One of Scotland's most famous beauty spots, Loch Lomond, can now be enjoyed in full by tourists thanks to £60m of visitor facilities. And as we found out, it's helped the locals, too
Whether by high road or low, getting to Loch Lomond's shores has never been as easy as the song suggests. Most of the shoreline is private property, frustrating the 7 million tourists that pass by each year.

As a result, tourism earnings in the depressed lochside town of Balloch are 25% below the national average, even though it sits at the edge of one of Scotland's most famous beauty spots. "It was the missing piece in the jigsaw of Scottish tourism," says Nick Cowie, communications manager for Lomond Shores, a £60m development that will finally give visitors access to the waterfront.

Due to open next March, Lomond Shores consists of a trio of buildings set amid woodland on the loch's southern tip at Balloch.

The smallest of the three buildings is a glass-clad orientation centre designed by Bennetts Associates, which contains an exhibition for visitors to the Loch Lomond National Park. The second, a low-slung 90,000 ft² retail centre, has yet to be built. The third building is an eight-storey, stone and white-rendered drum set on the shore, which Cowie describes as a "modern castle".

Looming over the dark water, the massive structure is an unexpected, yet appropriate, addition to the waterfront. "There's a tradition of big buildings along the lochside," says Cowie, pointing to the severe castle at Balloch and hefty Victorian residences dotting the shore.

The £20m castle serves two functions: it is a watchtower that offers startling views across the water towards distant Ben Lomond, and a visitor attraction complete with a huge Imax cinema and other assorted "experiences" aimed at daytrippers.

Given the client's requirement for a 360-seat auditorium, and its expectations of about 1.2 million visitors a year, castle architect Page & Park Associates of Glasgow decided to stack the accommodation vertically into a 25 m turret, rather than let it sprawl horizontally. "It's such a significant volume, there's no way you could hide it on site," says project architect Chris Mummery. "We wanted to keep it like a traditional Scottish tower so it would not be so dominant. So we raised the auditorium and used the space underneath."

Visitors enter through a cedar-clad portal into the ground floor entrance hall, where a 15 m high, north-facing glass wall affords spectacular views over the water. At the centre of the hall is the building's structural highlight: a cast concrete "tree" with six tapered boughs radiating from a single point at ground level to support the 22 m span floor of the auditorium above. It also braces the glass wall with a filigree lattice of steel twigs that keep the mullions in check.

After watching the shows and films, visitors ascend to the roof to enjoy further panoramas from a glazed gallery shaped like a ship's bridge. They descend via a series of stepped galleries that give an almost 360º view of the surrounding countryside.

Built of insitu reinforced cast concrete, the building's immense form is broken up by windows, indentations, steps and flat planes randomly gouged into its body to reduce its bulk. The upper part is rendered in crisp white, while the lower portion is encased in a lopsided jacket of Dunmore granite.

But the fortress finish is no flimsy veneer: the stonework is 500 mm thick and was laid by skilled drystone wallers from the Highlands and Islands. "We used just about everyone in the country with drystone walling qualifications," jokes Cowie. The huge, circular rampart rises to a maximum height of 18 m and would have represented one of the most ambitious drystone structures ever built; however, to remove any risk of structural instability, the stonework is mortared and backed by 200 mm of concrete.

If the castle is Lomond Shores' monumental statement, the rest of the development is remarkably unobtrusive, with buildings, access routes and car parks hidden amid dense planting.

"It's pretty much a landscape-led masterplan," says landscape architect Keith Stead of Ian White Associates. A pebble beach has been created, a lagoon enlarged and a sweeping boardwalk put along the shore that connects the castle to the orientation centre. The 1100-space car park, surrounded by planted banks, will be almost invisible once the saplings mature.

The sensitive location meant the construction process had to be highly environment-friendly. "We relocated the fishes and the swans," construction manager John Duncan of Amec Scotland says proudly. "It's a unique building. It's going to be her e for a long, long time."

Project history

The Lomond Shores project began in 1995, when the 30 ha quarry looked set to be turned into an executive housing estate. Realising this was the last opportunity to acquire land for a visitor centre, client Scottish Enterprise Dumbartonshire stepped in. It pumped in £13m of public funds and £7m from the European Union to pay for the castle building, remediation and landscaping. Masterplanner Ian White Associates was appointed first, with Page & Park selected following a design competition. To guarantee delivery on time, the client opted for a construction management contract administered by Amec. Relations between Amec and the architect were good throughout, although Page & Park project assistant Malcolm Mitchell says that the rapid sequencing of the subcontractor packages meant that some quality was sacrificed to meet the programme. Slight errors in tolerances on early packages were not discovered until later, meaning last-minute alterations had to be made to get things to fit. Mitchell adds: “We had to make fairly significant cost savings. Because earlier cost packages had been set, savings had to be made out of later packages.” Amec construction manager John Duncan says the greatest technical challenge the team faced was maintaining tolerances on the radius when casting the 25 m-high, curving concrete walls. The project was completed on budget and almost on time. However, the time pressures on the job turned out to be somewhat academic, since work on the retail building that will complete the tryptych of structures – and which planners would not allow to open without the completion of the visitor attraction – has not yet started on site.

The little glass building

Bennetts Associates’ National Park’s Orientation Centre is the architectural opposite of its bulkily fortified neighbour. “Effectively it’s a non-building,” says project architect Doug Allard, referring to the way the two-storey pavilion, fully glazed over a steel frame, melts into the surrounding woodland. With its cantilevered deck jutting out over the water, it looks as if a barge designed by Mies van der Rohe has unexpectedly beached during a storm. Two thirds of the building is given over to a double-height exhibition space, while the remaining third provides a floor of offices upstairs and public facilities downstairs. The two sections are connected by a staircase that juts out beyond the curtain walling, the only point at which the geometry of the box is broken, and the only architectural flourish on what is an otherwise extremely restrained and low-budget building. The pavilion exhibits Bennetts’ trademark green credentials, but with the most economical means. “It’s not a sophisticated building management system. If it’s too hot you open the window,” says Allard. Materials are also selected for environmental reasons, and there are many local or recycled products. The floor is laid in local Caithness stone and the green oak screen separating the pavilion from the forthcoming retail building is storm-felled timber from France. “It’s local rather than Scottish, sustainable rather than parochial,” says Allard, summing up the philosophy.