Exploring Dunoon

Fiona RussellClimbing the steep path and numerous uneven stone-slab steps through deeply moss-covered Puck’s Glen on the Cowal Peninsula, it is easy to imagine I have been transported to another world.

Is that the hushed voices of mischievous sprites casting their devilish magic or simply the wind whispering through the tall forest trees? Perhaps I might hear a little better – and learn more of the mysteries – in this fairy-tale location if it was not for the background of burbling and splashing water from the many waterfalls that cascade through the gorge.

Of course, these thoughts are purely fantasy, although I have entertained my daughter with such imagery in years gone by.

This short walk is found just five miles from the Cowal maritime gateway town of Dunoon, in Argyll and Bute, and is a favourite whenever I visit the area. For me, it sums up how easy it is to remove oneself from the fast-paced hustle and bustle of mainland life to a place where time passes more slowly, nature is easily discovered ­ – and imps and fairies might possibly be sighted.

The journey to this seemingly far away location, situated at the south-eastern edge of the three-toe-shaped leg of land, is surprisingly easy. Two ferry companies, Argyll Ferries and Western Ferries, offer very regular crossings between Gourock, less than 30 miles west of Glasgow, and Dunoon.

It takes just 25 minutes, yet that thrilling sense of adventure that comes with a sea crossing builds quickly as you watch the stunning scenery of coast, forestry, hills and mountains growing bigger and wider before you.

Another way to reach Dunoon is by the Waverley Paddle Steamer. The traditional craft travels from Glasgow in the summer months and is slower yet offers a delightfully romantic reminder of the 19th and early 20th centuries when city people went “doon the watter” for their holidays. In those days, steamboats journeying along the River Clyde and the Clyde of Firth gave city workers the chance to escape for a seaside break in Argyll, as well as other coastal hotspots in Ayrshire.

While far longer, many visitors also choose to drive to Dunoon at the southern end of the Cowal Peninsula. The route from central Scotland, over the road known as the Rest and Be Thankful and through the village of Arrochar at the head of Loch Long, is famously scenic and is best savoured with many stops at various viewpoints.

Dunoon: Then and now

Dunoon is the main resort on the Cowal Peninsula and is built around two sandy bays, East Bay and West Bay, which are aligned rather confusingly to the north and south of the town centre. Between the bays is a hilly point of land that sticks out into the firth. This was once the site of Dunoon Castle, originally built around 1050. It had been abandoned by the late 17th century and although little remains today, except for a few overgrown boulders, the hill is worth a walk for the excellent viewpoint at the top.

Lower down on the northern slope is Castle House, a landmark Victorian mansion that was formerly a private home for James Ewing, Lord Provost of Glasgow, and later became a library. These days, it operates as Castle House Museum, where you can find out more about the history of town and the wider peninsula.

Since its earliest days, Dunoon’s economic fortunes have rollercoastered with more prosperous highs during the steamship vacations era, when a large Victorian pier was built; then in the early 1960s when the town became a garrison to the US Navy; and more recently as Dunoon has gained new-found popularity as a destination for active outdoors fans.

The town’s marketeers have cleverly capitalised on an easy accessibility to a varied coast, inland lochs, a vast forest and, beyond this, the hills and mountains of the wider Cowal Peninsula, to attract mainland walkers, runners, mountain bikers, cyclists and even triathletes across the “watter”.

The Argyll Forest Park, right on the western doorstep of the town, was for a long time a secret gem for local mountain bikers. Now it is common to see the ferries and cars loaded with off-road bikes. The remote-feeling forest trails offer a mix of natural cross-country singletrack and man-made routes. Local trail building wizard Tomasz Chlipala is to credit for many miles of the brilliantly designed routes and features.

Dunoon has also become the acclaimed location for top mountain biking competitions. In 2017, a round of the Scottish Cross Country MTB series took place on the forest trails of Bishop’s Glen, while a Scottish Enduro Mountain Biking round saw riders race in an exciting time trial through the Castle Gardens from the top of Castle Hill down to Dunoon Pier.

Roads cyclists are increasingly arriving in Dunoon too, lured by on-line chat of the peninsula’s quiet roads and smooth tarmac. If you are curious but have no idea where to start you could participate in the annual Dunoon Sportive (and family ride).

View over the Kyles of Bute on the Cowal peninsula

Years ago, I recall a bike ride of some 70 miles across the Cowal Peninsula when I saw only one or two other cyclists. Earlier this summer, another outing from Dunoon was notable because of the many dozens of riders I met and passed. It’s this kind of growth that is placing Dunoon firmly on the map of outdoors fun in Scotland.

Other sporting events that have also been created include the new Dunoon Triathlon, the West’s Best Cycle Fest, the Dunoon Half marathon and 10k and an Ultra running race.

Start of the Dunoon Ultra

CowalFest is a long-standing event with a focus on walking, although it has been expanded more recently to include other outdoor activities. For walkers, the 10-day event each October is an opportunity to enjoy guided walks on a variety of themes such as heritage, nature and culture. Most years, a led hike visits the highest point on the peninsula, Beinn Mhor at 741m.

It’s a walk that feels wonderfully wild as you hike upwards through rolling moorland, yet it starts only eight miles from Dunoon. The views from the summit are spectacular, too, and a rewarding treat after the four-mile climb. On a fine day you’ll see many mainland peaks in the distance, such as Ben Lui, Ben Cruachan and the most southerly of Scotland’s Munros, Ben Lomond.

On the lower slopes of the mountain and close to the finish of the walk is glorious Benmore Botanic Garden. The gardens are entered through an impressive avenue of Giant Redwoods and are also home to a superb collection of flowering trees and shrubs, including 300 species of rhododendron and a third of the world’s hardy conifer species.

On the Bishop’s Glen walk

Other walks to recommend from Dunoon include a circuit of atmospheric Bishop’s Glen, which is signposted from the town and visits several reservoirs and pretty Balgaigh Burn, and Strone Hill, starting from Kilmun on the north side of Holy Loch. Again the views from the top, across to the Isle of Arran and along Loch Long, are just rewards for the steep climb.

As you walk, you should keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife including roe deer, red deer, red squirrels, and many species of birds, as well as coastal sightings of seals, otters, dolphins and maybe even a basking shark.

Looking over Dunoon from Strone Hill

Dunoon itself also has enough to entertain visitors for a day or two. The refurbished pier and the promenade offer an enjoyable stroll and you could visit other attractions, such as local beaches, the small family-run Studio Cinema, the Amusement Arcade, Glenfinnart Walled Garden or Dunoon Crazy Golf, as well as shopping in independent stores and enjoying some lovely food establishments.

Traditional fish and chips are served at the Anselmo’s & La Balena Restaurant, while Blacks of Dunoon Bakers are celebrated for their award-winning bakery. A favourite if you have alighted the early morning ferry is the Rock Café, before you head off to enjoy your day.

If you are looking for further inspiration for visiting this corner of Argyll, there are more annual festivals, such as the popular Revival Music Weekender and The Cowal Highland Gathering – billed as the world’s biggest Highland Games – in August and the Dunoon Book and Literary Festival in September.

For many years I wondered why more outdoorsy people had not discovered Dunoon and the countryside nearby. Now it’s clear that word is getting out.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.