A mix of hikes and gentler walks on the Cowal peninsula, the Isle of Bute, in Inveraray and along Loch Lomond, one of the most accessible and beautiful, yet least known, corners of the Highlands of Scotland.
South-Argyll, gouged by many sea lochs, stands discreetly aside from the northward and westward summer rush, hidden behind its own mountains. The Cowal peninsula, is on the road to nowhere… except to itself and to the island of Bute… and this ‘nowhere’ is more than enough for those in the know. It is a land of quiet corners - beautiful and very much off the beaten track. Rugged mountains such as Beinn an Lochan and Beinn Bhuidhe in the north give way to gentler hills, peaceful glens and a lovely coastline to the south. We should not see many people on the hills and we can often have the shore to ourselves too.
Castle Lachlan, Loch Fyne, Argyll
South-Argyll has many prehistoric riches: a number of burial cairns and standing stones and also a wealth of Iron Age forts. Around here the views from the shores of Loch Fyne towards Arran's sharp peaks are dramatic, and the Kyles of Bute around Tighnabruaich are especially beautiful. Further north, near Strachur, we'll see medieval Castle Lachlan on its rocky promontory, and we can also try to imagine the life of early Christian monks at the ruins of Kilbride chapel.
Across Loch Fyne is Inveraray, a very attractive, if very small, town with 18th century architect-designed buildings of elegant simplicity: a town that deserves and repays exploration of all its byways. Dun na Cuaiche, with it’s strategically-placed watchtower, offers stunning views down Loch Fyne.
Across the Kyles (Gaelic 'caolas' = narrows), the Isle of Bute lies with its head tucked between two of Cowal's headlands while its tail seeks the open sea. A lovely sliver of land, Bute is a geological and scenic hybrid of Highland and Lowland. North of Rothesay and Loch Fad (Gaelic 'fada' = long) the hard Highland schists of Cowal also underlie Bute, while the island's southern half is geologically Lowland, except at its southernmost tip where the basalts of Garroch Head and St. Blane's Hill echo the ruggedness of the north. Our day on the island takes in this volcanic tail where steep little hills and rocky coasts look out to Arran's jagged skyline. Amongst the natural beauties are some man-made ones: the remains of mediaeval St. Blane's chapel, sitting serenely in a wooded hollow, offer a marked contrast to the ruined strength of a vitrified hill fort, less than a mile away above a rocky shore.
Loch Lomond, with Ben Lomond rising high above it, is the largest freshwater loch in Britain. A boat will take us across the loch to the start of our walk.
For those interested in wildlife, there are good numbers of mammal species throughout the peninsula, including red and roe deer, otters, red squirrels and pine marten. In the sea lochs are common seals, porpoises and otters.
Encounters with mammals can be unpredictable, but, as our week will take us into a range of habitats, we will certainly see lots of birds. On the hills and moors, for example, we could come across curlew, snipe, raven, red grouse, ptarmigan and golden eagle (at least 3 pairs in Cowal). On one or two of the hill lochans there are red-throated divers. Woodland harbours flycatcher and redstart, warblers, finches and tits, with buzzards soaring overhead and sometimes black grouse.
The shoreline is home to many species, amongst which oystercatcher and heron, with eider and merganser nearby, are constant presences, while in summer the call of the sandpiper is a trademark of the West Highlands. Offshore gannets perform their spectacular dives on feeding trips from the colony on Ailsa Craig.
The programme will be subject to variables such as weather and the abilities of the group and changes may also be made to take account of lambing, deer stalking, etc. Any such alterations will always take into account the need to maintain the overall character of the holiday.
Saturday: Glasgow - Inveraray
We meet in the afternoon in Glasgow (city or airport). From Glasgow to Inveraray, where we will be based for the week, takes a little under one and a half hours.
Sunday: Strachur and Strathlachlan
Our first day takes us into the rugged little hills overlooking Loch Fyne, and along its quiet shores where seals and sea birds live peacefully beside the ruins of an early Christian chapel, a medieval castle and an abandoned farming township.
This area, with its birch and oak woods fringing open hill land has been the home of the Clan MacLachlan since at least the 15th century. Other records suggest that they have been here much longer than that.
9 miles/14km and 1200ft/380m of ascent
On top of the Steeple, Loch Goil
Monday: Loch Goil
We will walk in the Ardgoil hills which dominate the village of Lochgoilhead and command glorious views over the length of a beautiful sea loch - Loch Goil. The most rugged of these hills, the Steeple, belies its 1280 feet (380m) - with its silver-grey cliffs of schist, steep slopes and several landslip caves it has the feel of a much bigger mountain. Don't worry, the landslides happened at the end of the Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, so there's no likelihood that anything will fall on your head today!).
We may also walk part of the old track known locally as the 'Duke's Path' (once a major route for the Dukes of Argyll between their Inveraray home and the Lowlands). From this path we can climb any one of a number of hills, small or large, depending on the weather and the fitness of the party - whatever our choice, the views will be good, with a high possibility of seeing a herd of red deer.
The minimum is 5 miles/8km and 1300ft/400m of ascent
Tuesday: Loch Lomond
We will take the passenger ferry across Loch Lomond to Rowardennan on the eastern shore. Loch Lomond is the largest freshwater loch in Scotland. The loch also crosses the Highland Fault Line, as is evident in the changing landscape between the farmland of the south and the more rugged terrain to the north of the Fault.
We will do a circular walk through Queen Elizabeth Forest Park and along the open hillside on the slopes of Ben Lomond, with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and the Arrochar Alpes. Ben Lomond is a nature reserve, owned by the National Trust of Scotland.
7 miles/11km, 1475ft/450m of ascent
If the group is very fit, we might even walk up Ben Lomond (3193ft/974m), the most southerly Munro in Scotland.
Inveraray and Loch Fyne from
Dun na Cuaiche
Wednesday: Ardkinglas House and Inveraray
Today is a gentler day as we stay in and around Inveraray. We will have a tour of Ardkinglas House, designed and built in 1907 by Robert Lorimer one of Scotland's leading architects. Lorimer was allowed a free hand and the result is a large neo-baronial style mansion of over 80 rooms set in its own gardens.
Inveraray Castle, set in elegant planned grounds, beside the equally well planned and elegant white-painted 18th century town, is well worth seeing and there are excellent walks in the estate. Perhaps the best of these - all on path and track - takes in the riverside and some varied woodland on its way to the 700 feet high (220m) top of Dun na Cuaiche. The view from the watchtower here is the very best there is of Inveraray, the castle and Loch Fyne.
Afterwards we will take a walk around the town, and perhaps visit the splendid museum in the former jail and courthouse, which provides an accurate and interesting social history, not at all ghoulish. There is also an excellent museum at the old farming township of Auchindrain, a 15 minute drive away. There's nowhere better for gaining an insight into the life lived in the pre-Clearance Highland countryside.
Up to 6 miles (9 km) and up to 1300 ft (400 m) of ascent.
Thursday: Isle of Bute
Southwards today, to the Isle of Bute, to its southern end to enjoy the wide seascapes of the lower Firth of Clyde, with views to Arran's wild mountains and to Ailsa Craig. The walk is a circular one along the coast past Glencallum Bay and Garroch Head, returning north across lava hills.
Apart from the views, attractions include seals and seabirds, while those interested in history will particularly enjoy seeing the substantial ruins of the 12th century St Blane's Chapel with a much older early-Christian enclosure, both set in beautiful surroundings. The graveyard near the chapel includes a Viking hogback-style gravestone. There is also lots of geological interest along the shore.
Up to 8 miles/13km and up to 1000ft/300m of ascent
The Cobbler, Arrochar Alps
Friday: Arrochar Alps
Today's walk takes us to the summit of one of the mountains in the Arrochar Alps - a fitting climax to our week! We've had a fairly gentle day on Thursday, so should be OK to make the most of today.
The Cobbler is one of the hills we might do. Superlatives are appropriate for this mountain with its dramatic rocky top. This is a real mountain walk with some scrambling. This will be a hard day, but one offering great rewards and a wonderful sense of achievement, with views far into Argyll and across Loch Lomond (weather permitting!) from the summit.
6 miles/9km and up to 2990ft/910m of ascent
Saturday: Inveraray - Glasgow
After breakfast, we will take you back to Glasgow (city centre or airport).