I have to admit I'd never heard of Craobh Haven. Situated in Argyll and Bute, roughly halfway between Oban to the north and Lochgilphead to the south, it was my daughter-in-law Diane who suggested I might join her and her daughter India there for a self-catering weekend in late September. Perhaps my son Nathaniel might come along as well, thus making it a real family holiday. Having hardly been out of Glasgow over the summer as a result of various lockdowns, I was happy to agree, and Nat soon completed the arrangement by agreeing to hire a car to take us there. Little did he know what he was taking on.
On Friday morning, traffic on the road to Oban proved unexpectedly heavy – presumably made up of people like us opting for a stay-local holiday. Having made it to Oban in a good two hours, and after picking up my copy of The Guardian
, enjoying an excellent seafood lunch, and not forgetting to buy the newly-landed langoustines which Diane would cook for our dinner in the evening, we set off south for Craobh Haven.
The main road to Lochgilphead, the A83, despite its 'A' status, seemed surprisingly narrow. And this was a road that had not been driven through the natural landscape – rather it followed its every rise and fall, every twist and turn. Warnings to 'Reduce speed now' seemed as common as lampposts in a city street. The turn-off to Craobh Haven inevitably proved narrower still – little more than a single track with passing places. (It was nice to see how polite most drivers were about acknowledging one's giving way or stopping.) But thanking Nat for his careful driving, finally we made it to our seaside destination.
Craobh Haven in its current form was only created in 1983 by landscape architects who saw its potential as a kind of holiday resort based around a new marina. Without a sandy beach, the location provides splendid views across the Firth of Lorne. Nearby are the small uninhabited islands of Shuna, Luing, and Scorba, and in the distance the Hebridean islands of Jura, Colonsay, Oronsay, and Islay. There are two terraces of holiday houses as well as some small cottages and a few larger homes. Otherwise, there is only a village shop, and a fine bar restaurant called The Lord of the Isles.
Our house proved a delightful surprise. A world away from any kind of holiday cabin, it consisted of two storeys – with an elegant wooden-framed staircase – three bedrooms, a large sitting-room, a well-equipped kitchen, and all mod cons. A special holiday touch was provided in the sitting-room by a log-burning metal stove. And, of course, there were splendid views of the sea, the nearby islands, and on the horizon the outline of larger Hebridean islands.
The weather on Friday had been pleasant: dry and sunny and quite mild. Saturday was something different. The sun shone brilliantly in a deep blue sky with only the occasional wispy pure white cloud. The sea glittered like gold in the sunshine. The air was warm, and the brightness of the day seemed to enhance everything around us. India had already been playing on a rubber tyre swing on a tree at the water's edge. It took only a few minutes to visit the shop and establish that it did not stock newspapers. We walked along the marina's jetties, and admired the many elegant yachts and luxurious launches – smiling at such names as the Campari Chaser and the Acquaholic. Then it was time to set off on our planned trip south as far as Lochgilphead.
Our first stop on the twisty road was at the area around Kilmartin – one of the richest historical sites in the western Highlands. It contains an early medieval church and graveyard which boast a collection of sculptured stones or slabs dating from the 13th up to the early 18th centuries. Over 70 slabs feature carvings of prostrate warrior figures clutching swords or claymores on their breasts. Nowhere else in Scotland is there anything similar on such a scale.
Then, only a few miles away, Kilmartin contains another unique monument of Scotland's past – but this time of its ancient, pre-historic past. In the middle of green fields there are standing stones, stone circles, and carved rocks. Possibly some 4,000 years old, how they come to be there so close together has not been established. The standing stones in particular create a distinctive atmosphere – one which is strange, even menacing. Similar in height though not in number, the standing stones are similar to those at Stonehenge, and scholars have advanced theories about their placing and distancing similar to those that have been made about the English example.
Tayvallich is a picturesque fishing village on the banks of Loch Sween, and it was our next stop – to have lunch at its famous five-star inn. Diane assured me that its fish soup was the finest in the world. Hyperbole perhaps, but lunch at the Tayvallich Inn was another seafood delight. Not long afterwards, I was entering Lochgilphead with very mixed feelings. This small town in Argyllshire had featured in my boyhood. One of my maternal uncles worked for the GPO and sometime in the 1930s he had been appointed its postmaster. A few years later, he was promoted to the same position in the much larger town of Rochdale in Lancashire. By then, the Second World War had begun and it brought tragedy to the Fraser family.
Alastair Fraser, my first cousin, was more than 10 years older than me. I remember perfectly clearly how he and my own brother used to tease and make fun of me. But with the coming of the war, at the age of 18 or 19, Alastair was conscripted into the navy. And not so long afterwards the tank landing craft he was serving on foundered in a storm in the Bay of Biscay. I don't think my aunt and uncle ever really recovered from the loss of their only child. So my being in Lochgilphead for the very first time made all of his flood back into my mind. I even asked in a shop if the town had a post office – and was told that it didn't. I checked the town's war memorial but Alastair's name did not appear. Perhaps it is Rochdale that honours him.
Lochgilphead proved to be a pretty little town on the banks of a sea-loch. Chartered in 1790, the town's importance was greatly enhanced with the completion of the Crinan Canal in 1801. This nine-mile-long canal transformed the economic life of the western Highlands. Disrupted by problems in its early years – which it required the expertise of Thomas Telford to solve – the existence of the canal created a direct, navigable link between Scotland's southwest coast and the river Clyde. Soon in regular use by commercial and passenger sailing craft, its popularity as a tourist route was enhanced by Queen Victoria's mid-century passage on the royal yacht the Victoria and Albert. Later, in the 19th century, it was carrying 40,000 passengers a year, while Clyde puffers also made use of it. It remains popular with leisure craft today. We enjoyed a lengthy walk along its towpath before heading back home.
Sunday proved to be another unbelievably bright and sunny day. It was hard to believe that this was Scotland at the end of September. What had we done to deserve such good fortune? Our day was already fully planned. Diane had arranged for us to be taken on a cruise out into the Firth of Lorne. By mid-morning we were at the marina being welcomed on board the Jenny Wren by its captain Barrie. The Jenny Wren looked as smart as any launch in the marina. There were seats and windows at sea level in the cabin, and space in the stern for sitting outside.
Leaving the marina behind in the gorgeous sunshine, the sea at first was as flat and smooth as a tarmac runway, but as we speeded up all that changed as deep blue water shimmered and glistened in the sunlight. Soon we were just off Shuna observing a salmon farm. Large salmon in their hundreds seemed to spend their lives leaping out of the water and plunging back down. Barrie explained that the farm, like so many others, was Norwegian owned. Next, we were heading round the island of Scorba hoping to see nesting sea eagles. The dark, rocky cliffs gleamed in the sunshine but no eagles were to be seen. Still, it was marvellous just to be there, sailing through the chiselled beauty of sea and sky and barren islands.
Then, in a moment, everything changed. All at once the Jenny Wren was pitching and rolling in lofty, foam-topped waves. It was hold-on-tight in the cabin time. A few minutes later smooth tranquillity was restored and we were back on deck. What had happened? The answer was the area's famous Corryvreckan whirlpool. The time, and the state of the tide, was not right for us to see the whirlpool at its most dangerous. But at least we'd had a glimpse of its power.
On we went towards the northern tip of Jura, but still no sighting of eagles – or for that matter porpoises or minke whales. Did it matter? Not a whit. The sea was suddenly a beautiful emerald green, and as we anchored about 100 yards offshore, we could see two large grey seals stretched out on the island's rocks. Up on the deck, experiencing once again an atmosphere of perfect peace and calm, gazing at the majestic land and seascape beneath that immaculate blue sky – these were unforgettable moments – the high point of our entire trip. It was then that Barrie pointed out that if we looked carefully inland on Jura, we could see the white top of an isolated house. It was Barnwell – the farmhouse George Orwell had rented between 1946 and 1949, and where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four
. How nice it was that, before weighing anchor and heading back to Craobh Haven, we were able to thank and toast our captain in the glasses of white wine he provided.
That night, still aglow from our sea cruise, we had dinner at the Lord of the Isles. I enjoyed my final mussels with white wine and cream. Next morning, after a weekend of such extraordinary weather and extraordinary experience, we could not complain about leaving for Glasgow in a world that had become wet, dank and misty.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow