So, September 2017 saw us back up in Scotland. This time, Paul and I stayed with our friends Lee and Artur in Glasgow, and – as well as exploring the culinary delights of the city (more on which below) – we used their pad as a base for day trips into the countryside. Due to a leaking roof, Lee had moved out of his place temporarily, so we had the gorgeous Georgian flat to ourselves; located just a stone’s throw from Argyle Street in Finnieston (and available now to rent on Air BnB). There are so many superlative restaurants on Argyle Street that I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll do my best (!), weaving them into my story in the order in which they were visited. First, lunch on our day of arrival at Crabshakk: queenie scallops in lobster butter; octopus with merquez; samphire; crab claws and fries…washed down with a large glass of Viognier. That’s how you start a holiday!
The next day began grey and drizzly, but it was the only full day that Lee (an air traffic controller, on morning shifts for the rest of our stay) had free to get out for a drive with us. So we wrapped up warm and headed up to Luss on the banks Loch Lomond. First stop: tea and scones at the Loch Lomond Arms. Lee cannot pass up an opportunity for a cream tea. And you certainly won’t hear me complaining – I’m always on the lookout for the perfect (non-fruit!) scone. Note: raisins, and dried fruit in general, are the work of the devil. After a look around the village, a peak in the smokehouse, and a stroll by the pier, we hit the road again and made our way up to Loch Fyne.
By this point, the sun was starting to peak through the clouds and I was feeling more hopeful. When we arrived at Strathlachlan, it was nice enough weather to enjoy a stroll on the water’s edge, along the boardwalk to the remains of Lachlan Castle. I immediately decided Loch Fyne was one of my favourite lakes* – long and thin, with a seemingly never-ending series of arresting vistas. It also feels wilder and much more rugged in these parts, allowing us to feel pleasingly “outdoorsy” (if only fleetingly).
After our stroll, we settled in for lunch at The Inver – which I couldn’t recommend enough. It’s one of those restaurants that, for me, is simply perfect: small and homely, with friendly, well-informed waiters, but also slick and beautifully designed. The ‘library’ waiting area is stocked with the who’s-who of the culinary world; the whitewashed walls, rustic furniture and antler decorations are achingly on trend (as are the number of beards and tatts on show); the wine list is interesting; and the timing of courses is well-paced. Shame about the food! …kidding, of course. 😉 After stuffing ourselves on langoustines, guinea fowl and damson bakewell, it was difficult to push on with the sightseeing.
Glad we did though, otherwise we’d have missed out on exploring more of the beautiful Argyll countryside, Inveraray harbour, and the Castle home of Clan Campbell.
*I would have also failed to discover that Loch Fyne is in fact not technically my favourite lake, since it’s a sea loch off the Firth of Clyde and forms part of the coast of the Cowal peninsula. Don’t say I don’t try to educate you.
The next morning saw a return of the rain, so we hid ourselves away temporarily in Cafe Zique with some puddledub bacon and stornoway black pudding while it passed, then caught a train to Stirling. I’ve discovered that many Scottish towns hold claim to being the “Gateway to the Highlands”, but petite Stirling – with its central position on the River Forth and its imposing castle providing, quite literally, substantial iron gates with strategic views across the lands – seems to deserve the title more than most.
The castle was a royal residence for a number of years, with Mary Queen of Scots crowned there in 1542, and various other monarchs having started or ended their lives in its grounds. The castle was attacked several times during the War of Scottish Independence, when Bonnie Prince Charlie unsuccessfully tried to take the castle. After joining a tour and stopping for a quick lunch in the medieval part of town, we headed back to Glasgow to admire the street art and look around the Winter Gardens.
Dinner that evening was at Porter & Rye, a dark and moody “New York inspired” restaurant in Finnieston. My bavette steak with anchovy butter and bone marrow mac & cheese was almost too much to finish…but I managed to find room to share a baked alaska with white chocolate fudge and crème anglaise. I’m now suddenly realising why I put on so much weight last year! Go figure.
On our penultimate day, we borrowed Lee’s car and took ourselves to Balloch Country Park on the southern tip of Loch Lomand, before driving along the arresting Duke’s Pass to Loch Achray and Loch Katrina. Here, we boarded Steamboat Walter Scott for a gentle tour of the lake. Apart from one other couple, we were by far the youngest on the trip; every senior citizen tour bus in the country seemingly having this on their itinerary. Still, we enjoyed tucking into our potted meat sandwiches with our new friends.
Having warmed up back on dry land, we drove to The Hill House in Helensburgh, one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald’s most famous works. The entrance fee is a little steep, imho, but you won’t find a better example of the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement and – if you’re a fan – it’s definitely worth a visit. More scones next, down at Cameron House, a very swish spa hotel on the banks of Loch Lomand…which we were very sad to hear was ravaged by fire in December. Hope they get back on their feet and return to serving delicious cakes soon.
Lee and Artur joined us for a “light” dinner of fennel sausage pizza at Paesano on Great Western Road, before an open mic night at Nice ‘n’ Sleazy on Sauchiehall Street. The sticky-floored venue took me back to my student days…so much so that I immediately ordered a malibu and coke and started whooping loudly at the end of each act. Paul and I continued on afterwards, propping up the bar at the wonderful (but now very sadly departed) Distill, where we sampled too many rums and woke with a headache the next day.
Luckily, Finnieston has some fantastic places to help shake off a hangover. Places like tiny Steamie, where you can fortify yourself with an almond croissant and hot chocolate prior to an hour’s drive to Wemyss Bay. Our final day in Scotland was bright and sunny: absolutely perfect for a ferry ride across the Firth of Clyde to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.
Bute is small but perfectly-formed – just the right size for a day trip. And, on a sunny day, Scottish beaches rival anything the Caribbean has to offer. If only those sunny days weren’t so few and far between! We drove over to Scalpsie Bay, a tranquil stretch of coast set against the backdrop of the Isle of Arran, and Paul was immediately smitten, looking up house prices on Rightmove and mentally packing up his vinyl. I spent a while just walking up and down the beach, trying to spot seals (tick) and jellyfish (double-tick), before we continued on a scenic drive of the island.
After stop-offs in Straad and Kilchattan Bay, we entered the Mount Stuart estate. Again, I cannot recommend this enough. The grounds are absolutely vast and you could spend hours just wandering around them – swathes of conifer woodland; 300 acres of gardens, divided into distinct landscaped areas; and its own coastal walks and picnic spots. Gorgeous! And that’s before you even get to the stunning neo-gothic mansion. The 19th century home – a flamboyant architectural dream of the 3rd Marquess of Bute and architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson – was one of the most technologically advanced of its age. It’s believed to be the first home in the world to have had an indoor heated swimming pool, and the first in Scotland to have had central heating, electric lights and a telephone system. The magnificent 80 foot high marble entrance hall, with its zodiac-studded ceiling and stained glass mezzanine, is worth the visit alone.
We were probably too ambitious – I’d give yourself a good half-day at Mount Stuart in order to do it justice. We were in such a rush, in fact, that we didn’t have time for the fish & chips we’d promised ourselves before catching the ferry back to the mainland.
So, that was the end of our trip. Just a final farewell cocktail back at The Finnieston…and then it was time to catch a train…onward to Penrith for the second leg of our holiday. But that’s another story.