On the deck of the Kayla Emma, Mark McLean’s rubber-gloved fingers are holding live, orange langoustines caught fresh from Loch Creran.
“These are wee prawns and they live in wee mud holes. They like to come out at sunrise and sunset,” he says, as I admire their orange hue. The crustaceans — known as prawns on the west coast of Scotland — are caught in creels, wicker baskets that Mark ties to a rope and fixes to buoys in the tidal sea loch. Since he’s creeling and not trawling (which involves dragging anything up from the seabed) he can be selective about the shellfish he takes from the water. “I know myself what size they should be and I don’t keep anything that’s not good,” he says. “On average, I’ll take around 400 — plenty on a wee boat on your own.”
Mark was born and raised in the nearby seaside town of Oban, working with his father before getting a boat of his own. It’s a spectacular place to work: behind him, woodland and heather-covered hills unfold down to the shore, guarded by the peak of Beinn Sgulaird, the mountain at the head of the loch. It’s the landscape that Mark missed most while studying electrical engineering at college in Glasgow in 2006, ultimately answering the call of the sea and returning to Oban. “I love the freedom of being my own boss in my boat, creeling for the best prawns in the world.”
I’ve come to meet Mark with Angus MacNeil, a chef who’s married to Mark’s sister Julie. Together Angus and Julie run the Barn Bar, a pub and restaurant in Lerags Glen — just outside Oban — where Mark drops off fresh langoustines every few days. As we drive there, we pull in at the side of the A828 at a little wooden lean-to. There’s a blackboard chalked up with ‘Caledonian Oysters, £10 a dozen #freshlyyours’. There’s a blue cool box with the words ‘enjoy raw or cooked’ written on it and an honesty box in which to leave your money. I’ve come at the instruction of a chef friend in Glasgow, who believes these are the best oysters in Scotland. They’re Pacific oysters, grown from seed, which means they’re enclosed in mesh bags and attached to metal trestles on the seabed. The oysters are turned at low tide every so often and take around three years to reach full size.
At the Barn Bar, I grapple with shucking etiquette. Angus shows me how, sliding the point of the oyster knife in at the narrow end of the hinge where the two halves of the shell meet, gently twisting until it eventually cracks open. As I struggle, he plunges the langoustines into boiling salted water for just a few minutes. He chops up a shallot for a mignonette, makes a quick garlic mayonnaise for the langoustines and we take them along with a platter of oysters to a table on the grass. Angus tackles his prawns very differently than I do: expertly, he pulls off the claw, and deftly manages to slide the tender meat out in one go.
The oysters really are some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and the langoustines astonishingly good. “Being so fresh out of the water and cooked to order, the meat should be incredibly delicate,” says Angus. “They’re just fantastic, aren’t they? The taste of them is so sweet.”
They’re far from the only treat on my trip through this sprawling region of lochs, bays and islands around two hours from Glasgow. I stop on at Botanica at The Barn, just outside the town of Tighnabruaich, to pick up crab claws and mussels to eat on the sand after a freezing swim at Ostel Bay (also known as Kilbride Bay), a crescent-shaped beach backed by sand dunes that can only be reached by a 15-minute walk across the marshes. With views across the Firth of Clyde to the Isle of Arran, it’s a glorious spot for a picnic.
Argyll rewards hungry travellers at every turn. Later, driving along the winding, single-track roads that skirt the edge of Loch Fyne, I pass roadside signs offering free-range eggs, vegetables and soft fruits. On the B2000 between Otter Ferry and Strachur is a wooden shed with an honesty shop stocked with fresh flowers, preserves and garden-grown fruit and vegetables. A drive round Loch Fyne, through Inveraray and Lochgilphead, takes me to the Crinan Canal, where I pause at Polly’s Coffee Stop, a horse box at lock 10, selling coffee, home-made cakes and soup, and also offers blankets to borrow for a picnic.
At Ardfern, near the shoreline of Loch Craignish, I stop at Lucy’s, a bright cafe, bakery and gift shop where chef Lucy Gladstone brings a little bit of what she ‘enjoyed doing in Paris in London’ to Argyll. “Having been brought up here on an organic farm, I knew the abundance of amazing produce and always wanted to move back here and cook,” she says. The menu is full of local produce: sourdough toast with homemade marmalade, smoked trout sandwiches, Mull cheddar toasties with pomegranate slaw. Her creative daily specials make the most of Argyll’s bounty from land and sea and on Fridays she offers a seafood ‘takeaway’ — oysters, prawns, mussels, fish and chips — to enjoy at home or eat on tables outside.
I stop at the Ardfern Village Store to buy bottles of thick, creamy milk from the Wee Isle Dairy, located on the Isle of Gigha, before making the short drive to Kilmartin Castle. Dating from the 16th century, the stone building sits at the edge of a glen carved by the glaciers of the last ice age and is home to hundreds of ancient monuments.
The castle was in a parlous state when its vibrant new owners Stef Burgon and Simon Hunt followed their gut in 2015 and turned it into a B&B. The restoration project took years and much of the back-breaking work was their own, but now they have a rustic-luxe castle, a wild swimming pond and a beautiful outdoor entertaining area with kitchen and barbecues. The organic gardens are planted with kale, courgettes, rhubarb, carrots and celery (for bloody marys), there’s a wildflower meadow and orchard of apples, pears and mulberries, too. Stef uses much of her own produce in her breakfast dishes (she serves two courses with freshly squeezed juice) and the couple sometimes host pop-up dinners within the thick walls of the dining room.
Stef and Simon join me for a wee dram beside the grand hall’s roaring fire, and Simon brings me a platter laid with meat from Great Glen Charcuterie, some Scottish cheeses, oatcakes and strawberries. The Scottish singer Amy Macdonald is on the record player, aptly singing ‘This Is The Life’. The glow on the pair’s faces isn’t just from the fire; they’ve not long come in from a day in the garden. “Renovating the castle has been both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time,” says Stef. “We turned our lives upside down to do it, but it was the best thing we ever did.”
Where to eat in Argyll
Chef Pam Brunton and her partner Rob Latimer have created something special in Strachlachlan, on the shores of Loch Fyne. There’s a lunch, à la carte and tasting menu, with highlights including Loch Creran oysters and whole Loch Fyne crab with hot brown butter and sourdough bread. The tasting menu changes but can include Argyll venison with chanterelles, and a dessert of rhubarb, beeswax and heather honey. Three-course lunch from £25 per person, seven-course tasting menu is £79.
This Oban restaurant is a tasting menu-only affair courtesy of owner-chef John McNulty and manager-sommelier David Lapsley. The choice is between ‘land and sea’ and the vegetarian ‘from the land’. Dishes might include Fort William-smoked salmon and Kilmelfort sea trout tartlet or Zwartbles hogget with purple-sprouting broccoli. An apple soufflé, with Earl Grey ice cream and bramble sauce, is for afters. Six-course tasting menu from £95, without wine.
The menu changes almost daily at this restaurant a few miles from Tighnabruich. All produce is sourced in Argyll and some of it’s available in the little shop. Dishes can include a local seafood bouillabaisse — with mussels, langoustines, squat lobsters and brown crab — and Tarbert-smoked kipper with horseradish and roast tomato. Three courses from £28 per person.
Five foods to try in Argyll
1. Smoked fish
Argyll is full of smokeries. Look out for delicate smoked trout and salmon, smoked mussels and prawns, as well as various cheeses.
2. Herb-infused salts
In her home kitchen, Petra Hurska produces salts blended with fresh herbs, including award-winning garlic salt and wild garlic salt.
Known locally as prawns, they’re sweet, tender and juicy — try to eat them freshly cooked and as freshly landed as possible.
You’ll find the family-owned Fyne Ales on a farm at the head of Loch Fyne, with a ‘brewery tap’, shop and courtyard beer garden on site.
How to do it
Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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