By the Banks of Loch Lomond

It had been eleven years since we had previously visited Scotland and it was high time we made amends. Thus at 7am on a grey Saturday morning in July we boarded the coach for our journey northward.

We made our way up the Great North Road, taking two refreshment breaks, then crossed the Pennines, heading for Carlisle. The further north we went the worse the weather had become. It was something of a relief that there was only a light drizzle as we crossed the border into Scotland at Gretna.

Pennine view
Gretna Green wedding

Our third and final break was a mile away at The Old Blacksmith's Shop Centre, Gretna Green, world-famous for centuries as a venue for runaway marriages. As we arrived, one couple emerged from "tying the knot", preceded by a bagpiper and accompanied by their guests. The centre also features a museum, shops, an arts centre, a restaurant and a coffee house. Don't miss the excellent locally-made ice cream.

We continued on our way, bypassing industrial Scotland until we left the main roads near Stirling and entered the Highlands. At Aberfoyle we commenced the final leg of our journey, the 16 miles of twisting, rising, falling and frequently single-track road to our destination. Soon after we saw our first lochs through the rain - Lochs Ard, Chon and Arklet. Brian the driver's skill was much in evidence as we descended the final few hundred yards to the Inversnaid Hotel, perched above the bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

Inversnaid Hotel

This hotel was to be our home for 5 nights and proved to be comfortable if not luxurious. Well-maintained, the Inversnaid has a succession of dining rooms, a bar and a multiplicity of lounges and reception rooms. Whether one wants live entertainment, animated conversation, armchairs by blazing fires (yes, to combat the damp evening air outside) or a quiet spot to read or play a board game, there's a suitable place. The mostly-young staff were friendly and helpful and even included a few Scots. Indeed, two of them donned their kilts on our final evening at the hotel.

The food at the Inversnaid is good, plentiful and surprisingly imaginative, considering that it caters for a clientele with largely conventional tastes. Dinner consists of four courses with ample choice in the main and dessert, plus tea or coffee taken in the lounge of your choice. Breakfasts are substantial, we recommend the porridge and Loch Fyne kippers.

There are 65 acres of wooded grounds to explore and the Arklet Falls are only yards away. An RSPB bird sanctuary lies to the north and the West Highland Way passes through the woods along the loch shore. The hotel's private harbour and jetty allow for easy access by water, making up for the shortcomings of the approach by land.

Arklet Falls
Sir Walter Scott

Sunday dawned to a steady drizzle and, after a late breakfast, we drove the 6 miles to Stronachlachar. There we embarked for a cruise on the "Sir Walter Scott", a veteran steamship that has plied Loch Katrine since she was built in 1900. Two coal-fired boilers power her original 3-cylinder triple expansion engine.

The drizzle turned to rain. This with the low cloud reduced visibility and sent most passengers below to the saloon but we braved it out and saw what remained to be seen. We disembarked at Trossachs Pier and drove the short distance to the Loch Achray Hotel for lunch. This hotel is in the same ownership as the Inversnaid Hotel and has a comparable level of facilities. It also provides an extensive bar menu at reasonable prices.

Falls of Dochart

We continued on our rainy way via Lochearnhead to Killin. After a short stop to view the spectacular Falls of Dochart we returned via Crianlarich to complete our coach journey at Inveruglas. Then it was over Loch Lomond by ferry to the Inversnaid Hotel.

Lochs and Glens coach
View from the 'Rest and Be Thankful'

The following morning we re-crossed the Loch to board our coach for a full day excursion. First we climbed up Glen Croe to the "Rest and Be Thankful" pass before proceeding to Dunoon, a pleasant coastal town on the Firth of Clyde with distant views of Bute and the Cumbrae Islands. We lunched at the Argyll Hotel, just yards from the harbour.

Argyll Hotel, Dunoon

Later we took the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Gourock and followed the southern shore of the Firth to the Erskine Bridge. From there it was only a few minutes to our afternoon stop at the Antartex Village, a factory outlet for the Edinburgh Woollen Mills. As well as clothing there is a wide range of Scottish produce including a superb selection of whiskies. A Tamdhu and a 12-year-old Glenfiddich took our fancy.

Our final stop was at Luss; a loch-side village used to film the TV soap "Take the High Road". The cottages are remarkably well maintained with colourful gardens. We took refreshments at the Old Coach House - the cinnamon-topped cappuccino is wicked!

A garden at Luss

Inverary Castle

We started Tuesday with the now familiar crossing of Loch Lomond to board our coach, proceeding through Hell's Glen and along the shores of Loch Fyne, famous for its aforementioned kippers. We made a coffee-stop at a deer farm and, after inspecting the herd, we drove to Inverary. Our first visit was to Inverary Castle, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll, and our second to the Argyll Hotel for lunch. On leaving we heard the skirl of bagpipes and traced the sound to a piper playing behind the adjacent Inverary Woollen Mills.

Piper at Inverary

Exploration time was in short supply that afternoon as, for no good reason, we were whisked back to Inversnaid by 3.30pm. However, this did allow us to walk along the West Highland Way, north from the hotel, almost to Rob Roy's Cave. The unevenness of the path prevented us from reaching our goal so we retraced our steps.

Our final excursion day took us back down the western shore of Loch Lomond and on to Stirling. Inexplicably the coach made a coffee stop at a motorway service area just outside the town (are there no nice cafés in Stirling?) and consequently we didn't arrive until lunchtime. We went straight to the Portcullis, an excellent pub and hotel just below the walls of the castle, and had our lunch. There would not have been sufficient time for us to visit the castle - we tend to linger over our visits - so we went to Stirling Old Town Jail nearby. This restored building portrays prison and penal attitudes at the time of the pressure for reform in the mid-19th Century.

Stirling Castle

We should have arrived back at Inversnaid in good time for dinner but two no-shows at the coach pick-up point resulted in our leaving Stirling 40 minutes late, without the truants, arriving with barely enough time to change and freshen up.

Thursday, departure day, demanded an early breakfast and goodbye to all at the hotel. We made our way south, this time through the northern suburbs of Glasgow, past mean streets and burnt out buildings. Soon we were on the motorway and heading for our refreshment stop at the Moffat Woollen Centre. There, at another well-stocked whisky shop, we bought a bottle of the special offer, Glen Grant.

We made two more stops on our return journey, at Ferrybridge for a late lunch and at Grantham for a driver change. An hour and a half later we left our coach at an unscheduled drop-off that saved us an hour in travel time and £20 in taxi fares. So ended our Scottish tour; lots seen and done and great value for money but at the price of rigid schedules and some missed opportunities. We'll certainly return to the lochs and glens again but probably independently.

Brian, Eileen and Karen Smith travelled with Lochs and Glens Holidays, telephone +44 (0)1389 713713.  If you are calling from outside the UK, use country code 44 then the number without the initial 0.

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