I have recently finished writing and photographing Mid and North Argyll for a guidebook. It is a fabulous area, one full of incredible scenery, wonderful wildlife and tangible evidence of Scotland’s remarkable history.
The area falls into the Argyll and Bute region (the second largest in Scotland), covering an area of nearly 7000 square km. However, as of the 2011 census, it has a population of only 89,950 and what this illustrates is there is room to breathe when walking its extraordinary landscape.
Within these boundaries is a portion of Scotland’s renowned west coast (including several beautiful and easily accessible islands), a scenic and historic countryside, wildlife rich woodland, forestry and gardens, several iconic hills and mountains, and a litany of beautiful lochs and rivers.
Add to this the Crinan Canal, described as the most beautiful short cut in Scotland, and you have a beautiful and fascinating walking destination.
Argyll means ‘Coastland of the Gaels’, referring to the early Gaelic speaking Scots who populated much of Scotland’s western seaboard. There is much to learn when walking here as it is where a great deal of Scotland’s early history rests, particularly in Kilmartin Glen, where over 800 prehistoric and historic sites sit within a 10km radius.
These include several burial cairns and standing stones constructed around 4-5000 years ago while the rock carvings at nearby Achnabreac are believed to date from the same time.
The low, rocky hill of Dunadd (the Fort of Add – the River Add flows around its base), a few miles north of Lochgilphead, rises from Kilmartin Glen and was at the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Dál Riata, the name given to the kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland. It was where Irish settlers, known as the Scotti, arrived in the 6th century AD, and they eventually gave their name to Scotland. 300 years later and the Gaels of Dál Riata amalgamated with the Picts of eastern Scotland and established the kingdom of Alba, after which the control and influence of Dunadd rapidly weakened.
Argyll’s history of the last few centuries has been a turbulent one, with many battles fought over Castle Stalker, near Port Appin, Dunstaffnage Castle a little north of Oban, and Gylen Castle, perched on a rocky outcrop on the gorgeous island of Kerrera. These strongholds held strategic positions along the coast and bore witness to civil warfare between rival clans (particularly the Stewart’s, Campbell’s and MacDougall’s) and seaboard battles with Viking raiders.
More recently the landscape has been moulded by humans for the benefit of agriculture, fuel and timber. The idyllic island’s of Easdale and Luing were central to the slate industry that, for over 200 years, roofed a huge number of Scotland’s buildings while Lismore, a little off the coast from Port Appin, had a thriving limestone industry. These industries employed thousands of people during the 18th and 19th centuries, as did the great Bonawe Iron Furnace during its 150 years of production.
It is only in the last 70 years that the road network and public infrastructure has opened up Mid and North Argyll. Prior to this much of the area was remote with ferries being a standard mode of transport, linking many isolated rural communities, not only those on the islands but also those along the great indented sea lochs.
Today the outdoors industry, including walking, cycling, sailing and wildlife watching, has become crucial to a local economy that is still predominantly rural.
Lochgilphead remains the region’s main administrative centre and, along with towns and villages such as Appin, Arrochar, Benderloch, Inveraray, and Oban (often hailed as Scotland’s Seafood Capital and the Gateway to the Isles), provides an ideal base to explore this astounding landscape.