Oban and Kintyre

Oban is deceiving. When you look on a map, it seems to be a large town and important port, and the most important hub of the Western Highlands. It definitely makes for the best base to explore the mountains and other places discussed later in this post. The only downside to this is it gets really busy in summer. But while it certainly is the largest town in the region, with a population of only 8,500, calling it ‘large’ is pushing it – this makes it three times smaller than my hometown, a place which is in no way significant. But, to re-use the title of a TV programme that sums up the entire British attitude to housing, it’s location location location that makes the town a significant draw.

The waterfront at Oban. The water in the bay brushes against a brick sea wall, behind which is a road lined with brick buildings three of four storeys high. The land rises to the back and there's a weird circular structure with arches in the background at the top of the hill.
The waterfront at Oban

Its name comes from Gaelic, and means ‘Little Bay’, as it lies on a curving bayside. Gaelic is still spoken in this area, albeit not by many people, and most of the road signs West of Loch Lomond are in both languages. It’s also one of the two major mainland ports (the other being Mallaig, much further North) for ferries over to the Outer Hebrides, the only part of Scotland where Gaelic still has a significant hold. Large car/passenger ferries can be taken from here to Castlebay on Barra – a five hour ride that passes by Ardnamurchan Point, the westernmost spot on the Great British mainland.

Aside from Barra, Oban is an important transport/connection hub for much of the rest of the region. Other ferries can be caught from here to many of the Inner Hebridean islands, including Mull, Colonsay, and Islay. It’s at the end of a long railway line from Glasgow, and the two major roads in the region meet here.

A jetty at Oban. There's a couple of boats on the water that might be going to a seal colony, as a large sign on the sea wall advertises. In the background is a ferry going to one of the Inner Hebridean islands.
The waterfront at Oban

For its size, there’s a relative glut of B&Bs and hotels to choose to stay in – mostly fairly identikit converted townhouses but perfectly comfortable and worth exploring. Dunollie Road in particular is full of them, and of course if you’re on the right side of the building you could even be lucky to get a view out to sea. Disclaimer: on my most recent visit to Oban, I did not have that joy.

With regards to eating, I’m in no way a traveller who yearns for haute cuisine, but as befits a Scottish port, seafood is widely available here. In particular, a stall close to the entrance to the ferry terminal serves up a good variety of daily catch, including pots of prawns and seafood sandwiches, all nicely fresh and just what you need before catching a five-hour ferry to Barra.

Mussels in a bowl, and a wrapped selection of prawn sandwiches, on an outside table at Oban ferryport.
Mussels in a bowl, and a wrapped selection of prawn sandwiches.

Its main raison d’etre however is whisky. The Oban Distillery was founded in 1794 and the town just grew from there; the distillery still exists in the town centre and is open for tours and visits, whilst along the high street there are a number of spirit shops selling all manner of whiskies at prices from ‘I’ve never tried that so be gentle’ all the way up to ‘I don’t think I’ll open that; call it an investment’. Indeed, whisky seems more popular than seafood here – though of course it’s perfectly acceptable to have both.

Oban town centre. Centre view, slightly in the background, is the Oban Distillery, complete with chimney. Other buildings are around, including a bright pink one on the right of shot. Road in foreground, that weird circular structure on the hilltop in the background again. What is that strange structure?
Mussels in a bowl, and a wrapped selection of prawn sandwiches.

One of the most notable sights is the weird circular stone ‘tower’ (it’s more of a ‘circus’, like the Colosseum) on top of a hill overlooking the town – a ‘folly’ called McCaig’s Tower that seems to have been built to provide work for local stonemasons but McGill himself never revealed its purpose & died before it was finished.

McCaig's Tower, close up. Grey stone bricks, lots of archways, a circular structure, standing on a green hill. A wide path goes through a large entranceway.
Close-up of the entrance of McCaig’s Tower. It’s clearly not a tower.

Other ruins, much older, are scattered around Oban. Just like the Hebrides, this area has been inhabited for millennia. A couple of examples lie just off the road on the way to the Kintyre Peninsula.

The Kilmartin Stones – a series of gravestones piled in a glorified shed in a graveyard. They have all manner of strange symbols on them.
Some of the Kilmartin Stones

In the village of Kilmartin is a church with around 80 mediaeval gravestones decorated with warrior symbols. These ‘Kilmartin Stones’, as they’ve been called, date from the middle ages, and their provenance is uncertain – they’re not engraved with any words, just decorative motifs. Nearby are a couple of small ruined castles – pretty much the whole gamut of historical buildings in a couple of square km.

A stone cairn just off the path, under the trees. It looks a bit like a beehive.
An example of a stone cairn

The wider area is also home to a large number of iron-age and older sites, including cairns and standing stones – indeed Kilmartin Church itself is just the most recent incarnation of religious celebration on this site. One such lies a little further south, and are known as the Nether Largie Standing Stones. This particular complex dates from around 2500 BC, and stand near to another ancient stone circle. Like many similar places across the UK, no-one’s quite sure why they were erected – whether to identify a meeting place or maybe they acted as a form of calendar – but these are also close to a number of burial sites.

Two standing stones of pre-iron-age origin, standing in a field of sheep. It's very misty and damp.
Nether Largie Standing Stones. There are more than two of them but I was stood at a distance and the others had people milling around them.

By the way, the reason for the misty picture taken at distance is because the weather was very damp and the pathway to the stones was deeply flooded – other people braved the walk but I was both welly-less and towel-less. Remember, always know where your towel is.

This has always been my confusion – given the proliferation of ancient sites around the edges of Scotland, either the weather was drier and warmer in ancient days, or the ancient Celtic peoples were somewhat bloody-minded and masochistic; there are easier places to live than here, the Outer Hebrides, or the Orkneys.

A couple of miles further on is the Knapdale Beaver Trail, by Loch Barnluasgan. In the mid 2010s, there was a managed trial to reintroduce beavers to this part of Scotland, which seems to have been deemed a success. Although the trial ended in 2016, the legacy is a beautiful walk through the forests and by the loch, where it’s possible (albeit unlikely) to see the beavers, along with other endangered creatures like red squirrels and otters.

Loch view, flooded slipway and some reeds in foreground, grassy bushy and foresty inclines on the far side of the loch. Blue skies.
View of the loch at the Knapdale Beaver Trail. Image taken by my friend Elly.

Further south still is the village of Tarbert, This is one of Scotland’s most natural harbours, lying on a narrow isthmus between two lochs, and it acts as a kind of ‘gateway’ to the Mull of Kintyre (please, no music). It’s a long journey to get here from the rest of Scotland – the shortest route to Glasgow passes by a spot called ‘Rest and be Thankful’ some 50 miles northeast. This is so named because it lies at the top of a long and steep climb, and is itself quite remote; in bad weather, after one of the regular landslides, or following an accident, the diversion to avoid it adds on a further 25 miles to the journey. I imagine in the height of winter it’s a harsh place to live, but it has a certain calm charm typical of Scottish seaside villages – everyone seems to know each other & the place oozes a certain friendliness.

Colourful buildings at the edge of the harbour at Tarbert. Behind them the land rises up a hill range. The reflection of the buildings is visible in the slightly rippled but otherwise flat water.
Tarbert harbour-front, complete with pretty coloured buildings.

The site has long been considered important – there’s records of a fortification here as long ago as the early 700s, while in the late 1000s, the Viking King Magnus Barefoot (no relation. His name, also transcribed ‘Barelegs’, may be reflective of his habit of not wearing long trousers into battle) ‘carried’ his longship across the narrow land bridge as a means to loophole the Scots King (who’d said he could claim for Norway any territory he could sail around) into accepting him as King of the ‘Southern Hebrides’. Indeed the town’s name comes from this common practice, from Gaelic ‘Tairbeart’, lit. meaning ‘carrying across’. By the way, due to the landscape of Scotland, there are somewhere between 15 and 20 other ‘Tarbets’ or ‘Tarberts’ in the country.

In the early 1300s, another notable King (Robert the Bruce, no less), granted this Tarbert a royal charter, which ensured the town really took off. He was also responsible for turning the fort into a proper stone castle, which stood until the mid 1700s when it fell into disrepair, the locals nicking their stone for their own purposes.

Ruins of a stone tower/castle on the right of shot, atop a green hill. Behind, and to the left, are the loch, some islands, and distant hills, mostly covered in trees.
Tarbert Castle. Look at the view it commands!

Naturally enough, Tarbert’s main industry has been fishing. To the East lies Loch Fyne, long noted in the rest of the UK for its seafood (especially herring, mussels, scallops, & huge langoustines). Indeed, in 1900, 88 4-crew boats (skiffs) were registered here – a huge number for such a small harbour town. Each of these skiffs were around 9m long, so you can imagine the harbour was more boat than water at times. But there were a lot of fish to catch; it’s believed the record haul in one day was set in the 1930s, when nearly 900 tonnes (20,000 boxes) of herring were caught in the nearby inlet of Loch Gair. These days, although much smaller, the local fishing industry is still amongst the healthiest in the UK, and Loch Fyne has become a byword for quality.

Seafood at a restaurant on Loch Fyne. It mainly consists of several langoustines, wider than the plate they're served on. There are also a plate of scallops, salad, lemon, and whisky in shot.
Loch Fyne seafood – Langoustines and scallops. And a whisky, obviously.

Once you get down into the Mull itself, there is very much a feel of a very long, but picturesque, dead end. There are pretty much only two roads on the peninsula – the main A83 along the western side and a much smaller road that runs along the eastern side, down the Kilbrennan Sound that separates Kintyre from the Isle of Arran; Loch Fyne starts at Tarbert.

It's not a hugely interesting picture. A tall wall of stones, rising out of shot, stands on a slightly muddy grass field. In the centre of shot is an doorway opening in the wall, sunshine coming through, looking out onto a farmer's field.
One of the remaining walls of Skipness Castle. Image taken by my friend Elly.

On the eastern side of Kintyre, not far south of Tarbert, are the remains of Skipness Castle and Chapel. They date from the 13th Century and appear to have been abandoned after the internal wars of the mid 17th Century (of which the English Civil War was the most attested). The chapel was also notable as being associated with St Columba – the leading early Christian missionary in these parts and who is most notable for the abbey on Iona, an island off Mull, near Oban. Indeed there’s an unofficial pilgrimage trail from Donegal to Iona that follows his journey.

Sweeping bay comes to an end at the bottom of a short but steep rocky/grassy bank. No beach. Beyond the bank lie a row of white and beige houses. The hills continue to climb behind and away from the cottages. It is a grey, cold, windy, day.
Carradale Harbour, late December, and it shows.

Further south along the coast is the small village of Carradale, notable for the fishing of herring and shellfish, and for being the long-time home of novelist and feminist activist Naomi Mitchison. I also dated someone who lived there for a while (Elly), who provided a few of the photos for this blog post. The area is also home to the site of a couple more ancient ruins and iron age hill forts.

About six miles south of Carradale though is Saddell Castle and Beach, arguably the most notable and most seen spot on the whole of the peninsula, but you’d probably never know it. To most Brits of a certain age (and presumably many people elsewhere with a knowledge of pop culture), the very name ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ brings to mind one of those songs by Paul McCartney that seems to go on forever. Wikipedia tells me it’s the biggest ever selling single in the UK that wasn’t done either wholly or in part for charity. The video to the song was filmed here on Saddell Beach, and is memorable for an entire pipe band marching across it in highland dress.

A grassy verge gives way to a narrow beach, beyond which is water. Everything curves sweepingly towards the right. A figure is walking along the beach, wrapped up warm, even tho it is a sunny day.
Saddell Beach, on a sunny day one February. Image taken by my friend Elly.

The western side has more beaches, including at Glenbarr, Westport, Sound of Kintyre, and Machrihanish, which additionally has some dunes. It’s a great place for birdwatching, by all accounts; not that I know anything about that.

A dog snuffles around at the edge of some sand dunes, but a wide and empty pale sand beach is the centre of the picture, with low-rise waves coming in on the sea. There are distant hills to the left, because this is Scotland and there are always distant hills.
Sound of Kintyre beach. Image taken by my friend Elly.

Bright yellow sand, blue sky, deep blue water, tentative hints of dunes on the right. Shot taken quite low so the sand is the focus of the picture. Could almost be tropical.
Westport beach. Image taken by my friend Elly.

There’s another beach at Bellochantuy, but the village is more notable for being the site of the first building hit in the UK in World War Two, when a window was broken and some damage done to a garage roof by machine gun fire. Quite who damaged it is unclear – while some believe it was direct enemy action, others point out Kintyre is a long way from anywhere (except the base at RAF Machrihanish, which later became Campbeltown Airport) and besides no-one saw any German planes in the sky at the time. There’s a sense that it may have been accidental ‘friendly fire’, probably from the Fleet Air Arm, the air resource of the Royal Navy.

The Argyll Hotel, in Bellochantuy. It's a white building, sloping roof, on a side road and just off the main road as it curves to the right, stuck between the sea on the right and higher ground to the left. There's a couple of other buildings nearby but it's definitely in a remote place.
The Argyll Hotel, in Bellochantuy. Image taken by my friend Elly.

About ten buildings, with gaps between some of them, stand low and are almost hidden by the large green hills in the background. The sky is wide and slightly cloudy, but a huge rainbow arcs above the village.
Bellochantuy village, hiding under the hills and a huge rainbow. Image taken by my friend Elly.

RAF Machrihanish itself later became Campbeltown Airport, one of those many remote airports in Scotland that serve communities otherwise largely cut off, which provide a quick link to Glasgow. A couple of decades ago, however, it could have hosted vehicles from more distant destinations – it served as one of the designated emergency runways if needed by the US Space Shuttle. It never was, fortunately. There were rumours it did play host to the mythical Aurora reconnaissance aircraft, and in later years has been in the running to the the UK’s first designated spaceport. This would be primarily for what you might call ‘horizontal’ traffic – space planes and space tourism; a site in Sutherland, in the far North of Scotland, was designated the first spaceport in the UK for ‘vertical’ traffic – pure rocket-type craft, satellite launchers, etc.

Both roads meet at Campbeltown, a town about half the size of Oban and accessible by bus from either side of the peninsula; one bus goes to Carradale, the other up the main road to Tarbert, with some eventually going all the way to Glasgow – you’d have to change at the top of Loch Fyne at Inveraray if you want to go by bus to Oban.

A series of yachts lie on the smooth surface of Campbeltown marina, their masts reflecting in the water. Some white buildings lie behind them, but otherwise the setting looks very serene.
Yachts in Campbeltown Marina. Image taken by my friend Elly.

I’ll concede I’ve been to Campbeltown precisely once: I briefly changed buses there on a late December day some 10 years ago, so it’s not a town I know particularly well. I can tell you at the time of writing it’s the most westerly settlement with over 1,000 people on mainland Great Britain, and that it, like Oban at the start of this journey, is most famous for its whiskies. But then most places in this part of Scotland are, I guess.

Looking a little like something out of a 1980s horror movie, the courthouse is a white building with a very plain front, and very sharp-squared windows. It's set back from the road, with a wide staircase leading down to a path that comes to front of shot between stone gate pillars. Oh, and it's taken at night. Creepy.
Campbeltown Old Courthouse, looking not a little like it’s the setting for a 1980s American horror movie. Image taken by my friend Elly.

It’s quite a pretty town, with a large number of listed buildings, including the old town hall and courthouse, and the Lorne & Lowland Parish church, with an interesting bell-tower. There’s also a small marina, and it’s possible to catch a ferry over to Ardrossan, a port a little to the southwest of Glasgow. This ferry takes about three hours, but only runs three times a week, and only in summer. Otherwise it’s the plane, or a 140 mile drive to Glasgow along less-than-straight roads.

Almost at the very tip of Kintyre is Southend, one of the world’s most obvious place names. This is notable for its setting – rocks at almost the edge of the world from where it’s possible to look out to see towards Ireland (which is only about 20km away; close enough for a tunnel or bridge, maybe … maybe not!). It’s also home to seals who glide onto the rocks. Apparently.

Rocks by the sea. There are allegedly seals on these rocks. I can just see rocks. But then I don't do animals.
The rocky shoreline at Southend. There may be seals present. Image taken by my friend Elly.

It was here that St Columba is believed to have first landed in Scotland on his way up to Iona, and the area around Southend has a number of sites associated with him, including a footprint, a well, and some caves. The caves are believed to have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and they even appear in the 1881 census.

A rock in the grass that may or may not have an antient footprint on it.
I have to say, it doesn’t look much like a footprint to me. Image taken by my friend Elly.

It’s certainly a part of the world I need to go back to one day soon.

Authorities visited: Argyll & Bute. Dates Visited: Several times between 2010 and 2019.

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