Scotland: In the kingdom of Dalriada

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The Independent Online
From standing stones to medieval ruins and an incongruous Eighties marina: Gus Macleod makes tracks through an ancient land on Scotland's west coast.

To the north lie Oban and some of Scotland's more serious mountains. To the south lies the long road to the Mull of Kintyre, immortalised, infuriatingly, by Paul McCartney. Between the two, in a small glen in a little-visited part of the west of Scotland, can be found perhaps the most extraordinary concentration of prehistoric remains in western Europe. Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age remains scatter the countryside, alongside forts, duns, crannogs and sculptured stones.

Take the wonderfully scenic road from Loch Lomond through Inveraray and Lochgilphead and, heading north, you will come to Dunadd, a hilltop fort dating back 1,500 years, perched on a rocky outcrop. It's easy to see why this place became the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada. Kings were crowned here (allegedly using the Stone of Destiny) and you can still see a slab of rock at the summit which has a footprint and a round basin carved out of it, both thought to have been used during inauguration ceremonies.

Standing stones, stone circles and rocks with curious prehistoric carvings are all around as you drive northward, and in Kilmartin Glen are the remains of a linear cemetery, a line of six burial cairns spread over two miles, that was in use before the Pyramids were built. Linger at the stone circles of Temple Wood, standing magically in a nearby patch of old woodland, and you'll find yourself wondering what really went on here thousands of years ago. And part of the delight of this area, for all its plentiful evidence of man's rituals and rites, is that it doesn't give its secrets away.

Stop in the village of Kilmartin and visit the recently opened museum which, though small, is well laid out and depicts 5,000 years of interaction of people with the surrounding landscape. Don't miss the audio-visual (shown in a tiny loft space in a converted barn) which brilliantly portrays the land and man's impact on it in a series of stunning images accompanied by evocative Highland music.

Just to the north of the village, and quite modern in the context of this neighbourhood, is Camasserie Castle, a late-medieval building of great sophistication. It's worth the trek up from the road to see this imposing and well preserved ruin, once the home of the man who took John Knox's liturgy to Gaeldom.

Weather permitting (especially in view of the current gales) you may want to try something a little energetic after such contemplation of the past, in which case head north to the sailing centres of Ardfern and Craobh Haven. The latter is something of a curiosity, a relic of the expansive Eighties consisting of incongruous, pastel-coloured, pseudo-vernacular homes which form the backdrop to a marina created by connecting a series of off-shore islets. From here, the enterprising yachtsman can sail south and navigate his way along the Crinan Canal, once described as "the most beautiful short cut in Britain". It as built in 1801, and its eight miles avoid an 80-mile trip round the Mull of Kintyre. A road follows its length and you can enjoy the flurry of activity at the tiny village of Crinan as yachts navigate the final descent to the sea.

If you want to stay in the area (and with so much to see and do, it would be a pity not to), make for Lunga Estate near Ardfern. Looking out over the Firth of Lorne from a gentle wilderness where stretches of old Caledonian forest remain, this is the 300-year-old home of Colin Lindsay MacDougall of Lunga, which he and Sarah Suttie now open (along with a number of other properties on the estate) to paying guests. Stay, if you can, in one of the four self-contained flats in the house, furnished eclectically by generations of MacDougalls with a combination of style, eccentricity and comfort that makes other holiday lets look rather dull. Dinner can be booked in one or other of the rather grand dining-rooms (though which one you'll end up in rather depends on the number of guests) and the laird will regale you with tales of his travels in some of the more obscure corners of the globe, while Sarah produces tasty and substantial Scottish cuisine. And as the candlelight flickers off the old silver and the logs crackle in the hearth, spare a thought for the kings of ancient Dalriada, who never dreamed of such comforts.

Kilmartin House museum is open daily, 10am-5.30pm, adults pounds 3.90, children pounds 1.20, family ticket pounds 9. Winter rates at Lunga Estate, Ardfern (01852 500 237) are pounds 16 a day for a self-catering flat; pounds 15.50 for B&B.

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