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Walk The Three Lochs Way Part 1: Balloch to Helensburgh

In this guest blog, Alistair McIntyre of Helensburgh & District Access Trust takes us on the first of a series of walks on the Three Lochs Way, one of Scotland's Great Trails.

In Part 1, Alistair walks the first leg of the route from Balloch over to the historic planned town of Helensburgh.  

This 9 mile stretch of the Three Lochs Way also doubles up as the first leg of the newly created John Muir Way, linking Dunbar on the east coast with Helensburgh on the west coast. It commemorates the 100th anniversary of the death of famous Scot John Muir, the great conservationist and father of the National Park movement in the USA, where there are now over 400 National Parks. 

As busy Balloch and the roar of traffic make way to the solitude of the ancient Stoneymollan trackway, there is that delicious feeling of adventure before us, with the prospect of fresh air and outstanding vistas ours to enjoy.

It's worth noting that most of the Three Lochs Way is set within what used to be known as the Isle West of Leven, a tract girded by mighty lochs and rivers on all sides, save for the narrow isthmus at Tarbet. Before the modern era of roads and bridges, various choices of route were available to those travelling through, but Balloch, which offered both ferry and fording-place, along with strategic location, would undoubtedly have formed a key point of passage. Stoneymollan would once have been abuzz with all manner of traffic coming and going, including great herds of cattle in the heyday of the droving trade.

As we ascend steadily, it's well worth looking back from time to time to savour the ever-changing perspective offered by Loch Lomond and the surrounding hills, including the intriguingly named Mount Misery on the opposite side of the loch, which, despite the name, is reckoned to be one of the finest viewpoints at this southern end. We should certainly not be put off by the cynic claiming that the number of times we stop to admire the scenery is in direct proportion to our level of fitness!

Just before entering the conifer plantations, it's worth looking out for a boulder to the right which has a hollow on top, thought to possibly form the socket for a stone cross. This might have related to use of the Stoneymollan as a coffin road, or perhaps to service as a pilgrimage route for those heading for Iona. Much further back in time, the Dark Age St. Modan probably came this way. Perhaps an affiliate of the St Columba School,  place names hint at his evangelising progress through Benderloch, Cowal, Rosneath and as far east as Falkirk.

The coolness of the forest may provide an opportunity to reflect that this section of the Three Lochs Way forms the final part of the John Muir cross-country trail, with Helensburgh the western termination. Climbing up to the high point of the route, short detours beckon, such as the top of Ben Bouie - a great place for lunch. Look out for the crumbly volcanic rock, known with unwitting irony as “tuff”.  

On the mid slopes of this hill, archaeologists Tam Ward and Sandra Kelly have recently been uncovering abundant evidence of prehistoric activity, including structures such as burnt mounds and charcoal lenses, and artefacts of flint, chert, pitchstone and cannel coal.

Dropping down towards Helensburgh through the former farmlands of Camis Eskan, now planted with trees, there is ample opportunity to study up this young, but already famous, town, and its truly stupendous setting by the Clyde.

©Alistair McIntyre

 Find more ideas for Loch Lomond, Trossachs and Clyde Sea Lochs walks and trails.

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