The landscape of Scotland just oozes history, and few places more so than in the west Highlands area known from ancient times as Dál Riata. It is Old Irish for “portion of Riata,” referring to a share of land ruled by a person named Riata who came from Ireland. The kingdom once encompassed what is now Argyll and Bute, Lochaber and County Antrim in Northern Ireland, but I think it can best be experienced in an area just south of Oban, easily seen on a day trip.
Picnic in tow and wellies donned, we headed first for Kilmartin Glen. At the heart of the charming village of the same name is the Kilmartin Church and graveyard. The church dates to the mid 1800’s, but there has been one on the site for much longer. Scattered throughout the yard, in an outbuilding and in the church itself is a striking collection of early Christian and medieval carved grave markers known as the Kilmartin Stones. Among the most impressive is a set of Celtic crosses that stand in the church, which date to around the 9th century and the late medieval period. Most of the gravestones in the churchyard and outbuilding date to between the 14th and 16th centuries. They are intricately carved figures of knights with spears and swords, foliage, Celtic patterns and fantastical animals in what is called the West Highland style. While we did not go this day, a trip to nearby Kilmartin House Museum of Ancient Culture is very informative and holds an impressive collection of artefacts.
Next we drove down to the Glen itself, home to over 150 megalithic monuments-cairns, standing stones and rock art dating back over 5,000 years. The area rivals Orkney for spectacular prehistoric ruins, and its setting is glorious in any season, nestled beautifully among the emerald hills above the great Moine Mhor or “Great Moss” bog. A sign off A816 directs visitors to the Temple Wood car park, from where we walked through sheep fields and around the stone megaliths- henge circles, burial cairns, cup and ring marked rocks. Local custom says it’s unlucky to touch the stones in the circle. I’m not usually superstitious but you can bet I didn’t. No one wants the stinky eye from Druid’s ghosts!
One can spend all day exploring the site, and we have done so on several occasions. Seasonal rituals are held here even today, such as the Spring Equinox programme that we recently attended, complete with storytelling, music, art and fire dancing among the standing stones. It is a powerful place that exudes magic and conjures the spirits of the primeval ancestors that worshipped and buried their dead here. The ancients also used the standing stones for astronomical purposes- scientists reckon the midwinter sun would have set in line with the southern circle, while the direction of the circle is orientated to the midwinter full moon.
We drove on to nearby Dunadd- the ancient seat of the kings of Dál Riata. From the car park, it’s a steep ascent to the top on foot. This “Fort on the River Add”, occupied since at least the 7th century, is an imposing site, with a commanding view over Moine Mhor and the river. A clearly visible footprint on a stone at the top is said to have played a part in the inauguration of early kings. Of course we each placed our foot in the print-my tiny size four just fit- these were obviously smaller folks back in the day! If you look closely, you’ll see faded carvings on stones around the upper enclosure, including a Pictish style boar and Ogham script. A cold wind was whipping us around so we scrambled back down, leaving a family of fellow sightseers to brave the breeze while they picnicked at the top of the fort.
Looking for someplace out of the wind to have our lunch, we continued to a recreation area further down the bog, where there are picnic tables and a short walking trail. Moine Mhor is a National Nature Reserve and one of Britain’s best peat boglands. Down low among the trees, we were protected from the wind so were able to enjoy a quiet repast, followed by an amble on the 600 meter trail. This paved, wheelchair accessible path winds through the moss covered trees with a boardwalk out over the bog, looking out to Dunadd. When I was a child, we called moss “fairy carpet” and if this were true, Moine Mhor truly would be home to a carpeted fairy civilization!
By the time we got to Crinan, the sun was peeking out, so we stopped and took some photos of the canal and loch. Here boats can pass from the canal out to Loch Crinan then to the Atlantic. In the scenic waterside village there is a well-reviewed seafood restaurant that was bustling with late lunchers. We got back on the road, headed for Tayvallich, a fishing village overlooking Loch Sween that we had heard was scenic and had a good pub. We stopped at Barnluasgan Oakwood, an ancient forest and a Scottish beaver reintroduction area. A small wood cabin at the trailhead car park houses an informational display about the habitat and the beavers. We checked that out, but as it was starting to drizzle, decided to pass on the hiking trail and save it for another day.
We arrived at a junction- one way pointed to Tayvallich, but a weathered sign for Castle Sween and Kilmory Knap Chapel directed us the other way, so we followed the single track road for a couple of miles along the loch. Castle tourists are directed to park off the track to walk to the site, which is actually located within a holiday caravan park, so no visitor’s vehicles are allowed. We walked about a third of a mile, through a patchwork of caravans overlooking the loch, which blight the otherwise beautiful landscape around the castle- talk about incongruous. But the 12th century castle itself is stunning- one of the oldest still left standing, but still one of the best preserved I’ve visited in Scotland. The kitchen is intact, complete with a bread oven, a spigot for running water and wheat grinding stones. One can almost smell the food cooking and hear the hectic bustling of busy servants. The view from the battlements over the sea-loch is spectacular, and it’s not difficult to imagine MacSween galleys sailing right up to the castle walls.
We returned to our car and continued down the track a mile or two-now we were really out in the boonies- a few crofts and sheep in the middle of the road. Kilmory Knap Chapel stands out proudly overlooking the loch, impossible to miss. There is just enough space to park off the track, then we proceeded on foot down a short hill to the enclosed churchyard. The 13th century structure lost its roof long ago and was then used as a burial enclosure. More recently a clear roof was installed to protect a large collection of Early Christian slabs and crosses dating back to the 14th century. Interpretive signs describe each monument. The site is associated with the Knights Templar, possibly as a haven for those fleeing persecution in France. Life sized knights in full regalia almost come alive on the raised reliefs. A huge cross with an elaborate medieval carving depicting the chief of Clan Macmillan with hunting dogs is so well preserved, it truly takes you back in time.
We retraced our path to the junction, back on track but delighted at the treasures we saw on our surprise detour. This road goes on for about five miles on a single track, but it is really out in the sticks- forest and river with not much human landscape except for the paved road and a farm. We got behind two girls walking some horses down the road- traffic jam Tayvallich style.
Finally the village came into sight, a few colourful dwellings turned pastel by the elements. The Tayvallich Inn overlooks the loch and small marina, and we pulled up just in time for cocktail and supper time. The cosy pub was already filling up with locals and a few tourists. The menu board offered a large selection of seafood and pub favourites, a fire crackled in the woodstove and an attentive, friendly barkeep welcomed us. After a long day of driving and walking, a refreshing beverage and a hot meal in this lovely pub in the middle of nowhere was just the ticket.
We went for surf and turf- a cheeseburger and a big bowl of seafood chowder. Since I’ve been in Scotland, I’ve been looking for a really good pub burger. All of the burgers here are made with some kind of bread or egg filler, so they don’t have what I consider the right texture or meaty taste. After all, I was partly raised in Texas, so I am allowed to be picky about this. And, of all places, I found my “Best Burger in Scotland” at what has to be one of the most out of the way spots in a country full of far-flung places! Made with 100 percent Highland beef, (mixed with diced onion, garlic puree, salt and pepper according to our host) it was covered in Mull cheddar and all the right condiments, including fried onion rings, on a hearty square roll. Not to be outdone, the chowder, made with seafood freshly unloaded at the inn’s doorstep from the Sound of Jura, was a bowl of creamy goodness. We enjoyed our meal and the lively craic of the pub crowd as the sun set behind the clouds over the loch.
On the way home, we pulled off A816 to explore a group of cairns and a standing stone right along the road- a site just a few miles south of Kilmore that we always passed and wondered about. There is no interpretation here, just the remains of a structure, several cairns of various sizes, a stone circle and a four metre high stone standing sentinel over Loch Craignish with views over to Jura.
We covered only about 50 miles that day, not including the drive back, but what a collection of history to be experienced in that small area! We noted several trails that we plan to come back and hike when the weather is better. Out of the endless array of day trips from Oban, this was one our favourites so far- a history buff’s fantasy daycation with lovely natural scenery to boot. As I am both a history buff and a nature lover- and heck, I finally found a good hamburger, I give our Daycation in Dál Riata five wellies!