IT is blessed with some of the most varied and beautiful scenery you’ll see anywhere in the Highlands – loch, mountain, forest, sea and castle – a fascinating history, an embarrassment of wildlife and fantastic hospitality. And yet Ardnamurchan remains relatively undiscovered.
Remoteness plays a part in this, of course. Only a single-track long and winding road runs through this wild peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic and contains the most westerly point on the UK mainland. Getting about takes effort. But, my goodness it is worth it.
Stretching back hundreds of millions of years, Ardnamurchan’s geology and archaeology is of international importance. The north west corner of the peninsula contains a complex of volcanic ring structures and craters that can still be discerned today. It’s also a fantastic place to hunt for fossils.
People are thought to have been living in Ardnamurchan for around 4000 years, and St Columba is believed to have visited in the sixth century, when it was settled by Gaels. The Vikings arrived and stayed for more than 500 years (in 2011, a burial ship was unearthed).
Around 1400 the peninsula came under the rule of the Lord of the Isles, which led to violent clashes over land and ownership for the next two hundred years.
Following the Jacobite rebellion, Ardnamurchan, like many other areas of the Highlands, suffered through clearance. In the early 19th century it supported more than 3000 people.
Today, a close-knit community of just over 300 hundred live there, mainly in and around Kilchoan, Acharacle, Strontian and Salen. It has one of the highest concentrations of Gaelic speakers on mainland Scotland.
What to do
For this part of the guide I’ve made the assumption that you’ll be arriving in Ardnamurchan by car, via the Corran Ferry (which takes just five minutes), and will be travelling east to west. Those arriving in Kilchoan by ferry from Mull can simply do things the other way around.
Motorbike fan Garry Scott recommends Strontian as good base for riders. “Sunart Camping is a fantastic site, complete with drying room, bothy and friendly, helpful owners,” he says. “Ideal for walkers, cyclists, bikers, touring caravans and camper vans.
“The Strontian Hotel is in a lovely spot with stunning views right down Loch Sunart. Make sure you book for food at busy times, though, especially weekends. It’s also worth noting that Strontian also has the bonniest petrol station in Scotland.”
While at the eastern part of the peninsula make the short detour north to visit the magnificent ruins of Castle Tioram – pronounced “Cheerum” – which dates back to around 1200 and sits on its own tidal island where the river Shiel meets Loch Moidart. On approach, the warning signs make clear that the ruins are unsafe – you explore and enter at your own risk. But as long as you tread carefully and keep your wits about you, this privately owned castle – the subject of a long-running and controversial planning battle – makes for a fascinating visit.
Back on the single-track road, stop off at Ardnamurchan Distillery, at Glenbeg. Claiming to be Scotland’s greenest, it certainly has a particularly picturesque setting in this lushest area of the peninsula. Tours run daily.
The fabulous Ardnamurchan Natural History Visitor Centre is just a few minutes along the road. A “living building” attracting an array of wild animals including pine martens, bats, voles and swallows that choose to make their home there, you never know quite what you’re going to see. The views across Loch Sunart are always breathtaking, however. There’s also an interesting permanent exhibition about the history of the peninsula, plus a good café and gift shop.
Keen gardeners will want to visit nearby Glenborrodale Plant Nursery, a stunning six-acre hillside garden. Keep your eyes peeled overhead for sea eagles and ospreys, while bees, butterflies and dragonflies are always buzzing around. Whether you’re buying or just admiring, it’s a haven of tranquility.
The village of Kilchoan is the main settlement on the peninsula, and though small, it has a big heart. It’s also the ferry port with daily crossings to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. The community centre on Pier Road hosts a regular Produce and Craft Market full of local goodies, while the Kilchoan Bakery bakes and sells the sort of quality breads and buns any chi chi city bakery would be rightly proud of.
Another famous ruin in the area, 13th century Mingary Castle, was recently restored and refurbished as a luxury hotel and restaurant. A 20-minute walk from the village, even if you can’t afford to stay there it offers unbeatable views across the Sound of Mull.
Wildlife fans should try the full-day tour run by Nature Scotland which leaves from Kilchoan. Exploring the amazing flora, fauna and geology of the area by people-carrier and on foot, you’ll be guided to all the best places for spotting otters, eagles and whales. Wild Highland Tours, based in Glenborrodale, also offers a range of guided tours.
Twenty minutes along the road is stunning Ardnamurchan Lighthouse and Point. Built in granite high upon a dramatic clifftop in 1849, designed by Alan Stevenson (uncle of writer Robert Louis Stevenson) it reaches up 36 metres and is the only lighthouse in the world built in the “Egyptian” style. The views from the top – Rum, Skye and, on a clear day, Barra – are well worth the 152-step climb. As well as the lighthouse, you can visit – and even stay in – the old keepers’ cottages. Though automatic these days, the lighthouse is still fully operational.
Fifteen minutes north of Kilchoan is Sanna Bay. Mary Edwards says: “Sanna is my favourite place in the world. You can lose yourself for hours walking across the white sands, paddling in the – freezing! – turquoise waters and admiring the stunning views to Rum, Eigg and Muck. A very special place that brings you a sense of peace, regardless of the weather.”
Where to eat
Garry Scott recommends Puffin Coffee at The Steadings in Kilchoan. “Delicious homemade sandwiches, cakes and snacks, all washed down with excellent coffee and hot chocolate. Lovely artisan gifts, too, and all at very reasonable prices. A friendly place with a buzz about it. You can tell it’s a real hub.”
For something more substantial, the nearby Kilchoan House Hotel cooks up a tasty steak pie or fish and chips, and has a cosy bar with a good selection of whiskies.
Back at the other end of the peninsula, the Acharacle Tearoom in the Post Office buildings has won a legion of fans with its great food and service. I can heartily recommend the bagels with smoked salmon, followed by a slice of the Victoria sponge – one of the best I’ve ever had. Jo Craig adds: “One of the best tearooms you’ll find anywhere in the Highlands. Been back many times and it never disappoints.”
Also in Acharacle, the restaurant at Mingarry Park – a comfortable and modern hotel and outdoor activities centre – makes a tasty venison steak.
Where to stay
Boutique B&B: With beautiful views of Loch Shiel and a lovely garden, cosy and comfortable Ardshealach Lodge in Acharacle makes a perfect base to explore the peninsula. From £55 per person per night.
Quirky retreat: Built in 1886, The Byre in Kilchoan offers lovely self-catering accommodation for two. Has its own patio and garden. From £110 per night via Airbnb.
Eco-friendly: The Ardnamurchan Bunkhouse in Glenborrodale has clean, comfortable single, double and family rooms at reasonable prices. Well-equipped kitchen and pleasant barbecue area. From £34 per night.
What to do nearby
Staffa Tours leaves from Kilchoan, sailing to Fingal’s Cave and the Treshnish Isles. There’s a fair chance you’ll see puffins, dolphins, basking sharks and/or whales at some point.
If you prefer a bigger boat, the ferry to bustling Tobermory takes just 35 minutes.
In the coming weeks I’ll be visiting Pittenweem, Queensferry and Garnethill. Send your hints and tips to: email@example.com