April 8, 2012 by Jools Stone
OK I’ll admit it. I haven’t seen as much of Scotland as I could have in the decade that I’ve been living here. It was high time for a highland fling, and a big birthday recently lent us the perfect pretext for doing just that.
My last post on the West Highland Railway left us at Fort William station, not a place that graces many bucket lists and so let’s not shilly shally there a moment longer, and move on instead to Strontian’s Kilcamb Lodge Hotel on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Argyllshire.
Despite being pretty remote, even by Highland standards, getting to Strontian by public transport is perfectly doable, providing you time it right. The Sheil Bus company run two daily services (Mon-Sat only) from the Fort William Bus Stance, which is directly opposite the train station, outside Morrison’s. The 1.25pm bus will drop you right at the top of the hotel’s drive.
The Bus Journey
The bus is an experience in itself. As the driver helps the old ladies put their shopping in the boot, it soon becomes apparent that everyone on the bus knows everyone else. So that’s one cliché neatly ticked off. I also discover that the Plus Bus tickets I bought with my train ticket online are useless on this private service.
The bus bobs its way along the shore of Loch Linnhe until it reaches the Corran Ferry – at under 2 minutes, it’s possibly the shortest ferry crossing I’ve ever experienced. The ferryman performs a little bow as we bump our way off the ramp.
Kilcamb Lodge Hotel
Our destination for this weekend hop is the Kilcamb Lodge Hotel, a homely country house hotel blissfully isolated on the banks of Loch Sunart, with a first-rate fine dining restaurant, and a local otter and seal population which can sometimes outnumber people.
It’s the sort of place where the owners are more concerned with keeping the cosy fires lit and the bar well stocked with single malts than with keeping up with the latest fashions in hotel room decor. It feels more like visiting your eccentric aunt and uncle in the country than staying at a hotel.
We were the only guests staying on the night we arrived, which was a pleasant surprise.
Venturing out to Strontian
Strontian doesn’t offer much in the way of diversions, but then that’s the whole point of coming here. In the village there’s a Police Station, a Tourist Info office and possibly the most optimistically named ‘Shopping Centre’ in the northern hemisphere. Basically it’s a corner shop, a pottery shop and a bistro, open for lunch only.
Seeing as we’re dining at Kilcamb on our second night, we venture out to try one of the 3 viable alternatives, the Strontian Hotel. We’d heard from the taxi driver earlier that afternoon that it was ‘a little bit rough.’ Tracing a flicker of concern on our faces at hearing this news he qualified the statement a little, ‘Well, you know, just typical village life I suppose. It’s nothing fancy. Everyone in the village goes there.’
Once at the Strontian, we eventually find our way in to the bar – through the restaurant, then through a door marked ‘Gents’ hidden in the corner – to find that ‘everyone in the village’ means five old-timers, two other dining couples and one young barmaid. Walking into the dark wood-panelled interior with wood-burning stove felt like stumbling into a hillbilly cabin somewhere in the Appalachians, but the locals were friendly enough and the home-cooked food was tasty – particularly the venison braesola.
It’s only 9.30pm when we leave but once we’re away from the lights of the pub, we’re pitched into total darkness along a pavementless country lane. If it wasn’t for Mrs Jools’ Mini-Maglite, we may not have made the 10-minute journey back to Kilcamb unscathed. But we do, and we’re greeted by the dramatic sight of the huge lime tree outside the lodge illuminated with ghostly white spotlights, making it look almost like a stage set.
There are several walks you can access without a car near Kilcalmb and many more with, including one which takes you to an animal hide, where you can stake out otters, seals, red squirrels and ospreys. There’s an easy one from the village, Fermie’s Walk, which goes in a 40 minute loop.
We opt instead for the Aruindle Nature Reserve walk. This medium difficulty walk can be turned into something more challenging, with the option of scrambling down boggy terrain and past an abandoned mine where lead and strontium (which gave the village its name) were once extracted.
Our walking notes advise ‘non-navigators’ against tackling it. There’s also talk of ‘fording a river’, which Mrs Jools insists on repeating as ‘fjording a river.’ Given these linguistic obstacles, we agree it’s beyond our capabilities and opt instead for the easier version.
This circular walk takes around 2 hours in total. It’s extremely well marked by a series of gate posts painted with bright green oak leaves. Following it takes you through oak woods, where water seems to ooze out of every rock and mossy tree trunks resemble crocodiles and other beasts, frozen in stasis.
The walk takes us through Pine Marten country too, or so the boards tell us. We fail to spot any but encounter plenty of their tar-like output along the boardwalk which weaves its way through densely packed birch trees. We pass a series of hillocks which we learn are actually abandoned huts of crofers. The crofters finally gave up on the unyielding soil in the 19th century when it gave up on them.
Afterwards, you can reward yourself with a stop at the Ariundle Centre, a family friendly place which serves a modest selection of home cooked food and has a pleasant outdoor terrace. Wood turning and other local crafts are sometimes practiced here too.
Having negotiated a 12pm check out, we while away our final hours in the drawing room, watching the sun play peekabo with the clouds over the slumbering waters of the Loch, while reading books from the well-stocked shelves, including one about the history of the Orient Express.
Eventually our taxi rolls up to return us to the rigours of the real world and an ill-advised afternoon in Fort William. Our brief and tranquil re-aquaintance with nature has recharged our cells enough to deal with that, just about!
Kilcamb’s Spring reak offer includes 2 nights, bed, breakfast and dinner, plus afternoon tea and a £20 wine voucher, for £460.
This post comes courtesy of Best Loved Hotels. We’re extremely grateful to them for kindly accommodating us at such short notice.