Argyll and Bute - a well of literary inspiration

Argyll and Bute – a well of literary



Robin McKelvie

Argyll and Bute is inspirational for everyone lucky enough to visit this oasis of rugged mountains, shimmering seas, thick ancient forests and evocative isles. It has proven especially inspirational for a volley of world-class writers too. You may know Katie Morag is really from Coll, and Para Handy author Neil Munro hails from Inveraray, but did you know George Orwell penned his magnum opus 1984 on Jura? Or that the author of the Wind in the Willows spent his early life in Tarbert? Or the real-life Sherlock Holmes cut his detective teeth on Cowal? Dear reader, join me now as we explore Argyll and Bute’s bountiful literary lineage.

All really great books start with a killer paragraph. And in Iain Bank’s Crow Road we certainly have that with the fictional Argyll town of Gallanach centre stage. “It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.” Ok, it’s not exactly the stuff of glossy tourist brochures, but the novel does go on to describe the dramatic Argyll landscape in detail. The novel also features an actual Argyll village in the shape of Lochgair on Loch Fyne.

Just up the road we come to the trim whitewashed historic town of Inveraray and Neil Munro. The Para Handy stories delve back into the lost world of the old steam-powered puffers that used to furrow the Firth of Clyde, when the waterways were man’s main transport arteries in the west of Scotland. The Vital Spark puffer had all sorts of humorous adventures around the sea lochs of Argyll, with its main route between Glasgow and Inveraray. The stories are great fun and fascinate with their history too.

Pushing further south into Kintyre we arrive in the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert. Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows, spent his first five years by Loch Fyne here when his dad, James Cunningham Grahame, was the prison governor of Inveraray Jail. His time in Inveraray ended in tragedy as his mum succumbed to yellow fever after childbirth and Kenneth himself barely survived his own bout, before being sent by his distraught father south to a new life in England.

Tarbert Fishing Village, Credit: Robin McKelvie

We stay in Tarbert for Gillespie by John MacDougall Hay. I studied this brilliant novel at university and its power and vividness still stick with me all these years later. The novel is set in Tarbert, where Hay lived. Gillespie may be the protagonist, but he’s not a very sympathetic one as his raw and relentless ambition know no bounds in a changing world where the west coast fishing villages and their way of life is under threat.

Tarbert Loch Fyne: The Story of the Fisherman by Ronnie Johnson and Ann Thomas is a more recent delve into the world of the local fishing community. Cargo for a King by J. S. Andrews meanwhile is a swashbuckling tale of ridding the Irish Sea of pirates under King John’s rule in the 13th century, with vivid depictions of the rough seas off Argyll’s coast and a near wrecking off the treacherous Mull of Kintyre. Jim Andrews and his family lived in Tarbert for some years in the 1970s when Cargo for a King was published. Tarbert has inspired poetry too, with The Kerry Kyle by Iain Hamilton and Ann Thomas, a compelling illustrated book of poetry.

We push further south now to the southern extremities of the Kintyre Peninsula to meet Denzel Meyrick in Campbeltown. He is the author of a brilliant series of books, all based on a fictional Campbeltown (Kinloch in his novels) and Kintyre. Meyrick had quite the career – he learned the background to his crime novels serving as a police officer with Strathclyde Police, then became a manager at Campbeltown’s legendary Springbank Distillery. He evokes a similarly dramatic sense of place to Ian Rankin in his writing.

Campbeltown centre, Credit: Robin McKelvie

Turning the page back up the Kilbrannan Sound we arrive on the wild and wildly beautiful Cowal Peninsula. The Ardlamont Mystery is billed as ‘The Real-Life Story Behind the Creation of Sherlock Holmes’ and is by Daniel Smith. It uses Ardlamont House on the very southern fringes of Cowal as a key setting. Delving into a murder in 1893 on Ardlamont Estate are two witnesses, Joseph Bell and Henry Littlejohn. Their efforts to solve the crime are said to have been the real-life inspiration for the world’s most famous detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Heading way out west now we come to the Atlantic port of Oban, a big land of big skies, sweeping seas and distant isles. Alan Warner’s eponymous protagonist in Morven Callar spends much of the action in Oban. This superb novel won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1996. Warner himself grew up in Connell just to the north of Oban. He uses ‘The Port’ as a key setting in his novels and it bears a definite similarity to Oban.

We hop on CalMac now bound for the isles and one of the world’s most famous books. Few people today realise that George Orwell fled the modern world to find isolation and solace on the remote, rugged Isle of Jura. He was on a mission too. A mission to bring the chilling, dystopian vision of 1984 into an unsuspecting world. He wrote the novel at Barnhill on the isle’s west coast. I’ve been in the house and it’s a gloriously isolated spot with great views just back from the water. 1984 nearly never was as Orwell and his party were only saved by a passing fishing boat when their unwise boating adventure in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool almost ended in tragedy. Jura features in the work of Ian Rankin too and, of course, Inspector Rebus’ favourite dram is Laphroaig from just across the water on Islay.

Calmac Ferry to Coll at sunset, Credit: Robin McKelvie

Sailing north we are with Robert Louis Stevenson on an old brig. Aboard with us is David Balfour, who has been spirited from South Queensferry to the west coast as a captive, as he was in Kidnapped. It’s wild, though, and our ship is wrecked. We’re lucky as we’ve managed to bash ashore on the wee tidal islet of Erraid, just off Mull. A few years ago I did just that, wading from on old wooden yacht ashore here to read Stevenson aloud on the sands. I then followed the wild long distance, unmarked Stevenson Way all the way east then north to meet the Sound of Mull.

Our last stop is on an island that needs little introduction to Scottish kids. When I stepped off CalMac on to Coll on ‘Boat Day’ with my wee girls they instantly asked where Katie Morag lived! Yes Mairi Hedderwick’s action is set on the fictional Isle of Struay, but it is quite clearly glorious Coll, a stunning island alive with wildlife and sandy beaches; a brilliant isle for real-life kids. Hedderwick has lived on Coll for a number of years. Like so many other writers so has found the space and peace to write – and serious inspiration too – in the deeply dramatic hills, seas and isles of glorious Argyll and Bute.