If you only have one day to explore Loch Lomond, this wee adventure manages to fit in a variety of experiences. It’s like the National Park in miniature – and it’s an excellent choice for entertaining children too!
It all happens in and around Balmaha, a tiny village on the east shore of Loch Lomond. Balmaha is 14 miles from the flat by road, and the drive will take you around half an hour. You can also, if you want to extend your time on the water, drive to the beautiful conservation village of Luss on the west shore of the loch (10 miles, 20 minutes) and take the waterbus to Balmaha. This boat trip takes around 30 minutes, but be sure not to miss the last sailing back to Luss, as public transport from Balmaha is infrequent.
Once in Balmaha, park (I’m assuming you drove) in the large – and only – car park, opposite the Oak Tree Inn. Here you will find a National Park Visitor Centre, with useful local information and public toilets (30p at time of writing).
You now need to decide which order to do things in.
If you’ve arrived quite early, I would suggest the hill walk first. It’s quite steep, but it’s short – folk of reasonable fitness should be able to climb up and back down in around two hours. On a windy day, even in summer, it can be pretty chilly up there, so as with all Scottish hills, be prepared for adverse weather conditions.
Follow this link for a good guide to Conic Hill from the very useful Walkhighlands website. For much of the climb you are walking on part of the West Highland Way long distance route. The views behind you across the loch are outstanding, and there are often Highland cattle on the hill with you. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you! (As with most cattle, the only exception is cows with calves. Do not get between a mother and her children!)
Reaching the actual summit of Conic Hill requires a little bit of scrambling about on steep, slippy slopes – if you don’t fancy it, you won’t be missing out on much, as you can already see really good views from the main path. Conic Hill is right on the geological Highland Boundary Fault: as you ascend, the Scottish Highlands are on your left, and the Scottish Lowlands are on your right.
It’s possible to continue on the West Highland Way path as it drops off the back of the Conic and heads towards Drymen, and then walk back to Balmaha along the road, but for today’s adventure we’ll assume that you come back down the way you went up.
If you’re in need of some refreshment after your exertions, what about an ice cream?
Or a coffee? Or both? Beside the Oak Tree Inn you’ll find the St Mocha Coffee Shop & Ice Cream Parlour.
Now it’s time for a mini boat trip!
Across the road from the car park, beside the Oak Tree Inn, you’ll find a wee road leading to the water and the Balmaha Boatyard. This is where you get the ferry to your next adventure, on the island of Inchcailloch. These lovely vintage wooden boats have ferried folk around the loch since the 1930s and 1940s.
The trip takes about ten minutes, and doesn’t operate to a timetable: when enough folk turn up, it goes. Coming back is a casual arrangement, too: just tell them what time you think you’ll want to return, get to the jetty for that time, and they’ll pick you up. You can ask for their phone number, in case you find you want to arrange a different pick-up time.
You can also hire a rowing boat from the boatyard, if you want to make your own way over to Inchcailloch.
If it’s a nice day (and of course it is, or you wouldn’t be out doing this!) take a picnic lunch with you. Stroll along one of the wooded paths to the far side of the island (choice of two: a shorter one – 20 minutes, and a longer one – 40 minutes), where you’ll find a sandy beach, picnic tables and compost toilets.
A third path takes you upwards, quite steeply, to the summit of the hill in the middle of the island. Here, above the trees, you get great views of Loch Lomond.
The whole island is heavily wooded with oak trees, which were originally planted to provide tannin (which comes from oak bark) for the leather-tanning industry during the Industrial Revolution. These woods are home to an abundance of wildlife, including fallow deer, which may have been introduced by King Robert the Bruce in the 1300s. The undergrowth, especially bracken, is a favourite place for ticks to wait for unsuspecting prey: any warm-blooded animal, including you!
As with anywhere else in Scotland, after you’ve spent a day getting up close and personal with the great outdoors, do a thorough full body tick check. Ticks can carry Lyme Disease, which is on the increase in the UK and can be debilitating if not caught early. Not every tick is a carrier, and the disease responds well to antibiotics, but vigilance is advised. If you have been bitten by a tick, and you develop flu-like symptoms, go to your doctor and ask for a blood test for Lyme Disease. Many doctors are still unfamiliar with the condition: don’t be afraid to insist on the test.
Inchcailloch is a Gaelic word which means either ‘island of the old woman’, or ‘island of the hooded woman’. The Irish Saint Kentigerna, daughter of a king of Leinster, lived here as a hermit, and died on the island in 734 – almost 1300 years ago. A church, the ruins of which are still visible, was dedicated to her, and it’s probable that a nunnery (the hooded woman) was also established. The last burial in the ancient graveyard was in 1947, although the church itself fell into disuse long before that. It is a Clan MacGregor burial ground, and holds some of Rob Roy’s relatives.
So now you’re tired and happy, slightly paranoid about ticks, and getting quite hungry. What’s next? Catch the wee wooden boat back to civilisation, take a short stroll around the village, then head for the Oak Tree Inn.
After all, you’ve earned a pint and some good food!