Isle of Kerrera with the Isle of Mull in the distance.
This year for a little change at Hogmanay some friends and I decided to leave the city clubs and indeed the T.V and Jackie Bird behind to head north. Our destination was Ardentrive Farm on the Isle of Kerrera in the Inner Hebrides just off the mainland from Oban. It’s a family farm and guest house which is partly run by two former Southsiders. A fabulous guesthouse which is very easy to get to once in Oban. A brief boat ride from the North pier to the marina on the island and a short walk to the farm.
The whole trip was a bit of a gamble as the weather was pretty bad on the 29th and 30th with storm Frank hitting the whole of the country, there was every chance we may not have been able to get the boat out. Just to be sure I called the marina boatman ahead of the journey. It’s not incredibly far to Oban but two and a half hours each way would have been a colossal waste of time and energy if this rather brief part of the journey was not achievable.
These small ferries to the island do tend to be reliable however and run every hour on the hour at peak times in the year.
Their timetable and contact information etc. can be found here;
There is also an alternative ferry to the other side of the island, which in our case would have resulted in a massive trek in the dark. However the boatman there, Duncan also offers rib hires which I would highly recommend.
Also embarking upon this boat ride where a couple from Aberdeen who were the only two of a planned group of six. They had hired the boathouse as an alternative Hogmanay get away, but the rest of their party got stranded or cut from travelling by the floods storm Frank had left behind.
Our party had travelled in two cars, when the first arrived and started to unload our massive piles of firewood the boat driver Tojo laughed and said ‘You won’t need ALL that! I’ve just been in earlier and put the heating on, the place is like a sweat box!’
When our car pulled up and started to unload yet more wood my friend said ‘You know the boat driver laughed and all this fuel he says its roastin’ up there!’ My response was ‘He thinks we are going somewhere else, we have a cottage that very definitely only has a log burner’. Tojo had gone to do his shopping so we had half an hour to get acquainted with the two from Aberdeen, I did say if they wanted more of a party to nip down to the farm or grab a phone number after disembarking and someone would come get them. When Tojo arrived back he seen myself and one of the island residents and said ‘Oh you’re going to the FARM! Aye you’ll probably need that then, I thought you were going to the boathouse.’ After that the guys from Aberdeen never took a number.
I suppose they probably paid a lot for the boathouse for two days and the thought of a freezing cottage probably wasn’t very appealing. But the fire wood seen us right. It fed and old log burner which also heated the radiator system and the place was well cosy. There was no telly and it was strictly forbidden to seek the WIFI code from the main farmhouse, keeping us all away from bloody screens and round the fire in conversation.
Our cosy cottage with a roaring fire and one one of our fabulous hosts Isla (top left).
Drinking had commenced at exactly 4.45pm so at 9pm I decided a nap was in order. There was no way I was making a night of it with a straight run. So after many shouts and accusations that ‘I would never get back up’ etc. etc. I rose at exactly 10.10pm and was ready to start again. We were served a portion of chilli made from the farm’s prize winning Highland cattle the size of a mountain with some Avocado salad then it was time to sort out more wood. Before anyone got too wrecked that is. One of the farm residents Lewis promised ‘After this last rum’ we’d go up a power saw the pallets of 2 by 4 we transferred earlier in the day.
The highland coo’s and our wood cutting fun!
By the time that was done it was time to celebrate Belgian New Year at 11pm, as one of our party was Belgian and another two, Scots living in Belgium. Then it was wellie’s on time as everyone in all the lodgings trekked up the hill to the East of the farm to an old WWII concrete gun turret (now used as a bothy) to hear all the boats sound their horns and see Oban fireworks display on the mainland to the East. We also got a nice view of the display on the Isle of Mull off to the North West. My friend from the Southside even made the trip up the slopes in the snow and wind with her 4 month old son, which I thought was pretty hard-core. Them Islanders eh? Built for the rough stuff!
At the gun turret turned Bothy at the top of the hill.
After that the oven went on for steak pie and some fish I had cleaned earlier in the night. It was the first time I’ve actually gutted a fish and it was far easier than I expected. I suppose in the summer we should actually do some Mackerel fishing for a BBQ. After that it’s all the ‘what happens at the cottage stays on the cottage’ patter.
Our stay was brief and we left at 3pm the next day, with a rib trip to the mainland and back to the lowlands for family steak pie. I’d highly recommend a stay at Ardentrive Farm any time of the year and here are links to their sites. They also do meat packages which are driven into Glasgow, so if you like their facebook page you can be kept informed of when they do city runs. Some more things to spark your interest are below the links.
…..I hope you all had a smashing Hogmanay celebration too!!!!!
Rib ride back on ‘The Beast’.
Some of the resident animals on the walk back to the boat.
A final fairwell to our hosts and former Soothsider’s Rowan, Robert and baby Ferris.
Ardentrive Farm from the sea, with a friends recently restored R.N.L.I life boat.
They produce highland cattle, eggs and oysters for market and have various species of sheep and poultry of interest. The farm is situated next to Oban marina and has a rather good sea food bar and grill.
Oban marina; one of the moorings at sunset. A summer Robin at the tea garden, a WWII shipwreck in the marina harbour.
The global sail cruiser the Club Med 2. A recently refurbed Yacht said to be worth 21 million alone!
The Island itself is only about 5 miles by 2 miles, but for such a small place there are lots to see and do. Wildlife is in abundance on sea and land. Sea Eagles, Seals and Porpoise are regularly spotted along with migrating species such as Minke whales, Atlantic Horse Makrel and Arctic Char. I’m also a massive boat lover, you will find plenty of interesting vessels to photograph. Depending on how long you have and your blag rating, you may find yourself aboard them, And if wild life and boats aren’t enough here is some note of historical and geological significance on this tiny isle;
Depending on what side of the isle you land on, this can be a 1 hour or 3 hour trek but well worth it;
Gylen Castle has been the scene of intrigue, siege and bloody massacre during its lifetime, Gylen is a MacDougall stronghold, built by Duncan MacDougall of Dunollie, 16th Chief of the Clan and completed in 1582. It was known as Duncan’s Fort although now takes its name from the Gylen surrounding lands.
Owned by successive clan chiefs over the centuries, it is now owned by the MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation Trust. Its stunning position perched high on the promontory of sheer cliffs commanding stunning views of the surrounding seas shows it was built with defence in mind – there are many pistol and gun loops evident in the building with good visibility all round. It may have been a Hunting Tower of the MacDougall Clan. Certainly it is an architectural gem being a rare example of a tower built in the Scots Baronial style complete with an Oriel window unique in the surviving architecture of the West Highlands. Jutting out from the Castle this window had a removable ‘floor’ where objects or vats of boiling water could be dropped on would be attackers. Sadly the ornate decoration of the northern face has deteriorated over the years.
But the peace and quiet of Gylen Castle today belies its short but turbulent history. Its occupation lasted only 65 years. In 1647 a Royalist garrison living in the castle came under attack from a small army of General Leslie’s Covenanting Troops who laid siege to the castle for the MacDougalls’ support of the King. Gylen seemed impregnable with all its defensive features.
It is not known how long the siege continued – but a lack of water is said to have been Gylen’s downfall. Ironic for the west coast of Scotland! Although the castle appears to have had a natural spring within the fort itself, it must have been inadequate to supply those under siege. The Covenanters threatened all in the Castle with hanging if they didn’t surrender. No doubt mindful of the massacre of many of their kinsmen in various battles throughout Scotland at that time, the garrison of MacDougalls finally gave up and their castle was set ablaze. Tragically this did not save them after they fled their burning home – all were slaughtered although tradition has it that young John MacDougall the 19th chief of the clan was spared. Gylen has remained empty and roofless ever since the great fire.
In later years, remains of foodstuffs and gaming dice have been recovered from the castle during archaeological investigations.
Turner and Gylen
Ruined Castle on Rock circa 1831 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D26886
So taken with Gylen and its setting was the artist JWM Turner that when he visited Kerrera in 1831 he filled no less than 25 pages of the Staffa sketchbook with sketches of the castle ranging from distant views to close, detailed studies. The romantic ruined castle and its precipitous position clearly excited him and it is said Gylen was the main reason for Turner visiting Kerrera on his tour of the west coast.
The castle has undergone consolidation with help from Historic Scotland, The Heritage lottery Fund, the Clan MacDougall Society of America and the MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation Trust. Some repair work on Gylen was carried out in 1913 during the time of Alexander James MacDougall, the 29th Chief. Latterly Miss Hope MacDougall and her sister Mrs Jean Hadfield were responsible for extensive research into the Castle. Their involvement paved the way for the present consolidation work carried out by the present Clan Chief, Mrs Morag MacDougall of MacDougall.
Geology, Volcanoes and Glaciers
Every year when we arrive a selection of University Geology students are at the farm to map and study the island and its geological delights for a number of reasons; Lava escarpments and exposed Dykes are a major feature of the northern end of kerrera.
Gylen sits atop a knoll of conglomerate on a raised beach. After volcanoes erupted throughout Lorn, Ice Age glaciers carved out the area we see today. When the ice melted the land ‘rose’ to leave the area under the castle a ‘raised beach’. You can walk on what would have been the seabed over 10,000 years ago. There is also a site on the northern end said to have the earliest examples of life moving onto land.
A rock archway carved out by the sea and the sea cave to the east at the bottom of the castle, maybe used as a dungeon or store when the castle was occupied. Nearby grass-covered pinnacles are sea stacks and wave swept reefs – tradition has it these were used as pulpits in times of religious unrest. To the west near the shoreline there’s a prominent Ledge Stone From where a MacDougall is reputed to have killed seven of his attackers single-handedly.
More in depth look at the geology of Kerrera
Horseshoe Bay and the King’s Field
Old fishing vessel wrecked on the shore of Horse Shoe Bay.
Horseshoe Bay is the first bay you come to – a safe and popular anchorage for recreational craft today but also well known as a safe haven in centuries past. Here in 1249 King Alexander lI of Scotland mustered his mighty fleet to start the invasion to reclaim the Hebrides including Kerrera which were then under the rule of Norway. He had vowed to bring the islands back into his growing Scottish kingdom. But the invasion never took place.
Legend has it that Alexander had a dream in which three men came to him enquiring as to whether he meant to invade the Hebrides. When he declared he was, the vision told him to go back and that nothing would be to his advantage if he continued with his mission. The Hebrideans say the men whom the King saw in his sleep were St Olave, King of Norway, St Magnus, Earl of Orkney and St Columba.
But Alexander ignored the warning and insisted on landing on Kerrera the following day. He was immediately taken ill – whether because of something he ate or disease is not recorded – and died at Dail Righ, ‘The King’s Field’ that surrounds Horseshoe Bay.
With his death the expedition was abandoned and Alexander’s body was taken to Melrose Abbey. Being on a Norse Island, he was ironically taken ‘home to Scotland’.
Kerrera remained under Norway’s rule for sometime and later in 1263 Horseshoe Bay was to house a Norse fleet of one hundred and twenty longship galleys under the command of Norwegian King Haakon 1 that sailed from here to the Battle of Largs. After their defeat at this skirmish, the survivors returned here to assemble in the Sound of Kerrera before sailing north.
Another famous visitor to the Bay was Flora MacDonald. In the aftermath of Culloden she was brought here as a Jacobite prisoner for the part she played in helping the escape of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, to await imprisonment in Dunstaffnage Castle nearby.
The tranquil waters of Horseshoe Bay are also said to hide the wreck of the Diamond, a tobacco ship that plied its trade between Oban and the Caribbean.
Little Horseshoe Bay and the Lobster Industry
The whitewashed cottages at Little Horseshoe Bay were initially built for quarry workers who were trying to re-work the slate quarries along the south shore of the island. This venture failed and lobster fishermen and traders subsequently occupied the cottages. Horseshoe Bay was to become the centre of the west coast lobster industry for around fifty years even supplying the Cunard transatlantic liners!
Shellfish would be packed in ice and taken to the early morning train to be delivered to Southampton on the morning that the Queens sailed to America. As you can imagine there was a great deal of communication between Southampton and Kerrera which, in the absence of a telephone link, had to be conducted by telegram. Eight telegram boys were employed in Oban Post Office and it wasn’t unusual for all of them to be employed carrying orders, counter orders and amendments to Horseshoe lobster business. Finally when the telegrams for the rest of Oban started to pile up in the office the head postmaster decided it would be cheaper to install a telephone link to the island rather than employ more boys. So Kerrera became the first island to be linked into the telephone network!
Iron Age Hillock
People have lived on Kerrera since the Bronze and Iron Age. As you walk up the little hill from Little Horseshoe Bay notice an isolated rocky hillock to the south which was settled in Iron Age Times c.600 B.C. – 400 A.D. A small community would have lived here and the remains of tumbled stone walls around the exterior on the top show it to have been well defended.
Lower Gylen and the Tea Garden
Quirky sign posts will keep you on the right path!
Descending you will pass though a gate and continue winding down with another whitewashed cottage in view that is lower Gylen. This is the Kerrera Tea Garden and bunkhouse offering refreshments and good food. Just before the Tea Garden there is a grassy track through the gate off to the left. A slate signpost keeps the visitor clear. This takes you to Gylen Castle on the headland. As well as looking at the Castle be sure to take a wander down below and see the Sea Cave, Arch and reefs on the raised beach. I’d recommend the Tea and bunkhouse, lovely staff and yummy cakes (and I’m told a gid party as well)!
Right is it sold yet? Naw, well we did take a rather splendid ride round the Isle after covering it on foot. Usually I would try and blag a run on a friend of a friend’s yacht, but it wasn’t happening this year. By the sea, I must be on or near boats for a least a small time so we contacted Duncan who runs the main passenger ferry to Kerrera. He also does Rib based tours and charters , so if a destination isn’t on the website; ask, he’ll do his best to sort you out! From what I can gather his craft is a Ribquest 7.3 Adventurer, which will top speed at about 45 knotts (that’s 57.7 MPH to us land lovers). It’s a similar type vessel used by Sea Shepherd and various Special Forces with a classier finish to the seats and dash. A couple of my fellow boat riders thought the price was kinda steep (I thought it was reasonable) but when you check the price of one of these bad boys new you can see why. Here’s his website, I would thoroughly recommend it; http://www.obanribtrips.co.uk/
A ride on a boat!, Gylen from the sea, Duncan in his pretty awesome rib.
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