Until 400 years ago, beavers were the architects of woods and water in Scotland. But it was the same old story - we hunted them to extinction. However for the last five years a trial reintroduction has been running in the forests of Knapdale on the west coast of Scotland. l was keen to cycle there during my holiday to see it.
Knapdale is a difficult area to define. It straggles west of Lochgilphead with a ragged coastline of wiggly sea lochs that cut into a land of small, densely forested hills. It's pockmarked with lochs and lochans so it's very much a place of woods and water. It's prime habitat for otters and also for beavers which our ancestors used to call "dobhran-los-leathann", the broad-tailed otter.
I cycled into Knapdale from the top end of the Kintyre peninsula after spending the first few days of my holiday cycling on Arran and Kintyre. l stayed on the rolling coast-hugging road that headed southwest. As it rounded the headland at Kilberry the horizon was filled with islands as the hillocks of Gigha, the low-lying lands of Islay and the mountainous bulk of Jura floated offshore.
That evening I found a faint track that passed through the woods to reach the shore at a sandy beach with a shelf of green grass that was perfect for pitching the tent. After supper l watched the sun sink behind the hills whilst nursing a mug of coffee. I had noticed that the rocks were strewn with the chewed remains of crabs and nearby a freshwater stream cascaded out of the woods. I was certain it was an otter place and sure enough after dark I heard them on the rocks scratching and munching and sending out their characteristic "hah" call. It was too dark to see them but I did see the ghostly pale owl that flew right over my tent.
Next day I cycled inland and then popped out on the coast again at Ardrishaig to join the Crinan Canal. Opened in 1801, it's nine miles long and joins the Sound of Jura with the head of Loch Gilp, providing a navigable route between the Inner Hebrides and the Clyde. It's known as Scotland's most beautiful shortcut and I wouldn't argue with that. As the canal approached the village of Crinan at its west end, the great moss of the Moine Mhor stretched north on my right. At its boundary was the little hillock of the ancient fort at Dunadd. The River Add meandered across the moss and flowed into the sea loch, Loch Crinan which flooded the salt marshes and reflected the blue sky and cotton-bud clouds above. On my left was the canal itself so that for much of the way the towpath was a narrow causeway bounded on both sides by water. The canal also does several beautiful curves before reaching Crinan.
I left the canal to cycle to the coast again and to the idyllic village of Tayvallich. The village is strung out along a single road that curves round the edge of a perfect natural harbour bounded on three sides by wooded hills with a small outlet to the open sea. It sits on a narrow isthmus and on the other side the view stretched across rough seas to the rain-swept hills at the northern end of Jura.
It was a short cycle from Tayvallich to the beaver site on a day that was lashed by a series of torrential downpours. It was at least perfect weather to be tucked up inside the dense forests, still mostly green with a tiny hint of early autumn in the chill air. I wandered the woodland trails spotting knawed trees and large log piles, evidence of the beavers beavering away. At one place they had created their own waterway by building a dam across a stream. The pond that had formed behind it enabled them to move between their preferred lochs without leaving the water as that is where they feel most safe. Of course, I didn't see any beavers as they are mostly nocturnal and pretty shy. But the knowledge of their presence in these woods changed for the better the atmosphere of the place which felt wilder and more primeval, especially on a murky day. The reintroduction is currently being evaluated so fingers crossed that a wider programme will get a green light.
Back on the bike, I pedalled north and crossed again the Crinan Canal and the Moine Mhor to enter the fascinating area of Kilmartin Glen. My first stop was the Iron Age fort of Dunadd, once capital of the ancient kingdom of the Scots, Dalriada. I parked up the bicycle and clambered up the steep rocky slopes of the small hillock that Dunadd sits on. A gully up through the rocks was the old gateway and took me onto the citadel at the top of the hill. The view stretched across Loch Crinan, the great moss and on to the small hills of the Highland edge. On the very top is the inaugural rock of the ancient kings of Dalriada. Kings-to-be would stand on the rock, place a foot in the carved out footprint and thereby be proclaimed king. Standing on top of Dunadd with the place to myself, the power of the landscape was palpable. There was something so elemental about it.
Ancient people must also have felt that power. Not only did they build the old fort here but their presence dates as far back as neolithic times, 5000 years ago, when this place must have held huge significance judging by the sheer number of ancient relics that dot the countryside. My cycle route took me passed just of few of the sights such as the stone circles at Temple Wood that formed a ceremonial site aligned with the winter solstice sun.
I pedalled by numerous chambered cairns and peered down into the cold, damp darkness of their interiors. These tombs were the last resting place of the farming communities who once lived here. And in the village of Kilmartin I wandered around the beautiful medieval grave slabs in the church cemetery before eating my picnic lunch on a hillock looking down on thousands of years of history.
My own holiday was almost history as I cycled the final leg north up the wooded shores of Loch Awe. The lowlands gradually gave way to the Highlands as I pulled into Taynuilt to catch a train home.
All the photos on Flickr - click here.
Start: Claonaig via Lochranza ferry
Finish: Taynuilt served by Glasgow to Oban trains
Route: By chance I mostly followed national cycle route 78. From Claonaig I cycled the B8001 to Kennacraig and north on the A83 for a few unpleasantly busy miles to turn off onto the B8024 to cycle around the coast via Kilberry on a gorgeous road with great views and then rejoined the A83 into Ardrishaig, a very short and quieter section. At Ardrishaig I picked up the Crinan Canal and cycled its full length west to Crinan before doubling back to Bellanoch and taking the B8025 to Tayvallich, a lovely road through forest then alongside a sea loch. I camped at the campsite at Tayvallich which was pretty basic. There's a gorgeous cafe on the waterfront and a wee grocery store. The beaver site is passed on the way down to Tayvallich and has a wee information hut. I cycled back to the canal and stayed on bike route 78 as it did a lovely journey north across the great moss and right beside all that interesting stuff at Kilmartin before heading up the very quiet and pretty hilly west side of Loch Awe. I finished at Taynuilt to get a train home.