Morvern: past, present & future
In our latest ‘weekend away‘ feature, we took time to visit the Morvern peninsula on Scotland’s west coast – staying at the stunning Ardtornish and discovering some of the area’s most off-the-beaten track treasures – including Camasnacroise and Drimnin.
Unless you are one of the few who may head cross country, south into the peninsular, the vast majority making the journey to Morvern will be making tracks for the Corran Ferry. The short crossing over Loch Linnhe cuts off a long route that would otherwise take you through Fort William and around Loch Eil. Services are frequent – every 20 to 30 minutes, seven days a week – and if you’re hiking, travel on foot is free! For those driving, the single fare is £8.20 (Oct 2017 price) – and you’re asked to bring the exact money if you can. It takes no more than 10-15 minutes to cross – and that includes the loading and offloading of the ferry.
We reached Corran – having driven west on the A82 through Glencoe – and crossed at just before 2pm.
To head into the peninsula, there are two routes – both initially via the A861. The most popular is the more direct – following signs to Strontian but turning onto the A884 just before you reach the village on Loch Sunart. This is the ‘ferry route’ and takes you all the way to Lochaline where (if your time allows) you can continue across to the Isle of Mull. We chose the route less traveled – the B8043: it is the first main left turn once you’re off the Corran ferry. It is a snake of a road – twisting on a single track road through a mix of farmland and open moor and then hugging Loch Linnhe. Beware of the livestock!
We came across Camasnacroise – a very picturesque spot on the loch side scattered with a few self catering cottages, including the intriguingly named ‘Elastic Cottage‘.
A few miles on, we discovered the information sign for Kingairloch: a little homework later made us aware of the estate’s offering – from a collection of beautifully refurbished properties that are now available to hire to a series of sustainable local business operations including the B&B at Kingairloch House, a Bistro, fishing in season (lochan fishing is all year round), deer stalking (again, in season) and Guided Walks. There are miles of walks and mountain biking routes as well and the estate works with Strontian-based Sunart Cycles. The nature of this remote corner means much is seasonal: although the Bistro is supported by guests, locals and visiting yachts, it is now closed … reopening in the Spring. We plan to return!
Carrying on, the twisting and turning single track route joined up with the more direct A884 and we drove for across another seven or eight miles of open, rolling moorland before we reached the turn to Ardtornish.
The present day house – spied through the tree tops on the long drive – in an imposing, grand Victorian mansion: the views from the house are equally spectacular, looking across the loch towards Mull.
Built on the proceeds of London’s 19th century gin trade. In the 1930s, the current owners’ family – the Ravens – bought the house, farmland, forestry and around 30 acres of gardens. Through the vision and drive of the team than runs Ardtornish day to day, the estate has become a successful commercial enterprise. Not only do they produce their own lamb, beef and venison (all available for sale in the estate Gift Shop & Information Centre) but the estate attracts visitors from around the world who come to walk, explore, hunt, shoot and fish … from sparkling rivers, beautiful lochs, wild moorlands – and the gardens.
They have developed several hydro schemes that help to power the estate’s businesses including – at the very heart of the estate – Ardtornish House together with a series of renovated and wonderfully restored properties that are available for self-catering holidays. We met several members of their team and it is clear they have a passion for the estate and area. The commitment to Ardtornish extends beyond the visitors’ gaze to include sustainable development of the whole community – including affordable housing and building plots at nearby Achabeag.
Our group had hired two of the apartments in the main house and one of the cottages in the ground: there are wonderful nods to a bygone age with artifacts, furnishings and all manner of Victorian detail in the building …
The Garden Flat as its name would suggest is on the ground floor and provides accommodation for five as well as a lovely, large south-facing sitting/dining room (below, middle) – very much our party’s base for the weekend.
The Top Flat housed a further five of our group – and (below) the Castle Cottage (a ten minute walk from the main house, passed as you enter the estate by the Kinlochaline Castle and where the River Aline enters the loch) was home for two couple.
Pouring was the order of the evening: the rain outside, the drinks inside – and poring over OS maps to plan the weekend.
Ardtornish is a great base to explore the Morvern peninsular. The weather on our weekend was not the best, but it didn’t prevent our group from setting off on different adventures. Some headed to climb the Corbett, Beinn Resipol, just over half an hour’s drive north. Others set off on foot from the house to walk the four miles or so to the ruins of Ardtornish Castle. The walk is low level along the east side of Loch Aline …
It passes the estate’s old boat house – with views back to Kinlochaline Castle (now a private residence) and Castle Cottage – and then wends south, around the entrance to the loch opposite Lochaline – then south east to the ruin at Ardtonish Point, overlooking the Sound of Mull and a very misty Mull in the distance!
Back at the house – dried out (the house has a fab drying room in the basement for all wet-through gear) – we met Danielle who works for Ardtornish. Morvern born and bred, Danielle spoke of her work on the estate and that of her colleagues … very much a team effort all round. She explained that she lives in Drimnin where a new distillery has recently opened. Perfect. That would be our afternoon exploration.
We took a short drive down to Loachaline and enjoyed delicious home made cakes and bakes at the O2 Cafe (also home to the Lochaline Dive Centre) …
The cafe is behind the well-stocked and friendly Lochaline Community Filling Station and village Stores … fresh fruit, veg and (of course) a piano! You can also hire buggies for cross country trails …
Next, west along the coast road – along the Morvern Peninsula – to discover Drimnin. Atmospheric would best describe the views across the Sound of Mull – through swirling mists and clouds – but beautiful none the less. There’s a whole host of trails, walks and paths to be explored – all leading off from the road into the forest, woodland and hills – as well as the Clach na Criche wishing stone …
Drimnin is (pretty much) the end of the road … at least the end of the B849 that winds along the peninsula’s coastline. The Drimnin Estate has a fascinating – sometimes tragic history – that has seen many owners often struggling with the property’s remoteness. Today, thankfully, all that appears to have changed. The estate is a busy farm (we discovered they have a mix of Luing and Highland cattle, Hogget and wild deer on the hill – selling meat locally) and many of the once derelict and neglected properties on the farmland are being lovingly restored to create new business opportunities: self catering cottages, a B&B and – as we’d found out from Danielle – a distillery.
We bumped into Steve on his quad bike as we approached the estate: he led us along what was once a drovers’ road to discover the distillery’s setting, alongside Drmnin House (available for hire for weddings and parties) … all overlooking Tobermory on Mull. The renovation of the old steading to create the new Ncn’ean Distillery is wonderful. It is one of the newest distilleries in Scotland – testament to Scotland’s burgeoning whisky industry that continues to attract interest from around the world.
Time didn’t allow for us to spend more time in this magical place, but we will return. The distillery is open to visitors once a day during the working week where you can take a look behind the scenes, taste their “evolving spirit” and enjoy a Drimnin cocktail. Only two rules apply – you must pre-book and you have to be 12+. Visit their website for more – or call them on 01967 421698.
Back at Ardtornish, tales of the day, plans for return visits, fish pie, wine, conversation and bed.
It is always good to tidy the night before! Up and packed and ready to depart by the requested check out of 10am, we walked to explore the gardens and some of the nearby estate.
The garden was first laid out by Valentine, son of the London distiller, Octavius Smith, who built the house in the mid 1850s. Sculpted out of a rocky hillside, the garden is covered by native birch and extensive planting of exotic species under mature groups of larch, firs and pine. We learned that the estate has an average annual rainfall of 85 inches – and much is channeled into pools and tumbling streams that echo through the acreage.
Planting was considerably extended by Owen and Emmeline Hugh Smith, who bought Ardtornish in 1930. They mixed species and hybrid rhododendrons with acer, hoheria, eucryphia, sorbus, berberis and species roses. Their keen interest in the garden has been continued by their daughter, Faith, and her family: the number of different rhododendrons is now around the 200 mark. For those just visiting for the day, there is an admission charge of £4 per adult to help towards the upkeep of the gardens. Dogs are welcome but you are asked to keep four legged friends on leads.
Before starting the journey home, we walked more trails through the grounds and discovered some of the Ardtornish cottages that are available to rent as well as the estate’s Kitchen Garden, information display at the estate office and their shop – boasting a variety of local artisan crafts including their own Ardtornish tweed items. Most produce comes from within a 30-mile radius of the estate and they also sell practical goods include maps, midge repellent, fishing flies, and postcards.
Our journey back to the Corran Ferry had one more stop: we’d spotted Ardgour on our drive across so took a wee detour to find it. For a couple looking to explore and discover this end of the peninsular, Cuil Moss Cottage is a superb wee base. The five star accommodation is a former Shepherd’s Bothy that has undergone a full and fabulous renovation – keeping a traditional-looking croft exterior but not holding back on any of the luxuries we’ve all grown to expect (and love!). This is for nature lovers and those wanting to spend time close to Morvern’s wonderful wildlife. You can even venture into the woodlands surrounding the Cottage and discover your very own Private Wildlife Watching and Star Gazing Tower.
As a family option, there are glamping pods at Clovullin Croftview – close to Loch Linnhe, ideally situated for walking, hill climbing, sea kayaking, fishing and equine holidays. The owners can also offer Bushcraft activities. Each pods sleeps 2 adults and 2 children (or 3 adults) and includes toilet & shower, a kettle, outside BBQ area – and the on site shop sells teas, coffees, groceries and hot meals. There’s a local Pub in walking distance and bedding can be provided at an extra charge.
Homeward bound, we made one final stop on our weekend. We’d never visited the cafe at the Glencoe Mountain Resort, so took time out to enjoy a late lunchtime snack. Their menu is simple, but the food is freshly prepared and tasty: haggis is jacket potato, a selection of toasties and very tasty tomato and red pepper soup. We discovered that they also have pods – 10 ‘microlodges’ together with hook-up points for 10 camper/caravans and a further 20 camping plots – and for those traveling in electric or hybrid vehicles, they also have a charge point. The views back down Glencoe and across Rannoch Moor are every changing and breathtaking. Well worth a stop when next passing.
In less than 48 hours, we had barely scratched the surface of Morvern. We hope this Blog gives a flavour of what to find – and we very much hope to return to explore and discover much more that Morvern has to offer.
Thanks for reading.
When Owen (1869–1958) and Emmeline Hugh Smith (d. 1971) from Langham in Rutland bought Ardtornish in 1930, the extensive gardens were a significant part of the attraction. So was the sport – the stalking, and the excellent fishing. Valentine Smith had laid out 28 acres (11 ha) of formal landscape including lawns, rockeries and walled herbaceous and kitchen gardens and employed up to 12 gardeners to maintain them. The Hugh Smiths, inspired by the gardens of Colonsay House planted a variety of new shrubs, especially rhododendron. Owen and Emmeline’s daughter, Faith, married the Cambridge don John Raven and the former eventually inherited Ardtornish from her parents.
For twenty years, Faith and John’s eldest son Andrew Raven was closely involved in the development and running of Ardtornish Estate. He lost a seven year battle with cancer in 2005. His legacy lives on, both in many aspects of Ardtornish, and also through The Andrew Raven Trust – a Scottish Registered Charity (SCO39488), established in 2008.
Hugh Raven, his wife Jane and their two children left Notting Hill in 1999 to live on the family estate. They renovated the solid stone tower of Kinlochaline Castle and made it their home. Hugh, with a family committee, took over responsibility for the estate when his brother died. He is, as his brother was, passionate about conservation; and with the estate team has spent the last few years creating a hydro-electric system high in the hills to provide low-carbon, renewable energy. And before he died, his brother planted an indigenous forest of 500 acres – part of his legacy.
The estate received planning permission in 2010 for a new “township” of 20 houses at Achabeag, two miles west of Lochaline. Hugh said “We intend this to be a nationally-important example of a sustainable new community – with low-impact construction, the highest environmental standards, access to land for food growing and community use, and the possibility of community energy generation.”
Today, Ardtornish Estate is a haven for those seeking an escape from the bustle of everyday life. The estate offers self-catering accommodation in a variety of forms, from a simple bunkhouse through to charming stone built cottages and grand Victorian apartments in Ardtornish Mansion House. The estate and mansion house also makes a splendid wedding venue, and using every bed space, the estate can accommodate up to 96 guests – including a Bunkhouse close to the estate office …
The gardens at Ardtornish continue to be a draw, with coaches and visitors travelling from far and wide to view the castle, mansion house and grounds. With conservation and sustainability at the heart of the estate’s objectives, three hydro power schemes are currently in place, another is under construction, and a fifth has received all its necessary consents. A biomass woodchip boiler heats the mansion house, and green initiatives are being developed to reduce further the estate’s carbon footprint. There are strong links between Ardtornish Estate and the Whitehouse Restaurant in Lochaline, which is co-owned and founded by Hugh’s wife Jane Stuart-Smith.