Life without love is like a year without summer, say the Swedes. True, and there are many loves such as where to experience the embrace of summer, and for me the choice is simple. The west coast of Scotland, where the sea and the sky, and a lot more, come together.


A West Coast Adventure

Uncrowded roads, welcoming hotels, seafood to please the soul, and whisky galore. Golf too, stirring bagpipes, and castles dripping with history. I went there last summer, flying into Glasgow Airport, conveniently located on the motorway that took us to glorious Loch Lomond in half an hour. You need go no further for the bonnie banks and braes that puts Scotland on millions of biscuit tin lids.

But of course we carried on, for another 30 minutes away was the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. A roadside restaurant that grew from a little cottage at Clachan into an amazing seafood restaurant and deli. This is the place for salmon as you like it, Tarbert crab and smoked haddock chowder. Try the Oysters in season. The interior is stylish, the staff knowledgeable and the wines well chosen. The designated driver performed splendidly. Turning south along Loch Fyne and taking us past Inveraray Castle, home of the Duke of Argyll. Well worth a visit, particularly if you’re a Campbell. Avoid the town’s old gaol, open to visitors, if you’re a MacDonald!

Whiskey Galore

Take a hard left at Lochgilphead. You will pass close to Ardrishaig, entrance to the Crinan Canal, known as Britain’s most beautiful shortcut. It runs for nine miles to the west coast and is one of boating’s most pleasing experiences. Just as enjoyable is the Crinan Hotel. Sadly no longer with its owner Nick Ryan. He started as a bell boy on the Queen Mary and became a much loved hotelier.

Heading north now it was just another half hour or so on the road to Oban and our destination for two nights. Welcome to the Loch Melfort Hotel. This a dog-friendly hotel and the house hound, Hector, has his picture on the wall as you enter. Checked in by a smiling Hungarian, one of three we were to encounter here.

This hotel has it all! Easy parking, good wifi, rooms with balconies affording dreamy views, two restaurants, and music if you time it right. Many Highland hotels and pubs offer music, some of it professional, but more often than not. It depends on who is around and whether the fiddle is in tune. I once had a great Saturday night at the Castlebay Hotel in Barra. This is the location of the party scene in the film Whisky Galore.

We had checked with the Loch Melfort Hotel on booking and sure enough it all came to pass. 15 musicians straggling into the Bistro by the back door. Some with guitars, then a banjo, a harmonica, a piper, a harpist (the harp was in situ) and a triangle no less. Also more than a few fiddlers including the hotel owner, Calum Ross. Hector stayed away. Needless to say it was a night of much foot-tapping and jollity, assisted by the happy Hungarians running the bar.

A good day out is a drive to Oban, port for isles such as Mull, Iona, and the Outer Hebrides. The Hebridean Princess and the Majestic Line are among the regulars here, offering cruises in these beautiful waters. Oban harbour, fringed with seafood restaurants and a commendable bookshop, is worth a stroll. Hats off to Tesco for three hours of free parking. Some really good walks are close to the hotel, such as the Arduaine Gardens – wear sturdy boots! There are a few Highland cattle grazing nearby as you head to an iron-age fort and cairns believed to mark graves from the times of Viking invasions. Best of all was the spectacular view from our balcony.

Due South

The road south was a delightful drive. We stopped at the pretty little town of Tarbet before catching a Caledonian Macbrayne ferry from Kennacraig to Islay. It’s a two-hour crossing on a modern, comfortable vessel offering hearty food including a daily curry. I recommend the ‘quiet room’ for siestas.

Whisky, particularly the heavily flavoured peaty taste of Laphroaig and Lagavulin, has long made Islay famous. Its first legal distilleries date from 1779, but you can be sure many a still was producing whisky long before. At one time there were 23 distilleries and now there are nine, but they all appear to be thriving. Another three are about to open. Gin is also produced in a still called Ugly Betty. Enterprising local founders of The Islay Boys, with the names of Mackay Smith and Donald MacKenzie, are the new owners of the Islay Ales brewery.

True whisky lovers can stay in the Bowmore Distillery’s own cottages which come with a bottle of 10-year-old. This is a place where you can sleep tight, in the heart of a village with two other distilleries a stone’s throw away. There’s a pizza joint called Peatzeria across the road, and if you need redemption, Bowmore’s famous round church up the road. Built this way so the devil would have nowhere to hide.

Golf lovers however, will have no hesitation in heading for the Machrie Hotel & Golf Links. The course has been around for a while but needed work, and as for the hotel the less said the better. Then a golf samaritan with a big wallet hired the talented DJ Russell to redesign the course, and rebuild the hotel. What you have today is a beautiful building inside and out. It has the charm of a Scottish manor house with fine views of the sea. A fine piece of work by the Campbell Gray company which has an eclectic range of hotels in Europe and the Middle East.

My bedroom was superb, one of the best ever, while the restaurant and bar are places to linger. Downstairs, the well-run golf shop was the road to a wonderful golfing experience. We played the course just after it reopened with David Whyte, Scotland’s famous golf photographer – impressive! DJ Russell, who also designed the Archerfield course near Edinburgh, did a superb job. Even the no-nonsense Scottish golf magazine Bunkered said the course was as good as anything on the mainland. They gave the whole project the thumbs up! Green fees are 120 pounds. There’s also a ‘wee course’ with six par-3 holes, and a covered driving range.

All Aboard

The Machrie is very close to the airport, which has nonstop flights to Glasgow and Edinburgh by Loganair. I noted a handsome Pilatus aircraft there, a Canadian maple lead discreetly painted on its tail. Apparently it belongs to the Canadian branch of the Mactaggart builder family, which has a house on Islay.

The airport, a U-boat hunter base during the war, has a proper runway. Unlike Barra, where planes land on the beach, and is a lifeline in more ways than one. For example, when asked when newspapers were available, a visitor to Barra was told, “when the tide goes out,” Pure Highland newspaper lore!

When we were there former prime minister David Cameron flew in, then took the local ferry to nearby Jura. Not a few visitors go to Jura, where George Orwell wrote his last novel, 1984. Visitors can rent out his his house, Barnhill, by the week. But getting there, 20 miles on a single-track road and four miles on foot, is not for the faint-hearted. However you are unlikely to be alone as deer are everywhere and golden eagles soar overhead.

The Jura Hotel is a good place to stay. Here you’ll find out what to do, such as visiting the whisky distillery, and indeed the newish gin distillery run by three women. There’s also a waterfront golf course, but getting a game here is at the whim of the wealthy Australian owner. One local told me that island residents get on once a year, otherwise one assumes it’s for his digger pals.

If it’s golf you’re after, the isle of Arran is the place to go. That’s what we did via an easy journey back to the mainland and a 30-minute ferry ride from Claonaig to Lochranza. Getting on this versatile little boat is via a ramp over the swirling sea, but as we found out it’s a piece of cake. The Clyde-built vessel is one of only three ferries in the world to incorporate a low-carbon hybrid system of diesel electric and lithium ion battery power.

Island Life

Being surrounded by water Arran is an island like no other, easy to get to yet with a unique charm. It has some mighty peaks including Goatfell, believed to mean goat mountain (from the Norse geita) and standing stones. As a result the seven golf courses are all pretty sporty, other than Brodick, which is a delightful holiday course.

The 12-hole Shiskine course is world famous, rejoicing in holes named Crow’s Nest and the Himalayas, and features in the mellow book Preferred Lies. In which author Andrew Greig describes the view from the 10th tee at Shiskine: “I stood on the tee at the top of the course, with a 360-degree panorama across the Arran, the Sound and Kintyre peninsula, where the three-quarter moon had silently risen like a blood grapefruit. The breeze had dropped to a whisper; hushed sea and birds in the gloaming, that luminous summer dusk of the north.”

We stayed at a handsome guest house in Brodick called Glenartney, run by Ross Duncan and his wife Hannah. Both Ross, born into a distinguished family of hoteliers on Arran, and Hannah gave up good positions in financial services in England. Their aim to work in a business where they could have children and spend time with them. Our room was spacious and had a fine view of Brodick Bay, the island’s splendid castle, and Goatfell. The latter well known to Ross as he is on the mountain rescue team.

In fact called out to rescue tourists the night we arrived, the next morning was in the kitchen making a very good breakfast. This hand-made treat compared to many hotels’ lingering buffets, bringing to mind the observation by author Somerset Maugham. To eat well in Britain, you should have breakfast three times a day. Unlikely, of course, that Maugham made it to Arran, in reality rich in little restaurants around the coast.

While in Brodick, just a short stroll from the Glenartney, is Wooleys the baker. Step inside for the magical aroma of fresh cakes and pies, and counters with Wooleys legendary oatcakes. My tip for a summer day – hire a bike, pack a lunch from Wooleys and go explore.

You’ll love it.


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