Argyll and Bute is a region in the western Scottish Highlands. It's a scattered, disparate region, but you can't blame the planners who created it from other counties in 1974. Blame those long cold sea lochs that break up its terrain and force the roads to wind around and double back. What united it in the 19th and early 20th centuries was in-shore shipping from Glasgow using the Crinan Canal as a short cut: a fleet of "Clyde Puffers" like those of the Para Handy Tales of Neil Munro.
This page describes the Argyll and Bute mainland, plus those islands that are only a short ferry ride (Bute, Gigha, Luing, Easdale and Kerrara) or connected by a bridge (Seil). It doesn't include those with a longer sea crossing - they're part of this same region but feel quite different in character. They're described under Inner Hebrides, mainly Islay, Jura, Mull, Tiree, Coll, Colonsay and Lismore.
- Signage in Argyll is in Gaelic followed by English, so the Gaelic versions are also stated here.
- 1 Loch Lomond is the boundary of this region. The national park straddles the loch and its western part in Argyll includes Loch Goil and Loch Long in Cowal, and the "Arrochar Alps" or Forest of Argyll. Its eastern part (with Ben Lomond and The Trossachs) is in Stirlingshire.
- 1 Luss (Lus) is the first village up the west bank of Loch Lomond, very tourist-trappy, and bypassed by the busy A82.
- 2 Tarbet (note the spelling) (An Tairbeart) stands at a junction. Stay on A82 by the loch to reach Ardlui, Crianlarich and Tyndrum, for routes to Oban, Glencoe, Fort William and Skye. Or turn west on A83 via Arrochar (An t-Àrchar) and the head of Long Long to climb over "Rest and Be Thankful" then along Loch Fyne for Inveraray, Tarbert and Campbeltown.
- 3 Helensburgh (Baile Eilidh) is a seaside town with several notable buildings, some by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
- 4 Kilcreggan (Cille Chreagain) is a small village on the Rosneath peninsula west of Gare Loch, with a ferry from Gourock.
- Cowal (Còmhghall) is the peninsula west of Loch Long. So close to Glasgow, yet so remote and unpopulated, because of the long sea lochs that separate it from other areas. Once visitors have struggled over "Rest and Be Thankful", they're keen to get past Long Fyne and motor on west; they may not even notice the turn-off for the road that doubles back into Cowal.
- 5 Dunoon (Dùn Omhain) is the usual way into Cowal, by ferry from Gourock. It has botanic gardens and a summer Highland Gathering.
- 6 Bute (Eilean Bhòid) is usually reached by ferry from Wemyss Bay. It has the flamboyant Mount Stuart House.
- The main road to Kintyre (A83) runs down the west bank of Loch Fyne.
- 7 Inveraray (Inbhir Aora) is a remarkable 18th century planned town: it and the castle were rebuilt by the Adams architects.
- 8 Lochgilphead (Ceann Loch Gilb) is at the east end of the Crinan Canal, which enables small vessels to reach the Atlantic and Hebrides without rounding the Mull of Kintyre. Nearby Kilmartin has a remarkable collection of prehistoric, early Christian and medieval remains.
- 9 Tarbert (Loch Fyne) (Tairbeart Loch Fìne) is a fishing village, linked by ferry to Portavadie on Cowal. Five miles west is Kennacraig, with ferries to the islands of Islay and Colonsay. Further south, a ferry runs from Claonaig to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran.
- 10 Gigha (Giogha) is an island reached by a 15-minute ferry ride from Tayinloan. It has botanic gardens and standing stones.
- 11 Campbeltown (Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain) is at the end of this long, long road that brings you onto the scenic Mull of Kintyre.
- Along the Atlantic Coast: the usual approach is by A82 north past Loch Lomond and Crianlarich to Tyndrum, then west on A85.
- 12 Taynuilt (Taigh an Uillt) has two "iron age" sights: the ruins of the 18th / 19th century iron furnace, and the remarkable modern engineering of Cruachan power station deep in the mountainside.
- 13 Oban (An t-Òban) is a transport hub, overlooked by the Victorian folly of McCaig's Tower. There are ferries to the islands of Mull (for Iona), Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Barra and Lismore, also to Kerrara close inshore and effectively part of Oban.
- 14 Seil (Saoil) is an island connected to the mainland by bridge. Ferries cross the channels from Seil to the islands of Easdale and Luing. Boat trips sometimes venture beyond to Scarba and into the straits, site of the seething whirlpool of Corryvreckan. Just beyond is the north tip of Jura.
- "A eolcha Alban uile, a shluagh feuta foltbhuidhe, cia ceud ghabhail, an eól duíbh, ro ghabhasdair Albanruigh?"
- "O all ye learned of Alba! Ye well skilled host of yellow hair! What was the first invasion – is it known to you? Which took the land of Alba?"
- - Duan Albanach or "Song of Scots" is an 11th century mythology of the earliest peoples
Glaciers carved out a series of deep valleys across the west of Scotland, which flooded as the sea level rose to become fjords. The largest and most westerly is Loch Fyne, then come Kyles of Bute / Loch Ruel, Loch Striven, then the Clyde group sometimes likened to a hand: Holy Loch is the stubby thumb, then Loch Long / Loch Goil, Gare Loch and Loch Lomond. But glacial debris blocked the outlet of Loch Lomond, so it became a freshwater lake.
Standing stones indicate that this region was populated by 3000 BC, but the first political entity that can be traced is Dál Riata, a kingdom based in Ulster. These people were called Gaels and in the 6th century AD expanded to take in the west coast of Scotland, where they faced off against the Picts. Airer Goídel, hence "Argyll", meant borderland or coast of the Gaels. The land was rugged and people got about by sea; the region eventually fell under the sway of the Vikings, who found its rain-lashed fjords a home from home. In 900 AD Dál Riata merged with the Picts to form Alba, the forerunner to modern Scotland.
A shire or county of Argyll emerged in the 14th century, with its county town at Inveraray, and the hereditary sheriffs or rulers were Clan Campbell. These big movers and shakers of Scottish history owed their position to loyalty to the Crown, even after this moved to London, so they were resented by other clans. One fellow who timed it wrong was Archibald Campbell (1629-1685), 9th Earl of Argyll, who joined the Monmouth Rebellion against James II / VII and was guillotined after its failure. But three years later James was deposed and the Campbells were back in favour.
There was never much industry here, and the 19th / 20th century landscape was dominated by forestry and upland farming, with tourism developing as transport improved. Argyllshire included the Lorn and Ardnamurchan peninsulas and several islands, but was abolished as a unit of local government in 1975. It was replaced by a region excluding those areas but including the island of Bute, with its governance based at Lochgilphead. In 1996 Helensburgh was added to Argyll and Bute.
By rental car from Glasgow Airport, head west on M8 to Greenock or Gourock for ferries to Cowal, or cross the Erskine Bridge to join A82 north past Loch Lomond.
2 Machrihanish (CAL IATA) near Campbeltown has flights twice a day from Glasgow. It's on the mainland and barely 80 direct miles from Glasgow, but the twisty road down the Kintyre peninsula is 180 miles and clogged with traffic in summer.
Your first task is to reach Glasgow, which has rail connections throughout England and Scotland.
Six trains per day run to Oban along the West Highland Line from Glasgow Queen Street, taking 3 hours. The route is north via Dumbarton, Helensburgh, Rhu, Garelochhead, Arrochar & Tarbet and Crianlarich where the train divides: part continues north to Fort William and Mallaig, while part goes west via Taynuilt to Oban. The Highland Sleeper runs Su-F from London Euston via the West Highland Line to Crianlarich and Fort William, but it doesn't call at Glasgow or connect with the Oban trains.
Trains also run from Glasgow Central to Gourock, which has ferries to Kilcreggan and to Dunoon on the Cowal peninsula.
The usual approach is by A82 along the west bank of Loch Lomond to Tarbet. (From the south or east, bypass Glasgow on M8 / M74 and cross Erskine Bridge.) Stay on A82 northbound for Crianlarich and Tyndrum, then A85 for Taynuilt and Oban. Or turn west onto A83 for Arrochar, Loch Long (where the side road to Dunoon and Cowal branches off), Inveraray, Lochgilphead, then south to Tarbert, Kennacraig, and all the way down to Campbeltown. Buses from Glasgow Buchanan Station ply these main routes.
Ferries sail roughly hourly between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay on Bute, between Gourock and Kilcreggan, between Hunter's Quay near Gourock and Dunoon on Cowal, and between Portavadie on Cowal and Tarbert (Loch Fyne). A small, infrequent ferry runs between Claonaig near Tarbert (Loch Fyne) and Lochranza on Arran. For details of the Hebrides ferries, see Islay, Colonsay, Mull, Coll, Tiree and Oban.
Five Ferries is a cycle route of 51 miles, starting in Ardrossan in Ayrshire, crossing Arran to Kintyre then Bute and back to the mainland at Wemyss Bay. There are steep gradients along the route and it's often done as a charity challenge. From the first ferry landing at Brodick on Arran you'll have 75 min to cover 14 miles to catch the second ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig, otherwise your day unravels.
A summer foot-passenger ferry sails between Campbeltown and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland.
You probably need a car. Between points along the major routes there will be a couple of long-distance buses each day, and six trains for stations to Crianlarich. There are local buses around the main villages but most are timed for the daily school / shopping run and are not much help with sightseeing. However, Bute and Gigha are small enough to explore by bike.
May-Sept a ferry potters up Loch Lomond from Balloch (frequent trains from Glasgow Queen Street). On the west bank it calls at Luss, Tarbet and Inveruglas; on the east at Balmaha, Inchcailloch island, Rowardennan and Inversnaid.
- Castles: Inveraray is elegant, the rest are picturesque ruins. Choose from Carnasserie near Kilmartin, Carrick, Dun Ara, Dunans on Cowal, Dunstaffnage near Oban, Duntrune, Kilchurn, Kilchrist, Kilmartin, Lachlan, Poltalloch, Rothesay, Skipness, Stalker . . .
- Prehistoric monuments: the best collection is at Kilmartin near Lochgilphead.
- Botanic gardens: best examples are Benmore near Dunoon and Arduaine near Oban. The rhododendrons are a riot of colour in early summer, and the climate suits other Himalayan species.
- Golf: most villages have a course.
- Mountains: several rank as Munros, over 3000 ft; none are technically challenging.
- Water sports use the extensive sea coast or the freshwater lochs, Loch Lomond being the largest.
- Highland Games or Clan Gatherings are held in the larger villages on a fixed date each summer.
- Seafood is the main menu item here.
- Oban has the widest choice of cuisine, and a couple of its restaurants are top class.
- Hotel and pub bar meals are generally the best pick in the smaller towns.
- Hotel bars are usually the best choice for a drink and a meal. Oban and Lochgilphead are big enough to have free-standing pubs.
- Brewery: Beer is brewed by Fyne Ales near Inveraray.
- Distilleries: Oban has one whisky distillery, Campbeltown has three plus a gin distillery, and all offer tours.
Standard advice applies about dressing for a change in the weather, not leaving valuables on display in your car, and steer clear of the occasional rowdy drunk. Argyll folk are sonsie and honest, it's the other visitors you need to watch out for.
Winters in the west are mild so snow and ice on the roads are uncommon, but stay alert.
- Glasgow is a grand city with Victorian architecture and lots to see and do.
- Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park is within Argyll and Bute west of Loch Lomond, but some of the best scenery is east in Stirlingshire.
- Stirling is the picturesque city astride the historic road from lowlands to highlands.
- Inner Hebrides are the islands reached by ferry from Argyll and Bute, notably Islay and Jura sailing from Kennacraig, and Mull, Tiree, Coll and Colonsay from Oban.