Written by Lynsey Oxton
Inveraray is a Georgian town in the Argyll and Bute region. It was first established in the 1770’s as a commercial and legal centre by the 3rd Duke of Argyll who had a castle built, suitably befitting of his status and supposedly ‘away from the riff raff’ of the neighbouring towns!
Today, there is plenty to attract us ‘ordinary folk’ to Inveraray, not least it’s prime location on the western shores of the amazing Loch Fyne. As soon as you first set eyes on Inveraray, it is apparent why it’s described as ‘picture book’.
Upon arriving, we had a walk around the town to acclimatise. It didn’t take long to see all that was there – the place is tiny! Tiny but pretty.
Despite its size, there are a handful of independent shops selling gifts and handmade trinkets, a whisky shop, a couple of confectionery shops and a fair amount of pubs and eateries on Main Street. Buildings are black and white and at the top of the street is the old church. Inveraray jail is also in the middle of the village (but more about that later).
Having struck lucky with the weather, we grabbed an ice cream and took a short walk along the pebbly shore – before then dropping into the newly opened beer garden in the George Hotel. Ice cream, beer, sunshine – quite the perfect afternoon. Hic!
Whilst on the subject of the George Hotel, we had heard wonderful things about the home-cooked pub grub, so naturally tried it out. It’s all true. I can most definitely recommend their fish and chips and my better half can recommend the craft ale selection!
The most popular attraction in Inveraray is the impressive castle, which stands tall between woodland and loch. It is the headquarters of Clan Campbell and still home to the current Duke of Argyll (the 13th), his wife and three children.
For the historians: The Campbells are believed to be British stock from the Kingdom of Strathclyde, having arrived in Argyll as part of a Royal expedition c.1220. In fact, they are said to have sided with the English army (the Government’) during the Jacobite rising, providing the weaponry.
The castle was built in 1745 but the first public opening wasn’t until 1953, when it became fashionable for stately homes to open their doors to us mere mortals.
For just a small fee of around £12, visitors can tour the castle, admiring the grand entrance hall, taking in the artistic detail in the state dining room, looking at the tapestries in the drawing room and viewing the weapons on display in the armoury hall. The servants quarter was also open during our visit.
For the ghost-hunters out there, the MacArthur room is said to be the most haunted room in the castle; a place where music can apparently be heard when a member of the clan is about to die! Eeeek! The room also featured on the television programme ‘Most Haunted’, where spooky things happened, such as the bed moving on its own. Needless to stay, I didn’t stop in there long.
Yes, this neo-gothic castle is definitely impressive in anyone’s book – and it’s famous too. Some of you may recognise the castle from the 2012 Downton Abbey Christmas Special. Let me jog your memory….
It goes without saying that any visit to Inveraray must include a visit to the castle! Like many of the attractions in Scotland, in the current climate you need to make sure you book your tickets online in advance. You won’t gain entrance unless you do. You’ll also find that there are no guided tours at the moment either – but if you’re like me, you’ll prefer to wander around in your own time anyway.
The pretty, landscaped gardens are also open to the paying public. There’s 16 acres of garden and woodland in the grounds to explore if you have the inclination. Apparently, those with eagle-eyes might even spot woodpeckers, red squirrels, tawny owls and deer. They must have all been hiding when they saw me coming. No surprise there.
Inveraray Jail and Courthouse
If the castle is the number one attraction, Inveraray Jail is a close second – and is an award-winning museum to boot. Charging £11.50 per person, your admission allows you to step back in time and experience the changing prison conditions from the medieval times, up until the 19th century, when it eventually closed its doors.
Conditions were dreadful for the prisoners in the jail – not just men and women, but children too. If being locked up in dingy cells wasn’t bad enough, torture was commonplace, with the whipping table and the ‘thumbscrew’ device still there for visitors to see now. Ouch!
Over the years there were many escape attempts (only twelve were ever successful) – so much so that even the locals took turns in guarding the prison!
Visitors can explore both the ‘old jail’ and ‘new jail’, where conditions went from dire to slightly less dire. The ‘old jail’ existed from 1820 until 1849. Petty thieves and the criminally insane were locked up together in squalid conditions, with just eight cells. No ‘prisoners rights’ and PlayStations in those days…
The new jail, built in 1848, was designed for male prisoners only and increased the amount of cells to twelve. The new jail also housed a semi-circular court. Part of the museum includes a re-enactment of a court case, complete with judge and jury (comprising a load of Spitting Image type puppets!)
The new jail was considered to be a ‘model prison’ in its heyday, with toilets on each floor, rooms for the warders and an area for prisoners to exercise. A place that aimed to rehabilitate, rather than punish.
Unlike the ‘old’ jail which was cold and damp, the new one was lit and heated by gas. It also had a large barred window at the end of the corridor looking out to the loch. If you weren’t already insane, you soon would be!
The jail closed in 1889 as it was ultimately considered expensive to run in comparison to larger prisons. The court continued to meet infrequently until that too was finally closed in 1954.
Under normal conditions (non-Covid), visitors can try out old hammocks in the cells and other exhibits. Obviously that has all been removed for now. Nonetheless, if you have a spare few hours, be sure to book your tickets and see the jail for yourself as there’s still plenty to see. I promise, you won’t take your freedom for granted ever again!
After a busy day of castles and jails….
….treat yourself to a meal at the best seafood restaurant in Inveraray – ‘Samphire’. It’s not just me that says it, Trip Advisor ratings are through the roof! Not surprising once sampled. I couldn’t write the blog without mentioning this fab little place.
As this was our last night of road trip, we thought we would have a proper blow out and ordered the ‘Taste of the Loch’ sharing platter. If you love seafood, look past the price tag and just go for it.
I think you’ll agree, it’s mighty impressive. I’m proud to say, we made light work of it, helped by a bottle of rose wine.
Whilst desirable, you can’t always eat to excess without putting in a little bit of exercise. There are multiple walks from the centre of Inveraray that you can take – from long walks to short walks – and muddy routes to dry routes.
We found a two hour walk online that suited our plan for the day, starting at the castle grounds, going through farms, brooks, woodland and ultimately climbing up 600 foot to great views across Loch Fyne.
Slightly more ambitious walkers might choose to walk 800 foot up to the monument on Dun na Cuaiche. 600 was quite enough for me, especially in the unexpected heat!
Where to stay?
Last but definitely not least, I can’t recommend the guest house we stayed in enough. If you’re planning to stay in Inveraray, you can’t go far wrong with the old church – Newton Hall. Be sure to ask for the Lismore room which has fantastic views of the loch and a skylight to see the stars. The room also had a jet tub, with the same wonderful loch views from the bath too. Great room, great hosts, great Scottish breakfast, great location.
Well, well – we most definitely saved the best for last with Inveraray! True, the good weather may have influenced this? The quiet, out of season atmosphere may too have influenced this? – but rain or shine, it’s undoubtedly a hidden gem.
We will be back!