Travel: Land of loch and legend

Lilian Pizzichini listens to some tall stories among the remote Argyll hills
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The Independent Travel
The name "Argyll" means the Land of the Strangers. It's an appropriate name because Argyll has been cut off for centuries by its mountains and sea lochs from the rest of Scotland. Its chambered cairns, cup and ring- marked rocks, standing stones and oyster-rich lochs are a stronghold of the Campbells, whose dominance is commemorated in tales of bloody vengeance and acts of injustice. Perhaps not surprisingly, Argyll remains remote - a transitional area between Lowland and Highland, an ecological fluke with lush, subtropical gardens warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The tiny village of Strachur resides in a fork of Loch Fyne on the road to Oban. It has achieved some local fame, due largely to Sir Fitzroy Maclean, the writer, traveller, diplomat and friend of Ian Fleming. Rumours still circulate that James Bond owes a lot to Sir Fitzroy; and the framed photographs in the inn of eastern potentates tucking into haggis support them. Sir Fitzroy bought the Creggans Inn 40 years ago and reopened it with great fanfare, serving the finest food from the surrounding area. The bon viveur spirit lives on - Sir Fitzroy's son is even thinking of starting a 007 weekend, complete with karate lessons.

Being the quiet and contemplative sort, I preferred to drink with the locals in the old, stove-heated bar attached to the inn. I played darts and watched a shinty match (a vicious kind of hockey) on the nearby pitch. Most auspiciously, I discovered that Strachur's real fame lies in its brand of single malt whiskey, Old MacPhunn.

Everyone knows the legend, and it wasn't long before I was filling in newcomers with the story of MacPhunn of Dripp, a local laird of ancient lineage who fell on evil times. Alas, he took to stealing sheep, was duly apprehended and taken over the loch to Inverary Gaol to be hanged. While his wife was rowing his body back home, she thought she saw him move and hastily forced a cup of her own milk (she was nursing a baby at the time) mixed with whisky between his lips. At this, he sat up, and not long after landing at Strachur, he was as good as new.

The effects were not quite as resuscitating for me. I never quite made it to the Argyll Alps, and I lay the blame fairly and squarely on Old MacPhunn. I had to content myself with a woodland walk through the cairn that bears his name. I walked up the farm road just left of the inn, and through a gate on to Beech Walk. I passed the deserted trout lake, and slid across a narrow, slippery bridge that skirts a hurtling brook, or burn. Further up and with a sudden spurt of foam, the burn forms a miniature waterfall that marks the entry into a jungle wilderness. Lichens, mosses and wood anemones carpet the floor of the forest; sprouting grasses reaching up to the waist had to be negotiated before I reached the top of a hill. From this vantage point, I could see wave after wave of conifers, heathers and pines covering the neighbouring hills for miles around.

On the way back, I decided to pay tribute to the old rogue who, by law, couldn't be hanged twice, and there he was, MacPhunn of Dripp, buried in Strachur's inscribed stone church, having lived a long second life.

Inverary, the site of his nemesis, is still going strong, too. It has a population of 400, 350 of whom were in the pub watching the Scottish football team play England. The other 50, piper and all, were in the Argyll Hotel, where I took tea, to attend a wedding. Robert Burns stayed here in 1787, although he felt that he had been neglected by the hotel's management in favour of distinguished Campbell guests. To vent his wrath, he scribbled the following lines on a window pane:

"There's naething here but Hielan' pride,

An' Hielan' scab, an' hunger;

If Providence has sent me here,

'Twas surely in an anger."

It really wasn't that bad. In fact, it was rather charming. The oak-panelled room was warm from a roaring fire, and lined with dusty old books.

Inverary is a classic example of an 18th-century planned town, having been rebuilt by the third Duke of Argyll (head of the Campbell clan) in 1745. Robert Louis Stevenson is another writer who found nothing to cheer about here; the courthouse still stands where in 1752, before a Campbell judge and jury, James of the Glen (a Stewart, and thus the Campbells' natural enemy) was convicted of the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure, a crime of which he was innocent. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and Stevenson resurrected the story for Kidnapped.

These days, the Campbells' neo-Gothic castle is the town's main draw. A long walk down a beech-lined avenue brought me to a tiny fairy castle painted in bottle green to match the firs towering above it.

Back at the inn, I went for a paddle in the mudflats of the seawater loch, where I was joined by oystercatchers, eider ducks and gulls of every variety. The shingle bank glistens with emerald-green and slate grey pebbles - with an occasional topaz thrown in. The effect was of walking on gems, but a passing fisherwoman put me right. She told me that the rocks were Dalradian; the vividness of their colourations due to mica and quartz crystals, their convoluted folds to the extreme earth movements that created them 600 million years ago.

I preferred my version of reality, and concluded that there are so many geological and literary levels of historical truth in this region, it really doesn't matter which you decide to believe.

STRACHUR

GETTING THERE

Lilian Pizzichini stayed at Creggans Inn, Strachur, Argyll PA27 8BX (tel: 01369 860279). She travelled overnight with Scotrail (tel: 0845 7484950) from Euston to Arrochar and Tarbet. A return ticket is pounds 61 (seven days APR subject to availability).

FURTHER INFORMATION

For general information contact the Scottish Tourist Office (tel: 0870 5511511)

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