Lochgoilhead Carriage Road
Start location: B839 at entrance to Hell's Glen (NN 191 051)
End location: B839 north of Lochgoilhead (NN 199 022)
Geographical area: Argyll and Bute
Path Type: Civil Road
Path distance: 3.25km
Accessibility info: Suitable for pedestrians
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Having come south over the "Hell's Glen" road (B839), this old route starts after the steep hair-pin bend, and just before a bridge over the River Goil. There is a wide parking area, a Forestry Commission notice: "No Unauthorised Vehicles" and an (unlocked) metal gate.
As far as Drumsyniebeg, which is occupied and well-maintained, the route is a good hard vehicle track. At the house, continue straight ahead through a rather rickety gate, through a field of rushes to another similar gate. After this the track is very boggy but is distinctly fenced on both sides until it enters the wood. Here it becomes a drier narrower track until it rejoins the B839 at a right-angle bend at a second bridge over the River Goil.
This route was marked as a road in Roy's Military Survey of 1747-55, rather than the present day road (B839) on the east side of the River Goil. From Kenlochgoil the old road passes through Drumsingybeg before heading towards a settlement marked by Roy as Little Hell's Glen - the label of Hell's Glen being reserved by Roy for the larger glen, today appropriately enough labelled as Gleann Mor. However, by the time of the Ordnance Survey 6" first edition map, the modern line is also clearly shown; by the second edition the latter road is demarcated with mileposts to St Catherine's where a ferry crosses Loch Fyne to Inverary.
Routes through Argyll were formerly far more direct than they are today, as in the past ferry journeys over the many lochs would have been utilised. This carriage road heading north from Lochgoilhead towards Inverary seems a logical extension to the route of the Duke's Pass over the Ardgoil peninsula (Inverary being the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll), although of course ferries over Loch Fyne and Loch Long would have been needed. We're informed that the inn at St Catherine's was rebuilt as a coaching inn in 1756. However, this older section of the route to Inverary may have been superceded in the early 1800s, when plans to aid the fishermen of Loch Fyne by improving communication links to the south resulted in new roads for Cowal including the Hell's Glen route from Ardno to Lochgoilhead - in this case the new road appears to have been a realignment of an older route. Perhaps the logic of the original line can be understood as it is reported that the new bridge on the Lochgoil road fell five times - bridge building was difficult and thus a significant factor in a route's location. Lochgoilhead early became an important stop for the Clyde paddle steamers, but it remains unclear whether it is the original western route that was being used by travellers heading north or its replacement on the east side of the river.
It has also been speculated that pilgrims would have used this route when visiting Iona. They would have needed yet more ferries over Loch Awe and the Sound of Kerrera before getting to Mull. The Loch Fyne ferry to Inverary from St Catherine's is said to have provided free transport for peasant, the blind and pilgrims. We are informed that a record exists relating to the purchase of a ferry boat in 1680, but a plaque above the door of the former hotel at St Catherine's (the Old Ferry Inn) indicates that it received its charter as an Inn in 1460. Additionally, an adjacent 15th century chapel and holy well are said to have been frequented by pilgrims - the history of long-distance travel via this ferry, and thus probably the old road, stretches back a long way indeed.
At the northern end of Hell's Glen lies another piece of superseded roadway where the B839 meets the road to Strachur (A815), but here the re-alignment happened in more recent times. At the former junction, now marooned a few tens of yards to the north, lies one of Scotland's Travelling peoples' most precious sites - the Gypsy Wedding Place. Also known as the Tinkers' Heart, this arrangement of white quartz stones embedded in the ground has seen christenings, weddings and the blessing of the dead.
However, the Tinkers' Heart is vulnerable. Although recorded by RCAHMS, the site has no formal protection. The Heart has been at risk before - when in 1928, road resurfacing work covered it, objections led to the tar being removed. As of April 2014, serious concerns were again being raised about its future; it had been trampled by cows and a supposedly protective fence was reported to be in a degraded condition. Although that fence has since been replaced by something more robust, it is felt to be unattractive and not at all fitting, and as such the Tinkers' Heart is not being accorded the respect it deserves.
Jess Smith, a story-teller and one of Perthshire's Travelling people, submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament urging that the Tinkers' Heart be protected; when it closed at the end of May 2014 almost 1200 signatures had been collected.