Argyll: High road? Low road? I'll take the coast road

Argyll has more coastline than France. And to prove it, Hilary Macaskill travelled its length, from Ardmaddy Castle to the shores of Loch Fyne
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Argyll has more coastline than France. So I've been told. But I don't think I could state that with such confidence if I had not seen for myself the inlets and bays, the fjord-like fingers of water probing into the deep folds of the Argyll landscape. We decided to test this by driving down the coast from Ardmaddy Castle, perched in one of these crinkled Atlantic coves at the end of a long single-track road and back north along the banks of Loch Fyne. But first to Oban and the Fiddlers' Rally.

Argyll has more coastline than France. So I've been told. But I don't think I could state that with such confidence if I had not seen for myself the inlets and bays, the fjord-like fingers of water probing into the deep folds of the Argyll landscape. We decided to test this by driving down the coast from Ardmaddy Castle, perched in one of these crinkled Atlantic coves at the end of a long single-track road and back north along the banks of Loch Fyne. But first to Oban and the Fiddlers' Rally.

Corran Hall was the place to be on Saturday night: every seat was sold. On the stage 40 fiddlers were aided by a pair of accordions, drums and a double bass, all kept in line by an elegant, grey-haired conductor in a long tartan skirt. Conductor Daphne Campbell exhorted the audience to enjoy themselves, insisting that people dance in the aisles during the waltzes: a dozen couples obligingly glided to and fro.

Later we climbed up to McCaig's Folly, a 19th-century job creation scheme by a local landowner. Never completed, it was designed as a memorial to his family and is now a garden. From here the view of Oban is stunning, the steep grey gables of the houses spilling down to the quayside, where the last ferry of the day was ambling in from Mull. Once a fishing village, Oban is now a thriving port with ferries shuttling backwards and forwards to the isles. But from up here it still looks like a miniature town.

After a couple of days in Argyll, however, Oban seemed unbelievably big. First, we drove to Seil, the island visible from Ardmaddy, via the Bridge over the Atlantic. This sounds very grand, and, indeed, the 17th-century hump-back bridge designed by Thomas Telford does cross the Atlantic – but the ocean at this point rather more resembles a burn. Just here is Tigh na Truish (the Trousers House), which commemorates the proscription of the kilt and tartan after the 1745 rebellion: for 40 years, the wearing of Highland dress was banned.

We drove to the other end of the island, which took minutes – Balvicar is a couple of streets of tiny whitewashed cottages which seem like the edge of the world. But you can go even further, to Easdale, with a community of 40 and a famous garden. Although, stuck out on the Atlantic it seems remarkable that anything can grow there.

Thanks to the gulf stream, there are many famous gardens in Argyll. We visited one, Arduaine Gardens, on a promontory between Loch Melfort and the Sound of Jura – a 20-acre stretch of woodland, ponds and streams. It is utterly tranquil, until you spot a placard on adjoining land recounting the story of the feud between the former owners and the current owners, the National Trust. We had Arbroath smokies and coffee and brandy cake at the neighbouring Melrose Hotel, overlooking the bay and a clutch of canoeists below and, a little further out, the bright sail of windsurfer and the white triangle of a yacht sail. We saw more yachts later. So many that, in the sunshine, it began to seem like the Mediterranean: tiny bays surrounded by soaring hills, impossibly blue sea, bevies of yachts at anchor. This was not my image of Argyll. There are even marinas, for goodness sake, such as the picture-postcard Craobh Haven,.

We headed south to Crinan, where the Crinan Canal meets the sea. The canal was conceived by the Duke of Argyll as another kind of job creation scheme to make a route from Loch Fyne to the sea, avoiding the long sea passage round the tricky Mull of Kintyre.

Tea on the lawns by the final locks marked the end of our coastal journey. We drove back along the canal past locks with wide calm pools, and then north along Loch Fyne. We were aiming for Inverary, the town set out by the Duke of Argyll. Approached from the north-east – as we discovered later – it looks like the backdrop for a period drama with its fake arches and whitewashed fine buildings. The quay was designed by John Adam, practising for greater things, and there is a bell tower. Visit the bell tower, bossy signs instructed drivers. But we didn't, on the rather petulant grounds that we objected to being harangued.

Instead, we visited Auchindrain, a Highland township inhabited continuously until the 1960s and now resurrected as a museum of life for the masses. This sort of multiple-tenancy farming community was once widespread in Scotland and is now practically extinct. Hens were scratching in and out of the buildings as they would have always done; the long houses with byre at one end and kitchen with box beds at the other were intact.

From here we went to the other extreme, to Inverary Castle. With conical turrets modelled on a Loire château, it is very glamorous, with lots of armoury, French tapestries, and, apparently, a piper marching up and down every morning. We were through it in half an hour: the appeal of Auchindrain was much greater.

Our last day was spent driving down the very long eastern side of Loch Fyne. Rather belatedly, I realised that Loch Fyne is a sea loch. No wonder Argyll has more coastline than France.

Getting there

British Midland, easyJet, Go, British Airways and Ryanair all have direct flights to Glasgow. ScotRail (08457 550033) has rail services from Glasgow to Oban.

The Facts

Further information

Scottish Tourist Board (0131-332 2433; www.visitscotland.com).

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