In the spotlight: Lochs & Islands Tour

By Ian Cleaver, MD and Head Gardener

The Ben Doran Hotel, Tyndrum

The 134 bedroom Ben Doran Hotel is nestled in its own sheltered seven-acre garden in the mountain village of Tyndrum in the Loch Lomond National Park

A true favourite of many people, this very fine holiday experience brings you from your home town up to the border, then on to your hotel in the West Highlands. Your hotel is to full 3 Star Scottish Tourist Board specification and is a joy to stay in.

 Your bedroom is of a premium standard and the hotel is extremely comfortable and immaculately presented. The staff are excellent, well-trained and experienced, and work very hard to make your holiday memorable.

The chefs are superb, with many years of experience and the dining room service is fast and efficient.

There are four full-day excursions and I detail them here to give you a flavour of what awaits you in the glorious West Highlands. 

Firstly, we enjoy the epic trip of the sea crossings to the Isles of Mull and Iona. We leave the hotel and pass through Glen Lochy and Glen Orchy, where we arrive at the head of Loch Awe and see Ben Cruachan and Kilchurn Castle, the original stronghold of the Campbell Clan.  The fearsome Campbells ruled the land and the Clan Chief’s word was law.  We then drive through the Pass of Brander where we see the mighty Hydro-Electric Dam, and on to Connel with its dramatic Falls of Lora where the sea rushes in and out – a spectacle to behold at most times, but especially at spring tides.

The falls of Lora

The Falls of Lora is a tidal race which forms at the mouth of Loch Etive when a particularly high tide runs out from the loch.

Soon we arrive at Oban and descend down to its beautiful bay and the terminal where we board the ferry for the crossing to Craignure.  On board, we pass the iconic sights of Dunollie Castle, Lismore Lighthouse and Duart Castle, the seat of the rival clan MacLean … Sir Lachlan MacLean still lives in the castle.

Ferry leaving Oban bay on way to Mull

The ferry leaves Oban on route to Craignure, Isle of Mull

We arrive at Craignure, and soon we are traversing Mull on a scenic road down to Loch Don and Loch Spelvie through Glen More and the Ross of Mull, before arriving at the Fionnphort ferry.  Here we travel by foot on the ferry across to Iona, where we have a short walk up to the ancient Monastery, Nunnery and the Abbey itself.  The Abbey is fully restored and very, very beautiful.  No better day can be spent in Scotland!  Afterwards, we return home for dinner and the evening’s entertainment.

Ferry docking at Fionnphort, Iona

Ferry docks at Fionnphort, on the beautiful Iona

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey is one of Scotland's most historic and sacred sites. Located on the Isle of Iona, just off the Isle of Mull, it was founded by St Columba and his Irish followers in AD 563.

Our next day’s tour is to the Isle of Bute, which we reach by ferry from Colintraive. This short crossing takes us to the Island and the holiday town of Rothsay.  Rothsay has a beautiful old harbour, which is now very much a marina for the dozens of pleasure boats and small fishing boats who shelter there. The harbour is also the home of the very first public convenience in the UK!  Everyone should visit this Victorian extravaganza – quite extraordinary.

The coach proceeds onwards to the southern tip of the Island and the home of the Marquis of Bute, Mount Stuart House.  This is one of the grandest great houses in Scotland and is a splendid place to visit. The individual rooms are magnificent and the chapel is sublime.  The marble sculptures bring a tear to many an eye …

Mount Stuart

Mount Stuart was the first home in the world to have a heated indoor swimming pool, and the first in Scotland to be purpose built with electric light, central heating, a telephone system and a Victorian passenger lift. Most of which are, quite remarkably, still in use today.

There has been a recent find of great historical interest at Mount Stuart, namely articles belonging to Prince Charles Edward Stuart – left behind after the debacle of the 1745 rebellion.  “Prince Charlie” is the forbear of the present Marquis – so the history surrounding the House is very interesting indeed.  The present Marquis has wild blood in him too and was, for a time, a Formula One racing driver known as “Johnny Bute”.

The road home retraces our route along the shores of the Kyles of Bute, back across on the ferry and then north by Loch Riddon, Glendaruel and Inverary before returning to the hotel by Loch Awe, Kilchurn Castle and Glen Orchy.

Highland Heritage Coach with views of the Kyles of Bute

One of our 16 supercoaches passes the Kyles of Bute

The next great Scottish icons on the list are Loch Lomond and The Trossachs.  We do a wonderful circular tour of the area, taking in Crianlarich, then down the glen past Loch Dochart and Ben More, before coming to Lix Toll and the spectacular Glen Ogle, where we descend into the more lowland areas of Lochearnhead and Balquidder.  Morning coffee is usually taken at Kilmahog, and from here we swing down into The Trossachs region, taking in the country villages of Drymen and Aberfoyle. These are the stomping grounds of the revered cattle trader, Rob Roy McGregor.  The word blackmail comes from his activities – if you paid him in meal, he would not steal your cattle.  Hence “blackmeal” or blackmail.  Somehow or other he died in his bed at a ripe old age, but being a friend to the Campbells of Argyll was no disadvantage – he bolted to Argyll every time he got into trouble!!

 Our day takes us further round the southern end of Loch Lomond and to Lomond Shores, an excellent development which highlights the beauty and history of the loch. The Drumkinnon Tower houses an aquarium and has the most remarkable viewing area on the top - you can see at least 30 miles right up the length of the loch!!  There are endless shopping opportunities here and lots of coffee, scones and tea to be had.

Next we are homeward-bound up the west coast of Loch Lomond with spectacular viewing all the way home – Arrochar, Loch Long, The Cobbler, Glen Kinglas and also the Rest & Be Thankful.  What a treat! 

Loch Lomond Shores

Loch Lomond Shores is Scotland's most spectacular visitor destination, combining the beautiful environment with an outstanding mixture of leisure and shopping experiences overlooking the majesty of Loch Lomond at Balloch.

Loch Lomond

Stunning views across Loch Lomond

Our last stop is at picturesque Inveraray with its magnificent castle, harbour and unique white-washed buildings.  Then it is home again via Glen Aray and Loch Awe with fine views of Kilchurn Castle and Glen Orchy on the way.

Inverary

Inveraray Harbour

The final gem in our collection takes us west to the beautiful fishing and ferry port of Oban. Oban has the finest setting of any West Highland town, lying in a sheltered round bay, complete with a McDougal stronghold, Dunollie Castle, perched high on the cliffs at the harbour entrance.

Views to Oban from the sea

During the tourist season, the town can play host to up to 25,000 people.

Oban is the home port of many of the West Coast ferries, and services are available to the inner and outer Hebrides.  There are also ferries to nearby islands, such as Lismore, Mull, Colonsay, etc. Many of our guests who come to stay at the Alexandra Hotel take one of the ferries to see the wonderful scenery offshore.  For example, the Colonsay ferry sails past the Corryvreckan whirlpool on its journey both ways … go onto the Calmac website for a timetable, the price is amazingly cheap since the introduction of RET (Road Equivalent Tariff). There is good catering on all the ferries so distance is never a problem.  You can even go to Barra and back in a day – what is stopping you??!!

Scotland Whirlpool

'Corryvreckan' is the third largest whirlpool in the world.

Wildlife is everywhere – basking sharks, minke whales, dolphins, porpoise, seals, otters, and of course the spectacular sea eagle.  Sea eagles have made their home in Ardnamurchan and I see them regularly at Shuna, Ardtornish and Morvern.

Scottish Seal

A seal enjoying the views from the rocks

Leaving Oban, our excursion now takes us south to mid-Argyll via the beautiful sea lochs of Loch Melfort and Loch Craignish where we start to see the occasional standing stone adorning the mountainsides, before descending down to Kilmartin where there is an excellent museum and numerous Neolithic stone circles and cairns. This is the ancient kingdom of Dalriada, and was where ancient Stone Age migrants came in from Ireland and slowly displaced the indigenous tribes who were obliged to move eastwards. Turbulence was the norm in ancient times. 

We arrive at the Crinan Canal which was constructed in the 19thC to make a safe route north avoiding the Mull of Kintyre, which was dangerous, if not impassable, in the 18thC during winter months.  This, of course, meant that it could connect to the Caledonian Canal and the Forth & Clyde Canal making a ‘roundabout’ for shipping.  It was slow, but it was safe and it led to the development of the whole of the north of Scotland.  People did not expect next-day deliveries in the 1800’s!!!  Well, in the spring maybe!!!

After passing down the canal side, we can see the locks at Cairnbaan, and we then arrive at the town of Lochgilphead before heading to Tarbert for lunch. Tarbert is where the canal starts and is on Loch Fyne.  Loch Fyne stretches all the way to the Clyde Estuary and accesses the Irish Sea. It has a history of herring fishing and still has spectacular mackerel in the late summer and autumn months. 

Basking sharks are common on the loch, and are a truly remarkable sight – watch for the black triangle of a fin gliding serenely along!  Less common are orca whales, which I have seen on only a couple of occasions.

From Tarbert we head back north along the loch side to Inverary, where we enjoy a last cup of tea before making our way home via Glen Aray and Kilchurn Castle to Glen Orchy and our hotel for dinner.  Another glorious day ends with entertainment and a good night’s sleep! 

Tarbert

Tarbert Village is built around East Loch Tarbert, an inlet of Loch Fyne, and extends over the isthmus which links the peninsula of Kintyre to Knapdale and West Loch Tarbert. Photo by the-road-to-the-isles

On the final day of the tour, we are up and about for an early breakfast, with our cases outside the bedroom door for collection by hotel staff.  Make sure you put your coloured label on your case, so that it goes on your coach in the correct order for your homeward journey.  It then magically re-appears when it is time for you to get off the coach!

Enjoy your journey home, it too is part of the experience.  And don’t forget to fill out your ‘Guest Comment Sheet’ – very important feedback for us!

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Where possible, all photography used in this article is attributed to its rightful owner.