Argyll peninsula: Lochs, Scots... and two whisky barrels
Taking a cruise around Scotland's Argyll peninsula, Peter Geoghegan discovered a laid-back way of life with sublime food, an array of wildlife and a familiar language
'There are two types of season in Scotland," Billy Connolly once quipped, "June and winter."
As the warm evening sun flickers one final time on the calm, aquamarine waters of Loch Goil, near Loch Lomond, before disappearing behind the ruins of Carrick castle, I glance at my wristwatch. If the Big Yin ever tires of stand-up comedy, he could certainly have a future in meteorology: it's 10.46pm on June 1.
Scotland is often described as a land of contrasts, both physical and cultural, and it's not hard to see why. The bright lights of Glasgow are barely 40 miles away, but out on the loch, as porpoises bob up and down and gannets and oystercatchers soar majestically overhead, the big city feels like another, distant world. Only the slow, steady hum of the generator punctures the silence.
As darkness draws quickly in, I drain the last amber drops of Scotch from my glass and slip back into my lodgings for the night -- and for the next week -- the Glen Massan.
The boat, a converted fishing trawler, is one of two belonging to The Majestic Line, an Edinburgh-based outfit that specialises in luxurious cruises along the west coast of Scotland. I'm on board for a six-night wildlife-spotting cruise around the south Argyll peninsula.
The Massan, an 85ft slab of Irish oak, has been stripped and redecorated for less able seamen, with a stylish saloon, surprisingly salubrious and spacious cabins, and a viewing deck replete with sun loungers (for those occasional non-June afternoons when a bout of high pressure interrupts Connolly's long-term outlook).
The brainchild of keen amateur sailors and old school friends Ken Grant and Andy Thoms -- inspired by a jaunt on a Turkish gulet, they founded the company in 2004 -- The Majestic Line operates from Dunoon and Oban, two of the most famous fishing ports in west Scotland. Both are little more than an hour's drive from Glasgow, but there's no need to hire a car: I'm one of a handful of guests collected from the international airport by shore manager Andrew Manwell.
"It's all part of the service," Andrew smiles, before going on to entertain his rapt audience with salty tales from the Clyde's long shipbuilding history, the remnants of which are clearly visible in rusting industrial towns such as Greenock and Port Glasgow that pockmark the road from Glasgow to Dunoon.
Andrew's friendly, informative manner is typical of The Majestic Line, where luxury seldom equates with stuffiness. Indeed, our vessel has barely pulled out of its berth when there's a knock on my cabin door. "Sorry to bother you but we're going to be sounding the horn in a moment," explains engineer Bob McLean, who I'd been introduced to only moments earlier over a bon voyage glass of bubbly in the saloon.
"Don't be alarmed. It's because we'll be passing by Andy Thoms' mum's house and we're giving her a birthday salute. She's 94 today. You're more than welcome to come up and have a wave if you like!"
Scurrying up the stairs, I'm just in time to spot a white tea-cloth furiously moving back and forth across the front window of a semi-detached house on the shore. "There's Mrs Thoms," Bob smiles, as we glide by, picking up a gentle speed. We begin the voyage towards Loch Goil, our first night's port of call.
As the sun sets over the rolling hills, the guests -- eight in total -- unwind over a long, languorous and consistently excellent evening meal in the saloon.
My girlfriend and I are, by some distance, the youngest members of our party, but the group has little of the static, retired air I had expected from a cruise boat. Two middle-aged English couples, Viv and Robin, and Jean and Gordon, have come north separately but share a love of wildlife, while Carol and her octogenarian father George have travelled from the east coast of the US especially for the trip. "I come for the whisky, really," George laughs, admiring the two fingers of Talisker single malt in his tumbler.
It's impossible to gauge how guests will gel beforehand -- and it could be a long week if they don't -- but thankfully there are no personality clashes, and we've nothing to distract us from the remarkable scenery of Argyll and its myriad islands. The area's roads are notoriously bad (think Cavan circa 1987 but worse), so water really is the best form of transport for exploring Scotland at its wildest and most dramatic.
Our daily itinerary is pleasingly flexible: each morning, skipper Martin McWhirr puts down his sextant and alights from his cosy, wood-panelled bridge to inquire of the breakfast table, in dulcet Clydeside tones, "Where do you want to go today?" McWhirr's 'suggestions' are generally accepted -- he is the captain, after all -- but where we decide to stop, and for how long, along the day's route is always up for playful negotiation.
On the island of Bute, past the faded seaside glamour of its main town, Rothesay, we spend a sunny afternoon exploring Mount Stuart house, home to the current Marquess of Bute. The house was built by the third Marquess in the second half of the 19th century: a dyed-in-the-world eccentric, he installed one of world's first heated swimming pools, decorated his pile with astrological symbols, collected fine art and built a majestic white marble chapel. (An orphan, the Marquess converted to Catholicism at the age of 18.)
Mount Stuart also hints at the rich history Argyll shares with Ireland. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, the powerful, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada encompassed Antrim and the west coast of Scotland, and some historians argue that the Book of Kells was produced on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides.
The old language hasn't died out completely, and a quick stop at the picturesque village of Tighnabruaich, nestled on the east coast of Loch Fyne, provides a golden opportunity for this journalist to wow his fellow guests with a cúpla focal.
"Aye, it means 'the house on the bank'," Dougie Wilson confirms my guestimate. Dougie, the Glen Massan's hugely talented chef, moved from Falkirk -- an unremarkable commuter town midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow -- to live on one of the many farmsteads dotted along Loch Fyne.
"I love it here. It's so peaceful -- there's never a sound, except the nature all around you." And Dougie is dead right. Apart from the occasional puffin squawk, as it flies past the bridge, or the expectant chatter of seagulls circling the fishing trawlers that still work the Kyles of Bute, life on the open sea is remarkably quiet, though never dull.
Our land legs get regular exercise, visiting pretty fishing villages such as Tarbet, or strolling around ruined churches, as at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran.
There is no shortage of on-board adventure, too, whether you're learning to drive the small, motorised tender to lay lobster pots in still loch waters, or just standing on deck, binoculars glued to your face, scanning the horizon for signs of otters or basking sharks.
Pitching up in a different spot every evening has a definite nomadic charm. Each night, we eat dinner with a fresh vista through the saloon windows, and often with some pretty distinguished neighbours for company: along the Kyles of Bute, we drop anchor not far from Richard Attenborough's boreal bolthole, while a little further north, at Loch Fyne, we moor across from Ewan McGregor's palatial Scottish retreat.
The pace of life quickens -- but only just -- on Great Cumbrae island. This tiny lump of rock, a stone's throw from the mainland town of Largs, is still popular with day trippers from Glasgow and its main drag, Millport, is filled with retro cafés, fishing shops and, most importantly for cyclists, bike hire shops. With a circumference of exactly 10 knots -- sorry, I mean miles -- and little in the way of hills, the island is perfect for a leisurely cycle. The route is littered with orchids and other wild flowers, while Goat Fell, Arran's imperious peak, dominates the western skyline.
Back in Millport, I treat myself to a well-deserved 99 in the Ritz Café, a hallowed name among Scots of a certain generation that still serves some of the best ice cream this side of Milan. After a quick nosey around Britain's smallest cathedral and a photo outside the country's narrowest house -- scarcely the width of a door -- it's back on board for our final evening meal.
The unmistakable (should that be inescapable?) sound of Wings' Mull of Kintyre is blasting across the PA as we clamber back on board the Glen Massan. In the distance Ailsa Craig, or Paddy's Milestone, halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, shimmers in the bright, warm sun, while fat, round-headed seals loll on the rocks opposite the boat.
Ten minutes later, Dougie emerges from the kitchen brandishing a plate of canapés: Stornoway black pudding and locally caught scallops.
I doubt even Billy Connolly himself could conjure up a more fitting punchline for a wonderful week on the Scottish high seas.