Jhe remote Cowal Peninsula, which stretches out into the Firth of Clyde, isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to find artisan coffee roasters, outdoor infinity pools and outdoor sculptures modern. Believe me: my mother was born here, in the faded Victorian seaside resort of Dunoon. Outside shinty circles – those familiar with the local hockey-type game – “the secret coast” is little known, even in Scotland.
But a spotlight briefly fell on the village of Tighnabruaich last November, when the 20-metre-long, six-metre-high Argyll Arch by artist David Blair – designed to raise awareness of climate emergency – was visited by COP26 delegates. I had heard of other new ventures bringing Cowal to life, so I turned away from Scotland’s motorhomes queuing on Loch Lomond and went to investigate, with my 10 year old daughter in tow.
The bumpy, often improbably scenic, often single-track A8003 leads to Tighnabruaich, pronounced “tee-na-broo-ich”. Until the road arrived in the 1960s, the waterways once used by Viking warriors and Celtic kings were the best way to get there. In Tighnabruaich’s heyday, its Victorian pier buzzed with flapping paddle steamers bringing Glasgow residents “on the water”, back when cheap flights didn’t divert them to Spanish shores.
“We may only be two hours from Glasgow, but it’s like another world,” beams Eve Macfarlane, who started Tighnabruaich’s Argyll Coffee Roasters in 2018. The more I see, the more I am Deal: Cowal is a world of gnarled hills blanketed in ancient Atlantic oak forest, and lent cinematic drama by narrow waters on both sides: the jittery Kyles of Bute to the south and Loch Fyne to the north.
As we stroll through Tighnabruaich, I spot children playing shinty near the waterfront stadium, despite the temperature just above zero. Local shinty team Kyles Athletic are the only team outside the twin Highland villages of Newtownmore and Kingussie to have won the Camanachd Cup. That young people are interested is a positive sign for a village which, like much of rural Scotland, struggles to retain younger blood. And the more I look, the more green shoots I see sprouting everywhere.
The Tighnabruaich Gallery is run by a couple who fled Glasgow ten years ago to raise their young family here, with works from the thriving local artist community on the wider Cowal Peninsula. And this idea of community pops up everywhere I go. My daughter and I are among the first guests at The Hollies in the village. The man behind transforming this long-closed ghostly hotel into a glorious self-catering hideaway (sleeps 18) is East Kilbride-born Graeme McFall. “The house had been empty for 15 years – everyone in the village was really on board with something being done there,” says McFall, who is planning songwriting retreats here. “We were worried about having artisans in the area, but we found a community of excellent artisans in Cowal who really bought into what we were doing.”
New life has also been breathed into the nearby Victorian Royal an Lochan. Home to the popular Shinty Bar, it is again the where to taste ultra-local and ultra-fresh scallops and langoustines while admiring the Kyles of Bute. People come by seaplane from Glasgow for lunch.
Quality local produce is also driving the renaissance in other parts of Cowal. In the “suburbs”, at Carry Farm, I am as well received as if I arrived with whiskey in a dry ceilidh. It’s a working farm with an attached sailing school – and owner Fiona McPhail has just opened the Hayshed Gallery to showcase local ceramics and her textile designs, made with wool from the farm’s Hebridean sheep.
“Cowal is a creative place,” Fiona says, pointing to the clear waters of an aquarium at Kyles. “It seems distant, but it inspires people to reflect, to be creative in their daily lives and in their art. It feels like we small independent producers are working together, sharing our passion for Cowal.
Next to the gallery, coffees from Argyll Coffee Roasters are accompanied by products from Cowal’s Northern Lights Cakery. And Carry Farm is also home to the independent Argyll Botany Company, run by Fiona Mcguigan, which turns Cowal plants into raw, natural skincare products in a jewelry workshop.
My next stop is Kilfinan Community Forest – a 1,300 acre oasis on land once lost to industrial forestry, which stretches up the hill from Tighnabruaich. The village community has purchased and manages the land and reinvests the proceeds into recreational facilities, jobs and affordable housing. A small hydro system keeps the operation green and it has links to the Northwoods Rewilding Network, which encourages rewilding across Scotland. A network of trails criss-cross the hillside: near the Allt Mor burn, there are works of art created by local schoolchildren, birdhouses and squirrel boxes and a wildlife pond.
Growing on the western shores of Cowal I find more regeneration. The waterside Oystercatcher restaurant at Otter Ferry has just been revamped; Inver, further north at Strachur, has been praised by Michelin for its “sustainable gastronomy”. I eat at Portavadie, a former industrial complex converted into a modern marina, with plush apartments and an infinity pool. Over hazelnut-crusted halibut from Isle of Gigha, tourism manager Iain Jurgensen tells me, “We want to give back to the community and help it thrive, so we train young people and try to give them a reason to make a life on Cowal.
Cowal is a living place. A few miles up the road, I park at the Bothy cafe in Kilbride Farm for a marshy half hour south of Ostel Bay, which is not accessible by car. The effort is worth it: a crescent-shaped sandy beach stretches out before me, with the moody peaks of the Isle of Arran just across the water.
There is a longer and more tempting walk from Portavadie. The newly expanded Loch Lomond and Cowal Way now stretches 57 miles from Loch Fyne to Loch Lomond across a strip of Cowal. I’ll save that for my trip home. My last stop in Tighnabruaich is at this arch, sentry standing on the Kyles of Bute. Artist David Blair says he shaped it to “raise awareness of the scale and urgency of the climate and ecological emergency”.
I lead my daughter inside this wooden skeleton and she asks, “Did they cut trees to build the ark?” “. I tell him they did, but only because the larches were suffering from a fungal disease and couldn’t be saved. At Cowal, nature is not something to be abused or trampled on, but rather for the community to live with and thrive with.
Accommodation was provided by The Hollies (sleeps 18 from £2,250 for two nights). Secret Coast Baskets provided a basket of local produce. More information at wildaboutargyll.co.uk