After that glorious sunset last night, the nice weather carried over to this morning, and our view out onto Lake Etive was like looking at a painting.
After an excellent breakfast and a brief chat with our hosts at the Ronebhal Guest House (Sally and John), we set out on what was our second last day in Scotland – Monday September 24th.
As we drove away, we had one last look at the Connel Bridge, such a dominant piece of the local landscape, and as Mary got us heading south and east, I plotted a course to our first stop of the day – the Cruachan Dam and Power Station.
Roughly a 35 minute drive from Connel, Loch Awe is the site of the Cruachan Dam, named for the hill above it. The power station is actually buried one kilometre below the ground.
Owned and operated by Scottish Power, it was constructed in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s and officially opened by Queen Elizabeth ll in October of 1965. The two stock photos below give you a sense of where the dam is located high up in the hills.
There is no public road access and the only way to get close to the dam itself is by a undertaking a 55-60 minute hike up into the hills.
Our tour began at the Vistor Centre located at the base of the mountain, where after a short wait (and a chance to watch a film about the construction of the power station), we boarded a small bus that took us inside the mountain.
All of the pictures below are either stock photos or from postcards I purchased as there was no photography allowed inside the power station. In fact, all purses, back-packs, phones, cameras etc, had to be checked and left in mini-storage lockers before being allowed on the bus.
We entered the mountain through a remote-controlled gate, and began descending down a 1-kilometre road to the underground power station. Exciting and a little eerie at the same time.
At the lower end of the tunnel, we came to a cross-road which provides access to the machine hall, the transformer halls, and the visitor’s gallery – our stopping point. If you are in any way claustrophobic this would not be a suitable adventure for you. The air inside is also a little stagnant, at least it was to me, and I think the absence of any daylight would become a little disconcerting after awhile.
We disembarked from the bus, and began a short walk along a concrete path to a small room which overlooks the largest chamber – the machine hall. The pathway is artificially lit (as you can see in the picture to the left), and the atmosphere is very stark and surreal. It reminded of old 1960’s episodes of Star Trek, where the Kirk, Spock and others would enter caves on alien planets.
Entering the visitor’s galley, a door slides open to reveal an incredible sight – four massive turbine and generator sets in a room that is the length of three football fields, and large enough to contain a seven-story building.
On one wall, we could see a mural of inlaid woods depicting the legend of Cruachan. The guide told us that the London-based artist has never actually visited the power station to see her work on display.
The legend says that the Old Hag of the Ridges was the guardian of a fountain that welled up from the peak of Ben Cruachan (the mountain). It was her duty to cover the well with a slab of stone at sundown, and lift away the rock at sunrise. One evening, she fell asleep and the well overflowed. The water rushed down the mountainside and burst open a new outlet to the sea. By the time the Hag awoke, the water had flooded the valley below and drowned all the people and their cattle. So was formed Loch Awe. The Old Hag was turned to stone and sits to this day high atop the mountain.
I have a very limited perspective of engineering (I’m a numbers and words guy) and am oft-quoted as saying “I don’t have a mechanical bone in my body”. That said, I was staggered when the guide starting telling us about the amount of inexpensive power generated by this station, and that it’s delivery was almost immediate during peak demand times.
In a touch of ironic timing, a few nights before our visit, Mary had turned on the TV and happened upon a documentary about the Cruachan Power station with archival footage of it being built. She asked me if I knew anything about it, and she laughed when I told her I had read about it before our trip, and had a route planned that would take us right by it. And it was totally worth it. This was a very cool place to visit!
Our next stop was just a few miles along the A85, the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, located on a rocky peninsula at the northeastern end of Loch Awe. It also lies at the base of Ben Cruachan, the large mountain that houses the power station and dam we had just visited.
It was first constructed in the mid-15th century as the home base for the Campbells of Glenorchy, who extended both the castle and their territory in the area over the next 150 years. After the Campbells became Earls of Breadalbane and moved to Taymouth Castle, Kilchurn fell out of use and was in ruins by 1770. It was abandoned in 1776 after being struck by lightning.
The castle is accessible by a small dinghy and/or via a foot path that on this occasion was closed due to higher-than-usual levels of water in the loch. We weren’t up for a boat ride so we simply admired the view from across the loch, before heading on to Inveraray, our next stop.
Inveraray is a small town of less than 700 people, situated on the western shore of Loch Fyne, and the picture below was taken on our approach.
The town we entered today was essentially re-built in the late 1700’s, and the finished product is considered an excellent example of an 18th-century Scottish “new town”. It also sits at the top of the Kintyre Peninsula which stretches 30 miles (a 2-hour drive) to the south to the Mull of Kintyre made famous by Paul McCartney. You can see from the pictures (below) we took on our first drive-through, the town is very uniform in design.
The primary tourist attraction in the area is Inveraray Castle (below), the seat of the Dukes of Argyll, chiefs of Clan Campbell, since the 18th century. The present day castle was built in the mid-late 1700’s replacing an earlier 15th-century structure. We decided to visit it first, then circle back into the town.
We were able to embark on a tour but were surprised to learn the present day Duke (age 50) and Duchess of Argyle and their three children still live in one half of the house, so it is considered a very large family home as opposed to a museum/castle.
The front entrance, seen in the picture below (left) is commonly referred to as “Paddington Station”, in recognition of its designer, Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt who was responsible for the decorative ironwork that surrounds Paddington Station in London. It has been built over a moat that surrounds the entire the castle. Mary is standing on the steps of it in the picture above.
The picture in the middle (below) is of the rear entrance, although it was used as the main entrance to shoot scenes for a two-hour Christmas episode of Downton Abbey, back in 2012.
Inveraray Castle has been the scene of two devastating fires. The first in 1877 led to restorations that included the addition of the two conical towers seen at either end of the castle.
The second more damaging and fairly recent fire occurred in 1975, ravaging the top storey of the castle, and destroying pictures and furniture stored there. While much of the furniture and works of art in the rest of the castle were salvaged, water damage to the rest of the castle was significant. For the next 25 years, work was undertaken to restore the castle to its former “state of magnificence”, and in 2001, it re-opened to the public.
The main entrance Hall (left) through the “Paddington Station” entrance way seems rather modest in size and that is because it was an afterthought. The rear entrance used in the Downtown Abbey shoot noted earlier, is the original main entrance, but that now opens into a large drawing room and dining room, part of the first round of fire-induced renovations.
The modest main entrance hall gives way to a spectacular and dramatic Armoury Hall – over 60 feet high, and said to be the “tallest room in Scotland”. I believe it.
This room contains over 1,300 pikes (pole weapons), muskets, swords and other weapons, and was meant to intimidate and awe visitors, and reinforce just how powerful Clan Campbell was.
Off to the left of the main entrance is the State Dining Room (below), a room that is very much in use for formal occasions, corporate events, and private parties. It is a beautiful bright room adorned with plasterwork and furniture meant to evoke a sense of French style, although most of the work was done in the late 1700’s by skilled Edinburgh-based craftsmen. The silver gilt ship table decoration was a gift to one of the Dukes and is of German manufacture dating back to the mid-1800’s.
On the opposite side of the main entrance, we found ourselves in the Tapestry Drawing Room (below). It still contains the tapestries that were designed for it nearly 250 years ago, and the room is flecked with gold throughout.
In one corner of the room, there is a cleverly concealed set of double doors covered in tapestry. When opened, a small hallway is revealed which leads into the China Turret room – circular in nature. The display cabinets in this room contain a collection of Oriental and European porcelain, all of them hand-painted.
At the very back of the ground floor, we entered the Saloon, usually the most formal room in large 18th century houses. This one had much more of a modern living-room feeling to it as evidenced by newspapers on the table, portable breakfast tables, and a piano, on loan from Lerner & Loewe, the composers of most of the score from My Fair Lady. It is used by the current Duke and Duchess for entertaining and less formal gatherings although it does look rather austere and stiff to me.
As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, we stopped at the landing display case (below) which holds the robes and regalia of the British aristocracy. It contains a collection of those worn by various Dukes and Duchesses over the past three centuries and includes the present Duchesses’ wedding dress, in the middle.
We were only able to tour half of the upstairs rooms, as the family residence is on the other half. It is apparently a mirror-image of the area we visited, and the picture below is taken from an inner balcony looking across the Armoury room to the family quarters.
Among the upstairs rooms we did visit, was the MacArthur Room. It is said that ghost hunters who enter this room can detect a distinct chill in the air, as a young Irish harpest was murdered in 1644 on the elaborately carved bed. Legend has it that the boy’s ghost was so attached to the bed that when it was moved to the castle, his spirit came too. His spirit is one of several that ghost hunters for the TV show “Most Haunted” claim to have encountered while shooting a 2009 episode at the castle. The bed is adorned with the Campbell tartan.
The Victorian Room (below) was a particular favorite of mine as I am a fan of that period of time in history (my mom’s influence). This room takes on added significance in that it commemorates the 1871 marriage of Lord Lorne (later the 9th Duke of Argyll) to Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter. The many items on display are reminders of that occasion, especially the writing desk, given by the Queen to her daughter as a wedding gift. The sculpture of the Queen shows her at a spinning wheel. The note in the room said it was a biscuit-ware sculpture and I had to look that up. It refers to an unglazed porcelain or pottery piece.
Just beyond this area was a small room noted as the Clan Room. As you might expect it displays memorabilia and various items associated with Clan Campbell. I can’t explain why, but I thought it was pretty funny to see a bunch of regimental drums mounted on the wall.
In an even smaller room (seen below) that was connected to the Clan Room , there was a detailed history of the Dukes of Argyll’s in battle. We have seen something similar in almost every clan home or castle. Stories of immense courage and bravery and a source of great pride to each clan.
What caught my attention in this particular room was the oil painting of “A Wounded Argyll”. The description says “He is pictured in his service dress uniform with an overseas service chevron sewn onto his sleeve which indicates the soldier had served abroad for a certain number of years. The Argyll soldier seems very happy despite being wounded, and perhaps he feels lucky to have survived a certain action or narrow escape, or that he might be given time away from the front to recover from the wound”. It was unlike any other war-related painting I’ve seen, and it might just have been the unexpected smile that captured my eye.
The last room we toured was the Old Kitchen, last used by the current Duke’s grandmother in the 1950’s. It is a unique room with seven fireplaces, two stewing stoves, two baking ovens, a hot plate, a boiling stove, and a roasting fire with a working spit operated by a fan in the chimney. There was also an extensive collection of copper pots hung along one entire wall, many of them dating back to the Victorian era.
As we exited the castle, imagine our surprise to see a collection of McLaren race cars posing for pictures in the courtyard. These cars aren’t cheap (base price is around $275,000 US), and to see so many casually parked in one spot was surreal.
When I asked an attendant what was going on, she told me that it was a gathering of members of the McLaren club and it seems they like to drive to photogenic locations (such as this one), and show off their toys. Must be nice!
As I stood taking a couple of pictures, their engines roared to life, and in single file, they exited the area as suddenly as they had appeared.
It wasn’t just the McLaren team showing off their wares. As I turned to walk to the parking lot, this is what I saw.
There was no discernible reason for them to be there or dressed up like that, but that is a man (driving) and woman in full vintage “motoring” outfits. I am not well-versed enough in roadsters of the 1920’s and 30’s to know what kind of car they were driving, but it was pretty cool to see – more my style than the McLaren’s too.
We were now headed back into Inveraray and I had picked up the postcard picture below in the gift shop as I thought it gave a neat perspective of where the castle is located in relation to the town itself.
That perspective became even more interesting when I read that the Dukes of Argyll had not only been instrumental in shaping the town in the late 1700’s, they literally forced their relocation plan on the townsfolk. One of the design elements of the 3rd Duke’s plan was the creation of a “screen wall” that would form an impressive facade for Iveraray. The two pictures below, taken from opposite sides of the gateway show all that remains of it today. The Argyll dukedom retained control and ownership of the town until 1956 when it was turned over to the Government in return for some tax relief to the family.
In addition to the castle, and a general town-stroll, the other main attraction in Inveraray is it’s Jail and Courthouse, seen below. The central building which housed the courthouse was completed in 1820, and was in continuous use up until 1954. The building on the right is the “old” prison, also opened in 1820. It was the principal jail for the entire county of Argyll and “housed men, women, children, convicted and unconvicted prisoners, the sane and the insane”. It had no heating, no washroom, and was always overcrowded.
The “new” prison, on the right side of the picture above, opened in 1848, and was said to be a model prison of its day. Unlike its predecessor, it had twelve individual cells, a water closet on every floor, a washroom, accommodation for warders, and and exercise area. It was also well-heated and ventilated.
Both prisons closed in 1889, and the premises deteriorated for the next 100 years, before being re-opened as a privately owned tourist attraction, re-enacting trials and the life of inmates of the 19th century.
Having taken the time to tour the jail in Jedburgh earlier in our trip, we passed on this one, but it is highly recommended by all who have visited it, and worth putting on future travel itineraries if you’re in the area.
We’d already made the decision to spend the night near Tarbet which will leave us less than an hour from our final Tuesday night destination of Glasgow/Paisley. Now, we debated what to do with the rest of today. We decided to start out on a southerly drive down the Kintyre peninsula, with the option of turning back if we didn’t come across anything new or different.
As we set out, the scenery while gorgeous, was very similar to what we’ve seen over the past week or so, and I think its fair to say that road fatigue played a decision in us beginning to question how far we’d go, after just 15 minutes.
It was just at that point, that we passed the Auchindrain Open-Air Museum off to our left. It celebrates the history of Auchindrain Township dating back over 1000 years. My online research had indicated that there was a display centre along with historic houses, barns and byres (cowsheds). The 21 acre layout was inhabited from 1533 right up until 1963, when the last “local” moved on, but rather than allow the settlement to become derelict, it was preserved as an example of a way of life that was once common in this area of Argyll and the West Highlands.
While normally open to visitors seven days a week through the end of October, it was closed on this particular day, so we continued to drive south down the Kintrye Peninsula. However, it was not much further along when we decided that there just wasn’t enough “new” scenery to compel us to drive any further, so, at a little picnic area, we pulled over to the side of the road, took the picture below, and began heading back in the direction of Inveraray.
I should note that the road we were on, the A83, is the route we’d have driven if we were planning to head over to the Isle of Islay. Ferries to Islay leave from Kennacraig which is about an hour south of Inveraray, and to make the £95 return trip worthwhile, an overnight stay would be in order – something that we simply did not have enough time to undertake. Next trip……
Back to Inveraray we went, where we then turned east toward Tarbet. Earlier in the afternoon, I had booked us a room at the Village Inn in Arrochar, just a few minutes outside of Tarbet, and our easterly drive saw us hug the shores of Loch Fyne for a good portion of the journey.
About ten miles west of Tarbet there is a stretch of highway known as “Rest and Be Thankful”. It is the highest point on the drive and it divides Glen Kinglas from Glen Croe. There is a very tiny parking lot at the top of the hill which was full of mini-coaches and cars, and there was no place for us to pull off. We took “mental” pictures of this stunning view as we slowly rounded the bend, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share a downloaded picture to show you what we saw. Beautiful and worthy of the name!
We pulled into the parking lot of our Inn for the evening just as the rain began to fall, so we were glad to get off the road and not have to deal with that. I love finding out the history of some of these older Inns and hotels that we’ve stayed at, and the story of the Village Inn was no exception.
It was originally built as a church manse in 1872, (the two-storey part of the building in the picture above) and was converted/extended in the 1940’s to a 14 room Inn and pub, with a fabulous location looking out on Loch Long, and the Arrochar Alps.
Once settled into our rooms, we headed into the pub for very tasty beef pies and wonderful home-made deserts, and over dinner we began reflecting on how much we have seen and done over the past four weeks. I had spent the month before we left on this adventure (way back on August 29th), researching Scotland and laying out a broad template of what we might see – mostly so I could spend more time enjoying our trip rather than having to figure it out on the go. I created eleven, yup, eleven geographically-defined “mini-planners” that Mary and I could look at each day/night, and we used them to decide what we’d like to do as our trip unfolded. The time I spent (and I loved doing it) paid off handsomely as it gave me a sense of the geography of Scotland that I simply would otherwise not have had. It allowed me to play the role of navigator with very little stress, and made the trip that much more enjoyable and rewarding for both of us.
Tomorrow is our last day in Scotland, and we have a couple of remaining spots we hope to see as we make our way to Paisley, before heading home to B.C. One of them is Stirling Castle, something we missed earlier in our trip, so we are looking forward to that, and I look forward to telling you about it!