I BEGAN the fifth day of my May 2017 trip in Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula. According to the itinerary that I had prepared for myself, I would be walking to Southend, which seemed like quite a challenge. I mean, that’s a walk of roughly 550 miles. Also, even by my notoriously lax standards, it cuts off an awful lot of coast.
Except, of, course I wasn’t walking to the Southend in Essex, but instead to a village close to the Mull of Kintyre. This meant that there was more than enough time then to stuff my face with breakfast before venturing outside to see the sights of Campbeltown.
I stopped by a shop for water and snacks and ambled past the war memorial on my way to the harbour.
Literally ‘Campbell Town’
Campbeltown sits at the head of Campbeltown Loch, a small sea loch that opens out onto Kilbrannan Sound. At the loch’s mouth stands Davaar Island, connected to the mainland by a natural tidal causeway. The shelter this provides makes Campbeltown a perfect spot for a coastal port, though one didn’t really develop until the 1600s when King James VI took the tiny settlement of Kinlochkilkerran and had it developed as part of a plan to civilise the Highlands and Islands (where ‘civilise’ should be read as ‘assert control over’). Except that it wasn’t the King that organised the actual development but Archibald Campbell, the 7th Earl of Argyll.
Lord Argyll essentially received a bunch of tax breaks in return for establishing a burgh and populating it with Lowlanders (who would have no loyalties to the troublesome MacDonalds). Initial attempts to develop the town did not go smoothly, with MacDonald hostility, Civil War and rebellion all proving the sort of obstacles that one might expect. But Argyll and his successors persisted, establishing a port which they saw no reason not to name after themselves.
The early 1700s saw further improvement in Campbeltown, driven by Elizabeth Tollemache, Duchess of Argyll. The daughter of an English baronet, she had married Archibald Campbell, 1st Duke of Argyll — great grandson of the 7th Earl — but had later become estranged from him and spent her time in Campbeltown managing their Kintyre estates. It was she who pushed for the construction of Campbeltown’s first proper harbour, which allowed the town to develop as a working port.
Three centuries later, it remains one, with local forestry operations providing many a cargo.
The Duchess also supported the first regular shipping service between Campbeltown and Glasgow. While that no longer runs, there are seasonal ferries to Ardrossan and Ballycastle. Granted, the Ardrossan route’s timetable reads like some sort of joke and it allegedly stops running in any weather condition other than dead calm, but it theoretically exists. I was desperately hoping that the theory would hold up in practice too, as I was planning to use it to begin my journey home. But that would be another day, in the meantime there was walking to be done…
Campbeltown Library & Museum
My walking took me past the cupola and brickwork of the Campbeltown Library & Museum, built in 1898 to a design by the prominent baroque-loving architect John James Burnet (1857-1938).
The building was paid for by James Macalister Hall (1823-1904), who had been born in Campbeltown but had made a fortune as a director of the Honourable East India Company and chairman of the British India Steam Navigation Company (Britain’s largest shipping line and later part of P&O). Upon his return, Macalister Hall had bought the estates of Tangy and Killean while his brother Peter rented Torrisdale Castle. He was spurred into this act of civic generosity when the lack of a public library was decried as ‘an affront to civic dignity’. Well, he couldn’t have that…
Shown above is one of its decorative details: the arms of the former Burgh of Campbeltown. The first quarter shows Kilkerran Castle, the loch’s original fortification (erected by James IV in 1498). The second and third quarters contain the gold and black gyronny of the Campbells and the black galley of Lorn, which together form the arms of the Dukes of Argyll, while the fourth quarter — a black fret on silver — is the Tollemache arms. The burgh was abolished during the Scottish local government reforms of 1974, making its arms now defunct.
The galley in the arms of Lorn harks back to the Kingdom of the Isles, which was Norwegian before it was Scottish. In heraldry it is also called a ‘lymphad’, a name derived from the Gaelic long fhada where fhada means ‘long’ and — somewhat confusingly — long means ‘ship’.
Suddenly, the violent fury of Viking raids makes sense; burning and pillaging must have seemed so much easier than trying to learn the local language.
The Norse Kingdom of the Isles was itself predated by the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, which comprised Argyll and Antrim. One of its ‘capitals’ — not that they had such a concept as we know it — was said to be the original settlement at Campbeltown, known as Dalruadhain until the 6th century missionary St Kieran (Ciarán of Clonmacnoise) built a chapel there. It was from him that Campbeltown gained its former name of Kinlochkilkerran (Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain, ‘head of the loch of the church of St Kieran’).
The town’s loss of its Gaelic name is perhaps appropriate for, thanks to its Lowlander population, it became a bastion of the Scots language in Gaelic-speaking Argyll.
The longship statue Ro-Ro stood beside the working harbour and I paused there too to look out towards the tidal island of Davaar. Nearby stood a monument to a shipwreck in 1966, in which a converted motor torpedo boat, Quesada, got caught in a storm while suffering a leak that killed her engine.
Quesada had originally intended to sail to Ireland but had settled for Arran in light of the weather and even that was proving a dire misjudgement. Fortunately, Quesada’s signal flare was spotted and two fishing-boat skippers — Neil Speed and Jim Meenam — and a bunch of volunteers set off in Speed’s fishing boat Moira to try to mount a rescue.
Pitch darkness didn’t help — they only found her because one of the eighteen men aboard her kept flicking his lighter as a signal. Despite a raging Force Ten gale and the fact that Quesada was sinking, they managed to rescue ten of the eighteen and the government commended Speed and Meenam for their efforts. The memorial was for the eight they couldn’t save.
Walking the Walk
As I stepped away from the memorial, another couple of walkers stepped up to examine it and I realised I’d seen them both earlier when I popped into a shop. I didn’t hear enough of their speech to place their origin — could have been Nordic, could have been German or Dutch — but we nodded hello and then I quickly strode off. I had absolutely nothing against them and I hoped they enjoyed their own hike but it looked like we were going the same way and I didn’t want to get drawn into a long conversation. Besides, the day’s walk beckoned.
Leaving the harbour, the path began as a promenade beside green grass but soon met back up with the road. Massive houses overlooked the loch as the road led on towards Kilkerran Cemetery. This contained just over a hundred Commonwealth war graves in addition to the last resting places of many generations of locals. Pensive and melancholy after the Quesada memorial, I paused at the gate to consider the people whose journeys had ended in that place.
Close by the cemetery was my first milestone of the day, a small, white affair that told me: ‘From Campbt. 1 mile.’ This let me know that I had not so much stopped as basically not yet started.
With this in mind, I set off anew, striding along at a most determined pace. In doing so, I passed several cottages, blissfully unaware that one of them hid Kilkerran Castle in its garden; the ivy-clad remnants of its ancient bastions having long ago been built into outhouses.
From Kilkerran, the road curved along the southern edge of the loch to Glenramskill, which was home to a distillery from 1828 to 1852.
Campbeltown has long been associated with whisky production and even constitutes a distinct whisky-producing region in its own right (as do the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside, and Islay). The town has been home to no less than thirty-four distilleries, making it a whisky industry powerhouse, but today it has just three: Springbank (est. 1828), Glen Scotia (est. 1832) and Glengyle. The latter was founded in 1872 but closed in 1925 and wasn’t reopened until 2004; its whisky is now branded ‘Kilkerran’.
Interestingly, the original Glengyle Distillery was set up by William Mitchell — the son of Springbank’s founder, Archibald Mitchell — after an argument with his brother and business partner John. Its modern-day rescuer, Hedley Wright, is the great, great grandson of Archibald Mitchell and chairman of Springbank’s owner, J&A Mitchell & Company Ltd. Thus, with Glengyle a subsidiary of Springbank, the breach is healed and distilleries reunited some 132 years after that fateful fraternal row.
Tsk, families, eh?
Campeltown Oil Fuel Depot
Glenramskill, however, has had no such luck and now deals with fluids of a very different kind. It is home to a Naval Oil Fuel Depot (OFD) run by the Oil & Pipelines Agency on behalf of the MOD. I have to admit, I’d never heard of this agency but it turns out they’ve been around since 1986, fulfilling their role as the navy’s fuel attendant. Campbeltown OFD has its own jetty and receives its deliveries via ocean-going tanker.
The vessel shown pumping petroleum products ashore is MT Paterna, a German-owned but Maltese-registered motor tanker built in 2006. She was originally named Marida Paterna but her owners, Herren & Partner (H&P), shortened the name in 2010.
Much like the Springbank and Glengyle distilleries, H&P is a thriving family business though not of such venerable age. Founded in 1989 by merchant captain Peter Herren, it has expanded to include not just his wife and children but over 1,800 employees running a substantial fleet of cargo vessels. In an age where global corporations dominate so many markets, I find it heartening that independent family firms are able to not just survive but to thrive.
The Coast Road
Once beyond Glenramskill, I had left Campbeltown behind and now encountered only the occasional isolated house. The road, which was also the Kintyre Way, curved around the headland and I soon saw the Dhorlin (doirlinn, ‘isthmus’), the shingle causeway that leads to Davaar Island (Eilean Dà Bhàrr).
I was sorely tempted to make the crossing — I love tidal islands with their strange duality — but crunching along all that shingle would have taken too long. The tide was already creeping in and the risk was too great that I would get stranded. This was a shame as I had earlier been apprised of its attractions by a woman whose breathless enthusiasm easily outstripped her grasp of history. These included, I was told, a painting of Jesus that had been in a cave for ‘probably millions of years’. That would certainly have been impressive.
Sadly, the painting, which depicts the crucifixion, was not daubed by some clairvoyant prehistoric hominid but by local artist Archibald MacKinnon in 1887. He did so anonymously, having experienced a compelling dream, but that simply led the more credulous of his neighbours to believe that it had appeared miraculously. Eventually, when the truth came out, those ‘deceived’ didn’t take it well; MacKinnon was forced out of Campbeltown.
Prior to 1508, Davaar Island was known as Sanct Barre — referring to St Finnbarr — and its modern name English is a corruption of the Gaelic. Its northernmost point (on its far side above) sports a lighthouse built in 1854 and designed — like almost every Scottish lighthouse so far — by members of the prolific Stevenson family: in this case brothers David (1815-1886) and Thomas (1818-1887). Thomas was the father of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), whose failure to adopt the family’s lighthouse-building trade caused him great disappointment.
Swallowing my own great disappointment at being thwarted by the tides, I turned away from Davaar Island and passed Davaar House, which faces the island across Kildalloig Bay. The road now headed south past the farm of Kildalloig and snaked its way along the coast.
Kildalloig’s name means ‘Dalloc’s church’ (Cill Dallaig) though there is no trace of such a building.
Getting Away from
It All Them
Achinhoan Head now loomed in the distance and I knew the road would soon have to climb. In the meantime, I could enjoy the peace and quiet of a pleasant sea-level amble. Except that rather oversells the solitude. I was walking on a public road after all and though I hadn’t seen any cars since Campbeltown, I had encountered a couple of cyclists and a rather red-faced jogger.
I was also startled by the sound of voices close behind me and turned to discover that the two walkers from the Quesada memorial had now caught up; we greeted each other a second time and to my relief they paused to rest. As they chatted and looked back to Davaar Island, I took the opportunity to head off apace, reclaiming my lead over the pair. I don’t know why I felt that was important but in my mind it became a secret race.
Ballimenach & Achinhoan
Soon enough, the road turned inland and climbed a steep ascent past the farm of Ballimenach. At the top, it turned left and ran roughly parallel to the shore, passing through a shallow valley between hills. This was wooded in some places and open in others, the fields containing sheep and lambs.
A sudden snatch of conversation reached my ears, letting me know that my competitors had once again narrowed my lead and I put on another determined burst of speed, storming past the farmstead of Achinhoan.
An Easy Victory
As the road descended and drew closer to the shoreline, I glanced back to see that the other two walkers were no longer in sight. I congratulated myself on my ‘victory’, not realising yet that they would in fact never catch up. Not because my lead on them was that great but because they had actually turned off the road and taken one of several forest tracks. But that still counts as a win, right? I mean, they clearly forfeited the race.
A milestone told me that I was now five miles from Campbeltown and I slowed back down to a dawdle, ostensibly as a pace change in lieu of a rest. In truth, I no longer felt any need for speed now that I had the road to myself.
The zig-zag descent into Balnabraid Glen was quite brutal, the ascent on the far side rather milder. I was just reaching the top when an HGV appeared on the hillside behind me and followed in my footsteps down into the glen. If I thought it was steep, God knows what the driver thought, certainly he took it as slowly as possible and the angle of his cab did not look comfortable. I stepped off the road to let him power past me, after which it was my turn to follow in his wake.
The Bastard Ahead
The road passed through woodland on the headland of Ru Stafnish, opening out to reveal a low hill ahead:
The hill is actually named the Bastard for reasons that are not immediately obvious.
Heading towards it, the road ran through the hamlet of Feochaig before doing a dog leg to cross a small burn that ran down to Johnston’s Point. This was the scene of a shipwreck in 1857 when Charlemagne, a three-masted ship, ran aground. Her cargo was lost and she broke up on the rocks but her only casualty was her master, William Reid, whose leg was broken by a fallen mast. He was carried ashore by the tenant of Feochaig, and this little rescue was celebrated in a local ballad with lyrics such as these:
The Charley Man o' Aberdeen As fine a ship as e'er was seen, She left the Clyde in the afternoon And arrived at Feochaig in the morning. Allan McLean he wasna slack, He carried the Captain on his back, And a gless o' brandy he did tak', When he got home in the mornin'.
Flanked by primroses but disappointingly bereft of brandy, the road climbed back up from the burn and continued past the Bastard, with it on one side and forest on the other. It seemed like a fairly harsh name for an inoffensive-looking 188 m hill. I saw that the Bastard looked fairly easy to walk up but since the road passed beside it, I saw no need for such an energetic diversion.
Shenachie & Glen Hervie
Continuing on, I passed the farmstead of Shenachie and crossed Glen Hervie, entailing another steep dip into a valley. Having emerged from that glen, the road kept climbing, topping out at 119 m, whereupon it left the forest behind and became flanked by a riot of gorse flowers. Heady with their coconut scent, the road veered back towards the shore and started to drop back down the hill. Not only did this bring the sea into view but it also gave me my first sight of Sanda Island (Sandaigh).
Known as Sandey to the Norse (literally ‘sand island’), Sanda is also nicknamed ‘Spoon Island’ by locals, on the basis that it looks a little like an upturned spoon — look again at the photo above and judge for yourself.
Sanda is privately owned and its fortunes have varied considerably from owner to owner. Its previous owners — Dick and Meg Gannon — spent years trying to build it into a tourist destination, establishing not just holiday cottages but also an award-winning pub. Unfortunately, after learning that its water source is not suitable for drinking, its current owner — millionaire Swiss property developer Michi Meier — closed its amenities and now uses it purely as a private holiday retreat. While I can see that the alternatives — shipping in bottled water or installing a purification plant — are not economically viable, it does seem a bit of a shame.
Of course, Scotland’s right to roam means he can’t exclude determined visitors, so long as they respect his privacy by keeping away from his house. And presumably bring their own drinking water. They’d also need their own boat.
Other past owners or occupants of Sanda include the 5th century missionary St Ninian, who built a chapel upon it, and two Bruces. One was Jack Bruce, bass guitarist of the 1960s rock group Cream. The other — briefly — was Robert the Bruce, fleeing from his English foes.
The St Ninian connection led to Sanda’s possession by the Priory of Whithorn until the Reformation ended it. The island was then owned by the MacDonalds until their centuries-old rivalry with the Campbells culminated in a Civil War massacre in 1647:
At nearby Dunaverty, Archibald Mòr MacDonald of Sanda was slain by a Covenanter Army, as was his son and heir and roughly 300 others. Their lands were naturally forfeited.
As the road descended, I couldn’t help but notice a large house that appeared to be hiding from Sanda, screened from it by a small wood:
This was Macharioch House, originally built for the MacDonalds of Sanda — the Restoration in 1660 had led to the return of their lands.
The house was sold to a different branch of the MacDonalds in 1790 and then in the early 1870s it was bought by the Duchess of Argyll. This was perhaps a touch darkly ironic, given that the Duke of Argyll was the clan chief of the Campbells.
The house was heavily rebuilt and extended to a design by George Devey (1820-1886), a noted architect of country houses whose clients included the Rothschilds. It remained a part of the Argyll estates until 1950 when a number of farms were sold off. Today the house has been converted into flats.
Kintyre Way Footpath
For all that it had piqued my interest, I was not going to Macharioch House. I had followed the road as far as the farm of Polliwilline (poll a’ mhuilinn, ‘mill pool’), where I turned onto a farm track. Under the eyes of curious cattle, I soon left this too, striking out along the edge of an empty field. At its southernmost edge I found a scattering of caravans facing out over Polliwilline Bay. The beach below them was mostly sand punctuated by rocks and — as one is meant to do when encountering punctuation — I paused there to catch my breath.
After a break and the eager devouring of snacks, I set off along the sandy beach. The cloud cover that had hitherto filled the sky began to break up at this point, intermittently subjecting my skin to the gaze of the sun. My skin, being shy, was deeply embarrassed. At least I assume that’s why it reddened.
I followed Polliwilline Bay to its end, where a small headland separates it from Macharioch Bay. The Kintyre Way went up and over and so did I.
On the far side was another beach and a further scattering of caravans, beyond which was a second rocky headland. Atop the latter stood a memorial to George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll (1823-1900), erected by his third wife, Ina Erskine McNeill (1874-1925). Now, I assume that it was sited where it was purely because it’s an appropriate spot within the boundaries of the Macharioch Estate. But the way it faced across Sound of Sanda to an island that once belonged to the MacDonalds, added a rather more menacing message no doubt completely unintended.
Back on the Beach
From the cross, the Kintyre Way dropped back down to the water’s edge, where it would stay for the next mile.
At the end of the mile, I escaped the beach into a field containing yet more caravans. I followed my way up an access track, accompanied for part of the way by a collie dog with nothing much better to do. The track led up to and past the farm of Kilmashenachan (‘church of St Senchan’, possibly relating to the old chapel on Sanda), where I was greeted by a very small boy with the actual words ‘hello, strange man!’ Out of the mouths of babes…
More of the Coast Road
Returning to the Road
At Kilmashenachan, I regained the public road, upon which I then followed an overall north-west trajectory. As before, it was free of traffic and I wandered along it enjoying the quiet and mulling over my thoughts. But I was a mere amateur to mulling, as was demonstrated by Kintyre, which showed me how it should be done: i.e. distantly, and softened by haze.
Tired as I was starting to feel, the sight of the Mull of Kintyre gave me wings. Uplifted, I pushed on for another mile or so, which brought me to the hamlet of Mill Park.
At Mill Park, the road crossed Conieglen Water, a stream that meets the sea at Dunaverty. A quarter mile later, I joined the B842 for the final stroll into Southend.
About the Village
The main settlement at the tip of Kintyre, Southend (Ceann mu Dheas, meaning ‘southern head’) is just twelve miles from the coast of Northern Ireland, which is only slightly further than the village is from Campbeltown. Nearby is Dunaverty Bay, which is not only the site of the aforementioned massacre but also where St Columba — Scotland’s main missionary — landed in 563.
Southend Relief Church
I made my way into the centre of the village, where an old church stood forlorn and boarded up.
The church was built in 1797 and rebuilt in 1889 but ceased to be used in 1965. Its owner, who lives in a house next door, told me that it had been converted into a garage at the back, from which he used to run a haulage business. His family will probably turn it into flats eventually but that’ll entail a lot of noisy construction and for now he’s enjoying quiet retirement and is content to leave it as it is.
Directly opposite the old church stood a building that for me, held far greater appeal. Not for its architectural merit but for its purpose — It was a tearoom and I wanted tea and cake.
Called ‘Muneroy’ — an old name for the the village — it was built in the 1940s and some elements of its design betrayed this. It had been strongly recommended to me and I have to say that it didn’t disappoint in any way. The cake was excellent; the tea was just what I needed. And the young woman who brought them to me was outstandingly helpful, when I quizzed her about the bus to Campbeltown. I already had a timetable of course, but a little local knowledge goes a long way.
I waited patiently for the bus to show up and let it whisk me back to Campbeltown.
Alan in the Area
En route, I was chatting to the driver and he mentioned recently conveying someone else ‘walking the shores’. The chap in question hailed from Shropshire, he said, and had arrived on the Ardrossan ferry. I knew the moment that I heard this that it had to be fellow coast-walker Alan Palin. He’s more of a purist than I am, often sticking closer to the coast and has done stretches in the past where there wasn’t any sort of a path. He too blogs his exploits.
Quite by accident, Alan and I came within minutes of meeting in Largs last year (I learned later that we set off from Largs at almost the same time and then he later espied me from afar). If we were both in southern Kintyre at the same time, would we perhaps, actually meet in the flesh? Though unlikely, it was not impossible. I resolved to keep an eye out during the next day’s walk…
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,880 miles