Thursday, 30 July 2009

Day 17 – Scotland West Coast – St Catherines – No rushing please, we have whisky to drink and battles to plan

The way from Largs to St Catherines is not obvious (click to see on my Google Map). You can either go north and east, past Glasgow, up through the Loch Lomond National Park (where the A82 radio hugs the famous loch). Or you can catch a ferry across the Firth of Clyde to Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula. You’ll pay about £13 to get across...look out for the road signs that direct you to the ferries. I took the ferry (which takes about 20 minutes), and once on the Cowal Peninsula, I headed west and then south to Tighnabruaich (click to see on Google Map). There is a great view point just north of this tiny town, looking over the Isle of Bute. It’s well signposted.

This area just feels good. The roads are emptier than down south, the sky is bigger, the distances longer – partly because of the lochs and firths. These long, narrow fingers of water(some longer than 100 miles, yet only a few miles wide) splice the landscape, so you can look across the water at a town not two miles away, but you will need to drive 10 miles to get there, driving all the way north, around the top of the loch, then south again.

It’s what some locals call “west-Scottish” time, and is a result of the landscape – the glacier-gorged geology imposes itself on the people. London has a neatly ordered road system, and is flat and compliant to human transportation demands. In west Scotland, humans are compliant to the landscape, and time follows the lands, not the clock.

There is an endearing aversion to urgency around here. Things will happen when they do, and not because someone makes them happen. It’s an observably slower pace of life. At first, it might be off-putting to “tick-the-box” city folk, but soon you realise that half the fun of a road trip through Scotland is that you do run late, or stop for no reason to look at the cows.

Loch Fyne...appropriate name. Thistle House is on the left hand side of the loch, and on the right is Inveraray Castle. I took this photo at the castle's fort on top of the hill, which you can walk up, for fantastic views. Click on image for full screen version.

And the great thing about travelling around Scotland for the first time, is that you can never make up your mind as to which route you should follow. There’s always a prettier loch over there, or a higher mountain back here. So you do end up driving all over the place, and neatly scheduled itineraries soon get crumpled up and thrown in the back of the car.

I went way south on the Cowal Peninsula, and then back north up Loch Fyne to St Catherine’s, which exists on the map, but not really in reality. You will miss it if you drive faster than 10 miles an hour. It looks west over the loch, with great views of Inveraray town and castle. You are a 15 mile drive around the head of the loch from Inveraray, but only 2 miles as the crow flies across the water.

My accommodation in St Catherines was at Thistle House Guest House, a mini-manor house, 3-storeys high, 100 years old - overlooking Loch Fyne, a particularly narrow stretch of water, that eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Thistle House looks older than 100 years, given its dark stone exterior and castle-like position and architecture. (By the way, the Thistle flower is Scotland's national flower, and is the emblem of many of its sports teams.)

Thistle House Guest House on Loch Fyne, which looks over the loch to Inveraray Castle.

Room at Thistle House, the window view is over the loch.

I joined owners Alistair and Jenifer Patterson for haggis-stuffed chicken in the evening. My first ever taste of haggis (sheep offal and oatmeal) was much better than I expected. We talked about how they came to St Catherines from Edinburgh after jobs in accounting and public health care. Before that they were in Saudi Arabia, living in a western world compound in the desert. There can’t be too many better examples of diametrically opposed lifestyles than St Catherines vs Saudi Arabia.

The mist hung on the dusky sky, while Alistair and I sat on the giant sofas next to the fire-place in the lounge, drinking single malt whisky from Auchentoshan Distillery near Glasgow. Thistle House feels like a castle, and for a very brief moment my imagination ran rampant, and I could have been Chief of Clan Ramsay (my blood is half Scottish, and Ramsay is a clan, although we got kicked out of Scotland a long time ago!), conjuring battle strategies with Alistair Patterson, who - now that I think about it - looks very much like a clan chief (not sure why, he just does - maybe it was the whisky!?).

The tartan of the Ramsay clan...the rooms at Thistle House are named after some Scottish clans, left to right below: Campbell, McPherson, Stewart, McNaughton, Lamont, McLachlan and Ferguson.

If you think you've got some Scottish blood in you, check out this website.

Athough it is right on the A815 coastal road, Thistle House is in a sparsely inhabited area, so after 8pm, there are no cars. The rooms look out over the loch, bedrooms are superbly decorated yet not ornate, and the food is first-rate.

Besides walking and mountain biking, Alistair and Jenifer recommended the following to me:

1) Quad Biking with Quadmania.

2) Boat cruises on Loch Lomond or on Loch Fyne.

3) Inveraray Castle, home to the Campbell Clan since the 15th century.

4) Inveraray Jail, an entertaining tourist attraction, in the original old jail, where more than 6 000 people were tried, and then punished. Actors play out the roles of the courtroom participants. You can also get locked up while you’re at it, and also see how prisoners were punished for their crimes. For instance, a petty thief was rehabilitated with thumbscrews, branding with a hot poker or having his ear nailed to a post. That's a new way to get an earring!

5) Brewery tour of the local micro-brewery called Fyne Ales.

6) Take part in an organised whisky tour of up to 16 isles and towns, with The Whisky Coast.

Inveraray pine forest

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