Our trip to Campbeltown in June 2017 was a quick look at an area of Scotland I had never reached before and a couple of free days following a visit to Glasgow gave Ted and I the opportunity. The Scottish Citylink coach takes just over 4 hours to cover the 136 miles from Glasgow through Highland scenery after leaving the city. It soon passes close to Balloch – I spot the lay-by where I recollect spending hours trying to get a lift more than once in my hitchhiking days, when I spent. We follow the main road alongside Loch Lomond until Trabet where we turn off and follow the A83 for its whole length to Cambeltown. We cut across the isthmus to Arrochar, round the head of Loch Long and over the Rest and be Thankful, now an easy climb on a modern road but for many years a struggle to cross.
The bus takes a break at Inveraray (pictured), a planned village on the banks of Loch Fyne – time enough to wander to the main street then to the harbour where the Clyde puffer, the Vital Spark, which I always thought was fictional, is moored (1). I had decided to take a break at Lochgilphead, for a walk round (that took about 5 minutes) and a drink of lunch. Loch Fyne provides plenty of scope for local businesses to play on the name. Fyne Ales is accurate in both senses of the word, though I didn’t find any on draught on this trip. I had a look in the window of Fyne Tackle, which turned to be neither the local gay bookshop nor selling rugby paraphernalia but something to do with fishing. I dropped into The Comm, a fine pub – I remembered it vaguely from my only previous short visit to Lochgilphead in 1982, and I think some of the same people were propping up the bar. I was not quite the only person not drinking whisky or vodka but almost. The barman, obviously suffering from a hangover, was telling the story of how he had recently been allowed back in after being barred for six months – I can’t remember the reason but he turned out to be the son of the owners. A smashing place – untouched since the 1940s and now a listed building (that includes the customers, who were also listing). I had a quick half in the Stag Hotel, more refined, almost empty and boring, before catching the next bus to Campbeltown.
The bus continues along the lochside to Tarbert, crosses another isthmus to West Loch Tarbert (you may have guessed that Tarbet/Tarbert means isthmus), calls in at Kennacraig pier to connect with the Islay ferry, then down the west coast of Kintyre. I’m in new territory now and it is a smashing journey as we roll along the raised beach with views over the Atlantic to the islands of Gigha, Jura and Islay. We pass a sign to a place called Tangy, but don’t call in so I don’t know whether it lives up to the name. For the final few miles we cross Kintyre to reach Campbeltown on the east coast.
The Gaelic name on the signpost is Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain or Kinlochkilkerran, the original name of the town – it was renamed Campbell’s Town after the Duke of Argyle in the seventeenth century. Campbeltown is also the fictional Kinloch in the DCI Daley series of crime novels by Denzil Meyrick, all of which are set in the town and around Kintyre. Considering the number of gruesome murders and tales of drug smuggling and international intrigue, the town is still largely in one piece, most people seem to be alive and I hear not a single gunshot or explosion (2). The town is only thinly disguised and the locations are clear as you wander round.
It is an odd place in a way and clearly has its own character. It is many miles from another sizeable town and is quite a working class town more than a market town for the surrounding agricultural area. The industries have included shipbuilding and fishing and there was even some coal mining in the area until 1967. The town’s distilleries produce distinctive whiskies. The large harbour on Campbeltown Loch is sheltered by Davaar Island and is still in use – it was being used for exporting timber when I was there. The town centre is on the south side of the loch and houses spread round the bay and up the hills on either side.
After checking in to the Argyll Arms Hotel and a rest I wander out for an evening on the town. Across the road is the fashion shop straight out of the 1970s. There is a plethora of churches – like many Scottish towns they must have been a god-fearing lot at some stage. My first stop is the Commercial Bar – though it is quiet at this time it seems to be frequented by younger people. There are only a couple of lads in and they ask what I’m doing in Campbeltown (I reckon I was spotted as a stranger in town as soon as I got off the bus) and I said I was just passing through. Don’t be daft they said, nobody passes through Campbeltown, which is true enough – it is at the end of the road. I tell them I came because I’d never been before and that ended the conversation – they obviously thought I was mad. I moved on to the Royal Hotel where the Black Sheep Bar was busy and the beer was good and I had a chat with a couple of amiable drunks about nothing in particular. After a fish supper eaten by the shore – my first in many months and very good too – I called in at the Ardshiel Hotel. Definitely the venue for the local middle classes, the bar was busy, and while it had a friendly atmosphere the advertised real ale on draught was off. A final drink in my hotel was followed by an early night.
I was planning to take the ferry to Ardrossan in the morning – it sails past Arran and looks like a good journey. When I wandered down to the pier during the evening to get my bearings the ferry office looked suspiciously deserted and as if it had not been used for some time. When I checked online it transpired that the ferry hadn’t been running for several weeks. I had not thought to check as the weather was reasonable and there is no need to buy tickets in advance. It seems that the ship was needed elsewhere, due to another ship being out of action. This makes some sense as the other Calmac routes serve islands – Campbeltown may be remote, but it is not an island dependent on ferries for access.
The ferry was meant to sail at 0735 and the hotel had provided a packed lunch in lieu of breakfast. Instead, I ended up on the 0830 bus back to Glasgow. It turned out that I was not missing much by not catching the ferry that day – the weather had closed in during the evening and it was a miserable wet morning with the clouds down to sea level and very poor visibility. The bus was comfortable and warm and reached Glasgow by lunchtime, then it was on home to Durham, having ticked Campbeltown off the list. It was not the prettiest town on the planet though I enjoyed myself in the evening and the bus journey is recommended. I would still like to try the ferry sometime, try the flight from Glasgow to Campbeltown and maybe get the chance to explore the surrounding area of the Mull of Kintyre.
(1) The Vital Spark was the star of Neil Munro’s Para Handy Tales, and also of the TV series based on the book, well worth reading or viewing. The puffer at Inveraray was built in 1944, was one of the last sailing the Clyde and West Coast, as the Eilean Eisdeal, then rechristened the Vital Spark. It was the centrepiece of the Inveraray Maritime Museum, which now seems to have closed.
(2) The books include Whisky from Small Glasses, The Last Witness, Dark Suits and Sad Songs, The Rat Stone Serenade and Well of the Winds (Polygon). One includes a passing reference to the local person responsible for artificially inseminating cattle, whose universal nickname is the Bull of Kintyre (best said with a West of Scotland accent, when it rhymes).
Glasgow to and from Campbeltown:
Coach: 5 daily. 4hrs10mins, Scottish Citylink 926, operated by West Coast Motors. Air: 2 daily Mon-Fri, no service Sat or Sun, 40mins, Loganair. Ferry: late April to late September only. No winter service. Ardrossan to Campbeltown: dep 1840 Thurs and Fri; 1350 Sun. Campbeltown to Ardrossan: dep 0735 Fri; 0700 Sat; 1655 Sun. 2 hrs40mins, Sat journey via Brodick 3hrs40mins, Calmac. Connecting trains between Glasgow Central and Ardrossan Harbour.
Copyright: Photographs and text Copyright © Steve Gillon, 2018.