Argyll's rocky seaboard looks out onto islands that were once part of a single prehistoric landmass. Here narrow roads wind around natural obstacles, slowing travel but forcing you to see and admire the lochs, the woods, and the ruins that hint at the region's dramatic past. Highlights include everything from grand houses such as Brodick Castle and gardens such as Crarae to the excellent walks on the small western isles. This is whisky country, too: the distilleries on Islay should not be missed. Distances are relatively small, as the area is within three hours of Glasgow.
Divided in two by the long peninsula of Kintyre, western Scotland has a complicated, splintered coastline. Looking out onto the islands and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, it is breathtakingly beautiful, though it often catches extremely wet ocean weather. Locals say that you can experience four seasons in a single day, and cliffs and woods can suddenly and dramatically disappear and reemerge from sea mist. Oak woods and bracken-covered hillsides dot the region, and just about everywhere you'll encounter the bright interplay of sea, loch, and rugged green peninsula.
Ruined ancient castles like Dunstaffnage, Kilchurn, and the towers on the islands of Loch Awe give testimony to the region's past importance. The stone circles, carved stones, and Bronze and Iron Age burial mounds around Kilmartin and on Islay and Arran are reminders of even earlier periods, when prehistoric peoples left their mark here. More recent grand houses, like Inveraray Castle and Brodick Castle on Arran, are not really castles but grand houses built by the nobility when the times of conflict between them are largely in the past. Their grounds, nourished by the temperate west coast climate, contain great gardens that are the pride of Argyll. Crarae, south of Inveraray, has winding paths through plantings of magnolias and azaleas, and Ardkinglas Woodland Garden boasts an outstanding conifer collection. The surprising tropical plants of the gardens on the isle of Gigha testify to its mild climate.
The working people of Glasgow traditionally spent their family holidays on the Clyde estuary, taking day trips to Dunoon or Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Carrick Castle and Benmore Garden are a short trip from Dunoon. From Ardrossan, farther down the coast, ferries cruise to the prosperous and varied Isle of Arran.
Western Scotland's small islands have jagged cliffs or tongues of rock, long white-sand beaches, fertile pastures where sheep and cattle graze, fortresses, and shared memories of clan wars and mysterious beasts. Their cliff paths and loch-side byways are a paradise for walkers and cyclists, and their whisky the ideal reward after a long day outside. While the islands' western coasts are dramatic, their more sheltered eastern seaboards are the location for the pretty harbor towns like the brightly painted Tobermory on Mull, or Port Ellen, with its neat rows of low whitewashed houses, on Islay. Arran is often said to be Scotland in miniature, the rich green fields of the southern part of the island giving way to the challenging Goatfell in the north.