As the British mainland's most westerly arm, Ardnamurchan is off the tourist map. But for those who make the journey, writes Steve Crawshaw, the peninsula's natural beauty is matched only by its tranquillity

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
It seemed that Scottish holidays and I were not destined to be a happy match. Six years ago, what promised to be a blissful fortnight on the island of Arran was interrupted on the second day by the radio headlines, which woke us with annoyingly dramatic news. "The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has been overthrown in a coup," I heard through my half-sleep. I was responsible for The Independent's coverage of Russia at the time. I told myself for as long as I could that it was probably just a dream. Eventually, however, I was forced to confront reality. By the time I stumbled downstairs, a message was lying on the kitchen table. "Please phone office urgently." Arran, it was nice to know you.

This time, the planned Scottish holiday began with almost equally daunting omens. I fractured my skull just 10 days before the holiday began. When we embarked on the journey, I was still suffering from a constant headache like a bad hangover. I did not, to be blunt, expect it to be much of a holiday. But then, I had reckoned without Ardnamurchan.

If you have not heard of Ardnamurchan, join the large club. The peninsula does not enjoy (or suffer from) the high profile of many of the Scottish islands and large chunks of the Scottish mainland. Some of its distinguishing points are mere curiosities. It is the westernmost point of the British mainland - 20 miles further west than Land's End. It is geologically renowned: one village is sited on a solidified mass of liquid lava, inside the giant "ring-dyke" amphitheatre of an extinct volcano. There is an abundance of prehistoric standing stones and the like.

Above all, though, it is the spirit of Ardnamurchan that keeps the devotees enthusiastic. The poet Alasdair Maclean (no relation to Mr Guns of Navarone) brought a small dose of not-quite-fame with his Night Falls On Ardnamurchan. "I have always looked on the ferry that crosses the Narrows of the Linnhe Loch at Corran [from the mainland to the Ardnamurchan peninsula] as a kind of mobile decompression chamber," he wrote, "where various kinds of pollution were drained from the blood and I was fitted to breathe pure air again."

Even the first-time visitor is touched by something of this. After crossing from the mainland, south of Fort William, the single-track road winds its way through the woods that line the shore of Loch Sunart, with views alternately cosy and grand. Moorland and woodland, mountain and seashore, and an astonishing variety of flowers, animals and birds. And almost no people.

Outsiders have sometimes played a disproportionately important (and rarely benevolent) role, in the peninsula's fate. Alan Clark, he of the coven and irreverent Diaries, boasts that his family once owned the entire peninsula - among many other properties, you understand: "A pheasant shoot in Suffolk, a house in Berkeley Square, a villa at Cap d'Ail on the Riviera, and the whole of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, some 330,000 acres in Argyll." Even today, the legacy of the big old landowners is much resented. The 19th- century clearances - when crofters were evicted from their homes with a determination that would have impressed Radovan Karadzic - affected Ardnamurchan as badly as anywhere in the Highlands.

And yet, despite the bitter history and the abandoned hamlets hauntingly scattered across the peninsula, today the visitor feels only a relaxed tranquillity. Tobermory, on Mull, is just half an hour by ferry across from Kilchoan. By ordinary standards, it is an idyllic, quiet little fishing port. By comparison with Ardnamurchan, Tobermory seems infested with crowds.

You can walk for miles at a time, even in midsummer, and hardly meet a soul. Ten-year-old Ania and her friend Dunya fell in love with beaches like the white shell-sands at Sanna, where they could swim, build sandcastles, and explore the rockpools at the foot of heather-covered hills while we watched the orange-beaked oystercatchers beating their way to and fro with their liquid burbling cries. If you're lucky, you might see otters, which are common (the peninsula is just down the coast from where Gavin Maxwell lived when he wrote Ring of Bright Water). Or, like us, you can get distracted by a fearless mink, or stumble across a fearful wildcat. On the quiet waters of Loch Sunart, where we went mackerel fishing, we watched seals play and tease each other splashing on and off rocks a few feet from the boat.

The walks here are no less dramatic for being undemanding. You can stroll along the old crofters' path from Ockle or Kentra Bay to the "singing sands" - squeaky underfoot, hence the name - of Gortenfearn. On the way, we stopped for picnics beside mountain streams, hidden in the bracken and heather, with spectacular views across to Skye.

Obtaining reliable information for local walks can be difficult. A brochure (Exploring Ardnamurchan) claims to give all necessary information. In reality, you will have to hope for extra guidance from locals or from the Ordnance Survey. Sometimes the maps help; sometimes they don't. Thus, there is a more or less easy path up Ben Hiant, the Holy Mountain. The path, beginning on the mountain's eastern side, is well known - but not marked on the maps. From the summit, there are commanding views east along Loch Sunart, south down the Sound of Mull, and north and west past the Egyptian-style lighthouse at Ardnamurchan Point to the distant outline of the Cuillins on Skye. The red deer all around are disturbed by nothing and nobody except that familiar feature of all Britain's wildest places - the occasional, deafening roar of a low-flying RAF plane.

Ardnamurchan isn't the place for those who want to conquer impressive- sounding peaks. It has not a single Munro - nor, by the same token, any crowds of Munro-baggers. Its only selling point is its sheer natural beauty. If you go there with skull intact, it might even be better than it seemed to the visitor with a cracked head.


Getting there

From most parts of Britain, the easiest place to start is Glasgow (accessible from London on a pounds 25 special by Virgin Trains, 0345 991995). From Glasgow Queen Street, ScotRail runs four trains a day on the West Highland Line via Fort William to Lochailort, the closest station to Ardnamurchan Point, for pounds 34.90 return. Call 0345 484950 for times. The closest place to rent a car is Fort William, where Budget (01397 702500) has an office.

Where to stay

Feorag House in Glenborrowdale (01972 500248) is a small hotel with its own little seal-inhabited bay. Dinner, bed and breakfast costs pounds 59 in the high season or pounds 49 in the low season. For bed and breakfast only the price is pounds 39 per night in the high season and pounds 29 in the low.

Kilcamb Lodge Hotel (01967 402257) in Strontian, just before you reach the Ardnamurchan, costs between pounds 69.50 and pounds 85 per person per night, including a four-course evening meal. For self-catering accommodation, Steading Holidays (01972 510262) has properties throughout the peninsula and Ardnamurchan Estate (01972 510208) has a number of properties for rent.

A full list of accommodation and an information leaflet is available from the Kilchoan Tourist Information Centre (open Easter to October, 01972 510222) or the information centre in Fort William (open all year, 01397 703781).


Exploring Sunart, Ardnamurchan, Moidart and Morar (Harlequin Press); Alasdair Maclean, Night Falls on Ardnamurchan (Penguin); John Prebble, The Highland Clearances (Penguin).