WALKING ON ISLE OF KERRERA
The Southern Route
From Kerrera ferry point the visitor can choose either the northern or southern routes. The easier and most popular route is that to the south taking in a short detour to Gylen Castle. This can be walked either clockwise or anti-clockwise and is roughly five miles in total. Allow at least three hours for the walk to give some time to relax and enjoy the views although you could return via the track taken at any time. The OS land ranger Map 49 Oban and East Mull is the best to outline your route on Kerrera. There is also the Explorer 359.
Walking the circular route clockwise - reverse the directions if the anti-clockwise route is taken
Head down the shore track at the signpost to Gylen Castle. Immediately you can feel you’re taking a step back in time. Look out for wild flowers in season and buzzards overhead. On the shore you may see herons or cormorants.
Horseshoe Bay and the King’s Field
Horseshoe Bay is the first bay you come to - a safe and popular anchorage for recreational craft today but also well known as a safe haven in centuries past. Here in 1249 King Alexander lI of Scotland mustered his mighty fleet to start the invasion to reclaim the Hebrides including Kerrera which were then under the rule of Norway. He had vowed to bring the islands back into his growing Scottish kingdom. But the invasion never took place.
Legend has it that Alexander had a dream in which three men came to him enquiring as to whether he meant to invade the Hebrides. When he declared he was, the vision told him to go back and that nothing would be to his advantage if he continued with his mission. The Hebrideans say the men whom the King saw in his sleep were St Olave, King of Norway, St Magnus, Earl of Orkney and St Columba.
But Alexander ignored the warning and insisted on landing on Kerrera the following day. He was immediately taken ill - whether because of something he ate or disease is not recorded - and died at Dail Righ, 'The King's Field' that surrounds Horseshoe Bay.
With his death the expedition was abandoned and Alexander's body was taken to Melrose Abbey. Being on a Norse Island, he was ironically taken 'home to Scotland'.
Kerrera remained under Norway's rule for sometime and later in 1263 Horseshoe Bay was to house a Norse fleet of one hundred and twenty longship galleys under the command of Norwegian King Haakon 1 that sailed from here to the Battle of Largs. After their defeat at this skirmish, the survivors returned here to assemble in the Sound of Kerrera before sailing north.
Another famous visitor to the Bay was Flora MacDonald. In the aftermath of Culloden she was brought here as a Jacobite prisoner for the part she played in helping the escape of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, to await imprisonment in Dunstaffnage Castle nearby.
The tranquil waters of Horseshoe Bay are also said to hide the wreck of the Diamond, a tobacco ship that plied its trade between Oban and the Caribbean.
Little Horseshoe Bay and the Lobster Industry
The whitewashed cottages at Little Horseshoe Bay were initially built for quarry workers who were trying to re-work the slate quarries along the south shore of the island. This venture failed and lobster fishermen and traders subsequently occupied the cottages. lime Horseshoe Bay was to become the centre of the west coast lobster industry for around fifty years even supplying the Cunard transatlantic liners!
Shellfish would be packed in ice and taken to the early morning train to be delivered to Southampton on the morning that the Queens sailed to America. As you can imagine there was a great deal of communication between Southampton and Kerrera which, in the absence of a telephone link, had to be conducted by telegram. Eight telegram boys were employed in Oban Post Office and it wasn't unusual for all of them to be employed carrying orders, counter orders and amendments to Horseshoe lobster business. Finally when the telegrams for the rest of Oban started to pile up in the office the head postmaster decided it would be cheaper to install a telephone link to the island rather than employ more boys. So Kerrera became the first island to be linked into the telephone network!
Iron Age Hillock
People have lived on Kerrera since the Bronze and Iron Age. As you walk up the little hill from Little Horseshoe Bay notice an isolated rocky hillock to the south which was settled in Iron Age Times c.600 B.C. - 400 A.D. A small community would have lived here and the remains of tumbled stone walls around the exterior on the top show it to have been well defended.
After climbing up the hill you will come to a farmhouse and byre know as Upper Gylen. Carry on along the track till you reach the peak of the hill, which opens up views of higher crags to the west making up the backbone of the island.
Lower Gylen and the Tea Garden
Descending you will pass though a gate and continue winding down with another whitewashed cottage in view that is lower Gylen. This is the Kerrera Tea Garden and bunkhouse offering refreshments and good food. Just before the Tea Garden there is a grassy track through the gate off to the left. A slate signpost keeps the visitor clear. This takes you to Gylen Castle on the headland. As well as looking at the Castle be sure to take a wander down below and see the Sea Cave, Arch and reefs on the raised beach.
Gylen Castle has been the scene of intrigue, siege and bloody massacre during its lifetime, Gylen is a MacDougall stronghold, built by Duncan MacDougall of Dunollie, 16th Chief of the Clan and completed in 1582. It was known as Duncan's Fort although now takes its name from the Gylen surrounding lands.
Owned by successive clan chiefs over the centuries, it is now owned by the MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation Trust. Its stunning position perched high on the promontory of sheer cliffs commanding stunning views of the surrounding seas shows it was built with defence in mind - there are many pistol and gun loops evident in the building with good visibility all round. It may have been a Hunting Tower of the MacDougall Clan. Certainly it is an architectural gem being a rare example of a tower built in the Scots Baronial style complete with an Oriel window unique in the surviving architecture of the West Highlands. Jutting out from the Castle this window had a removable 'floor' where objects or vats of boiling water could be dropped on would be attackers. Sadly the ornate decoration of the northern face has deteriorated over the years.
But the peace and quiet of Gylen Castle today belies its short but turbulent history. Its occupation lasted only 65 years. In 1647 a Royalist garrison living in the castle came under attack from a small army of General Leslie's Covenanting Troops who laid siege to the castle for the MacDougalls' support of the King. Gylen seemed impregnable with an its defensive features.
It is not known how long the siege continued - but a lack of water is said to have been Gylen's downfall. Ironic for the west coast of Scotland! Although the castle appears to have had a natural spring within the fort itself, it must have been inadequate to supply those under siege. The Covenanters threatened all in the Castle with hanging if they didn't surrender. No doubt mindful of the massacre of many of their kinsmen in various battles throughout Scotland at that time, the garrison of MacDougalls finally gave up and their castle was set ablaze. Tragically this did not save them after they fled their burning home - all were slaughtered although tradition has it that young John MacDougall the 19th chief of the clan was spared. Gylen has remained empty and roofless ever since the great fire.
In later years, remains of foodstuffs and gaming dice have been recovered from the castle during archaeological investigations.
Turner and Gylen
So taken with Gylen and its setting was the artist JWM Turner that when he visited Kerrera in 1831 he filled no less than 25 pages of the Staffa sketchbook with sketches of the castle ranging from distant views to close, detailed studies. The romantic ruined castle and its precipitous position clearly excited him and it is said Gylen was the main reason for Turner visiting Kerrera on his tour of the west coast.
The castle has undergone consolidation with help from Historic Scotland, The Heritage lottery Fund, the Clan MacDougall Society of America and the MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation Trust. Some repair work on Gylen was carried out in 1913 during the time of Alexander James MacDougall, the 29th Chief. Latterly Miss Hope MacDougall and her sister Mrs Jean Hadfield were responsible for extensive research into the Castle. Their involvement paved the way for the present consolidation work carried out by the present Clan Chief, Mrs Morag MacDougall of MacDougall.
Sea Transport - a lifeline for island communities
In Gylen's time boats were the main form of transport and Ardmore Bay to the right was a ferry port. Kerrera itself formed the main ferry port for the ferries from Mull and the Inner Hebrides at Barr nam Boc - further along this walk. At this time Gylen lands would have been home to salmon fishers, weavers, millers, distillers and peat cutters.
Geology, Volcanoes and Glaciers
Gylen sits atop a knoll of conglomerate on a raised beach. After volcanoes erupted throughout Lorn, Ice Age glaciers carved out the area we see today. When the ice melted the land 'rose' to leave the area under the castle a 'raised beach'. You can walk on what would have been the seabed over 10,000 years ago. See the rock archway carved out by the sea and the sea cave to the east, maybe used as a dungeon or store when the castle was occupied. The nearby grass-covered pinnacles are sea stacks and wave swept reefs - tradition has it these were used as pulpits in times of religious unrest. To the west near the shoreline there's a prominent Ledge Stone From where a MacDougall is reputed to have killed seven of his attackers single-handedly.
Retrace your steps From Gylen and the shore inland to Lower Gylen and the Tea Garden. After suitable refreshment you can continue along the track past the cottage and onto the south coastal route. This gives breathtaking views out to the southern Firth of Lorne showing the islands of Seil, Insh, the Garvellachs and Scarba and the Ross of Mull and on a good day you may even see Colonsay. The track you are walking on is a raised rock platform - the beaches of Ice Age times - when water came right up to the cliffs on the right hand side! The track curves up to the right away From the cliffs and you can see a little cottage way down on your left. So important is this area geologically that it has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Children’s Graves
An interesting site off the beaten track is in a hollow near Cnoc na Faire (Grid reference 792 271 on Explorer 359 - and needs serious walking boots)
A group of stones is found here although it is uncertain what they mark. One legend says that a family from Mull who had been forced to go to Glasgow for work had the misfortune to lose their children to typhoid or cholera. The heartbroken parents decided to bring the children back to Mull for burial. In those days the main route to Mull crossed the island to Barr nam Boc, the boat then sailed to Grass Point on Loch Don on Mull. It was autumn and the weather was particularly severe. After a week of waiting the parents carried the children to a sheltered spot as close to Mull as they could get and buried them there - using the stones to mark the children's graves.
The track fords a stream and bends round to the left of Ardmore House to carry on up as a rocky path assuming you are travelling clock-wise.
Ardmore was a shepherd's house. Notice the prominent pinnacle of basalt - known as a dyke in the field in front of the house - this was a much harder rock, which stood up to the weathering and erosion that reduced the surrounding rocks.
As you ascend the hill you'll pass a little lochan on the left. Gradually a breathtaking panorama of the surrounding islands and Morvern peninsula opens up with superb views over to Mull with its highest peak Ben More and to fertile Lismore, known as the Great Garden because its limestone geology gives rise to a diverse Flora set against the backdrop of the Morvern peninsula. Further up Loch Linnhe you can see the Greag Islands, the Appin Narrows and Shuna Island, Glencoe, Ardgour and on a clear day you may glimpse mighty Ben Nevis.
Barr nam Boc Bay - an island staging post
After a mile or so a bend in the track to the right brings the visitor to descend, with the white-washed Barnabuck House on the right hand side which was once an Inn and Barr-nam-Boc Bay opening up on the left. Barr-nam-Boc means 'Ridge of the Roebucks'.
Between 1760-1860 Barr nam Boc was the terminus of the main Mull Ferry and a busy port. In those days there was no regular crossing from the mainland to Mull. The quay was constructed and a small harbour blasted out of the rocks since there was no safe landing place on the west of Kerrera. It's well worth taking the track to the left at Barnabuck House - this is not a private track - and walking down to explore the ruins of the old pier. Along the shore there are also the remains of numerous buildings. People and goods travelling to oban landed here at the new stone jetty and it was an important staging post for cattle that were landed nearby and then swum across to the mainland at Dunollie Point and on to the markets in the south. At the peak of the droving period two thousand cattle were moved from the Islands of Tiree, Coll and port of the Morvem mainland to join those in Mull and cross by way of Kerrera to the mainland. The port also had its own brewery and whisky still.
A century of traffic at this busy port was only halted when David Hutcheson - the pioneer of regular ferry transport to the Hebrides, set up the new steamer service from oban. Hutcheson's Monument - in recognition of this man's great achievements - is sited at the north end of Kerrera.
Re-join the old drove track and pass the now crumbling fanks of Barnabuck to head up the hill winding your way through Am Maolan, known as the 'Wild place'. Don't Forget to glimpse back from time to time to take in the views.
The Island’s Highest Point
For the more experienced hill walker the climb to the island's highest point is worth the effort affording the visitor spectacular panoramic views from Colonsay to Fort William. It can be accessed by taking to the hill about half a mile after the gate featured in picture 1. (An alternative route is from the eastern side of the island at Ardchoirc Farm, adjacent to the King's Field on the route south).
Keep a keen eye out on your climb for there are sightings of Hen Harriers and Grouse to be made. There's a cairn at the top - Carn Breugach.
The Lily Loch
Lochan na Circe, the Lily Loch is worth seeing when the water lillies are in bloom.
Strike off from the path up the hill.
Carry on until the northern vista comes into view, which gives a panorama including the mainland and the twin peaks of Cruachan. Down to the left that farmlands and farmhouse of Slaterich comes into view. Through the gate carry straight on to Balliemore Farm - one of the largest townships on the island.
Carry on down the hill and you will come to another gate and on the right the former schoolhouse built in 1872 with its gothic style windows. The school as such is sadly no longer, at one time the role reached 19. However when the roll fell to two pupils its days where numbered. When those two pupils went on to Oban High school it closed. The building is a memorial to AJ MacDougall, 26th of Dunollie who died of pneumonia six weeks after his marriage.
The track comes back down to the ferry point and the southern circular route is complete.
The Northern Route
Please note that there is not a circular track to follow like that for the south and much of the walking can be rough.
The path to the north of the island starts by going through the gate at the ferry pier. There is no track as such but sheep paths exist several yards above the shore line.
Contouring along the coast will bring you on to a farm road at Ardentrive that leads you through the marina to Hutcheson's Monument. This route is highly recommended since the west side of Kerrera enjoys great views across to Mull and the Lynn of Lorn.
A magnificent stone obelisk is perched high on the hill over the north entrance to Oban Bay watching over the ferry traffic coming and going. This is a memorial to David Hutcheson, who in 1835 set up a regular steamer service to the Hebrides, which became the forerunner of Caledonian MacBraynes ferries today. Prior to this the main terminal for a century of busy traffic was not Oban but at Barr-nam-Boc on Kerrera.
Climbing the hill behind Ardentrive gives good views over the marina of Oban Bay and beyond to the twin peaks of Ben Cruachan. Dunollie Castle stands sentinel at the entrance to Oban Bay. Note the 'Dog Stone' nearby - a sea stack on a raised beach eroded at its base from when the sea level was higher.
Legend has it that this was where the giant Fingal tethered his dog Bran who wore away the base with his constant pacing. You can also see prominent Oban features well from here - McCaig's Tower and the old Hydropathic which was at one point nearly complete and to have had a funicular running between it and the town! But the enterprise went bankrupt and became a quarry site from which many of the houses on Oban hill were built.
North Kerrera is now a bustling marina port at Ardentrive with a boatyard and nearby fish farming interests.
Bronze age pottery and stone implements were discovered in a cave near Ardentrive. Other treasures on the island include a Viking ship-burial discovered near Mount Pleasant house as well as Norse relics including an earth house, iron knives and carved bone pins.
On the northwest tip of Kerrera on the shores of Port a Bhearnaig, the 'Port of the Left Rock' are the crumbled walls of several buildings marked on the OS Map 'cashel' or enclosure. This is thought to be home to St. Marnock for a period of time, together with what are thought the remains of a medieval monastery.
Following round, the route also takes you close to the seal colony.
(Follow the main track up to the top. Bear right towards Slatrich Farm at the top of the steep downhill hill you can find a rough track heading to the west and North of Kerrera. This walk includes some beautiful vistas and wildlife as well as the cists indicated.)
You can follow the path top the shore and Shell Beach. Walking westwards takes the visitor along a raised beach with the old sea cliffs inland but the track soon stops. This area was the site of a busy community until around 100 years ago. It’s possible to walk over the rough ground to Barr-nan-Boc Bay.
The bay to the north of Slatrich has a gently sloping sandy beach. The cattle from Mull were brought by boat, heaved over the side into shallow water and placed in the now ruined stone wall enclosure on the south side of the bay. There they rested before facing the next part of the journey to the big Autumn sales at Stirling. This involved being swum from the North end of the island to the mainland at Dunollie.
Here also close by the shore can be seen the remains of the island's tiny corn mill, built in 1732 and were still working until 1843.
Slaterich Bay, the Neolithic Cairn and Cists
Heading eastward walking across Slaterich Bay a track appears after a little way and you can follow this and work your way round to the north end but the walking is quite difficult. Note here the Shepherd's Hat Island with its two distinct levels of conglomerate - the fall in present seas level has left the old wave platform forming a 'brim' to the hat.
A Neolithic Burial Cairn (3,500-2,000BC) is sited on a slight rise opposite the Shepherd's Hat and marked on the OS Map.
This would once have been an important site for burying the dead of the adjacent communities at that time. Nearby you can see cists marked - These are sites of small burial chambers, which date from the Bronze Age - (2000-500 BC) and were found to contain examples of pottery in use at that time. Cists were more important for burying objects of value of the deceased. One contained a complete drinking beaker - about 20cm high - with a rough triangular decoration. These objects are now in the care of the National Museum Scottish Antiquities in Edinburgh.
The islanders mainly farm sheep and many commute to work on the mainland.
The north has a busy boatyard and marina. Fish farming and fishing are important activities in the vicinity of the island. At the time of printing there are approximately 40 full time residents and four active farms, two of which rear cattle as well as sheep.
The Kerrera Tea Garden and Bunkhouse
Refreshments are available at the Kerrera Tea Garden at Lower Gylen, which is conveniently situated almost half way round the southern walk circuit. There is also a bunkhouse here, which can accommodate larger groups for self-catering. Tel. 01631 566367.
The Bunkhouse is open all year.
How to get to Kerrera Ferry:
The public ferry to Kerrera leaves from a slip two miles south of Oban along the coast road. Car Parking at the ferry. There are frequent sailings during the summer season at times listed on the notice board by the quayside. To attract the ferry please turn this board to BLACK prior to sailing times as advertised.
Ferry times and fares are posted at the ferry crossing point or download the following pdf files: Summer Timetable or Winter Timetable. Also Terms & Conditions
Location of the Kerrera Ferry - please click map to enlarge