A Grand Tour of Cowal with Paul Murton

Paul Murton.

It is the spectacular and serene scenery of the Cowal peninsula, just an hour or so from the hustle and bustle of Glasgow, that provided broadcaster and writer Paul Murton with what he describes as his happy childhood. “It was my nursery and playground,” explained Paul who grew up in the east Cowal village of Ardentinny on the banks of Loch Long, “and I had a great degree of freedom to go out and explore the landscapes that enveloped me.

“I was out climbing or messing about on the water from an early age long before the era of health and safety. I still recall hitch hiking up to Arrochar at the age of 13, something you wouldn’t dream of doing these days. It was that innocent spirit of adventure that I still embrace to this day. It feeds into every TV programme and series I’m involved in. I will never cease to be fascinated by the landscapes and the people that make up Scotland. There’s an endless amount of stories to be told. Back in my younger days Dunoon was a very different place with over four thousand US servicemen based at the naval base. I recall playing basketball and softball at school as well as shinty and football. The base has gone now and it’s all a wee bit less frenetic. My parents ran a hotel in Ardentinny and some of the guests they had would fascinate me with their stories of adventure including one larger than life character who had traversed the continent of Antarctica. All of these influences only increased my desire to go explore,” added Paul who spent much of his career directing marque TV dramas including The Bill, Casualty and Holby City.

The enchanting Scottish landscape

Holy Loch. Photo: Emma Legge.

The mean streets of Sun Hill and chaotic hospital wards of Holby were swapped a while back for a return to his roots. He describes himself on his Twitter profile as “a wanderer by trade who looks for lost horizons”. That wandering spirit has often got the better of him with countless hitch-hiking adventures across the length and breadth of Europe and numerous summits surmounted. Paul’s adventurousness has been channelled and manifested into an ever-growing list of BBC TV programmes and series about the enchanting Scottish landscape including Scotland’s Clans, Grand Tours of Scotland, Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands, Grand Tours of Scotland’s Lochs and Grand Tours of Scotland’s Rivers.

In every episode the affable Paul, with his trademark Tilley hat, effortlessly interweaves the Scottish legends, myths, people and landscapes into a rich tapestry that leaves the viewer enthralled. It’s a beguiling mixture of self-deprecation, humour and genuine interest. When it comes to his old stomping ground Paul has profiled Historic Kilmun, often described as the Rosslyn of the West, and the nearby Benmore Botanic Garden on his TV travels as well as the Lauder Monument. These are all landmarks that have a relevance that resonates far beyond their immediate geography.

Both Historic Kilmun and Benmore are popular stopping off points for coach tours with thousands of folk getting a fascinating fix of history and horticulture every year but there are so many other intriguing landmarks and people associated with this wee corner of Argyll including Ardentinny Beach, Kilmun Arboretum, Puck’s Glen and the forested tracks and trails of Glenbranter. These spots and many more are encapsulated within the ECHO (East Cowal Heritage Outdoors) Trails and all have their own stories to tell.

Special place

Paul went on “I recall Historic Kilmun, then known as St Munns church. Every day the school bus that took me to Dunoon Grammar School would stop outside. The daughter of the minister would get on. It was fair to say she was a wee bit less religious than her father! Loch Eck, just a short trek from the stunning Benmore Garden with its golden gates, is a place that will always be special. There are so many myths associated with this body of water. Stories of kelpies and other creatures abound. Loch Eck also had a big part to play in Victorian times with the arrival of the paddle steamers. It is a body of water with a lot of tales to tell as well as incredible views in the watery stillness. The hills and mountains in this part of Cowal might not be the biggest on the west coast but their steep slopes create a feeling of encasement that is rarely matched. Back in the Victorian era there were many paddle steamers shuttling up and down the Clyde towards the Holy Loch and Dunoon. The entrepreneurs of Glasgow could leave their grand villas at 7am and be at their desks by nine. It’s a bit more tricky these days!”

Benmore Botanic Garden.

There are effectively two routes into Dunoon and Cowal. There’s the passenger and car ferries from Gourock and then there’s the imposing and, occasionally unpassable, Rest and Be Thankful pass on the A83 between Arrochar and Cairndow.  “This part of the world does feel a bit like an island at times but there are so many reasons to visit and it is not just a gateway to the Highlands but a destination in its own right. It’s moulded and influenced me with its magical landscapes. I’d encourage folk to take in this special place on their own grand tours of Scotland!” concluded Paul. That spirit of wander and wonder that Paul infuses into all of his TV projects found its genesis in the hills of Cowal and Dunoon. No wonder it was a happy childhood!

The Cowal peninsula plays host to two key annual events this Autumn with the Cowalfest (Oct 12-16) walking festival making a welcome return after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic and the recent Cowal Open Studios (COS) artists’ network holding their ‘open studios weekend’ (Sep 22-25). To find out more about these two landmark weekends visit www.cowalopenstudios.co.uk and www.wildaboutargyll.co.uk/cowalfest where you can book your places on any of the scheduled Cowalfest walks and events.

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