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Museum brings Argyll's ancient history alive; Linda Battison takes an eagle-eye look at Scotland's impressive Coastline of the Gaels.

Mid-Argyll straddles the tourist route from Lochgilphead to Oban.

At its heart is Kilmartin Glen, an area carved out by the last great ice age, with steep-sided valleys and diverse landscape.

The best way to appreciate the topography is from the air; fortunately the audio visual presentation at Kilmartin House (centre for archaeology and landscape interpretation) provides a "virtual" helicopter ride over the Glen giving wonderful eagle-eye vi ews of the surrounding countryside.

The impressive hill fort of Dunadd was once the centre of Scotland's ancient kingdom of Dalriada.

This was the capital of the "Scots" tribe from Ireland who colonised the area we now know as Argyll (its Gaelic name is "Earraghaidheal" - the coastline of the Gaels).

It's easy to imagine how it would have looked back in the sixth century, surrounded by water. The raised beaches show the ancient water level and are clearly visible from the cafe tables at Kilmartin House; a wonderful backdrop for the green oak conserva tory and delicious home-made food.

The museum exhibits are pretty impressive too. At least 150 prehistoric sites lie within six miles of Kilmartin House.

There are enigmatic carved rocks, standing stones, burial cairns and other fortified sites, including Carnasserie Castle.

Since its opening last year, the museum has won a clutch of awards and quickly established itself on the visitor trail. It's open all year and fully justifies its brochure claim to bring Argyll's ancient past alive.

As part of a day trip, try combining Kilmartin House with a visit to Crinan Canal. This nine mile short-cut to the Western Isles is popular with yachtsmen, avoiding the long passage round the Kintyre Peninsula.

Among its most famous users were the Clyde Puffers - cargo vessels made famous by "Arahandy" and the "Vital Spark".

The last time I stopped off to admire the view, "Vic 32" a much-loved local "puffer" was in the canal basin. I just had to cross the lock gate and have a closer look.

Incidentally, there are eight locks between Ardrishaig and Carnbaan which lift boats to 64 feet above sea level. A further seven locks between Dunardry and Crinan lower the boats back down.

I'm not sure what the fascination is, but I could stroll along the tow path watching lock gates being opened and closed for hours.

Of course, the views from Crinan are unbeatable and the food on offer at the Crinan Hotel is first class, so The Duke of Argyll, who built the canal, can't take all the credit.

Co-incidentally, the Duke of Argyll had just finished building his luxurious castle at Inveraray when he floated the idea for the canal. A short drive from Crinan, the 18th century castle is today one of the West Highland's principal attractions. Indeed, this pretty town on the shores of Loch Fyne harbours more than its fair share of tourist attractions and has become a hugely popular holiday village in its own right.

If you've older children with you Inveraray Jail (a 19th century prison brought to life by actors who take their roles very seriously) is a must.

The replica village at Auchindrain Highland Township, south of Inveraray, gives a fascinating insight into Highland life in past times and should interest the whole family, as will the Maritime Museum aboard the Arctic Penguin, moored at Inveraray Pier.

For the youngsters, Argyll Wildlife Park rarely disappoints and I've always managed to trade off a visit there with at least an hour enjoying the Himalayan delights of nearby Crarae Gardens or a tour of the fine tapestries, antiques and works of art in I nveraray Castle.

Further south, at Lochgilphead (the administrative headquarters of Argyll) the children can be let loose at the new swimming pool while you explore the factory shop at Highbank Porcelain.

There's a lovely gallery in the town centre, and a number of local studios nearby, selling handmade craftworks. The town is also home to award-winning Alba Smokehouse.

Smoked Scottish salmon, trout, shellfish and kippers are available for purchase and make unusual gifts.

Finally, no visit to this area is complete without a foray into the forest.

Forestry is one of the main industries in Mid-Argyll and many of the woods are open to the public. Crinan Wood, accessible from Lock 14 on Crinan Canal, is a two hour walk, admittedly quite steep in places, which takes you through some glorious ancient w oodlands.

The views out to the Dorus Mor and the whirlpools of Corryvreckan more than compensate for any breathlessness.

If you can't face the climb, the Canal tow path provides a gentle alternative walk.

If you want someone else to take the strain, saddle up a horse and go trail riding from Castle Riding Centre at Brenfield Estate at Ardrishaig.

Or you can hop on one of Gemini Cruises boat trips from Crinan harbour and watch the world go by at leisure.
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Author:Battison, Linda
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 8, 1998
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