The south western corner of Scotland’s Cowal Peninsula follows tranquil shores that call for active relaxation, on land or in the water, writes EMILY ROSE MAWSON, as she visits Argyll.
If you haven’t heard of Argyll’s Secret Coast, you’re not alone. It occupies the south western corner of the Cowal peninsula, which lies between Loch Fyne and the Kyles of Bute, forming a piece in the jigsaw of islands, inlets and sea lochs that make up the Scottish region of Argyll and the Isles.
It extends 13 miles from the hamlet of Otter Ferry in the north to the Ardlamont peninsula in the south, facing the mountainous Isle of Arran, and it is around two hours from Glasgow – a drive that will take you along the magnificent shores of Loch Lomond and high into the Arrochar Alps.
It’s light-filled and wild, with glorious beaches and coastal wildflower meadows foraged by an abundance of wildlife, but for some reason, and happily for those who do go, it’s under most people’s radar.
The pier overlooks the rural Isle of Bute from the end of the high street, where antiques shops back onto grocer’s that back onto the sort of shops that sell everything. On the harbour I find rock-pooling equipment in the well-stocked RNLI shop and a bit further along, swoon over seascapes in one of western Scotland’s top galleries: Tighnabruaich Gallery, where contemporary art and crafts from established and emerging talents sit side by side.
Gallery browsing is one way to spend a morning: there’s another nice one south of Tighnabruaich, a five-minute drive along a single-track road: Hayshed Gallery at Carry Farm, where owner Fiona McPhail weaves wool from her 50-strong herd of Hebridean sheep into cushions and throws, available in the gallery alongside textiles and ceramics by award-winning makers from the region.
The farm is a smallholding with architect-designed eco lodges and a campsite, and is also a wonderful place for bird-spotting. In its setting beside the silvery Kyles of Bute, open grassland provides a home for species including reed buntings, red-breasted mergansers, meadow pipits and little egrets. The habitat is maintained by the sheep, who are small and tread lightly on the soil, allowing tussock grass, heathers and wild orchids to flourish.
Fiona’s husband Derek runs Tighnabruaich Sailing School from the farm, offering both private tuition and group courses in the Kyles of Bute, and it goes without saying that getting onto the water is one of the very best ways to explore the corrugated coastline.
Fyne Sea Tours take guests out on their Fyne Explorer Evolution 40 boat from Portavadie, the marina and luxury resort on Cowal’s west coast. From the deck you can spy on wildlife, including a seal colony of 40-plus on the small islands north of the marina.
Janine Ashall, who runs the business with her husband Martin, tells me that passengers can also observe herons, black guillemots, eider ducks, curlews and diving gannets, and “if luck is with us, we can watch white tailed eagles circling south of Otter Estate”.
For anyone feeling adventurous, local wild swimming coach Dan the Merman runs regular two-hour holistic coaching in Loch Fyne in conjunction with Fyne Sea Tours, taking any level of swimmer for an immersive guided experience in sheltered bays along the coastline, before returning by boat to Portavadie. Isn’t the water terribly cold? “That’s where I come in,” says Dan. “I aim to empower people with the tools to acclimatise as smoothly as possible.”
The Secret Coast definitely calls for being outdoors. Besides water sports, it is known for its exceptional walking. The iconic 57-mile Loch Lomond and Cowal Way starts at Portavadie, before running the length of the Cowal Peninsula into the Highlands, but there are lots of rewarding half-day and shorter options.
My favourite is the 40-minute Ostel (Gaelic for Kilbride) Bay circular on the Ardlamont Peninsula, near the hamlet of Millhouse, which meanders across gentle machair before opening onto a perfect white cuticle of sand with – cameras at the ready! – an unbelievable view of North Arran’s magnificent skyline. Not always so tranquil, during the Second World War the bay was used to practise manoeuvres for the Normandy invasion. These days, it’s nicely suited to a picnic, and I buy a wedge of homemade Victoria sponge from The Bothy at Kilbride Farm, near the on-road parking, to take on my little excursion.
It’s also nice exploring the peninsula’s coastal woods. At Glenan, near Portavadie, I marvel at spirograph oak trees decorated with the weird and wonderful mosses and lichens of the “Scottish rainforest”, which is unique to Argyll and the west Highlands. The oaks tangle along a shore of waltzing thrift and sea pink, concealing a lost village thought to date from 1309. It’s little more than rubble now, but lovely all the same, and the two-mile circular takes in Glenan Bay, a pretty fan of golden sand.
Later in the day I drive several miles north, along the coast, to walk the short path to the ivy-clad stump of Old Castle Lachlan, on a rocky headland near Otter Ferry. Now one of the region’s best photo opportunities, the 15th-century fortress was the major building of the local clan, the Maclachlans. It fell to ruin following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, and they say that after the Maclachlan chief was killed, his horse returned alone, swimming across the loch to get home and signalling to the clan that their chief had fallen.
The Secret Coast’s seascapes lend themselves to stories. I find myself lost in the moods of Loch Fyne as I float in the outdoor infinity pool at Portavadie on my final evening. The luxuriously warm water laps gently beside the loch, and along the dusky shoreline seabirds forage.
Views stretch to the fishing village of Tarbert on the Kintyre peninsula – a nice day trip by CalMac ferry from Portavadie’s slipway – where lights twinkle here and there in the dusk and somewhere on the headland are the ruins of Robert the Bruce’s 13th-century castle. Gradually, the sun plops behind the horizon and the sky turns peach above the gently whispering sea loch as darkness eases into place.
WHERE TO STAY
Encircling a scenic lagoon between Glenan and Ascog Bays, the £35-million multi-award-winning Portavadie marina, spa and leisure resort (portavadie.com) has options to suit all budgets, including luxury apartments, two-bed cottages, couples’ retreats and a motorhome park.
The marina was originally built as an oil rig construction facility but, never used, was redeveloped in 2010. It also has an award-winning restaurant, serving outstanding local produce: I ordered fish of the day with seasonal greens, and the haddock was melt-in-the-mouth flaky.
I stayed in one of the cottages (minimum stay two nights): spacious and smart, and done out in cream and oak, with comfortable beds and well-equipped kitchens, it was soothing and calm. Views onto the marina were lovely, and after dark I was entranced by Portavadie’s buildings, smart structures in glass, steel and wood, lit up in accents of pink, purple, orange and green.
Over on the south east of the Secret Coast, Carry Farm’s four-and six-bed eco lodges are equally ideal for hunkering down and enjoying the light carryfarm.co.uk). Skies are dark (except in summer, when daylight hours are long), and the setting is peaceful – the only sounds the lapping of the Kyles of Bute and the singsong of birds. From the balconies, Bute seems within touching distance. Interiors are done out in colourful mid-century patterns, with art and textiles by Eve Campbell and Dreywork Shop, both of whom have studios at the 60-acre farm, which is also home to sheep and donkeys.
DINE IN STYLE
For somewhere so untouched, the Secret Coast is unexpectedly awash with excellent eateries proffering local produce. Here are three of our favourites.
Five West, in a Victorian townhouse on Tighnabruaich’s high street, does deliciously nutritious soups (I had spiced lentil on a chilly day and it was ravishingly tasty) and some irresistible cakes (think bejewelled chocolate or light and fluffy lemon).
Staff are chatty and enjoy sharing local tips, and it doesn’t come cosier than a sofa by the glowing fireplace, where a topsy-turvy mirror and rowing oars are hung between original pillars.
Ingredients are sourced locally and the shelves above the tongue-and-groove panelling sell local crafts and books. There’s a play area including a charming dolls’ house that kids young and old will love. five-west.com
For afternoon tea…
Argyll Coffee Roasters roasts its sustainable green beans, sourced from fair suppliers around the world, in Tighnabruaich. It serves the coffee, alongside a counter-full of local baking by Northern Lights Cakery in Colintraive and Wild Kitchen of Tighnabruaich, in a whitewashed stone barn with a corrugated roof as red as bracken fern on Carry Farm, next to Hayshed Gallery. You can also buy tea from the Isle of Tiree and Bare Bones Chocolate, handmade in micro batches in Glasgow. argyllcoffee.co.uk
You’ll need to book well in advance but it will be worth the planning when you’re watching the sunset over seafood at The Oystercatcher in the tiny settlement of Otter Ferry. The family-run pub sits on Loch Fyne protected from view by a wreath of woodland, where it forms part of the Ballimore Estate.
Try the oysters from the Ballimore oyster farm, whole brown crab with lemon mayo or Shetland moules in white wine cream sauce, and follow up with apple and gooseberry crumble. theoystercatcherotterferry.co.uk
If you can’t get a table there, don’t panic. A very tasty alternative is The Colintraive, a seaside hotel in the eponymous village in the Designated Area of Natural Beauty along the Kyles of Bute – a proper gem and a local’s favourite. Dishes are fresh and fantastic, prepared using local game, fish and foraged produce – the daily changing menu might include options like steamed Gigha halibut, saddle of Loch Lomond lamb, or sage and pumpkin risotto. colintraivehotel.com
THE INSIDE VIEW
AITC Cowal community engagement agent Ciorsdan Fagan holidayed in the area when she was a child and couldn’t resist a permanent move seven years ago. Here she shares her tips for exploring the Secret Coast.
What can visitors expect?
You’ll find a great range of eateries serving locally sourced produce, interesting culture and heritage attractions, fun activities, great shops and galleries, and friendly communities, in stunning natural surroundings.
What about local produce?
Argyll Coffee Roasters makes award-winning speciality roasted coffee in Tighnabruaich. I also like Argyll Botany, a plant-based skincare company in Tighnabruaich. Then there is the tea plantation at Glen Caladh Farm: they have just contributed to the Teas Scotland collaboration teas – ‘The Gathering’ and ‘The Blackhouse’ – and they intend to create their own single estate tea.
What are the must-sees?
The Kyles of Bute viewpoint, along the hill road out of Tighnabruaich, is one of the most spectacular in Scotland. It overlooks the narrow channel of water that separates Bute from mainland Argyll. Nearby you’ll find ‘The Ark’, a 20-by-six-metre wooden structure built during the pandemic by a local artist to raise awareness of the climate emergency. Keep following the road north until you reach the village of Kilmodan, where the churchyard houses the Kilmodan Sculptured Stones, nine late-Medieval West Highland grave slabs with exquisite carvings.
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