Towards the end of Loch Lomond you’re faced with a choice – turn right and follow the convoy of coaches and Munro-fixated hikers to the Highlands, or swing a left and explore the jigsaw of sea lochs and jagged islands that makes up the unsung Argyll coast. Those in the know turn left.
The Seafood Trail is a make-your-own-itinerary road trip around the coastline of Argyll and Kintyre, which takes you from roadside crab shack to four-star seafood restaurant – each with its individual quirks, but all connected by a focus on absurdly fresh shellfish, a desire to sustain Scotland’s seafood industry and views over the water from which they source their catch.
For the September issue of Countryfile Magazine, we sent features editor Jo Tinsley along to test out the trail in a vintage campervan called Heidi. Here are just a few of her highlights…
Loch Fyne farm shop
Clachan, Cairndow PA26 8BL
“Oysters are fussy eaters, which is why you can eat them raw,” Virginia Sumsion, the niece of Loch Fyne’s founder Johnny Noble told us. “They pump huge amounts of water through their shells – but uniquely, in Loch Fyne, we’re 50 miles from the sea so the oysters taste sweet not salty.”
The mussels were served with chorizo, which had been smoked over old whisky barrels and tasted suitably peaty. “Our smoking is a slow process,” Virginia told us. “to fully fillet, cure and smoke a salmon takes 7-10 days; we don’t hurry it along.”
Once a shack selling oysters by the roadside, Loch Fyne has gone on to launch 46 restaurants across the country, and has a smokery and farm shop on site.
Strathlachlan, Strachur PA27 8BU
At Inver Cottage we cooked up bacon, bradan rost (slow roasted smoked salmon, snapped up from the Loch Fyne farm shop the day before) and scrambled eggs opposite Old Castle Lachlan, seat of the Machlachan clan for over a thousand years. You couldn’t imagine a more idyllic setting. To work up an appetite for lunch, we then walked along the coast to explore the castle ruins and poke about in the rockpools, where great clusters of mussels clung to the rocks, before doubling back to Inver Cottage, a restored croft on the shores of Lachlan Bay.
Inver Cottage is a real highlight of the Seafood Trail. A restored croft on the shores of Loch Fyne, it’s run by Jasmine and Joe McAlinden (a musician who regularly appeared on Jools Holland and who recently hosted a free concert with KT Tunstall in the cottage). We got chatting to Jasmine, who explained how the langoustines are creeled in the bay and a gamekeeper called Winston Churchill stalks the venison on a local estate. Two local teaches, Shona and Mary, hand-dive for the scallops, which are irresistibly tender and the size of plums.
The Seafood Cabin
Tarbert PA29 6XU
Open all summer, the shack excels in simple seafood, served up to views over the Isle of Arran. The crabs are so fresh, as Seafood Trail found Carole Fitzgerald said, “it’s as if they’ve side-stepped straight out of the sea and into your roll.”
The Mull of Kintyre
Beyond Southend, we let Heidi stretch her legs along a 7-mile single-track road that seems far longer and windier than anything we’ve done before – a series of hair pins bends and gradients that lead to the most south westerly tip of Kintyre.
Just when you think things couldn’t get any hairier the road ends at a sign saying: “Congratulations on safely negotiating one of Scotland’s most exciting roads,” and you’re instructed to walk the last mile. At the mull stands a lighthouse on a 300ft cliff, safeguarding ships from the notoriously strong currents of the Straits of Moyle. The long low shape of Rathlin Island and, over the top, the glens of Antrim in Ireland loom out of the mist 12 miles away. Apparently on a clear day you can see individual houses and cars traveling on the coastal roads. It’s one of only two points in the UK where you can see Ireland and England simultaneously, the other being Mount Snaefell in the Isle of Man.
Cairnbaan, by Lochgilphead PA31 8SJ
The Cairnbaan Hotel was built in 1801 to serve punters from the Crinan Canal. At one time considered the roughest pub in Argyll, it was said that no crime or misdemeanour was considered serious enough to be barred from the Cairnbaan. Now it has the feel of a large family restaurant, where good value seafood is served up in generous portions
Expect great big bowls of crab claws, piles of langoustines, served hot with garlic butter or cold with mayo, and giant Loch Etive mussels, washed down with a wee dram of malt whiskey from nearby Jura, while indulging in a little people watching as tall yachts pass by. Owner Darren Dobson explained how they’ve built up close friendships with the local fishermen who, if they wanted to, could sell their catch for export before they’ve even caught it.
We rounded off our trip by taking Heidi for a spin beside the Crinan Canal, a nine-mile channel built to provide a navigable route between the Inner Hebrides and the Clyde and save puffers (flat-bottomed cargo boats) from making the perilous journey around the Mull of Kintyre. Today, it’s heralded as the prettiest short cut in Scotland. And as this photo shows, it’s easy to see why…
For this and 19 other delicious days out, read the September issue of Countryfile Magazine, on sale until 21 September.