From the castle, woodlands and coastal walks of Culzean to the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond and the bleak, misty mountains of Glencoe, a three-stop camping tour is the best way to see Scotland
Eight-year-old Sophie hadn’t meant to steal the thunder of her school friend Paul. The eyes of the entire class widened in awe as Paul told proudly how he had seen a golden eagle at a birds-of-prey centre during his holiday.
Sophie, albeit gauchely, trumped him with: “Well, I saw one flying above my head in the wild in Scotland”.
That is the nature of Scotland. It brings to mind the Texan boast that everything is bigger. Certainly, to someone who lives in a crowded city, everything about the spectacular landscape seems magnified, from the towering mountains to the vast lochs, even the size of the deer – and, oh yes, the nip in the air, too.
I’m not alone in saying this. Hundreds of people every year visit the campsite at Culzean Castle (run by the Camping and Caravanning Club) purely for the spectacular sunsets. The view from our pitch towards the Isle of Arran was up there with the best of them: Ayers Rock, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon included.
At the club’s Luss site, we met people who had become members simply to experience dawn on the shores of Loch Lomond. When we dropped down into the valley at Glencoe a week later, the cloying mist served only to enhance the dramatic contrast between the sunlit beauty of Culzean and Luss and this most moody of places.
Castles and islands
We’d chosen these three sites for our two-week touring holiday to experience just such contrasts. From our first site at Culzean, we squinted from the windows of the adjacent castle to make out (just) Northern Ireland, 60 miles away. From here, there are fabulous views across to the bird sanctuary at Ailsa Island, then Holy Island, Arran and the Mull of Kintyre. For me, however, it was the romance of the place at sunset that was truly magical.
We’d spent our days at Culzean strolling through some of the 600 acres of woodland, gardens and deserted coastline. A dolphin forms part of the castle’s insignia – though, sadly, we failed to spot any on our coastal walks. However, we did find cormorants and gannets aplenty at Port Carrick, undoubtedly the nicest of several small beaches below the cliffs on which the castle is perched.
At Balloch – the southern gateway to Loch Lomond – we were startled by the sight of what looked like the remnants of a half-demolished steelworks, but turned out to be a huge sculpture. Next came a McDonald’s, then an outlet "village", complete with department store and French market, right on those bonnie banks. Thank goodness, a turn of the roundabout brought us a heartening glimpse of the unspoilt loch.
If I thought Luss was going to be a peaceful spot, I was wrong. Here, I found the noise of the busy A82, which runs parallel to the site, constantly intrusive. Only by sitting at the edge of the loch could I drown out the traffic hum with the lapping of the water.
Later that day provided me with another dramatic change of scenery – the thing I love most about Scotland. It had been slightly unnerving to wind along the A83, towards Inveraray, clinging to almost vertical mountainsides, high above Glen Croe. The head of this lonely pass is named Rest and Be Thankful. In 1748, soldiers toiled long and hard to construct the old road at the bottom of the glen, thereby opening up the Highlands. The exhausted men had erected a stone – long since replaced – marking their achievement and urging future generations to be “thankful” for their efforts.
Standing in the clouds in this wildest of spots, the old military road still clearly visible, I certainly did – though not without a mixture of both sadness and admiration. Dr Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer, poet and biographer, who also “paused for breath” here, called Glen Croe a “black and dreary region”. It is certainly bleak and moody, but therein lies its attraction.
It was our trip up Aonarch Mor in the Nevis range, from Glencoe, that Sophie will always remember. This was the highest she had ever been on a swing – in the clouds, in a small playground at 2,150ft. More memorable still was the biting cold, even in August and despite our wearing several warm layers, plus gloves, hoods and scarves. Aonarch Mor is only 400ft "smaller" than neighbouring Ben Nevis, and our enclosed gondola took us as far as the top station, halfway up.
It was an exciting time for the mountain. Preparations were in full swing for the UCI Mountain Bike and Trials World Championships, in which hundreds of the world’s most daredevil riders hurtle down what looked like a formidable obstacle course. The best do it in a few minutes. It took us a more sedate 15 minutes to descend.
This is what sums up Scotland for me. It can be a giant outdoor playground where you can stretch yourself physically, or a place to relax and appreciate the scenery. Either way, it’s breathtaking.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE AND DO
Inveraray, on Loch Fyne, is a pleasant little town for a day out from Luss. At Inveraray Jail (www.inverarayjail.co.uk) we learnt how "wrongdoers" were dealt with 300 years ago and saw some disturbing instruments of torture. Inveraray Castle (www.inveraray-castle.com) is a showcase of wealth and grandeur, with delicate Beauvais tapestries and beautiful porcelain collections.
The Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary (www.sealsanctuary.co.uk) at Barcaldine, about 20 miles from Glencoe, displays a multitude of fish and sea creatures. We watched rescued seal pups being fed. Views of Loch Creran through the pine woods below are particularly photogenic.
At Balmaha, on the eastern banks of Loch Lomond, the 1.5-mile Milennium Forest Path offers a pretty walk along the shore and up to Craigie Fort for magnificent views.
The Camping and Caravanning Club (www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk) prides itself on having spotlessly clean facilities; there are hot showers, toilets, dishwashing facilities, laundries, basic provisions, children’s play areas (not Glencoe) and dogs are welcome. If you’ve never camped before, visit www.newtocamping.co.uk.