Roamin' in the gloamin' (on the bonnie banks o' the Clyde)
- Keith Smith
- 11 August 2020
We find that your own two feet – with a bit of help from the ferry and the bus – are perhaps the best way to navigate the Firth of Clyde
At almost 1500 square miles, and with the deepest coastal waters in the British Isles, exploring the Firth of Clyde by foot might seem something of an odd choice. But thanks to an extensive network of way-marked footpaths, it's possible, with relative ease, to explore the coastlines and interiors of the peninsulas, promontories and islands that populate the Clyde waters. Many sections of the walking trails are fairly accessible, and won't require much more than a stout pair of boots, some appropriate clothing and basic vittles to negotiate them.
On the western side of the Firth is the 100-mile-long Kintyre Way. Offering views of Islay, Gigha and the Paps of Jura, this seven-stage trail stretches from Tarbet in the north and works its way down to Southend, where the Firth of Clyde meets the Irish Sea proper, before traversing back round to Machrihanish.
From Tarbet, it's just a short ferry hop to a slightly shorter, but no less awe-inspiring walk. Described as 'Scotland in 57 miles', the Loch Lomond & Cowal Way snakes across the Cowal peninsula from the dock at Portavadie up to Inveruglas on Loch Lomond.
One of the refuges of the red squirrel, along with Arran and Kintyre, the forest sections of the walk are also home to foxes, badgers and barn owls. On the coastal segments, it's common to spot otters, seals and porpoises in the water, while further north on the open hillsides, you might see one of the area's four pairs of golden eagles in the skies.
The splendid shell of Dunans Castle and the hidden remains of Asgog Castle can be found along the route, while at Glendaruel, Kilmodan Church is noted both for its 15th-century carved burial stones and its unusual interior layout. Legend has it that the three separate entrances, staircases and galleries were designed to ensure three local sparring Campbell families could each talk to God, without having to talk to each other.
Around the delightful village of Tighnabruaich, the Loch Lomond & Cowal Way skirts along the shores of the Kyles of Bute, across which you can virtually see some of the West Island Way – a 28-mile trail on the Isle of Bute itself. Opened in 2000, it was Scotland's first official long-distance island pathway and is, in essence, two circular walks with a middle joining section bringing them together. Most people tend to base themselves in Rothesay, tackling the parts separately and returning to the town each night. It's possible to complete it without doing so, of course, with some terrific wild camping opportunities for the adventurous.
The southern walk, a circuit from Kilchattan Bay, showcases some of the island's most dramatic scenery, as volcanic rock meets the power of the sea. Other highlights include St Blanes, a ruined 12th-century church, and panoramic views of Little Cumbrae, Great Cumbrae and Arran.
As the name suggests, the 63-mile long Arran Coastal Way follows the outline of the island, with minor deviations inland and the odd alternative path that can also be used to turn some of the stages into circuits. It's challenging in places, but well worth the extra effort.
From its position in the centre of the Firth, Arran is perfectly situated to provide the most expansive view of the region. Depending on where you are (and the weather, naturally) it's possible to see the peninsulas of Cowal and Kintyre, the Isle of Bute, much of the Ayrshire coast, Ailsa Craig and across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland. Other offshore rewards include the chance to see bottlenose dolphins, basking sharks and minke whales.
Onshore, it's no less interesting, from the ruins of Lochranza Castle and the neolithic Machrie Moor standing stones, to the King's Cave, where Robert the Bruce supposedly had his famous arachnid encounter.
And if you do want to try, try and try again, then it's worth keeping in mind that the area is also the perfect gateway point for the 100-mile Ayrshire Coastal Path from Glenapp to Skelmorlie, and the 34-mile Three Lochs Way, connecting lochs Lomond, Long and Fyne.