Loch Lomond is the largest stretch of inland water in the United Kingdom, and the second largest by water volume, second only to its perhaps more famous sister, Loch Ness. At 23 miles long, it also spans 3 counties just 14 miles northwest of Glasgow, making its unique landscape, location, history and heritage as the Lowlands meet the Scottish Highlands a draw for visitors worldwide.
Its location within the wider Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park also gives it a exceptional claim to be one of the most protected areas of the UK. ‘There are more species of animals and plants in the southern Loch Lomond area than anywhere else in Britain,’ says Chris Calvey, the Head Ranger of the National Park. This is down to the fact that the Loch sits on the boundary between the Lowlands and the Highlands – which is of course not an arbitrary demarcation – it’s the location of the Highland Boundary Fault Line which marks a significant and very noticeable change in topography. In other words, this is where Scotland’s mountains begin.
It doesn’t take an enormous imagination when visiting the area to appreciate the fact that the immensity of this landscape can only really be fully appreciated from above. Starting my journey to the Loch Lomond area by climbing Conic Hill, I was able to get the first real indication of how obvious the boundary line is, with giant ridgelines and peaks stretching out ominously to the north with a gentler, rolling, moorland landscape to the south. Here, lowland animal species live side by side with highland species, such as eagles, ospreys, red squirrels and wild cats. Near my base at the Loch Lomond Waterfront Lodges at Balmaha (01360 8702144, www.loch-lomond-waterfront.co.uk), there is cleft in the rock on a place called Craggie Fort. ‘In the cleft, one hand can touch igneous rock from the highlands, and one hand can touch sedimentary rock from the lowlands,’ explains the lodge owner Charles. ‘We truly are on the diving line – it’s a very special place.’
As well as the wildlife and landscape, there are deeper, less obvious differences. Culturally, this is where traditional Highland life starts and the divide between the English and Gaelic languages. The divide is still evident in the predomination of certain family names in settlements along the Loch Lomond shoreline. Historical 17th and 18th century records show frequent attempts by Gaelic speakers to unseat the English-speaking minister of the combined parish. As with much of Scotland, this area’s history is uneasy and eccentric.
A view from the above
Getting an aerial perspective is also the best way to see the evolution of Loch Lomond’s history and its diverse geography. For more than 7000 years, people have lived here, and from the eastern shore of the Loch there are clearly visible Iron Age settlements at Strathcashell Point which forms the start of the ancient Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. From here, Ben Lomond casts a watchful eye over the greater Loch Lomond area, rising to 3,196ft with an impressive summit supported by the equally stunning Ptarmigan Ridge. The mountain clearly signals how Scotland’s landscape rises to dramatic peaks north of here.
I speak to the aircraft’s pilot, ‘all of these lands around here, they are Rob Roy’s lands,’ he says, with a smile. Rob Roy was a legendary Scottish outlaw with indeed a strong connection to Loch Lomond. He joined the Jacobite uprising in 1689 and later became a renowned as a cattle-dealer, swordsman and supporter of the poor. Near Inversnaid towards the north of the Loch lies Rob Roy’s cave – an alleged hideout along the banks of the loch that he used throughout his perhaps more nefarious years! These days, signs point the way there, and the area gets its fair share of rambling visitors.
After venturing north, we fly on a westerly track, my seaplane flight climbing out over Helensburgh, the birthplace of the famous scientist and inventor of the first working television system, John Logie Baird. Here, clear evidence of the last ice age can be seen, with large rocks and boulders known as glacial erratics visible on the shoreline at low tide – carried from inside glaciers when they melted from deep inside the highlands further north. It’s another striking indication of how the landscape around here lives on both sides of the highland/lowland boundary.
Flying across Gare Loch, I’m reminded of the area’s military history. Here, the innovative Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) was based during the Second World War. Discoveries made during this time helped enhance the technology used to make the very plane I’m flying on – Sunderland flying boats, German Heinkel 115 float planes, American PBY Catalinas and other maritime patrol aircraft were all tested and kept here for research and development. The landscape, amount of space on the water and isolated location make it perfect for testing secretive science. In the same vein, this area now plays host to the Faslane Nuclear Base at HMNB Clyde, and is responsible for the storage and maintenance of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent. From the air I get a sense of quite how remote this part of Scotland is and how we have, in the past, used this wilderness extensively for our military and political advantage.
We fly past Loch Striven, where Barnes Wallis tested his famous ‘bouncing bomb’ concept on highball bombs, some of which were not long ago recovered from the bottom of the loch. The sheer number of lochs and large expanses of water in this area is very noticeable – we’re flying towards the Cowal peninsula coast, largely covered by the Argyll Forest Park and noticeably, increasingly mountainous. From here the next larger settlement is Tarbert, and as we gain altitude, the environment around us gets more rugged, more seaward in its outlook and more sparsely populated. Tarbert has, since the Middle Ages, been seen as a strategic stronghold. It marks the beginning of the Inner Hebrides, its name deriving from the Gaelic word tairbeart, which literally translates as ‘carrying across,’ referring to the narrow strip of land between here and the rest of the greater Loch Lomond area. In the 11th century, Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, carried his longship across the isthmus at Tarbert, signifying his possession of the Western Isles. In the 13th century, Tarbert Castle was built, overlooking the harbour. Needless to say, the harbour still plays a big part in this area’s culture – the Scottish Series yacht race, which takes place in late May each year, is the second biggest yacht race Britain surpassed only by Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
We circle the Kintyre peninsula with perhaps a view that epitomises the Scottish spirit, pointing west to the captivating islands of Islay and Jura and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. This area is at no point more than 11 miles across, extending south and at its closest point, just 12 miles from Ulster in Northern Ireland. It’s no surprise therefore that is possesses a shared history dating back to very early occupation. Relics of flint tools characteristic of those found in Co. Antrim have even been found in Neolithic ruins in Kintyre.
The skies have cleared – this area’s position on the Gulf Stream make the climate here a lot kinder than a lot of Scotland. Some of the stunning beaches around the hills of Largiebaan below look inviting and warm, with turquoise seas and gently lapping waters. Without any way of getting to these areas by road, I muse how few people throughout history have probably stepped foot on these bays and inlets. As the flight heads back east towards Loch Lomond and its landing spot, these views are a stunning reminder of the intact history and unblemished beauty that makes up this part of west Scotland.