am for Kennacraig and via Inveraray to Glasgow.