Wild about Walking in Argyll

Wild about Walking in Argyll

By

Robin McKelvie

There are hundreds of adventure activities you can enjoy in the world-class wilds of Argyll, but none for me beat the simplest pleasure of all. You don’t need lessons - nor any fancy gear - to head out under your own steam, propelling yourself around this epic land of brooding mountain, rolling hill and shimmering coast. Get your boots on now and join me as we take a walk on Argyll’s wild – and less wild – sides. You’re in for a treat as autumn and winter for me is the best time of all.

Photo Credit: Robin McKelvie

I love the Highlands and Scotland’s more remote islands, but they can be a real pain to get to when the days grow darker and cooler weather draws in. That’s when Argyll comes into its own with its staggeringly beautiful autumn colours and then crisp winter air. There are myriad options, but all must surely end in the same way: tucking into a gorgeous local-produce laden dinner and a wee cosy dram from a local distillery like Oban, Tobermory or one of Islay’s nine distilleries. For that lovely dinner check out the new quintet of Taste of Place Trails. Afterwards lookout for a shooting star, or the Northern Lights bewitching overhead.

Let’s kick off in Oban. Yes, I know some of you will be desperate to dash up a Munro, but that’s not for everyone and anyone can stir in some short walks with longer adventures. It’s a joy strolling the accessible waterfront in a town that is increasingly pedestrian-friendly, but for an even better view nip up to McCaig’s Folly, Oban’s Colosseum, where an interpretation board reveals all the glories you can see. My favourite viewpoint, though, is the lesser-known Pulpit Hill. It may not be that high, but it’s a cracking view from here over Oban and out to a sprinkling of the Hebrides.

Photo Credit: Robin McKelvie

Also at sea level – ok, a couple of locks level to be more accurate– is the Crinan Canal. A wide track follows this aquatic artery from Lochgilphead on its leisurely, flat journey 14km west out to the Atlantic. Then there is Pucks Glen near Dunoon. This magical walk is a joy of trees, gushing waters and waterfalls, with a real fairy-tale quality about it. Go!

On to those Munros, the Argyll mainland is home to a couple of dozen Munros, including the might of Ben Cruachan, which you can see from miles around – if you’ve taken a train, ferry or road trip to Oban you’ve been in its shadow. As with all-mountain and hill walks – any walk really beyond a flat stroll – make sure you have all the gear you need, let someone know where you’re going and check local conditions. On to the islands, Mull is home to the only island Munro in Scotland outside Skye. Hulking Ben More soars to 966m and is a real adventure, set all alone on an island not even near the ferry. It’s well worth the effort as Mull and a rich necklace of fellow Hebridean isles sparkle all around.

Photo Credit: Robin McKelvie

I always think there is something a little perverse about the noble pursuit of Munro-bagging if it stops you from bothering with ‘lesser hills’. Take 766-m high Dùn da Ghaoithe on Mull. I enjoyed yomping up here from the ferry at Craignure just as much as I did Ben More. I didn’t see a single soul the entire way, swapping people for herds of red deer and golden eagles soaring high on the crags as I went. The Cobbler meanwhile is an Argyll classic I dreamt of doing for years since I saw a grainy black and white image of my dad up here. It didn’t disappoint – one of those mountains that feels like a real achievement, a joy, a buzz shared by the other no-longer-strangers ascending.

The list of Argyll mountains and hills goes on and on, but we’ve got to include a couple of beauties, one mainland hillock and three mighty island hills. Dunadd is a small hill with a seriously big history. It was here that the Celtic kings of Dalriada held court and presided over their expanding empire. In many ways, you could say Scotland was born here. Out on Jura, we have the Paps of Jura for the real enthusiast. I remember being in the bar at the Jura Hotel the night before the notorious Isle of Jura Fell Race. I’ve never felt more overweight in my whole life next to the ultra-fit fell runners. You don’t need to run the Paps of Jura, of course, and indeed I recommend you don’t so you can spend time savouring them, though you may end up at least shuffling coming back down the screen-shredded slopes. These are magical hills with magical views. No one who has ever climbed the Paps forgets them.

Photo Credit: Robin McKelvie

I’m a big fan of long-distance walks too. You can enjoy them setting off on a proper adventure trying to walk their entirety in one go, tear off bite-sized chunks doing them in stages on different trips, or just enjoy one section entirely on its own. Scotland's Great Trails are a handy network of long-distance walks. In Argyll, the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way (note the name change folks) and the Kintyre Way are both members that handily connect at Tarbert/Portavadie, with a ferry taking you easily between the two trailheads. Then there is the Three Lochs Way, connecting Helensburgh to Arrochar and then joining the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way - and you can connect across Loch Lomond to the world-famous West Highland Way.

I’ve tackled multiple sections of each of these walks and can heartily recommend them all. Memorable walks include my young daughter and I hauling ourselves up the hilly forests from Portavadie and traversing the icy wilds en route to the other side of the Cowal peninsula, where my wife and other daughter awaited for lunch in Tighnabruaich. I love that many sections of the Kintyre Way I’ve walked on access the coast. Earlier this year I tackled the western coastal section that swept me down across the sands towards Westport. There was little else bar sand, seabirds and the wee isle of Gigha tempting just offshore. 

Photo Credit: Robin McKelvie

Argyll is also home to what was Scotland's first island-only Great Trail when it opened in 2000. I’ve just walked the 30-mile West Island Way on the Isle of Bute this autumn and I can report that it’s an absolute stunner. Just visiting Rothesay you don’t appreciate how wild and wildly beautiful Bute is. The most famous section is the southern loop from Kilchattan Bay, a riot of hills and glen, seared with rugged coastline and topped with a cute lighthouse. The north is much less known and once you disappear up Glen More you really feel out on your own. I didn’t see a soul on this stretch.

Not a region to rest on its hard-won laurels, Argyll is still developing ways to get walkers out into the great outdoors. As an avid whisky fan, I’ve very happy with the walkway that now connects the trio of southern Islay distilleries – Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig – with Port Ellen. There are plans afoot too on Gigha for new paths, a sign of a continued commitment to walking ways. Tying in perfectly with these are the five Taste of Place Trails, the Mull Food and Drink Trail and the new foodie trail about to open on Bute. What are you waiting for this autumn and winter? Get out there and start enjoying the great outdoors – all you need is your two feet.