Welcome to Dunoon
A little touch of America in the Scottish Highlands
Dunoon nestles by the side of the wilder, more maritime, Clyde. Sat on the outside edge of the knee bend and beside the blunt, stubby offshoot that is Holy Loch. Across Holy Loch to the north of Dunoon is the settlement of Strone and the wide, long expanse of the aptly named Loch Long. When I first moved to this part of Scotland Dunoon was probably my most visited town in reach of Inverclyde. It may not be large or seem all that significant but it certainly has its charms and share of history. The historical significance of Dunoon goes back a long way but here I decided to tell you something about its more recent history, a history that made it a little slice of America in the Highlands of Scotland.
Although my personal preference has become Kilcreggan and Cove for all the quirkiness and architecture, Dunoon is more than appreciated. I usually choose the foot ferry that leaves from the terminal by Gourock train station. With direct trains from Glasgow every half an hour or so this is by far the easiest and most laid-back way of getting to Dunoon.
It is possible to drive, crossing the Erskine bridge and using the route via the Rest and be Thankful mountain pass. This is a beautiful drive but long, you’ll likely lose half the day if you’re travelling from Glasgow. There’s also a car ferry that leaves from just outside Gourock and travels to Hunter’s Quay just outside of Dunoon. In distance this is a shorter ferry ride but it takes the same length of time as the much faster, and more direct, foot ferry from Gourock station.
Once in Dunoon you’ll find a compact town with a very medieval feeling narrow high street. Unlike today there were only a few slated roof buildings in Dunoon before the steamboat boom in the 19th century. The slightly stunted looking two story stores with apartments above uncover a mix of local life and tourism services.
I can’t help but feel that the tourists that do make it to Dunoon are either fairly local weekenders and day-breakers or the rare adventurers seeking to leave the beaten track of the NC500 or the cities. This is both a blessing and a curse. Some of that tourism business would be most welcome but getting as much as the likes of Skye would almost certainly destroy what makes the place special. Either way I still encourage people to visit.
Getting off the foot ferry in Dunoon you are met by both Dunoon Castle and a statue of Highland Mary. The castle that now stands is more of a grand house but the remains of the original castle are still explorable. There has been a castle or fortification here in Dunoon since at least the 12th Century and probably before that. The castle became a royal castle when the position was taken over by the Earls of Argyll, Clan Campbell. That’s an interesting story in itself, but one I’ll be leaving for another occasion.
Highland Mary was a woman that Robert Burns fell in love and had an affair with after he felt his wife Jean Armour abandoned him by moving to Paisley. Mary would, of course find herself immortalised in Burns’s poems The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and finally To Mary in Heaven. Their meeting and union was a bit of a whirlwind romantic tale that was brief and ended like all tales seem to, in tragedy. Mary catching a fever and dying in Greenock. Perhaps I should write something about that some time.
Suffice to say it all makes for a delightful welcome to the town. Beside the slipway the ferry utilises there is another side of Dunnon and its history, the old pier from the steamboat days with it’s once lavish pavilion and entertainment venue. Today they lie largely abandoned and seek new use.
From there it is a brief walk to the Argyll hotel, probably one of the best options for staying in Dunoon. The castle is also now a small museum and worth a visit if you’re interested in some of the local history. If you stay on the coast road there are one or two options for cafes to visit with reasonable views over the Clyde. Unfortunately Dunoon is by far on the prettier side of the river so the cafe views aren’t remarkable. There actually aren’t a lot of options when it comes to places to get a bite to eat with a view. There are, however, some good options available if your main concern is eating and drinking.
The bookshop Bookpoint has the tiniest, sweetest, cafe offering amongst it’s shelves of books, The Swallows Cafe opposite Dunoon Burgh Hall is unassuming but a pleasant place to grab a piece of cake. Inside the Burgh Hall there’s a little cafe too but I’m yet to try that. On a nice day though my favourite option is to grab a pie or sandwich and things from the local butchers and bakers then go sit by the sea front. You might even be able to grab an ice cream too.
Whilst wandering around Dunoon you’ll soon start to see some suspicious oddities. There’s the squat, barracks-like cinema with something of an Americana fascia. There’s a few other little titbits like it and on the high street there’s the 51st State Bar and Grill. All of this could be quite easily missed amongst the Scottish Baronial, Arts and Crafts, quaint seaside town-ness of Dunoon. Yet for anyone that sails and has attempted to anchor in Holy Loch to the side of Dunoon the perils below the waves can be very real. The remains of pier heads, anchor chains and suchlike scatter the floor of the loch.
During the second world war Holy Loch was used as a port for submarines and some other warships, as was much of the rest of the Clyde. When the US joined the war, space in Holy Loch was made to allow for their naval ships and supplies. This kind of relationship continued on for a while after the war until in 1961, as the cold war intensified, the Americans took over Holy Loch as a US submarine base to serve their new Polaris nuclear ballistic missile boats. The first ship to sail into the new US Navy base on 3rd March 1961 was USS Proteus, a submarine tender that had been recommissioned in July 1960 after an initial service between 1944 and 1959. She would remain there for two years but the base would be there for 30, finally being decommissioned in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The echo of the US Navy presence can seem quiet, almost unnoticeable today, but the memories live on. Stop and chat with almost any local and there’ll be stories about the American seamen and submariners that spent much of their time in this quiet little place. Where the base had most of its facilities and activity there are now artist studios, chandleries and a marina. Yachts and timber boats have replaced warships and submarines and the views are spectacular. The rising peaks of Benmore and the rest of the Cowal Peninsula are some of Argyll at its best. Just at the top of the road from the marina is a great pub that serves some of the best fish and chips in the area, especially when they’re doing their peat smoked batter fish and chips.
Just a short drive or inexpensive bus ride away is the Benmore Botanical Gardens one of the offshoots of Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh. This space is incredible though and impressively large for a botanical garden, you could almost mistake it for a regional park or something. The entire garden sits on the side of a significant hill of the Benmore range and when you get to the top the views over Holy Loch and the Clyde beyond are breathtaking. You have a decent chance of seeing buzzards around this area and there’s even an increasing chance of seeing Golden Eagles. As of yet I’ve not heard of the largest bird of prey in Scotland reaching the Cowal Peninsula but the White Tailed Sea Eagle is edging ever closer, so it might just be a matter of time.
Since I’ve been here I’ve regularly seen grey seals and porpoise during the crossing or when sailing in the area. There’s also been visits from Humpback Whales and even a pod of Orca or Killer Whales have been to visit. There is much more to this part of Scotland than is often recognised, so much so I’ve only just got started telling you about it. Next time I think I’ll take you to Strone and St. Muns church, the sight of two remarkable stories from history and one of the last working water organs.