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Rail and Sail

Rail and Sail to Dunoon

Glasgow Central Station 2


I skip through Glasgow Central with the excitement of knowing that I'm about to board a train that for me has always invoked a sense of utter magic. A train that will spirit me to a pier where a ferry awaits to venture across the Clyde to Dunoon. The trip is one I once made every fortnight to visit my grandparents as a wee boy. It's a journey I've not made, though, in twenty years and this time it is me leading my young daughters by the hand as I head back 'doon the watter'.

Heading Doon the Watter

The idea of heading 'doon the watter' dates back as far as the nineteenth century when Dunoon was the most fashionable holiday resort on the Clyde. Legions of Glaswegians funnelled down the river estuary on a fleet of paddle steamers. I followed in their footsteps when I was a boy, as my mum was born in Dunoon and we travelled here to visit her parents.

Heading 'doon the watter' has never been easier. We are in Glasgow Central, but are not scrambling to buy a ticket. We've just bought a 'Rail and Sail' combined ticket online. This lets you seamlessly travel all the way and back on one ticket. 

The Journey to Dunoon

My eight year daughter Tara and five year old Emma have never been to Dunoon and my wife Jenny has never spent any time there either. My mum has come along too in a quest to rekindle her childhood memories in the company of her grandchildren. Our three generations of McKelvies ease out of Glasgow Central, crossing the Clyde, which is just a narrow river in Glasgow.  By the time we find it again the Clyde will have widened into an estuary that once launched many of the world's great ships.

We skip by Glasgow Airport and then enjoy a grandstand view across to Dumbarton Castle, that great stronghold on the Clyde. I explain to the girls that it swims in tales of William Wallace, Mary Queens of Scots and rampaging Vikings. They scan the waters for Viking longships. At Gourock we seamlessly transfer to Argyll Ferries for a quick hop across the Clyde. We sit at the front and watch Dunoon loom into view, the rain not dampening my daughters' excitement at all.

Tara and Emma en route to Dunoon

Exploring Historic Dunoon

Our first stop is ascending the hill, Castle Hill, that gives Dunoon its name, for Dunoon is said to mean 'the fort by the river'. The original fort is long gone, but you can see why the site was chosen, as it offers epic views out over the estuary. My girls ask about the striking statue below us. It is of 'Highland Mary', the local lass who Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, met here and fell in love with. The Highland moniker came from her Gaelic tongue, which so entranced Burns. We're entranced too taking in the view of hill and water my mum was so lucky to grow up with.

Next we explore the Castle House Museum, which is housed in a grand nineteenth century mansion on the same hill. My mum enjoys sifting through the annals of local history, seeing pictures of Dunoon as it was when she was young and at the time when she met my dad here at the local camera club. I recognise images of the waterfront in summer, where I paddled as a wee boy. My girls insist we explore the beach too and we ramble through rock pools and skim stones.

Dunoon at the Heart of the Cowal Peninsula

Dunoon is, of course, at the heart of the Cowal Peninsula, an area these days that is becoming something of a foodie hub with excellent restaurants for example in Tighnabruich, Strathlachlan and Portavadie. There are also a sprinkling of acclaimed local food producers. If you've enjoyed the fine local produce aboard CalMac the chances are you will already be acquainted with the excellent produce from Dunoon's Argyll Smokery. Dunoon boasts a number of venues where you can sample these fresh local delights. We have lunch at The Braes. I enjoy a platter of smoked mussels, hot smoked salmon and prawns, sourced from Loch Fyne, before a main of chunky Argyll king scallops.

Cowal these days also has much to offer the adventurous. I've taken my kids cycling here on the great trails that line Loch Eck. I've also tackled the 57 mile Cowal Way , which is a deeply scenic challenge. My kids are also big fans of Benmore Botanic Garden, a brilliant protected forest park awash with towering trees. You enter this world-class reserve through an avenue of towering Redwood trees, which were planted in 1863 by Piers Patrick, the wealthy American who had bought the estate the year before. I will leave the rest of this unique oasis for you to discover yourself.

Argyll Ferries Ali Cat

Britpop Bands and Old Friends in Dunoon

Back in Dunoon we make a quick visit to my mum's old house, where her former neighbours make her day by welcoming us in for a nostalgic catch up. Then it is on to lifeblood Argyll Street. Damon Albarn of indie pop band Blur has declared himself a huge fan of Argyll Street. Blur once played a gig in Dunoon and the singer famously recalled the epic light he enjoyed on a gorgeous evening walking down Argyll Street and the great Dunoon gig the band enjoyed too. Today we are just flitting through little shops, my mum looking for souvenirs and my girls rooting for knickknacks.

Our last stop is a fitting one that perfectly rounds off the day. It is in a new shop that only opened at the end of last year. It is called, of course, 'Doon the Watter'! They don't just have any old souvenirs here, but have actually commissioned their own Dunoon themed souvenirs. My favourite are the old railway and ferry company posters that show Dunoon in its holiday resort heyday. The shop also has exhibits from the local museum, which adds some real weight to the displays, though sadly they are not for sale.

Sailing Away from Dunoon

As we cruise out of Dunoon the striking Tudor-Oriental historic nineteenth century pier eases off into the distance. My mum has enjoyed revelling in the nostalgia of her childhood just as much as the kids have savoured discovering a new place by the water and Jenny has just enjoyed a day wrapped in proper family time.

The smiles on all their faces is enough of a reward for me on my return to Dunoon. We, of course, don't have to worry about buying tickets either as we have our 'Rail and Sail' tickets, which are the perfect way to enjoy a wee trip 'Doon the Watter'.

Find out more about Rail and Sail

View more images from Robin's trip to Dunoon

I've written a few more blogs for CalMac that may help you plan your rail and sail adventures so feel free to check these out. Enjoy your day or even days out!

  • CalMac blog on the Cowal Peninsula

  • Rail and Sail to Small Isles

  • Rail and Sail to Bute

‚ÄčBio:   Robin McKelvie  has been travelling on Scottish ferries ever since he was a wee boy and writing about them and the places they serve since he became a travel writer in 1997. Robin has travelled to over 100 countries, but still rates Scotland 'as easily my favourite destination in the world'. These days, as well as penning travel articles for newspapers and magazines across five continents, Robin also writes guidebooks, does a lot of social media and also talks travel for the BBC. He also blogs about Scotland for multiple websites. 

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