I took a trip to Scotland’s ‘secret coast’ – and found a quiet haven roaring back to life

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The remote Cowal peninsula, extending into the Firth of Clyde, is not the sort of place you’d expect to find artisan coffee roasters, outdoor infinity pools and modern outdoor sculpture. Take it from me: my mum was born here, in the faded Victorian resort of Dunoon. Outside shinty circles – those familiar with the local hockey-like game – “the secret coast” is little known, even in Scotland.

But a spotlight shone briefly on the village of Tighnabruaich last November, when artist David Blair’s vaulting 20-metre-long, six-metre-high Ark of Argyll – designed to raise awareness of the climate emergency – was visited by delegates to COP26. I’d heard about other new ventures breathing life into Cowal, so turned away from the Scotland of queueing campervans on Loch Lomond and went to investigate, with my 10-year-old daughter in tow.

The coastal village of Tighnabruaich
The coastal village of Tighnabruaich. Photograph: John Peter Photography/Alamy

The bumpy, often improbably scenic, often single-track A8003 leads to Tighnabruaich, pronounced “tee-na-broo-ich”. Until the road arrived in the 1960s, waterways once sailed by Viking warriors and Celtic kings were the best way of getting here. In Tighnabruaich’s golden age, its Victorian pier buzzed with thrashing paddle steamers bringing Glaswegians “doon the watter”, in the days before cheap flights diverted them to the Spanish costas.

“We may be just two hours from Glasgow, but it’s like another world,” beams Eve Macfarlane, who set up Tighnabruaich’s Argyll Coffee Roasters in 2018. The more I see, the more I agree: Cowal is a world of gnarly hills cloaked in ancient Atlantic oak woodland, and lent a cinematic drama by narrow waters on both sides: the sinewy Kyles of Bute to the south, and Loch Fyne to the north.

As we wander Tighnabruaich, I spot kids playing shinty by the waterside stadium, despite the temperature being just a touch above freezing. The local shinty team, Kyles Athletic, is the only side outside the twin Highland villages of Newtownmore and Kingussie ever to have lifted the Camanachd Cup. That youngsters are interested is a positive sign for a village that – like much of rural Scotland – has struggled to retain younger blood. And the more I look, the more green shoots I see sprouting everywhere.

The Hollies:
The Hollies: a Victorian residence that is now a self-catering hideaway. Photograph: Robin McKelvie

Tighnabruaich Gallery is run by a couple who fled Glasgow a decade ago to raise their young family here, with work from the burgeoning local artist community on the wider Cowal peninsula featuring prominently. And that idea of community crops up wherever I go. Daughter and I are among the first guests at The Hollies in the village. The man behind the transformation of this ghostly, long-shut hotel into a glorious self-catering hideaway (sleeping 18) is East Kilbride-born Graeme McFall. “The house had been empty for 15 years – everyone in the village was really supportive to see something done to it,” says McFall, who is in the midst of planning songwriting retreats here. “We were worried about getting tradesmen in the area, but we found a community of excellent craftsmen in Cowal who really bought in to what we were doing.”

New life has also been breathed into the Victorian Royal an Lochan hotel nearby. Home to the popular Shinty Bar, it’s now once again the place to savour ultra-local, ultra-fresh scallops and langoustines while gazing out over the Kyles of Bute. People come by seaplane over from Glasgow for lunch.

Hayshed Gallery, on Carry Farm in Argyll
Hayshed Gallery, on Carry Farm in Argyll. Photograph: Robin McKelvie

Quality local produce lies behind the renaissance in other parts of Cowal, too. In the “suburbs”, at Carry Farm, I’m made as welcome as if I’d just arrived with whisky at a ceilidh that has run dry. It’s a working farm with a sailing school attached – and owner Fiona McPhail has just opened the Hayshed Gallery to showcase local ceramics and her textile creations, made with wool from the farm’s Hebridean sheep.

“Cowal is a creative place,” says Fiona, pointing at the aquarium-clear waters of the Kyles. “It feels remote, but it inspires people to think, to be creative in their everyday lives and in their art. There is a sense of us small independent producers working together, sharing our passion for Cowal.”

Next door to the gallery, coffees at Argyll Coffee Roasters are accompanied by produce from Cowal’s Northern Lights Cakery. And Carry Farm is also home to independent Argyll Botany Company, run by Fiona Mcguigan, who transforms plants from Cowal into raw, natural skincare products in a bijou workshop.

David Blair’s 20-metre-long, six-metre-high Ark of Argyll
David Blair’s 20-metre-long, six-metre-high Ark of Argyll – designed to raise awareness of the climate emergency. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

My next stop is Kilfinan Community Forest – a 1,300-acre oasis on land once lost to industrial forestry, which stretches up the hillside from Tighnabruaich. The village community bought and manages the land and ploughs revenue back into recreational facilities, jobs and affordable housing. A small hydroelectric scheme keeps the operation green and it has links with the Northwoods Rewilding Network, which encourages rewilding throughout Scotland. A network of trails ramble over the hillside: by the Allt Mor burn, we find artwork created by the local schoolchildren, bird and squirrel boxes and a wildlife pond.

Pushing on over to Cowal’s western shores, I find more regeneration. The waterfront Oystercatcher restaurant at Otter Ferry has just been revamped; Inver, further north in Strachur, has been hailed 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 the island of Gigha, tourism director Iain Jurgensen tells me: “We want to put something back into the community and help the community thrive, so we train up young people and try to give them a reason to make a life on Cowal.”

Kilfinan Community Forest
Kilfinan Community Forest. Photograph: Robin McKelvie

Cowal is a life-affirming place. Just a few miles down the road I park at the Bothy cafe at Kilbride Farm for a boggy half-hour yomp south to Ostel Bay, which isn’t accessible by car. It’s worth the effort: a crescent-shape sandy beach unfurls in front of me, with the Isle of Arran’s brooding peaks just across the water.

There’s a tempting longer walk from Portavadie. The newly expanded Loch Lomond and Cowal Way now runs for 57 miles from Loch Fyne to Loch Lomond across a swathe of Cowal. I’ll save that for my return trip. My last stop back in Tighnabruaich is at that Ark, standing sentinel over the Kyles of Bute. Artist David Blair says he fashioned 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 down to build the ark?”. I tell her they did, but only because the larch trees were suffering from fungal disease and couldn’t be saved. In Cowal nature is not something to be abused or trampled upon, but very much for the community to live with and thrive alongside.

Accommodation was provided by The Hollies (sleeps 18 from £2,250 for two nights). Secret Coast Hampers provided a hamper of local produce. More information from wildaboutargyll.co.uk