At the end of the Crow Road

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The Independent Travel
About five years ago, I interviewed a young writer called Iain Banks. He'd finished his new novel a few days before. "It's called The Cruel Road," he said. "It's about sex, death, faith, fast cars and illegal substances." That was what I quoted him saying, anyway. Only later did I discover my mistake. The book was actually called The Crow Road (an old Scottish metaphor for death), and was responsible for introducing Banks to a mainstream audience.

Now that the BBC has adapted the book for television, filming it on the Scottish west coast amid some of the most hauntingly spectacular scenery in the country, it seemed a fitting time to make amends and take a closer look the locations which inspired the book and acted as a backdrop for the serial.

Most of the series was filmed around the village of Tarbert, which lies halfway down the west side of Loch Fyne, about 120 miles by road (hence the need for fast cars) from Glasgow. I took a day to drive from Glasgow to Tarbert and back, although ideally it would be better to take two days, with an overnight stay in one of Tarbert's hotels.

The landscape really begins to open out as you join the A82 at Balloch. Indeed, some of the most spectacular scenery is at the start of the journey; as you drive towards the Tarbet (not to be confused with Tarbert, still another 70 miles down the road), running alongside Loch Lomond at the water's edge, the mountains rise on both sides in a breathtakingly mottled array of browns and greens.

Just beyond Tarbet, where the road meets the head of Loch Long, is Arrochar, which wraps itself around the head of the loch. Then the road turns inland through some of the most rugged and barren scenery before finally cutting to the head of Loch Fyne and the approach to Inveraray. And from here on, the road hardly never leaves the lochside.

Possibly the most beautiful town on the route, Inveraray lies in a strip along the north-west side of the loch and is an ideal place to take a break. It also boasts a floating museum in the guise of the Arctic Penguin, a Clyde Steamer which houses a museum chronicling the life and death of the Clyde holiday steamer industry through the last century. The town is also the birthplace of Neil Munro, the creator of the Vital Spark, probably the most famous Clyde steamer of all time. For one Glasgow retired civil engineer and his wife I talked to there, it was their seventh visit in the last two years.

I stopped off at the George pub in the town for a coffee and a game of pool in front of an open peat fire. I could spot a fellow pair of converts from the look in their eyes: an Australian couple in the bar, both teachers, had already spent three days in the area and were planning on extending their trip for another two days. "We're not doing much," they confessed. "But God, we're having a good time. We've fallen in love."

From Inveraray, the road continues down past Loch Fyne and melts from the rugged hillside into soft woodland until Tarbert suddenly breaks into view. The village materialises virtually without warning as you approach from the north, dominated by the ruined 13th-century castle on the hill immediately behind the village. The main shops and hotels are clustered around the sea front, while the peat smoke from the fires floats on to the water like mist. The village, with a population of around 2,000, still relies on fishing to support the community but it is also a popular retreat among Glaswegians as a traditional escape route from the pressures of the city.

The castle provides an ideal vantage point to view the town and the loch. Although there isn't much left of the ruin itself (it was vandalised by the Victorians) you should leave time to take a walk out along the lochside and enjoy the legendary peace and tranquillity. Behind the church in the village you'll also find the heritage centre - complete with tame goats.

I turned back after Tarbert; but if you have the time, the trip down to Cambeltown, another 30 miles down the lochside, is reputed to be even more stunning, with some of the most stark coastline, windswept beaches and impossibly blue seas. Cambeltown itself was once the centre of whisky production and still boasts a couple of distilleries.

On the return journey you should take the B8024 from Tarbert to Inverneill. The narrow road, which has only occasional passing places (and plenty of stray sheep), loops clockwise around the peninsula. It first passes through an extraordinarily spooky forest of ancient ash and sycamore trees before emerging on the west side with the most haunting view you'll ever see, across the bright green Sound of Jura over the mountainous peaks of the Island of Jura itself.

And the end, although I didn't come across sex, faith or illegal substances, I did almost find the death. As I was leaving Tarbert, a truck tearing the other way round a blind corner almost smashed me into oblivion. The really spooky thing was the single word emblazoned on the truck's front; the name of The Crow Road's hero: Prentice.

Location hunter: where `The Crow Road' was shot

Crow Road in Glasgow is a rather run-down industrial road which lies just west of the city centre and runs north/south for about a mile. The nearest underground station is Partick.

Apart from brief scenes in the city, virtually the entire serial was shot at places along the road between Tarbet and Tarbert.

The church where Kenneth was struck down by lightning (above) is at the village of Arrochar a mile further on (turn left down the Helensburgh road, and you'll find the church at the end of the village).

Although Lochgair, which lies between Inveraray and Lochgilphead, doesn't appear in the series, it make several appearances in the book.

The McHoan home, in reality Ardpatrick house, lies on the B8024 about 10 miles out of Tarbert and is available for short-term rent. Call 01880 820608.

Rory's bike ride in the opening credits lies along the same road, along the coast overlooking Jura

The beach, consisting entirely of sea shells (where Kenneth and Fergus take the children) lies at the end of the road in Tarbert. Keep on the seafront road until it runs out, then clamber over the rocks at the end of it.

The restaurant the family goes to after the glass factory visit is in the Islay Frigate Hotel on the Tarbert waterfront. It serves food between 12pm and 2.30pm and from 6pm-9pm.

The final episode of `The Crow Road' is repeated on BBC2 tomorrow at 10.40pm

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