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Dunstaffnage was the summer home for Calypso off and mostly on from 1988 until 2010, and now it is for Pickle. Not because it is of huge interest to the cruising yachtsman, but because it is the closest place to Edinburgh to keep a boat on the west coast (and you can get here by train as well as car). What is more, it is quick and easy to get in and out with no tidal problems – turn right for Lismore and Loch Linnhe, straight ahead for the Sound of Mull, turn left for the Firth of Lorne. But don't try and enter under sail unless there is a lot of wind or you have the engine on, because the wind dies at the entrance and there is more often than not a strong tide against you.
For the visitor there are some pluses. First, it is a convenient place to change crew who can get here by train, bus, car, or even private plane to Oban airport (a rather grand name for a mere airstrip at the mouth of Loch Etive in North Connel). But, from 2017, the pontoons at Oban are even more convenient. Second, there is a bar, with real ale, and a restaurant which goes up and down in quality - The Wide Mouthed Frog - (ph 01631 567 005). The views across the bay from your dinning table are great, and they have rooms too if any of your crew want to sleep in a proper bed for a night. Third, you can stock up with anything you need in Oban, just a ten minute taxi drive away. Or go by a rather nice walk over the cliffs via Ganavan bay, or by the Sustrans cycle track from Dunbeg (through very pretty oak and birch woodland) which takes a bit over an hour. And, finally, Alba Sailing, a charter company, has a good selection of chandlery, and is very helpful. The one negative is the sound of the main road but even this does not drown out the seductive cooing of the eider ducks in the spring, and certainly not the oystercatchers.
In 2010 a very pretty garden centre called Poppies opened just next to the marina (in the green shed north of the big house); it does excellent café style food (great meringues, the best in Scotland) but sadly not in the evenings. Unfortunately you do have to walk round to it by the main road with no pavement, or better take the dinghy straight there (ph 01631 564 700). It is buzzing which goes to show what enthusiastic people can do with this sort of establishment. Not surprisingly it is now winning awards.
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Dunstaffnage Bay from the castle
The marina from the air, before the breakwater pontoon was added
However, what people are in danger of missing is on the other side of the bay. Dunstaffnage Castle, originally another MacDougall stronghold but owned by the Duke of Argyll since the late 15th century. It is a small but splendid semi-ruin, its massive and almost complete stone walls seeming to grow straight out of the huge plug of volcanic rock. It is well worth a visit, especially for the views from the castle walls overlooking the bay - "a most splendid prospect" according to Walter Scott in 1814. Also plenty of latrine chutes to amuse the children, and they will enjoy playing hide and seek too. It was begun in the 13th century and, as usual, various bits have been added and fallen down over the centuries until it was more or less abandoned after a fire in 1810. It is now lovingly looked after by Historic Scotland. The 16th century crow-stepped harled house on the top is owned by the hereditary keeper, the so-called Captain of Dunstaffnage who lives near by. He allowed it to fall nearly to pieces, perhaps because of lack of cash. It had been in real mess, but in 2012 Historic Scotland gained some sort of control, nicely restored it, and in 2014 opened it to the public. A small triumph. At the moment it is empty but acts as a useful place to shelter from the rain. In the future there are plans to mount exhibitions there. Personally I reckon it would be a great place for a party, but I doubt if the Duke would allow it. Above the ticket office there is a room with a nice model of what the castle might have looked like in its prime.
Very near by, in the woods, is the now roofless 13th century Dunstaffnage Chapel which is also worth a visit. Bits of gothic architecture remain, but the burial aisle to the east is an 18th century addition for the Campbells of Dunstaffnage. All this is surrounded by delightful deciduous woodland with loads of bluebells in the spring, and rabbits anytime. A wander around here on a warm sunny day is a definite highlight of any Hebridean tour; views of the bay with Connel bridge and Ben Cruachan in one direction and the Firth of Lorne in the other. The one negative is the sound of the main road but even this does not drown out the seductive cooing of the eider ducks in the spring, and certainly not the oystercatchers.
The not completely unattractive modern building in the corner of the bay hosts the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory, Scotland’s only fundamental marine research institution. For the many scuba divers keen to explore the wrecks and underwater scenery, it has the advantage of a hyperbaric oxygen treatment facility, hence the coming and going of rescue helicopters although less often than in times past - maybe the divers are getting safer, or have moved off to warmer waters. Their Ocean Explorer Centre, an outreach facility of SAMS (The Scottish Association for Marine Science) opened in late 2013, a marine visitor centre definitely worth a visit, and it's free. It may be small but it has plenty of stuff to ponder over, and for children too. You can play at being a marine scientist by donning a white coat and then peering down a microscope at various algae, examine the mapping of the seabed of the Firth of Lorne, look at pictures from the under water camera in the bay, the three dimensional globe, and the moving picture showing the ocean currents of the world. And view some short movies. All good interesting stuff, plus a small café. This is all part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. Only 20-25 students a year, so terrific contact with the scientific and teaching staff. Very unlike some well known universities where classes of 200-300 are lectured at.
"The castle is built upon a rock, at the mouth of Loch Etive, whose waters expand within, to a beautiful bay where ships may safely ride in all weather" John Knox 1787
A young 'marine scientist' in the Ocean Explorer Centre