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Argyll and the Isles Travel Guide

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Plan Your Argyll and the Isles Vacation

Argyll's rocky seaboard looks out onto islands that were once part of a single prehistoric landmass. Here narrow roads wind around natural obstacles, slowing travel but forcing you to see and admire the lochs, the woods, and the ruins that hint at the region's dramatic past. Highlights include everything from grand houses such as Brodick Castle and gardens such as Crarae to the excellent walks

on the small western isles. This is whisky country, too: the distilleries on Islay should not be missed. Distances are relatively small, as the area is within three hours of Glasgow.

Divided in two by the long peninsula of Kintyre, western Scotland has a complicated, splintered coastline. Looking out onto the islands and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, it is breathtakingly beautiful, though it often catches extremely wet ocean weather. Locals say that you can experience four seasons in a single day, and cliffs and woods can suddenly and dramatically disappear and reemerge from sea mist. Oak woods and bracken-covered hillsides dot the region, and just about everywhere you'll encounter the bright interplay of sea, loch, and rugged green peninsula.

Ruined ancient castles like Dunstaffnage, Kilchurn, and the towers on the islands of Loch Awe give testimony to the region's past importance. The stone circles, carved stones, and Bronze and Iron Age burial mounds around Kilmartin and on Islay and Arran are reminders of even earlier periods, when prehistoric peoples left their mark here. More recent grand houses, like Inveraray Castle and Brodick Castle on Arran, are not really castles but grand houses built by the nobility when the times of conflict between them are largely in the past. Their grounds, nourished by the temperate west coast climate, contain great gardens that are the pride of Argyll. Crarae, south of Inveraray, has winding paths through plantings of magnolias and azaleas, and Ardkinglas Woodland Garden boasts an outstanding conifer collection. The surprising tropical plants of the gardens on the isle of Gigha testify to its mild climate.

The working people of Glasgow traditionally spent their family holidays on the Clyde estuary, taking day trips to Dunoon or Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Carrick Castle and Benmore Garden are a short trip from Dunoon. From Ardrossan, farther down the coast, ferries cruise to the prosperous and varied Isle of Arran.

Western Scotland's small islands have jagged cliffs or tongues of rock, long white-sand beaches, fertile pastures where sheep and cattle graze, fortresses, and shared memories of clan wars and mysterious beasts. Their cliff paths and loch-side byways are a paradise for walkers and cyclists, and their whisky the ideal reward after a long day outside. While the islands' western coasts are dramatic, their more sheltered eastern seaboards are the location for the pretty harbor towns like the brightly painted Tobermory on Mull, or Port Ellen, with its neat rows of low whitewashed houses, on Islay. Arran is often said to be Scotland in miniature, the rich green fields of the southern part of the island giving way to the challenging Goatfell in the north.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Whisky, whisky, whisky Whisky is everywhere, though it changes subtly in taste and character from distillery to distillery. The unmistakable peaty smell of the whiskies of Islay yields to the lighter whiskies of Arran and Oban. Each distillery is unique, and guards its recipes jealously.
  2. Iona and its abbey Maybe it's the remoteness—especially if you explore beyond the abbey—that adds to the almost mystical sense of history here. This was an early center of Scottish Christianity from the 6th century onward, sending evangelists throughout Europe. This was also the burial place of Scottish kings, including Macbeth.
  3. The great outdoors Salmon and trout fill the lochs and rivers, and more adventurous anglers also head out to sea for even bigger trophy fish. If it’s golf you prefer, there are two dozen golf courses, including fine coastal links like Machrihanish near Campbeltown. For the cyclist there's every kind of terrain, making this a great region for leisurely rides or grueling mountain biking.
  4. Cool castles Often dramatically located on cliffs overlooking the sea, the region’s castles tell their own stories of occupations, sieges, and conflicts between warring clan chiefs and nobles over eight centuries. Vikings, Scots, and the English fought for their possession. Many of them were turned into grand houses by the landed gentry.
  5. Glorious gardens Plants flourish in the mild Gulf Stream that brushes against this broken, western coastline. For vivid flowers, trees, birds, and butterflies, visit Crarae Garden, southwest of Inveraray. The Achamore House Gardens on the Isle of Gigha are another colorful extravaganza.

When To Go

When to Go

This part of the mainland is close enough to Glasgow to make it accessible year-round. Oban is just over two hours from the city by car (three...

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