ON A certain morning in early July, on which citizens of a former colony would later be celebrating Getting Away with Violent Treason, I found myself arising not only much earlier than the impending celebrants but also than many in my own time zone. I used this head start on my day to check out of a Campbeltown hotel and take the bus back to Machrihanish where, I hoped, it would be raining slightly less hard. My hope proved entirely unfounded.
An Eventful Journey Up
I knew it was going to be raining. Not just because I’d awoken to the pitter-patter of water colliding with my window and had seen the cold grey quality of the light but also because I’d taken note of the weather forecast before I even set off from London. Despite the forecast, the blue sky I had seen through the windows of my railway carriage on the way up had seemed to deny even knowing what rain was. Well, until a combination of another passing train and loose ballast caused no less than four of the windows to shatter, after which the spider’s web of safety glass cracks effectively misted it from view. The guard had stared in horrified disbelief; even one such breakage is a rarity.
My bus to Machcrihanish suffered no such mishaps and I disembarked to find Machrihanish essentially deserted.
Glad Dogs and Foolish Men
It may have been the height of tourist season but any would-be early bird golfers had taken one look at the inclement weather and decided that maybe a lie-in might be a plan. Indeed I saw just one other soul, forlornly out walking his dog. The dog seemed quite unfazed by the drenching but that was okay as its owner was heroically endeavouring to provide enough disgruntlement for the pair of them. I couldn’t really disagree.
I peered through visibility not much better than the day before’s train windows and glanced up at the clouds with a similar level of horror as that displayed by the guard. It was a schoolboy mistake to look up; that simply earned me a faceful of rain.
I refused to be cowed — I was out for a walk, dammit, and I would have fun — and I knew I could shrug off a little bit of rain. With this mindset I made my way towards the beach of Machrihanish Bay, from where my walk would commence. A stroll under grey skies beside a rain-lashed beach matches most of my childhood memories of having a Day Out at the Seaside so, if nothing else, at least my nostalgia would be all warm and fuzzy. Yes, this walk would go swimmingly.
There were slightly more than three and a half miles of beach to walk at Machrihanish Bay. I was on the sand for maybe half of a mile of that before I hit my first obstacle in the form of Machrihanish Water.
This stream is probably quite crossable at low tide on drier days, when it can be approached where it fans out at the water’s edge. On this particular morning, it was swollen by rain and the tide was less than an hour off its maximum. I took one look at the roaring torrent and headed inland looking for a bridge.
It didn’t take long to find one for directly inland lay the Machrihanish Golf Links and your average golfer — when not hiding from the rain — is not an enthusiastic forder of icy-cold streams.
Machrihanish Golf Links
I gratefully nipped across the wooden bridge and quickly found that there was no obvious route to take back to the beach. Between it and the golf course lay several tall dunes, covered in knee-high, rain-drenched vegetation. I am no fan of golf courses — I find something about them irrationally irritating — but it looked like I would be given ample opportunity to reconsider.
For at least the next mile and possibly longer I would be making my way from one green to another, threading my way along the links in a golf course I had entirely to myself. This would be the toll exacted by the bridge over the stream.
I accepted that price and paid it. After a while, I realised that I didn’t have the golf links entirely to myself as its employees were still expected to be out there mowing grass and raking bunkers no matter how much water was dropping out of the sky. I mentally weighed up which of us was probably more miserable. They were being paid to be out there whereas I, by virtue of not being at work, was arguably losing money to enjoy the same cold shower. On the other hand, I had actually chosen to be pummelled by precipitation and despite both the rain and the affront of the course’s existence I was still having some sort of waterlogged ‘fun’.
On balance, I think I had the better of it.
Sustained by the sodden misery of others, I kept heading north and soon the fences of Campbeltown Airport appeared on my left, lest I make a break for freedom that way. There didn’t seem to be a lot flying, possibly due to the poor visibility.
Back to the Beach
Eventually, I came to a wire fence and a path that led me back onto the beach.
A State of Saturation
By this point I was utterly soaked through. I had forgotten to pack my waterproof trousers, and the cotton chinos I was wearing had all the waterproofness of a sponge. I recognised my oversight as the water ran in rivulets off my Gore-Tex jacket and soaked straight in where the jacket ended. It being a shortish jacket, this was actually just below my belt line, with the inevitable result that the stream of rainwater washing down my jacket front was delivered with unerring accuracy directly into my groin. My, it was cold.
That particular phenomenon held my attention for quite a while until the relevant anatomy had been chilled into insensible numbness. At that point, I started to remember that I never had got around to re-waterproofing my jacket, which in consequence leaked quite badly at the seams and zip. Slowly, inexorably, the cold, creeping dampness spread across the t-shirt that I wore beneath it. This sounds pretty awful, and so it was at first, but by the time I reached the north end of the bay — splashing merrily across two smaller streams because they could hardly make me any wetter — I was as saturated as I could get and had become quite inured to it.
Henceforth the rain had already done its worst and now it couldn’t touch me…
Coast Road to Glenbarr
At the top end of the bay was Westport, where a footpath led me to a car park and the A83 road. This single carriageway two-way main road runs right up the western side of Kintyre and I would be following it for the rest of the day.
I thus started to splash my way along it but my attention was immediately sidetracked by a parallel lane with a couple of cottages on it. Dropping onto this, I quickly saw it for what it was, namely the old alignment of the road.
The A83’s current path dates only to the 1980s, when they levelled and straightened this section, which had been a rather winding and narrow affair. The A-road had moved a few metres east at Westport but the cottages, which hadn’t, had retained a short section of the old alignment as an access road.
More Bits of Old Road
As I returned to the A83 proper and walked north, I would see several other such snippets of obsolete roadway. But whereas at Westport the remnant still served a purpose, several of the others I saw were simply abandoned bridges and embankments, useless and isolated but with no pressing reason to demolish.
As I squelched and plodded north, the rain eased up and visibility marginally improved. On the horizon, the faintest of grey smudges betrayed where the islands of Islay and Jura should be. The road curved right then left as it rounded Bellochantuy Bay and passed through the hamlet of Bellochantuy.
Bellochantuy’s name derives from the Gaelic bealach an t-suidhe, meaning ‘pass of the seat’ though locals will also claim that it comes from bealach an t-sith, which is ‘pass of the fairies’.
Technically, some of the houses are actually in neighbouring Drumore (druim mòr, ‘great ridge’) but in practical terms they form a single settlement with Bellochantuy. Its hotel and houses stand beside sections of roughly parallel road — yet more remnants of the old, curving alignment through which the modern A83 cuts like the central bar on a dollar sign. Prior to the 1980s, road improvements, Bellochantuy also had a church and a post office but the needs of the road outweighed the needs of the residents or so the masters of the bulldozers decreed.
This wasn’t the first time that someone had tried to demolish parts of Bellochantuy, however. The Argyll Hotel lays claim to being the first Scottish building to be damaged by enemy action during WW2, having been strafed by a German fighter plane’s machine guns.
Continuing north, the A83 was straight as an arrow as it ran along the coast. This made for easy if unexciting walking and I often gazed seawards as I went, still trying to make out the near-invisible islands. On the landward side, I passed the old site of a fortified dun but was otherwise mostly seeing fields with the occasional farm in between.
Then, sandwiched between the road and the sea I saw low, churchlike spires and an even lower wall. Was this perhaps an old ruined kirk? No, I quickly realised, it was not. But it was a lonely burial ground, filled with headstones.
Cladh Nam Paitean
Known as Cladh Nam Paitean (‘cemetery of the little hump’, perhaps because it sits on what was once a low shingle bank), it dates back to at least 1699 and was first used as the resting place of some shipwrecked mariners, whose bodies had washed ashore. Later, it was also used for local burials because, if you have a cemetery nearby, why not use it?
One such local occupies what is by far its most grandiose monument, the deceased person in question being one Macalister of Glenbarr.
The Macalisters were one of Kintyre’s most prominent families, descending from Somerled, the 12th century Lord of Argyll who seized control of the Kingdom of the Isles. The Macalisters’ power base was the nearby village of Glenbarr, which was where I would be heading next.
Glenbarr, unsurprisingly, sits in Barr Glen, the valley of a stream called Barr Water.
Today, the A83 pays it little heed, whizzing over the stream’s lower stretch on a bridge such that drivers might barely notice it was there. But, not that long ago, the road used to make an abrupt right-hand turn at Barr Water and head upstream to its then-lowest bridge at Glenbarr.
That road still exists but today is just a quiet turnoff from the A-road, leading to a village which has been completely bypassed. The turnoff retains the narrowness of the pre-improvement road and I rather enjoyed its rural character and lack of traffic (not that the A-road had been exactly busy) as I followed it to and across the bridge.
Immediately on the far bank, I found Glenbarr Abbey, an 18th century country house that has never at any time in its history been an abbey. But it is in Glenbarr so its name is half right.
Calling things abbeys when they weren’t was in vogue at the time of its construction; the idea was to highlight the splendour of a new building and allude to a rich and complex history that it didn’t really have.
Glenbarr Abbey stands on the site of the original Barr House, built around 1700, possibly as a roadhouse and horse-changing station. It became a laird’s residence in about the 1750s and was then owned by a Campbell.
The rise of the Campbells in Argyll had unseated many of the families that had held there previously, the Macdonalds, Lamonts and Macalisters amongst them. It was likely with some satisfaction then that Colonel Matthew Macalister bought Barr House from its bankrupt owner in 1796.
He then had it extensively rebuilt (though some of Barr House’s original rooms survived into the new structure as part of one wing). The new house was designed in Gothic Revival style by James Gillespie Graham (1776-1855), a prominent Scottish architect who was by then quite famous. We’ve glimpsed his work before at Torrisdale Castle, which was built for General Keith Macalister in 1815. That Graham should work on two different properties owned by Macalisters is not remotely coincidental — his two employers, Matthew and Keith, were brothers.
Clan Macalister Visitor and Clan Centre
In 1984, Angus Macalister of Glenbarr presented Glenbarr Abbey to the wider Macalister clan and today it houses the Clan Macalister Visitor and Clan Centre.
If I had Macalister ancestry, I have no doubt that I’d have had a whale of a time visiting it but my Scottish ancestors — so far as I can ascertain — were mostly obscure members of Clan Douglas living many miles south in Galloway.
Though Glenbarr Abbey, lovely as it is, could offer me no familial connection, the rest of the village conspired to offer me a consolation prize of tea and cake at its combined shop, café and garden centre. A refreshing cup of tea and a really excellent slice of cake did wonders for warming me up and raising my spirits which I then realised had been slightly dampened by the relentless, er, dampness.
I heroically resisted any temptation to buy something from the garden centre; I’d only have had to carry it all week and I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it even when I got home. But that was okay because I could plug any lingering disappointment by the vigorous application of more cake.
I rejoined the A83 at the north end of the village, the A-road having lurched inland anyway despite its refusal to do so at Barr Water. this meant it would pass Glenacardoch Point at about a mile’s distance, with numerous farms sited between coast and road.
Killean & Kilchenzie Parish Memorial
I was mildly surprised to be walking on a pedestrian pavement at this point, which meant that I need not dodge the intermittent traffic. Well, not unless I wanted to cross the road for some reason.
The Killean & Kilchenzie Parish Memorial was unveiled in 1922, accompanied by an address by the Archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang (1864-1945). According to an article in The Scotsman on 1st August of that year, the archbishop said that despite having taken part in the dedication of some 200 war memorials, none had appealed more strongly to his heart than this one, as for 28 years he had spent all of part of his rest time in the district in Largie Castle.
Largie Castle had stood in Tayinloan, which was to be my destination for the day, but I wouldn’t get to see it as it was demolished in 1958.
Continuing north, I passed a school where the pedestrian footway ended, it having been built for the children’s benefit and not mine. I was henceforth back to occasional traffic-dodging as I trekked onwards.
Once More by the Shore
The road persisted in its mostly-straight course but the coastline came to my rescue by curving about such that the road ran suddenly close to the shore once again.
By now, the rain had finally stopped and visibility was beginning to improve. I could clearly see the island of Gigha (Giogha), which sits three miles off Kintyre’s coast and behind it, faint but unmistakably there, I could see the Paps of Jura, the three mountains that form Jura’s most obvious physical feature.
By this point I was about two thirds of the way through my walk with about five miles left to go. For most of that, the road would run fairly close to the shore and a handy crinkle in the coastline allowed me to see what lay ahead:
Valley of Monks
I followed said coast to the village of Muasdale (Muasdal), the name of which comes from Norse Mungasdal, meaning the ‘valley of monks’. This apparently arises from the 13th century war between Kings Alexander III of Scotland and Håkon IV of Norway over who owned the Kingdom of the Isles.
Håkon had anchored his ships off Gigha when his priest died. I doubt that Håkon took this as a particularly great omen, as it didn’t deter him from sailing on to defeat at the Battle of Largs. But, before that, he had to dispose of the body and so had it taken ashore for the monks of Saddell Abbey to carry away for burial. Saddell Abbey lies some eight miles southeast of Muasdale on the other side of the Kintyre Peninsula with plenty of 300-400 m hills on the way so the monks must have been absolutely delighted at this.
Still, he was one of the contenders for their feudal overlord and, more importantly, he was quite close with a war fleet, so they presumably complied.
In later years, though Muasdale never grew above being a small village, it did increases in local importance. Muasdale House, which stands at its southern end, was once the parish manse (i.e. the clergy house, equivalent to an English vicarage). The current house dates from around 1861. Today, inevitably, it is holiday accommodation.
In passing through Muasdale, I saw further evidence of the old road before the modern A83.
There has been a road running north-south through Muasdale since at least the 1750s when William Roy conducted his military survey of Scotland and thus produced a set of detailed maps. His map shows the road crossing Clachaig Water via bridge and the bridge in question was a packhorse bridge which may date to around 1720.
The bridge still stands, though today it seems only to join two back gardens. It is of course too narrow and too humped for the improved A83.
I got quite excited when I saw what looked like a shop as I was now quite ready for some sort of snack. Alas, Muasdale Stores closed down early last year, its proprietors — Ian and Margaret Sinclair — having run it for something like forty years.
Defeated, I kept plodding along the coast…
For all that Muasdale had failed to furnish me with snacks, it did mark roughly the midpoint between Campbeltown and Tarbert, which would be my destination for tomorrow. It also meant I had just four miles left to go.
After the first of those miles, I came to A’ Chleit (‘the reef’) a low, rocky headland jutting out to sea. Upon it stood a couple of houses and the parish church. This was built in the late 18th century to replace Killean Church, which by then had fallen badly into disrepair.
North Beachmore Farm
I would encounter what was left of Killean Church further up the road. But first, I had to pass North Beachmore Farm where something seemed off about their sheep.
Oh all right, yes, it’s an alpaca. North Beachmore has several, which it farms for their wool and also uses for ‘alpaca trekking’ which appears to basically involve tourists paying to take them for a walk. And why not? For all that they have swapped the Andean highlands for the Scottish ones, and that these particular alpacas are about 3000 m closer to sea level than they’d normally expect, they are apparently doing just fine.
There are some potential issues, such as bracken being poisonous to alpacas when anywhere on Kintyre that’s not an actual bog sprouts the stuff to head height in the summer, but otherwise being on the wrong side of the world doesn’t seem to bother them much at all.
The alpacas hadn’t actually been all that unexpected, as I’d seen a notice about the alpaca trekking while I was in Glenbarr. As such, I regarded them with equal nonchalance to that with which they regarded me and then went on my way.
This carried me in time to Killean, a village built beside a twelfth century church that now stands in ruins, having fallen into disrepair and been abandoned in 1700. The name Killean is thought to derive from St Killian, an Irish missionary, though the church can also claim the later patronage of one of Somerled’s grandsons — Ruari — in 1222.
Its graveyard contains many old carvings.
The Killean Estate developed over time and was bought in 1873 by James MacAlister Hall (1823-1904), who had made his fortune in India with the British-India Steam Navigation Company.
MacAlister Hall had the estate’s main house refurbished but during the finishing touches in 1875 it caught fire and burnt down. Dismayed as he must have been, MacAlister Hall was not defeated and he promptly had a new house constructed, designed by the architect John Burnet (1814-1901) and refined by the latter’s son, John James Burnet (1857–1938).
Born in Campbeltown, MacAlister Hall also had JJ Burnet design that town’s library and museum in 1898; his brother Peter was the tenant of Torrisdale Castle.
Killean Home Farm
My route didn’t take me within sight of the house, which is in the Scottish baronial style, but I did pass the Category B listed Killean Home Farm dating from the same time.
Bought by new owners in 2016, the estate remains a working farm with both Highland cattle and Aberdeen Angus.
A stone’s throw from Killean Home Farm are the Dolls’ Houses, designed by JJ Burnet as estate housing in the Arts & Craft style. Now holiday accommodation, they are A-listed but for my money they’re trying a bit too hard to be lovely.
The ruined cottage above is in a place that was marked on late Victorian Ordnance Survey maps as the hamlet of Tayintruain with four or five houses but today comprises one extant house — Cruachan — and this ruin. Cruachan occupies the land of two of the previous cottages.
A Cunning Plan
I was now about half a mile from Tayinloan and a mile from the actual end of my walk, which would be Tayinloan’s ferry slipway for I had realised, when planning my walk, that the nearest convenient hotel was actually on Gigha.
I knew that the ferry was hourly and that the last one was at six o’clock. Consequently I’d aimed for five, to give myself some leeway. As it was, I’d made really good time and it was starting to look like I might even make the one at four.
I arrived in Tayinloan (Taigh an Lòin, ‘house by the pond’) shortly after the ferry had left. This small village is the gateway to Gigha and has long been the island’s mail collection point. Unlike so many other villages of its size, Tayinloan retains a post office, which doubles as the general store.
In accordance with the general rules of the universe it was, of course, shut when I got there.
As befits a village on both the main route to Gigha and to Campbeltown in the south, Tayinloan used to boast various other facilities, such as a mill, bakery, smithy and even a hotel but all have sadly vanished.
Something else long-vanished is Largie Castle, which was actually a house designed by the architect Charles Wilson (1810-1863) whose work was primarily in Glasgow. His client was Augustus Moreton Macdonald (1804-1862), who was an earl’s son, a Whig politician and an advocate of homeopathy.
Later, of course, Largie Castle would be enjoyed by an Archbishop of York before its demolition in 1958.
I made my way through Tayinloan and down the road to the ferry.
My map, revised in 2015, still showed two piers in Tayinloan despite one having been demolished in 2012. The other, which was improved at the time, still serves the ferry but started out as the landing stage for puffer steamships delivering coal to the area.
The ferry slipway is served by a handy café and, having got there, I could sit back and relax while waiting for the next ferry.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,913 miles