A rare trip home to Scotland for my nephew’s wedding and an opportunity to show my Italian wife a little more than just a soupçon of Glasgow or the suburbs of Edinburgh, her only real previous experience of my homeland….
Hence we sneaked off for a two-day road trip round the secret coast of Argyll. Although not my clan’s territory – that lies a little further north – and the land of our once-sworn enemies, The Campbells, it holds dear memories. Like the mists that slip gently down from the mountains, benign spirits roam these glens…. kindly ghosts that have always made me feel that it is my spiritual home. My wife scoffs and, for mock-worthy support, reports my misty-eyed proclamation to one of my sisters, later in the holiday. “But that’s exactly how I feel” reposts my elder sibling. “It’s where I feel I belong.” So it’s not just me.
Our route mapped to make the most of the two days, to avoid any doubling back on the same roads as much as possible….we head for Gourock and the ferry across the Firth to Hunter’s Quay on the Costa Clyde. Where once upon a time Glasgow holiday makers came in their thousands by paddle steamer, before the invention of the package holiday in Benidorm. The steamers used to bring 6,000 a day in those heady August days…..to Dunoon, Bute and the great lochs.
After disembarking at the quay, we gave the local hotel a side-swerve. The last time I entered its portals (with my old friend Al many years before) we didn’t re-emerge for some hours, having sampled almost all of its malt whiskies and settled on a bottle of Laphroaig. The forthcoming drive through Glenlean to Loch Ridden was a twisting single road and as I didn’t recall much of the last time, for all the wrong reasons, I was taking no risks this trip. The narrow but fabulously well-maintained road takes you through unspoilt lands less than 30 minutes from the wasteland of Greenock’s dying ship industry. It’s a different world and a different time. Just after we passed a small clachan of white-washed cottages at Clachaig, where the women-folk made gunpowder for Wellington’s canons two centuries before, we had to slam on the breaks. It was a break-out! Scampering from the estate on the left, crossing the road to the freedom of the woods beyond was a brave escape party of grouse….the shooting season had only opened the day before, the Glorious 12th, and these birds were not about to humour the sporting ambitions of the wealthy nor the pans of restaurant chefs across the nation. We stopped and nodded to each other. The birds and us, still game after all these years.
We made the steady descent from the pass, past Loch Striven and down towards Loch Ridden and drove slowly round the head of the loch. I was looking for a track to the left, another lane of memories. The signpost says Ormidale Lodge. We made our way along the narrow farm track towards the small pier at the lodge. This is where my father and I had come many times, to board his boat moored on the loch…sometimes sailing nowhere but just to sleep on board and sigh at the pleasures of waking up to the wistful smell of bacon and eggs and fresh coffee drifting across the glass-like waters from the galleys around us. “Do you want a tissue?” Maria laughed. I did, and wiped a moist eye. Now given over to sleek white-hulled yachts which rest still in the sheltered waters, this pier was once a vital supply stop for the Clyde Puffers….small smoke-stacked steamboats which would transport everything from coal to gravestones, food and supplies for the coastal communities dotted all around the West of Scotland. Even the famous Vital Spark, the puffer of Neil Munroe’s “Tales of Para Handy” docked here…..at least to film the old TV series.
Fond memory momentarily served, we edged back along the loch-side and re-joined the main road, turning left towards Tighnabruaich and Kames…..and the Kyles of Bute. I knew without asking that Maria was absorbed by her surroundings, little gasps of delight punctuating the chatter of her Nikon. It was the hour for a refreshment but there had to be time to stop at one of the most stunning viewpoints these Isles have to offer….the spot where I imagine my last resting place to be. At the top of the hill, half way to Tighnabruaich, there is a layby and a viewfinder. If you ever pass this way, stop! You see the breath-taking view down over the Kyles, over the Maids of Bute (a collection of small islands at the top of the waters) to the Isle Of Bute itself….and in the distance, the mainland. It is spectacular and with distant sails beating and tacking around the channels, it’s a million miles away from the rush of the city.
A Yorkshire accent at the village greengrocer recommended the Kames hotel as the best watering hole in these parts. We took his advice and were not disappointed. A range of ales and a mouth-watering blackboard menu of seared scallops on a bed of black pudding, Cullen Skink and more…..our dream menu! This is why we’d come this way…..Our love of seafood, and there is nowhere better than in this small part of Scotland. However, we’d started the day with a fortifying Scottish breakfast and we knew that the evening meal would be five star, so we mustn’t succumb to temptation! A beer and crisps would have to suffice. So after a very pleasant Fyne Ale, after watching the sails track the Kyle and after breathing in the fresh smells of water and newly-mown grass….we took our leave.
Off back up the road, past Ormidale and now down the eastern banks of Loch Ridden to Colintraive. This is the place where we take the ferry to Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute, both the shortest and possibly the most expensive ferry crossing in the World, but also one of the prettiest. However, don’t let the “expensive” put you off. The crossing is no more than 300 metres and takes less than 2.5 minutes….so it’s only cost per metre that makes this fact worthy of Wikepedia. In fact, it’s less than £20.00 for a 5-day return for a car and two passengers. At the small dock we got out the car and took the short walk to the Colintraive Hotel…….another bunch of memories were calling. “Perhaps a wee one before we go” I suggested. I thought about this. Have I sampled too many beers in my past, have I known too many warm snugs on a winter’s day or terraces on too many summer evenings? NAW! So for old time’s sake we decided on a swift one in the hotel…..it had to be done!
Once in the hotel bar, occupied by a couple of foresters, a fisherman and two seafarers, I asked the question. “Bearing in mind this is the peak season, I’ve been surprised at how quiet the roads are…..Are you busy these days”? “We’re doing pretty well actually,” Said the lass behind the bar. “Fact is, the tourists are probably out walking the glens at the moment while most of our usual customers are the sailors.” At this, one of the seafarers at the bar leaned over and said, “Aye, that would include us” One of the yachtsmen had recognised Maria’s accent. “So you’re not from these parts then?” “No, we’re here on holiday from Italy.” Our new found chum then told us about his sailing experiences round Italy and his brief stay in our own town, Reggio. His partner then chimed in that the fishing was good at the moment, they’d caught a dozen mackerel last night in 30 minutes. “What did you do with the fish I asked”…Ah, we’ve got a wee smoking machine on the boat, so a little fishing, big breakfast of smoked mackerel.” Our mouths were beginning to drool and our visit was becoming a little all-too-comfortable….the stories were coming thick and fast. Somehow we got back round to the links between Italy and Scotland, the number of famous Scots with Italian names. “Actually.” I said. “We’re off to see an old college friend on Bute who I haven’t seen for over 25 years, and one of our best friends was a Scot with an Italian name….John Guidi.” “That would be Carlo’s brother.” Stated our well-travelled companion matter-of-factly. “Well yes.” I replied. “How did you know?” “Och half of Scotland’s Italians come from a town called Barga, in Tuscany. If you go there in the summer you’ll hear as many Glasgow accents as Italian….when they all go back to the homeland for their holidays. They call it a little piece of Scotland in Italy.” Only in a bar near the Cowell peninsula would I have learnt this.
It was time to head for Ascog, to a night with old friends and more stories from the past. As we left the hotel and got into our little Fiat 500 rental, the ancient mariners walked unsteadily past. “Ach, you even got a wee Italian car.” Chuckling as they weaved their way back to their moored vessel, anchored safely in the shelter of Memory Glen.