On Water and Waiting
Dunoon was built as a resort town, a place where wealthy Glasgow merchants could get away for summers by the seaside. It’s grande old houses and seafront promenade recall days gone by when well-to-do families would eat ice cream on the pier. But the real highlight of this weekend’s getaway was not Dunoon itself, but the wilds of the Cowal Peninsula which lay beyond.
Cowal is officially part of the council of Argyll and Bute, although it’s both vast and distinct enough to feel like its own place entirely. The Cowal Peninsula is really three ‘fingers’ of land, surrounded on all sides by long sea lochs, or narrow inlets of sea water. These sea lochs mean that even though a town might be visible just across the water, it could be miles away by winding roads which run up and around and back down the shoreline. They essentially cut the peninsula into long pieces which are only connected at the top end.
Cowal felt very remote. We drove up steep single track roads along hillsides that wouldn’t be out of place in the north-west highlands. We found ourselves totally surrounded by thick snow which later melted into torrential rain. We walked around coastal villages with only a handful of houses that felt like they belonged on the smallest of the Hebrides, rather than on the Scottish mainland.
And all of this takes place only a 23-minute ferry ride away from Gourock, which I would consider to be a not unreasonable distance from Glasgow to drive for an afternoon walk. The way in which water dictates the landscapes of Scotland - where people live and don’t live, where they go and don’t go - never ceases to amaze me. You can be so utterly close to a town, or hill, or beach, but without a bridge or your own boat, it could be hours or even days away along the coastlines.
But what I loved most about visiting Cowal was the ability to connect different pieces of land to each other. On Shabbat afternoon we strolled the promenade in Dunoon, and looked across the water to the hills of Inverclyde and down to North Ayrshire. I was able to pick out different places I’d been, hills I’d climbed, bays I’d swam in. I could look across the water and see a different perspective from that of really being there.
Sunday afternoon as we made our way up the southern shore of Loch Fyne, I looked across at Inveraray, a place I’ve been many times. But here, viewing it across the water, seeing the hills rise up behind it and snow-covered mountains further back, I felt like I understood it in a different way. I could contextualize it as part of something bigger in a way that I couldn’t simply by being in that place itself.
Perhaps that’s what we need sometimes, a little shift in perspective. I’ve been taking part in lots of Jewish leadership workshops over Zoom recently, and there’s one in particular which sticks out to me. I’ve actually done this workshop twice, and my experience was the same both times. We start off with one person explaining a challenge they’re having at work. Everyone then gets an opportunity to ask them open-ended questions about their problem, in order to understand it better. After this, everyone gets an opportunity to give the person advice, saying “If I was in your shoes I would…” The initial person then gets a chance to respond to the group’s feedback.
Every time I do this, I find myself thinking “That’s not a problem! It’s so simple, you just need to do ____!” And perhaps it’s just me being conceited and thinking that I know better. Or perhaps there’s something to the perspective we gain from being outside of a situation. When we’re further away we’re better able to see the larger picture.
Above the village of Clachan of Glendaruel lies the Stronafian Community Forest. The paths were steeper than expected, and less well drained than other trails, which made for a bit of a treacherous journey up above the tree line. This region of the Cowal Peninsula was inhabited by neolithic tribes over 4000 years ago, and remnants of their lives include a chambered cairn and standing stones. But being a community woodland, it’s also full of carved wooden statues, lying along the path.
At the high point of the hike is an armchair, carved in a feather pattern, and all made out of a single tree trunk. I sat in this chair, popped my hiking boots up on the picnic table, right up against the mountains in the distance, and I felt like I was on top of the world. Up here I was freed from work stress, lists of chores, watching the news and all of the other noise which fills up our lives. The mountain air was crisp and fresh, and the chair surprisingly comfortable for being carved out of a tree stump.
I sat up there and looked down over the trees, the hills in the distance and the sky beyond. It’s great to see clearly when you’re at such a height. But it’s also equally important to be able to see clearly when you’re down below, on a steep muddy hillside surrounded by dense birchwood. It’s lovely to understand Inveraray from across the water, but we don’t always have the gift to see things in multiple dimensions.
It was an amazing weekend in Cowal with lots of unexpected delights, beautiful landscapes and that moody Scottish sky which casts everything in melancholic haze. And as we drove over the Erskine Bridge, back into build-up of Paisley and up the stairs into my flat, I was reminded of the perspective gained on top of that hill, in the time spent away, and the need to bring that mountain air back with me into normal life.
We got to Dunoon via the Western Ferries from Gourock. Tickets are cheaper if you buy them from the Keystore nearby, rather than on the ferry itself, although they only sell return tickets which can be used anytime (guess we have another trip planned!). We drove back via the Rest and Be Thankful into Arrochar and down Loch Lomond.
We were based in Dunoon, and one day was Shabbat, so we didn’t have so much time to explore. Our first day we hiked in the Kilmun Arboretum, and then continued up the A880 to Ardentinny, which was pretty, and would have been a great place for a summer picnic and swim. We then continued up the road, making a circle which brought us out at Loch Eck. There was lots of snow and the road was quite steep and narrow, so probably not ideal, although it is a very scenic road and is definitely good enough in better weather.
We then headed north up Loch Eck to the Forestry Commission car park at Glenbranter, where we did the walk to the Allt Robuic Waterfall, which was way-marked and easy to follow. We would have done Puck’s Glen as well, except it was closed for felling, so there’s another one for our return trip in warmer months.
On Sunday we headed up the B836 to Tighnabruaich, instead turning left to reach the sleepy village of Colintraive. Reaching the top of a steep hill just after passing the village of Craigendive on the way, we stopped at a small lay-by to walk down a forestry road with incredible views over Loch Striven and the hills beyond. Colintraive itself has nothing much except the ferry to Bute, which we watched, a hotel and a small beach to stroll on. It was very peaceful though.
We then drove north to Clachan of Glendaruel, which has some old carved stones in the church courtyard, and parking for the Stronafian Community Forest. The parking is a small unmarked lay-by on the main road itself, but parallel with the church in Clachan of Glendaruel. There are several way-marked paths heading into the forest, and stopping at various sites of historical interest including the remains of an iron age burial cairn, and St. Modan’s Well, which was a bit naff but actually much more exciting than expected, including a little wooden well structure with a bucket, in addition to the usual natural spring. The path up was quite steep and wet (although it had been raining), but it was nice enough for an hour.
We then continued up the road, stopping briefly at the Tinker’s Heart just past St. Catherines. ‘Tinker’ is a somewhat derogatory word used to describe Scottish nomadic travellers. The Heart is a monument made of coins and stones that marks the spot where many people would meet and get married, due to it being at a meeting point of roads from different areas. It’s surrounded by a low metal fence in the middle of a farmers field, but there is a small place to pull into. I saw a documentary about the monument on TV so I thought it worth a stop.
It was a bit far for this trip, but another time, I’d love to visit Portavadie, Tighnabruaich and Argyll’s Secret Coast, which is the third ‘finger’ of Cowal that we didn’t quite get to. It looks like it has even more dramatic scenery and winding roads, so I’m looking forward to visiting in the future!