Starting mileage: 21034 km
Day started: 11:00 / 7:00
Day ended: 20:00 / 16:00
We ended up spending a little over an hour in Glasgow proper; we quickly realised, to our surprise, that this was a huge city, not one to be taken lightly, and not one for a wee speedy visit – and not just because seeing the Kelvingrove collection alone would take most of the day.
Instead we took to the coffee shops around the university area, starting with the Artisan Roastery and ending at the Avenue G – and then just drove around the city streets, soaking in the busy atmosphere. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, Glasgow resembled London the most, at least superficially; the streets look almost the same – in fact, if they were cut from Glasgow and moved to London, somewhere between Regent’s Park and Westminster, they wouldn’t feel at all out of place. The people seem similar, even if there’s a lot less of them on the streets; and the coffee is up to the East End standards.
It’s a very green city, a young one, and with some great and rich past showing through the grand red sandstone façades of the city centre. It has a reputation of a murderous shithole, but like all stereotypes, this one was also created in London and I suspect it may have a lot to do with the competition London suffered from “the Second City of the Empire”. There was certainly nothing of the drunken Glaswegian stereotype to be seen in central Glasgow; it may be present in the outskirts, but then London’s outskirts are no playground, either…
Driving north along the Clyde, we stopped at Auchentoshan distillery; we had done a tour of this place many years back – in fact, it was the first distillery we visited – and still had fond memories, but this time we only visited to buy a miniature bottle for tasting (Auchentoshan Triple Wood: citrus and flowers on the tongue, smooth, but virtually no finish; one of M.’s favorite). Past the distillery, we turned at Dumbarton, following the signs for the castle; I seemed to remember something important about the place, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
Dumbarton is a strange castle: there is no keep, just thick walls surrounding a twin-peaked volcanic plug on the Clyde mouth, some artillery batteries and a few military buildings on the way to the top. But it has terrific history; the thing I couldn’t remember about it was that here was the oldest castle in Britain, the capital of Alt Clut, or Strathclyde, the oldest of British kingdoms in Scotland. Dumbarton, or Dun Breatainn, means “The Fortress of Britons”, and it was from here that the post-Roman Britons ruled all of Western Scotland, until the Vikings took it after a long siege, establishing their own kingdom in its place.
In later centuries, Dumbarton was a border fortress – but not, as one might think, between Scotland and England, or Scotland and Ireland; the border, some 10 miles to the north of the castle, was the border of Kingdom of Norway.
We headed towards that border, and to the long lake of Loch Lomond; we stayed the night in Balloch, at another friend’s place: Marta is, funnily enough, the sister of Anna we had visited earlier; her hobbies include moving around Britain every few years and climbing mountains – she’s “done” some fifty Munros in just the last year!
Fed on the hearty soup of fresh garden beetroot and hand-picked mushroom, we drove off early the next day, along Lomond, towards the distant Kintyre. This is a fantastic car journey, one we remembered from our first visit to Scotland, many years ago, and which hadn’t lost any of its charm. If it doesn’t run along the shores of a calm, cold, steel-blue loch – Lomond, Long or Fyne – it crosses the deep glens and high mountain passes, jumping over the streams and waterfalls.
At Arrochar, we were treated to an unexpected spectacle of five or six gannets who, like so many Vikings before them, had ventured that far inland to hunt. Hunting gannet is an unforgettable sight, as it dives perfectly, straight from the flight, like an arrow. Seeing one of these birds doing that is a treat, but five at a time was a true marvel.
At the top of the deepest glen – or at the bottom of the highest pass, depending on where you’re coming from – is a bend in the road, and a small car park, overlooking the valley. This place is called “Rest And Be Thankful” – and is marked as such on all the maps – from the sign carved into the stone by the soldiers who were building the Old Military Road. This was the road built in the late 18th century, to allow the regular armies venture into the Highlands, to deal with the rebellious clans. This had been the first time since the days of the Roman general Agricola that the Highlanders were put to the invaders’ heel. All of that is now mostly forgotten, and what remains is a beautiful place in the middle of a green, empty valley.
Loch Fyne is a deep, long and narrow sea inlet famous for its salmon farms, and we couldn’t pass it by without stocking up on smoked fish at the nearby deli – adjacent to a well known oyster bar and restaurant; the Loch Fyne gastronomical complex sends its wares all over Britain, but nowhere does it taste as good as at the very lake the fish are taken from.
The harbour towns along the loch are all fairly similar, which doesn’t mean they’re unattractive: typical Scottish single-street towns, with a wharf, a quay, or an occasional marina; Tarbert, at the narrow isthmus of the Mull of Kintyre, is the largest of these, and had undergone the greatest process of transformation from a fishing village to a gentrified artist colony; half the buildings in the harbour are now art galleries, and the entire place looks like a bit of bigger, richer city, but without the city attached to it.
We got up so early that by the time we reached the campsite it was only 4pm – but we were ready to rest then. The only ferry to Islay we could book was at the ungodly 7am the next day (we forgot it was the Bank Holiday weekend, and everyone wanted to get to Islay), so we didn’t mind going to bed extra early for once.
Many campsites advertise being near the beach, but Muasdale takes it to the next level: the entire campsite (which manages about 10 pitches in total) is squeezed onto a thin strip between the coastal road and the sea. There was only about 5 metres of grass between us and a narrow beach – and we were standing at the farthest end. The view stretched to the nearby Gigha Isle, and, in good weather, all the way to Islay.
The facilities at Muasdale are very decent, and the site boasts multiple awards from recent years. Unfortunately, when we were staying there, something must have happened to the sewage, releasing an overpowering stench all through the night – but since no other reviewer ever mentions anything of the sort, we must assume it was just an unlucky accident.