Knapdale – a Pearl of Southern Scotland
Knapdale isn’t the obvious choice for a bike ride. It’s a lonely, weather-beaten extension to Scotland, hanging down between the mainland and Jura, and separated from both by either sea or sea loch. A narrow waist of land connects Knapdale to Argyll in the north, and an even narrower neck connects it to Kintyre in the south. In fact it’s a struggle to find 100 miles of road on Kintyre, but I managed, just, with a bit of repetition and a short loop in Argyll to start with. However, it’s well worth visiting because cycling in Knapdale is a joy on so many levels.
On this compact ride not only do you start and finish at Lochgilphead but you also pass through it en route. It’s one of the quietest county towns you’ll ever visit, but Lochgilphead made worldwide news in 2012 when a local nine-year-old’s school writing project went viral. She is Martha Payne and her blog is called Never Seconds. In it she describes her school meals in the manner of a restaurant critic. The local council banned it at first, but retreated in the face of criticism and Martha raised over £100,000 for charity.
The Argyll loop is nothing like the rest of the ride. It’s a circuit of Moine Mhor, a pan-flat wetland of open ponds and mossy hummocks. You reach it by a bridge over the River Add and the Crinan Canal, which was built to provide a direct, navigable link between the Inner Hebrides and Glasgow via the River Clyde, without sailing right around Kintyre.
This part of Scotland is where the Clyde Puffers plied their trade. They were tiny steam ships that carried any cargo they could get from Glasgow to the isolated communities of Argyll, Kintyre and the Western Isles. Their crews and captains were colourful characters, and their lives are immortalised in the fictional Para Handy books written by a Glasgow journalist called Neil Munro.
The attraction of this ride becomes clear on the section down to Danna Island, which is at the end of a 12-mile finger of land pointing south-west into the Sound of Jura. It’s an exciting journey, with a band of rocky hills on one side and Loch Sween on the other. Time it right and you can ride on Danna, which is cut off by the high tide.
After returning to the top of Knapdale you follow the Crinan Canal west to east, then go through Lochgilphead and into the lower half of Knapdale via Ardrishaig and the edge of Loch Fyne.
Striking inland you climb the only long hill, Moine an t-Saraiche, which just about scrapes the 200-metre contour after three miles of climbing from sea level. You return to the sea on the other side at Loch Caolisport, where a fascinating ride around the Knapdale coast begins. Sea loch becomes open sea, with the bulky islands of Jura and Islay forming the distant backdrop.
Scenery on a magnificent scale turns intimate just inland of Ardpatrick Point as you swing through 180 degrees and onto the banks of West Loch Tarbert to begin the run for home. Loch Fyne is your company for the final leg, with the Isle of Bute behind you and the mainland immediately across the loch. The road runs right next to the rocky shore, squeezed there by a chain of peaks of which Sliabh Gaoil is the highest at 562 metres.
Find the A816 and follow it north-west then north over Moine Mhor to its junction with the B8025. Turn left, then carry on to the Crinan Canal Bridge. Turn right, still following the B8025, and ride down the promontory to Keillmore. Retrace and take the first turning on the left to Danna Island. Go all the way back to the Crinan Canal and turn right onto the B841 and right again onto the A816. Carry straight on at the junction with the A83 to Ardrishaig.
Continue south on the A83 and turn right onto the B8024. Turn right into Achahoish after the Saraiche climb and head for Ellary. Retrace and turn right onto the B8024 again and follow it right around the bottom of Knapdale to West Loch Tarbert.
Continue on the B8024 for another mile and turn left onto the A83 for Lochgilphead.
Start + Finish: Lochgilphead
Getting There: Lochgilphead is on the A83, 70 miles by road from Glasgow.
Bike Shop: Crinan Cycles, 34 Argyll Street
Cafe: Argyll Cafe, 25 Argyll Street
Local Delicacy: Loch Fyne kippers
Knapdale in art
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