Starting mileage: 21405 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 21:00
An uneventful, but necessary journey, from one ferry port to another – with a few surprises along the way.
The Islay ferry, departing at noon and reaching mainland over two hours later, leaves just enough time to reach the last Mull ferry from Oban, if you’re going fast enough. But going “fast enough” in our van is impossible, so instead we puttered along without hurry, just to get to Oban for the evening.
But first, there was the road; the Argyll Coastal Route, to be precise, a splendid bit of highway, running down the bottoms of glens and along the highland coast. Pretty soon it became obvious that people have been travelling down this route for a long, long time before there was the road here. Thousands of years before, in fact.
The broad, long glen down the bottom of which runs the modern road, is called Kilmartin, and it is mainland Scotland’s Salisbury Plain: the largest gathering of prehistoric monuments south of Orkney. A few lonely, monumental standing stones are the first forebearers of what’s to come, followed by small cairns of piled rubble; then there is the first real stone circle, out in the field, and a larger cairn, with an attached car park and a few interpretative tables. You might think that’s it; but a few miles down the road there is a far more astonishing scene: a perfectly straight line of standing stones, in two pairs, with a circular arrangement in the middle. This is the Nether Largie and Temple Wood, a culmination of the Kilmartin Glen, and as you approach it, you’re soon likely to spot another element of the alignment: two stone circles hidden in a small grove to the north, and a large cairn watching all of this from the side.
Like at Cairnholy, the arrangement is obviously deliberate, and this time it’s easy to tell its main direction. The straight lines and angles drawn by the stones and circles point perfectly towards the midsummer and midwinter sun, as well as the Moon sets and rises; even after the thousands of years, the gap between the pairs of stones at the ends of the main line is perfectly filled by the chief stone in the middle (decorated, as if to further mark its importance, with the ubiquitous Scottish pattern of cup and ring).
Kilmartin Glen may not have the fame and scale of Stonehenge, but the sheer amount of monuments, and precision with which they were set up, makes it one of the finest megalithic sites in all of British islands. And if that’s not enough, there’s also the twin-peaked crag of Dunadd, at the southern entrance to the glen; like in Dumbarton, here too had been built a major settlement of the ancient Britons: the capital of the once-mighty kingdom of Dal Riata.
Soon after leaving Kilmartin, we’ve reached Oban. It’s the largest town in the Western Highlands – nearly a city; it has its own hospital (where we stopped to remove a tick irritatingly embedded in my neck; a word of praise for the NHS Highland: on the Sunday evening, on Bank Holiday weekend, it took them less than half an hour to see me), a cinema, and an array of high street shops. Obviously, it has its own distillery, of some renown; a little less obviously, it has a fish&chip shop made famous by Rick Stein’s acclaim. As it had gotten too late for us to cook our own dinner, we went inside to see what the fuss was about.
The interior is unassuming, but looks just like you’d imagine a good, old-fashioned chippie to look like. I’m no expert in fish&chips, so I couldn’t tell whether it really was the best in Britain – but it certainly was very good, miles better than the standard fare; a piece of real cod, which managed to retain all its flakiness and tenderness despite being wrapped in a thick layer of moist batter. Fresh cod is a truly fantastic fish if done well – too often it’s ruined by poor cooks; here, the meat was done justice. M. had a bucket of lobster tails – a posher scampi; it was exquisite. The chips were good, too. So yes, this is definitely a chippie worth recommending if you’re in the Highlands. (make sure not to confuse the many chippies on this street; some have gone so far as to piggy-back on the Stein-built fame of the original)
With the last ferry gone, we drove a bit further up the Coastal Route, passing several castles in various stages of ruin; in Highlands, it seems, the castles were built where normal people build houses, there’s just so many of them. Honestly, it’s worse than Wales.
We were now deep into Highlands. The Ben Nevis and Glen Coe massif loomed in the distance, real mountains at last. But the mountains are not the coast, and so the next morning we had to go back to Oban. Our next destination was the Isle of Mull.
The Oban Club Site, a C&CC friendly campsite some ten miles north of Oban, is surprisingly small and compact for a place that boasts 75 pitches. That’s because it’s laid out inside a circular wall of some old manorial garden; the facility building is in the centre, with pitches spread around it, like some kind of camping Coliseum (a connection made stronger by the fact that there is a giant coliseum looming over Oban – part of an unfinished memorial a certain mad millionaire tried to build for himself in the 19th century). It’s pricey – £22 per night – but comfortable, and the location within the tall red walls makes it quiet and calm, despite being so close to the main road.