Cycling around Scotland's longest loch: Loch Awe

By Colin Baird, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Dalmally.

Overall rating:4.6 out of 5 (based on 7 votes)
Enjoyable
4.142855
4.1
Useful
4
4.0
Inspirational
4.42857
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Recommended for:
Activity, Short Break, Mid-range

Enjoy the solitude of Loch Awe's single track road, stand in the spot where Scotland's first king was inaugurated and stay in a gourmet Bed and Breakfast with views of ancient standing stones

The historic stronghold of Clan Campbell, Loch Awe, is 41km long and is ringed by a quiet road that is perfect for cycling. Birdsong, forests and gazing out on the blue expanse of the loch are the delights of this journey. The halfway point, Kilmartin, has Scotland's highest concentration of ancient monuments, some 350. The road along the eastern shore is best described as undulating and gentle. The west shore road has several tough climbs that will require a reasonable level of fitness.

Day one: Dalmally to Kilmartin, 61km

At Dalmally station I was the only person to get off the train. I love that moment when the train pulls away leaving me all alone with the first silence since leaving the city. This station is a wonderful relic from the golden age of steam with a red sandstone building, glass canopy and granite heron. It once housed the "Duke's Room" for the exclusive use of the Duke of Argyll to wait for his train. Nowadays, it is all boarded up with a station clock frozen at five past four and no sign of life.

I took off on my bicycle and arrived at Kilchurn Castle (free, 4km west of Dalmally off the A85, www.kilchurncastle.com), renowned for being one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. Mist and rain suits castles, don't you think? When the rain cleared I got the best treat ever - the greatest rainbow I have seen in a long time.

As soon as I hit the B840 road that flirts with Loch Awe's eastern shore it was all nature and peace. I passed a red phone box in splendid isolation right by the shore; surely one of the most scenic places to call mum from. I spotted several frogs crossing the road and halted to get a closer look at their distinctive markings.

A lone sheep suddenly appeared in front and galloped ahead of me for several yards before getting spooked and finding a gap in the fence.

I loved the simple pleasure of stopping by waterfalls to sit for a few minutes to be mesmerised by the sound and entranced by the way the water cascades over the rocks.
 
There is very little in the way of human settlement here and the very last place where you can get a cup of tea is the Portsonachan Hotel (15km from Dalmally). I was the only customer and had the conservatory with loch views all to myself. The solitary member of staff recognised my need for calories and surprised me with a piece of homemade shortbread.

I asked her about the unique tables in the lounge, featuring bronze sculptures of animals. I really liked the hippo dining table with the face of the animal resting on the glass top and the rest of the body underneath. These are designed by Mark Stoddart, a Scotsman with international appeal. If you ask nicely the hotel will give you a free calendar of his work. 

On the outskirts of Kilmartin I climbed the spiral staircase for the tower views from Carnasserie Castle (free, off the A816, www.rampantscotland.com/visit/blvisitcarn.htm). This was the 16th century home of John Carswell who published the first book in Scottish Gaelic. This is how all good ruined castles should be; plenty of passages, doorways and staircases to explore.

My home for the night was Dunchraigaig House Bed and Breakfast (from £37 for a double). I also booked an evening meal (£19.50, not available in peak summer season) and what appeared before me was fine dining quality with presentation and taste of the highest order. There was freshly baked rosemary focaccia to chew on whilst I waited for the starter of Stilton and walnut pate. The salmon en croute was of very generous proportions and the pastry satisfyingly flaky. I took the selection of Scottish cheeses for dessert. Coffee and tablet was served in the lounge.

With only one other couple in the dining room this could have had the potential to be awkward, but between delivering courses Cameron encouraged conversation and soon we were all excitedly talking about the beauty of the area and what we had seen and done.

pine marten visits most nights and a feeding table has been set up outside a corner window for the benefit of guests. I had never seen one before so it was a real treat that I actually caught a glance of him walking along a wall. It surprised me how large he was and to see his big bushy tail. Cameron said the real treat is to see the cubs in the spring, a good excuse for a return visit.

The bedroom was impeccable with a dreamy mattress and a menagerie of pillows which could simply not fail to induce me into a restful post-cycling slumber.

Day two: Kilmartin to Taynuilt, 61km

Breakfast began with fresh fruit, then porridge that had been slow-cooked overnight on the Aga, followed by a decadent smoked salmon and scrambled eggs from hens in the garden. I even managed a homemade cranberry and orange muffin (the uneaten ones go to the pine marten).

Directly opposite Dunchraigaig House are the Ballymeanoch Standing Stones. Two of the six stones at this site are decorated with cup and ring marks, their purpose unknown. Suggestions include maps of the world, maps of the stars and records of ownership.

Nearby is the site of the hill fort, Dunadd, where Kenneth MacAlpine was crowned the first king of Scotland. A footprint carved into the stone on top of the fort is believed to be where kings stood to be inaugurated.

Kilmartin House Museum (www.kilmartin.org) is essential for an inspirational overview of the history of the area. I enjoyed listening to the recordings of ancient instruments; amazed that the bronze Irish Horn cannot be recreated by today's best metalworkers, such was the skill of people at that time.

I can personally vouch for the cakes at the museum café. The woman who baked them told me I could come back again when I tried the first slice of her latest creation, hazelnut and lemon, and told her it was delicious. The downstairs conservatory gets the sun (if there is any) and there is a nice mixture of locals and international visitors.

The west shore, although tougher to cycle, was my favourite because it really showed off the best of the loch and its surroundings. This is when cycling up hill is actually worth it: views that had me continuously stopping to look back over my shoulder and take photos.

At Kilmaha, a short forest walk on a carpet of spongy moss took me to the best viewpoint of all. A picnic bench was perfectly situated there. Could there be anywhere better to have lunch?

I had some time to spare before the train so went to the Taynuilt Hotel for refreshment. I got chatting to a local man who had recently returned to the village after a stint in the city. He had grown to appreciate the Scottish countryside and desired to move back with his soon to be wife. There was a change in the attitude of Scots; in the past he mostly met tourists up the hills, but now there are plenty of locals. The beauty of the area was obvious to them and I couldn't agree more.

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More information on Cycling around Scotland's longest loch: Loch Awe:

Author:
Colin Baird
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4.57143
Average: 4.6 (7 votes)
Total views:
1216
First uploaded:
11 May 2010
Last updated:
1 year 6 weeks 4 days 20 hours 41 min 44 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Short Break
Budget level:
Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
cycling, lochs, solitude

Colin recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Portsonachan Hotel
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2. Dunchraigaig House Bed And Breakfast
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Community comments (14)

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

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Hi Colin, thanks for your guide - it has inspired me to take this trip! After finding out that there is a direct train from London (sleeper train), this sounds like a do-able weekend break from the city. I was wondering if you could give any information about whether there are any times of year that would just be too miserable to go? For example, is October too late in the year? Thanks!

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Hi Laura,
I am so happy that my article has inspired you.

I went there in April and it was fine. A little bit cold and I had to wear some extra layers. There was also some rain, but not all of the time.

October should be fine also. You can get some nice autumns in Scotland. It might be a bit cold, but just bring extra clothes. There is a risk that the weather could be wild, but in Scotland the weather is so unpredictable that whenever you go there is no guarantee that there will be no rain.

This route doesn't have too many options for sheltering if the weather is poor, but the main thing is to have good clothing and don't let what falls from the sky ruin your enjoyment of the trip. Scotland outdoors is an adventure and those who just go for it will be rewarded.

I guess you are taking the Sleeper to Glasgow Central and then changing trains to take the Oban train from Glasgow Queen Street?

Thanks for your reply...That's good to know that there isn't much shelter! If we do go in October it sounds like we'll have to be quite kitted up in preparation.

There appears to be a direct train to Bridge of Orchy which looks like it is situated on the Loch itself. Better yet this sleeper train doesn't involve any changes, and seems to go every night (or at least both Friday and Sunday nights).

Looking forward to hearing about more cycle trips from you! Thanks

Bridge of Orchy is about 13 miles from Loch Awe.

When I did a timetable search on Scotrail to go from London to Dalmally (the ideal station for access to Loch Awe) it said to get the Sleeper from London to Glasgow. This brings you in at Glasgow Central for 07:20. It is about a 5 minute walk/cycle from there to Glasgow Queen Street where you can pick up the 08:21 Oban train. This arrives in Dalmally at 10:41.

If you take the Fort William Sleeper it would be best to get off at Crainlarich rather than Bridge of Orchy. Crainlarich is on the junction of the Oban line meaning you can change trains. However, the train arrives 07:43 at Crainlarich and the next train heading to Dalmally is not until 10:09, so a long wait in the middle of nowhere! This is actually the same train as the one mentioned above!

If you don’t mind the 13 mile cycle from Bridge of Orchy then it would certainly be a good option to avoid changing trains. However, try Google Map because it looks like getting off at Tyndrum (the stop before Bridge of Orchy) and cycling to Dalmally is less distance, 12 miles or so. Otherwise to get the train directly to Dalmally the best option is the first paragraph. Hope this hasn’t complicated things, but just didn’t want to see you end up on the wrong train!

Great, thanks Colin that's really helpful. I don't think we mind the 12 mile extra cycle but I hadn't realised that it was that far off the track. Will clearly have to check out google maps before we go!

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Sounds like a perfect little weekend jaunt that I could use to introduce my children to cycle-touring. Some great descriptions and loads of useful information.

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Great guide! I love cycling, but have never tried Scotland. You've certainly inspired me to make the trip north. Loved the hippo table...

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Another excellant one Colin.. I just loved all your pictures, especially the ones of Kilchurn Castle and the footprints supposed to be that of the Scottish kings.
It was truly an inspirational guide !! Wish i could soon ride my bike and explore nature at its very best.

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Dammit all Colin, why can't I ride a bike! I love your guides, they're always so entertaining- specially liked the hippo table and the pine marten.
Cheers

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Thanks Johanna for the comment. I really appreciate that. Glad that you enjoyed the guide.

It's never too late to take up cycling! I guess you can also visit these places by car, but I enjoy the adventure of 2 wheels.

The chap who designed the hippo table- Mark Stoddart- has a website with all his works. The hotel had 3 or 4 of his tables, including an otter and labrador. http://www.markstoddart.com/

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Great stuff Colin. You captured the sights and sounds of your short trip wonderfully. I wonder if you could advise readers how easy this ride is. Would anyone of a reasonable fitness manage it? Thanks.

I’ve just returned from a cruise around Mull (guide to follow shortly!) and you brought back some familiar memories.

What do you think? Has Colin inspired you to get on your bike and ride? Do you know Loch Awe and agree with Colin? Share your thoughts here.

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Thanks Jeanette. Looking forward to reading about the cruise! Mull is a lovely island.

I have added a couple of lines in the first paragraph about the route and fitness needed. I would say that a reasonable level of fitness is required. There aren't any big hills on the eastern road, but the west road has some tough ones. Of course, once you get to the top of the hills you get to speed down the other end which makes the climb worth it!

It would still be a great trip to simply cycle the east road, stay the night in Kilmartin, and return the same way.

Great advice. Thanks Colin.