|Distance:||98.6 miles (158.7 km)|
|Meets:||A82, A814, B828, A815, A819, A816, B8024, A8015, B8026, B8001, B842|
|Old route now:||B842|
|Route outline (key)|
The A83 is a major road in Argyll, Scotland. It links two of the most remote areas of mainland Britain, Cowal and Kintyre, with the rest of the country.
The A83 has become my all-time favourite road, and I have only driven it once. The reason why will become apparent as I go on, but in the meantime lets mention a few keywords: lochs, mountains, long straights, sweeping bends, empty, fun! Its also a very well engineered road, and apart from a few short sections is a decent width all the way down.
Argyll is threaded by very many long narrow lochs, most running north to south, which are a legacy of the last ice age. Most of them, like Loch Fyne, are sea lochs (fjords) but some, like Loch Lomond, are fresh water lochs, cut off from the sea by silt or moraine dumped at the mouth. The A83 threads a path connecting several of these lochs, before running along the shore of Loch Fyne and almost the entire length of the Kintyre peninsula.
Section 1: Tarbet - Inveraray
The road starts at Tarbet on the banks of Loch Lomond at a TOTSO for the A82. Most traffic turns right here for Rannoch Moor and Fort William, so after the long slow crawl up Loch Lomond the sense of relief at losing most of the coaches and caravans is palpable.
Two miles along and the road dives under the West Highland railway at Arrochar. The A814 down the side of Loch Long to Garelochhead and the home of Britain's nuclear submarines goes off here - if coming up from the south why not turn off the A82 onto the wonderful A817 then come up the coast to join the A83 here?
Off we go onto the actual A83. We start by winding our way round the head of Loch Long so that Arrochar becomes visible across the loch to our left - but not for long as we turn right and climb up Glen Croe. A classic Scottish mountain pass with cloud-tipped mountain peaks on one side and an indeterminable drop on the other. On the way up the hill, look out for a small forestry car park on the right. This is the start of an abandoned section up the hill, still resplendent in fresh looking tarmac in places!
At the top is a viewpoint called Rest and be Thankful where the single track B828 to Lochgoilhead goes off. The main road immediately starts its descent down Glen Kinglas towards Loch Fyne. Before long, it takes a wide curve down the hill, with the little stone arch of Butter Bridge on the left, part of the old military road that was built through here in the middle of the 18th century. Beyond, the old road is often visible on one side or the other, and as we descend towards Cairndow it runs parallel to the modern route, just a few paces through the undergrowth.
We pass the A815 which is the first of the "Ferry Turns". The A83 has two sets of distance signs - those on the road, and those reached by ferry. The A815 heads for the Cowal peninsula, leading to Dunoon (and the ferry to Gourock), as well as the Kyles of Bute Ferry and the Tarbert ferry to Kintyre (no, not the Tarbet 12 miles behind us, the Tarbert 50 miles in front of us - this one has an extra "r" so that you can tell the difference). We then bypass the village of Cairndow and sweep around the head of Loch Fyne, crossing Inverfyne Bridge, then over Garron Bridge at the head of the stumpy Loch Shira before coming into Inveraray. The view of the town on the approach is breathtaking, and you should get time to enjoy it as you pause, waiting for the lights to change at Aray Bridge.
The first "big" town we come to, Inveraray is populated by several white-fronted hotels, and the A819 goes off to the right through an archway between two of them - this road runs up Glen Aray to the A85 and Loch Awe. Meanwhile back in Inveraray, the A83 splits to run on either side of the church before joining the coast again at Inveraray's Newtown!
Section 2: Inveraray - Tarbert
We run inland for a while now until we reach the charmingly-named town of Furnace where we regain the lochside on and off all the way down to Lochgilphead. On this section we pass several settlements (Sandhole, Crarae, Minard, Tullochgorm) which consist of nothing more than a loose collection of large houses/mansions set back from the road. Each settlement has a bus stop so that the thrice-daily Glasgow - Campbeltown bus can drop you here.
Just like the smaller Loch Shira before it, Loch Gilp is a small bay off the main Loch Fyne. Lochgilphead itself has no less than 3 roundabouts to stop the mass of traffic passing through from crashing into each other. The 3rd one marks the junction with the A816, which has come down from Oban. The A83 TOTSOs here, and heads south with Loch Gilp on one side and the Crinan canal on the other (which connects Loch Gilp to Loch Crinan on the Atlantic coast). We cross the canal at Ardrishaig, a busy fishing community.
South from here and we're back onto the lochside, with the National Grid sharing the narrow ledge to run power down the peninsula. We pass one end of the single-track B8024, which runs in a big loop around the other side of the peninsula without going anywhere in particular. For us the next big town is Tarbert, which is a big ferry town for these parts. Tarbert looks more like a Cornish fishing village than a Scottish town - the loch is very short and narrow, and with its craggy cliffs it looks more like a bay. Anyway, Tarbert has its own A road (the A8015) for ferry traffic which wanders half a mile down the quayside of East Loch Tarbert to the terminal. Ferries run to Loch Ranza on Arran and Portavadie on the Cowal Peninsula (where you can drive back to Glasgow via the A83, or take more ferries to Bute or Gourock).
Section 3: Tarbert - Campbeltown
The A83 now runs onto the Kintyre peninsula, which hangs limply off the main part of Scotland. For the first time we also hit the western side of the peninsula. Soon we meet Kennacraig ferry terminal (ferries for Port Askaig on Islay, with connections onto Jura and Colonsay, and to Port Ellen, which is also on Islay). South of here we really are out in the wilds. There's the odd settlement/petrol station/post office dotted about, but that's it. We soon pass the B8001, which leads to Campbeltown via the inland side of Kintyre. The main road continues along the Atlantic coast, and gives us stunning views out across to Islay and Gigha (which is reached by Ferry from Tayinloan which we bypass).
On our right now is the Atlantic, with no land between us and North America. Still we pass occasional settlements of lonely looking (but rather grand) houses, and hopeful hotels offering wonderful views to the few who stay there. On our left is the unexplored mystery of Kintyre, with nothing but footpaths crossing the interior. The road is now flat, wide and completely empty. Other vehicles, when you see them, can be overtaken without pause and we charge southwards.
Finally (after about 25 uninterrupted miles) we turn away from the coast and make a bee-line for Campbeltown which sits on the eastern side of the peninsula. As we pass inland we run close to Campbeltown's airport, which used to be RAF Machrihanish. This tiny airport has a massive 3.2 mile long runway, and during the cold war housed Vulcan bombers, US Navy SEALS and the SAS. There are also allegations that the airfield hosted America's top-secret prototype spy plane the Aurura (giant flying triangle - in black of course).
Campbeltown comes into view, and with it the end of the A83. The town itself is a bustling community, and it's surprising at how busy its streets are. The road ends at a T-junction on Main Street, which is the B842. To the left is Campbeltown Loch, where a European-funded ferry terminal stands rusting after the ferry to Ballycastle in Northern Ireland (14 miles!) stopped running just after they finished the terminal a few years ago. There is, however, currently a Summer-only trial ferry running from here to Ardrossan in Ayrshire.
In fact, originally the A83 did not end here but turned right to head out of town to end at the fork in Stewarton, where (as is still the case), the B842 turned left and B843 right. Stewarton is a place of no importance so there seemed no reason why the A83 should end here rather than in the relative metropolis of Campbeltown. As such, the A83 was truncated back to its current southern end in the 1970s.
To get from Campbeltown to anywhere you have a choice of driving like we just have (and it's taken a good 4 hours from Glasgow), spending all day on the bus, or taking an expensive flight to Glasgow (journey time 10 seconds, give or take!). We're further south than Ayr, yet have to go all the way back up to Loch Lomond to head any further south. Well, you can head slightly further south along the B842 to the aptly named Southend and the Mull of Kintyre (think Paul McCartney and the pipe band) from where County Antrim should be visible on a clear day, but that's it.
As for us, its back up the A83. This is the reason why I think this is the best A-road anywhere. No only does it have staggering scenery, wide open roads with no traffic or cops to slow you down, not only does the journey feel like an odyssey, but when you get to journey's end you get to do it all again!
Original Author(s): Ian Bailey, T1(M)
Rest and be Thankful
One of the most famous areas of the road is Rest and be Thankful. Once an area where horses could rest after a climb and riders could thank the Lord the horse had made it (hence the name) it is now a parking area and viewpoint maintained by Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
A little to the east of the Rest and be Thankful junction, the road is frequently hit by landslides. Due to the steepness of the hillside, there is no easy engineering solution, but at least the closure in 2009 was significantly shorter than the closure a couple of years before in the same spot.