SPECIAL SECTION – Loch Awe

Tervine launch site
Today, Loch Awe Coastal Rowing Club (LACRC) was due to row the length of Loch Awe, the longest freshwater loch (26 miles) in Scotland, as the first of it’s two part involvement in RowAround Scotland. The second part, to take place a week later, was a sea passage from Oban to Port Appin, but as neither of these rows will occur as planned the Club would like to take you on a virtual tour of Loch Awe.

It’s a dry but overcast morning and Mingulay‘s crew has met at Tervine at the north west end of the loch in a narrow spine of deep water under the watchful eye of Ben Cruachan, at 3695 ft, Argyll’s highest mountain. Opposite is the Brander Pass where King Robert the Bruce defeated the MacDougalls in 1308.

The prevailing wind on the loch is south westerly but today it is quite calm and an easterly course is steered to move into the great expanse of fresh water. 3 miles away Kilchurn Castle can be seen, iconic and beautiful. Today, it stands clear and proud but often is shrouded in mist and can seem almost ghostly in it’s splendid isolation.

Kilchurn Castle
Built around 1405, by Sir Colin Campbell, son of the Campbell chief living at Innischonnel Castle lower down the loch, most of the work was left to his wife, Lady Marriott, to complete whilst he went off to fight in the Crusades. Nothing knew about DIYers then and now! Rumour has it that many years went by and believing her husband was dead Lady Marriott decided to marry again. The big day came and many guests arrived including a scruffy, bearded and weary traveller. When the bride to be offered her guest a drink he returned an empty goblet with a ring in the bottom. On seeing this, Lady Marriott realised it was her husband and threw herself into his arms. The lucklesss groom to be was a MacCorquodale!

Mingulay continues on her way, passing a baronial-style house to starboard where she was first launched in July 2018. Now the Ardanaiseig Hotel and named the most romantic hotel in Scotland in 2017 and 2018; many a grand wedding has taken place here.

Keeping clear of the shallows near some small islands and crannogs, Mingulay heads towards a narrow channel between Inishail to port – nicknamed the Green Isle because of its grassy surface – and to starboard the Black Isles which are densely wooded. Look closely and you will see amongst the overgrowth some ruined walls where a small convent occupied by Cistercian nuns is said to have stood. Inishail is also the burial place of the 11th and 12th Dukes of Argyll though traditionally it was the burial site for the MacArthurs and some other clans that once populated the area

This area is deceptive to navigate for the water can shelve rapidly from over150 ft to 2-3 ft even well offshore and it has become a graveyard for many a powerboat’s propellers. Strangely for an inland loch, the level can change as much as 8 feet over a couple of days or so partly depending on the rainfall but more especially hydro-electric operations deep inside Ben Cruachan which in the 1950’s was one of the nation’s great engineering projects.

Past and clear of the shallows, Mingulay heads south west into a stiffening breeze making for the Fernoch TailRace still some six miles south where a crew change will take place. We are now in wide open waters with no other craft to be seen. It’s hard to imagine that steamers like SS Queen of the Lake, Loch Awe and the Countess of Breadalbane once plied these waters daily with as many as 100 passengers onboard but all that came to an end soon after WWII when people’s idea of a holiday changed and they wanted more than a loch cruise.

Taychreggan during the Loch Awe Adventure regatta April 2019
After a while, the loch narrows to about 500 yards and we pass under a high overhead telephone cable spanning the loch between Portsonachan and Taychreggan where the steamers once called in on their daily trips. Those of you who have taken part in the Club’s annual Loch Awe Adventure will know this spot well for it marks the end of the northern leg of our race from Dalavich to Taychreggan and back.

Portsonachan Hotel
Some 30 years ago Portsonachan was were it was at! Young folk from as far afield as Oban gathered there for dances and most had to cross the loch by boat from the jetty at the Taychreggan Hotel. I was talking to a local friend and he recalls the time he would leave his home at Taynuilt, cycle to Taychreggan and then swim across the loch just to dance with the girls before swimming back. I tried to persuade him to enter our Loch Awe Swim last August when 22 hardy swimmers made the crossing (most both ways) but he refused. Of course, he is older and wiser now but I sensed he was thanking his Maker he hadn’t drowned!

Looking ahead we can now see the relief crew standing at the outflow at Fernoch. Once there was a mill here – the Mill of Loch Awe as it was known – with the water wheel driven by Berchan Burn. Now the mill has gone and instead there is a covered outfall with water coming down from an underground power station at Loch Nant.

As soon as Mingulay is beached, the new rowers quickly take over and the skiff heads south again. Another couple of miles down the loch which is now almost hemmed in to starboard by steep sides and dense forests a single track road can be made out hundreds of feet above the water. This is Forestry Land Scotland’s ‘strategic timber route’ built to keep their log carriers off the public roads though anyone can use it now.

Ed – the man waving from his window at Inverinan – awaits his turn
A few miles further on we come to Inverinan (Mouth of Fionain River). It’s a small hamlet with maybe ten houses mostly built to take forestry workers soon after WWII. We return a wave from one of our members standing at his front window.

Apart from crannogs – a few manmade but still hundreds of years old – and ruined piers, there is only the splendour of our surroundings to absorb though a sea eagle soaring overhead. This is not an unusual sighting nor is that of ospreys.

InnisChonnel Castle
Before heading for Dalavich we skirt around Innischonnel on the far side of the loch where another former Campbell stronghold stands in ruins, home originally to the Clan Chief.

InnisChonnel (on the left) in morning mist
Some years ago a woman of undoubted courage accepted a dare to spend a night in the ruins which reportedly were haunted. She did and returned safely but wouldn’t tell of her experience. The more suspicious folk thought she had probably been joined by her boyfriend! Anyway, its time to beach at Dalavich where the Club’s second skiff Cruachan awaits.

Dalavich foreshore below the Community Centre balcony
Until WWII Dalavich was a small place and most of the residents spoke both Gaelic and English apart from a few incomers. It’s main claim to fame was that it had its own church and school though there were just 38 residents! After the war about 40 wooden homes were shipped over from Sweden though later ones were built of brick. These houses were mostly let out to young marrieds from Glasgow, the aim being to eventually have a large workforce for logging. However, mechanisation took over and the houses were mostly empty by the 1980’s before being let to holiday makers and then sold off. Now there are a good many chalet type log cabins plus most recently six pods for holiday let and close by an excellent social centre all of which Loch Awe Adventurers can make use of during our Easter regatta. LACRC hopes one day to have a permanent base close by.

Cruachan and a fresh crew now begins the last and longest leg of our trip. Fortunately the breeze has calmed as have the waters. Soon we pass an old jetty to starboard which has the intriguing name of New York. Following the 1715 Jacobite uprising the area was taken over by the New York Building Company of London formed to buy highland estates confiscated by the government. Not surprisingly this takeover was deeply unpopular, the company lost money and eventually went bankrupt. Further back in history, New York was the site of an ancient ferry crossing used by travellers and a dead king’s cortege en route to the sacred Isle of Iona.

A few miles further on we pass Kilmaha Island or Innis Stiure (Steer Island) so called because the steamboats of old used to set their course to the outside of the island. Here, are the possible remains of a very early Christian beehive-cell type of building possibly of St Mochoe for Kilmaha is named after him (also known as the ‘Silent One’) who lived in the century before St Columba and died about 1490. Columba was an Irish missionary evangelist who 100 years later brought Christianity to wider Scotland and founded the abbey on Iona which became such a dominant religious feature for centuries.

Looking up we can soon see a small flat area at Arinechtan – now a forestry car park – high up the steep and forested hillside. From here is perhaps the most stunning view to be seen anywhere of Loch Awe. In 1971, when the trees on the hillside had been felled, scenes were filmed for the spy thriller To Catch a Spy, staring Kirk Douglas. In one sequence a car is seen plunging off the road and careering down into the loch below. Apparently, it didn’t quite reach the loch on the first take so the film crew rolled it the rest of the way and joined both bits of film together.

A while later, Cruachan passes Inverliever. This is where fish farming on Lochaweside started in the 1970’s. However, an outbreak of disease caused the farming to stop so the owners – a subsidiary of the Shell Petroleum Company – converted the farm into a nursery mainly selling heather to the wholesale market. Now even this has stopped though in its heyday under the trade name of Highland Heathers millions of plants were produced.

At last we approach Torran which is as far as we can row down the loch towards its head at Ford. It has taken three crews to reach here in 6 hours. Torran means ‘small hill’ and on a nearby summit lie the ruins of a small fort called Dun Toisich or Fort of the Chief which probably dates back to the Iron Age.

Torran Bay
Torranbeag lochan affords natural shelter for many small craft and is reached by a narrow channel. Here is a far newer development comprising a restaurant, hostel and function room built around 2007. There is an interesting tale to tell here but that is for another occasion. Suffice to say, Cruachan will be recovered up the ramp by another team of worthies and together with her crew driven back to Dalavich to rejoin all the others waiting hopefully with full glasses in hand!

There is so much more to tell about this amazing loch – the product of the Ice Age when melting ice flowed down Kilmartin Glen – itself the site of many ancient cairns and relics – all the way to the sea. Something all the stranger because the loch now flows out by the Brander Pass where we began our journey this morning. Perhaps the Brander exit was higher thousands of years ago and perhaps blocked by a glacier formed from ice sliding down Ben Cruachan but that, too, is a story for another day.

It is is now late afternoon and with the sun setting on the loch the Club has enjoyed another exhilarating day on one of the most beautiful lochs of all. The virtual row is over but the real thing will surely take place before too long.

“Why Row Loch Awe? The weather changes within an instant creating new and dramatic views. The arrival of Osprey in Spring is magical and they are best viewed form the water. All these are reasons for rowing on Loch Awe.

Loch Awe and Ben Cruachan
We started our adventures in a twin inshore sea kayak. When the LACRC was formed, we were interested in being on the water in a different way. As part of a group, who love the activity, but also appreciate the views, wildlife, wind and sometimes rain and hail, on your face. It is a very social and relaxing activity but does require concentration, physical effort and team work ending in a very rewarding experience.” C&PC

Loch Awe Coastal Rowing Club – a brief history

The Loch Awe Coastal Rowing Club (LACRC) – formerly the Kilchrenan, Inverinan & Dalavich Coastal Rowing Club (KIDs) – was formed in July 2018, when a group of local residents came together to row regularly following the launch of the skiff Mingulay.

It is believed that Mingulay is the first St Ayles skiff to have been launched on a fresh water loch in Scotland and, unusually, was built as a personal project by the current Club President with no real thought to it’s future use. Thus, the sport of coastal rowing was introduced to Loch Awe which despite being a beautiful and natural recreational facility is rarely used. That September, KIDs adopted it’s own Constitution and became affiliated to the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association (SCRA).

By early 2019, KIDs was keen to row with other clubs and although several existed in Argyll they seldom appeared to came together, perhaps because of the historic reticence of communities to intermingle. Therefore, in late April KIDs hosted an inaugural regatta at Dalavich – the Loch Awe Adventure – in which ten skiffs took part from across Scotland. This event was a great success; so much so that it was hoped to make it an annual event but regrettably this Easter’s Adventure in which 12 skiffs were participating has had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, in March 2019, KIDs was fortunate enough to win a National Lottery Award and this was followed in quick succession by a Community Wind Farm grant which enabled the Club to order a bare wood skiff to be made at the TallShip, Riverside, Glasgow.

KIDs launched it’s second skiff called Cruachan on 29 August, and just three weeks later she and Mingulay took part in the Castle to Crane race on the Clyde together with 73 others. This was the Club’s first competitive event away from home and though both boats, one with an all female crew and the other all male, finished well down the order it was an enjoyable and invaluable experience.

In late November, KIDs was fortunate enough to win yet another community grant to enable us to buy a team pop up shelter/gazebo and a launch trolley. Also in November, it was decided to rename KIDs the ‘Loch Awe Coastal Rowing Club’ to better reflect the membership and also common usage. KIDS after all was a bit of a mouthful and even the Bank was unable to print the full name on our cheque book!

LACRC is still in it’s infancy but already has a diverse membership with people of varied backgrounds, ages and abilities as well as shapes and sizes. Indeed, some member’s former occupations are perhaps quite unusual in the context of a small, rural coastal rowing club. For example, we have a retired submarine commanding officer at the helm, an ultra athlete who is also a masseuse, a former air stewardess, a female professional jockey, and a Fire and Rescue Service instructor in the membership.

In any event, week by week all are discovering the benefits of rowing and the fun to be had on one of the largest and most beautiful lochs in Scotland.

By the way, the midnight blue and cream colours chosen for Mingulay and Cruachan have no special significance other than they look good.