This October, after a very frustrating and hectic year, we decided we needed a few days away in a quiet part of Scotland where we could just unwind and enjoy the simpler things in life. We are great fans of the area around Tarbert on Loch Fyne, but we go there quite often so we chose to explore a bit further south into Kintyre. Of course, most people have heard of this area thanks to Paul McCartney’s song “Mull of Kintyre”, but not many people go there as it does seem strangely remote. Coincidentally, we stayed very near to Saddell Bay where they filmed the video for "Mull of Kintyre".
The local tourist board markets Kintyre as “The Mainland Island” and this is not just fanciful PR speak. Kintyre really does have that sense of isolation and self containment that you find on an island, but the slogan has a more interesting origin in historical events. Back in the 11th century, much of Scotland was claimed as territory by Norse invaders. One particular Viking Prince, “Magnus Barelegs” (honest we aren’t making this up!), made an agreement with Scotland’s King Malcolm whereby he was allowed to lay claim to any land that he could navigate around by boat. Magnus interpreted the wording of this deal quite literally and in 1093 he had his longboat dragged across land from West Loch Tarbert to Loch Fyne. He then claimed that this was navigation by boat and that all of Kintyre was therefore his. The moral of story being to be very careful about the wording of any contract you sign up to.
As one of the closest landfalls to Ireland, the Mull of Kintyre and surrounding seas became an important highway for trade and early Christian missionaries. When you think of St Columba, you tend to think of Iona, but at Southend there are the ruins of a chapel with links to St Columba. There is also a carved footprint in a stone near the spot where he is said to have knelt down to pray after his safe arrival in Scotland from Ireland in 563 AD. We suspect that the truth is somewhat different and the story of it being related to St Columba has more to do with stimulating a medieval tourist trade from pilgrims who could also take a drink of spring water from the nearby "St Columba's Well". It is certainly true that the second footprint was added in the Victorian period by a local stonemason. However, none of this can detract from the real history of the nearby 13th century chapel which was dedicated to St Columba.
The other notable religious site in this area is a Cistercian Abbey at Saddell on the east coast of Kintyre. Very little remains of the abbey to give any real sense of the building, but even in its heyday it would not have been a large settlement. What makes the place notable today is the collection of medieval grave slabs that display fine carving of the type known as the “Kintyre School”. The slabs are displayed in a bold modern shelter that doesn’t clash too much with its serene surroundings. But Cistercian monks always did have a knack of picking locations with special atmosphere. Indeed, a common feature of the locations of their abbeys is remoteness from main centres of population, fresh running water supply and good fertile farm land in sheltered settings. Saddell ticks all those boxes.
If Saddell is too quiet for you, then you’ll need to head to the bright lights of Campbeltown. Anyone who knows their malt whisky will have heard of this town. Dufftown in Speyside is the place you tend to think of when people ask about the whisky capital of Scotland, but Campbeltown probably had the highest concentration of distilleries per square mile of any place in Scotland. During the early 1800’s there were around 25 distilleries actively producing in this small town. Only 3 distilleries remain, Springbank, Glen Scotia and the new kid on the block, Glengyle. These aren’t the most photogenic of distilleries as they are tucked away on back streets and surrounded by other buildings, but Springbank is one of the best Scottish Malts you can get. Well, in our opinion anyway!
Campbeltown also has a busy harbour full of fishing boats, but the current fishing fleet is just a shadow of the 19th century herring fishing fleet which numbered around 300 boats. Indeed it is hard to reconcile the sleepy atmosphere of modern Campbeltown with the hive of industry that existed here in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s. In those days the town had an active ship building industry, it was a busy port for the “puffer” boats on routes to Ireland and the Islands, it had a small coal mining operation at nearby Machrihanish and there was even a small train service that ran from Campbeltown to Machrihanish. Today, Campbeltown greets the visitor with an attractive seafront, but the streets and shop fronts behind the seafront are looking rather tired and rundown. There is a rather depressed air about the rest of the town and you sense that the town now feels like it is at “the end of a road” rather than being the centre of the action.
On the bright side, this is an area with great scenery and the views of Arran when you drive down the B842 from Claonaig to Campbeltown are magnificent. We have to warn you that the B842 is quite a roller coaster of a road with some incredibly steep and twisting climbs as it navigates its ways through the various glens that cut inland from the Kilbrannan Sound. One of the great attractions in the area is the wonderful Links golf course at Machrihanish Bay. This golf course is winning global recognition and an American company, realising its star qualities, has recently bought and refurbished the Ugadale Hotel (pronounced “You-ga-dale”) beside the course. If you are a golfer, or a painter, we’d recommend booking yourself a week in this hotel to take in the scenery, bracing Atlantic sea air and the magnificent clean sands of Machrihanish beach.
Interestingly, about a half mile west of Ugadale Hotel is the site where a radio mast was erected in 1906 for the purpose of transatlantic communications. The site was chosen as it offered the least obstructed route across the Atlantic between Scotland and another radio mast at Brant Rock in Massachusetts. In November 1906, radio operators here were the first to be able to listen in to a radio conversation transmitted from America. The mast has long since fallen down thanks to the battering of Atlantic storms, but, if you are interested; you can still find the concrete foundations where it stood.