Champion of Scotland’s history Neil Oliver loses his heart to the heritage, the wild scenery and the incomparable produce of the Kintyre peninsula
P ART of the charm of the Kintyre peninsula is the fact that it is not en route to anywhere. It takes a little effort, and you need to go there with a purpose. From Tarbert in the north, famed for its oysters, to the Mull of Kintyre at the south, immortalised by Paul McCartney and renowned for its eponymous cheese, the 40-mile stretch of land is studded with walk-friendly hills and classic lochs, a bucketload of coastal delights and local food experiences to savour.
Although not actually an island, connected as Kintyre is by a sliver of land to the Scottish west coast at Tarbert itself, it has the feel and vibe of one, almost enjoying its own microclimate – note the palm trees at play in Campbeltown, and the lack of rainfall compared to that for the rest of the west of Scotland.
Tarbert is the first place I hit driving, which is the best way to open up all the region has to offer, and it is the start of the Kintyre Trail, the route to follow that will wind through the pleasures of the peninsula and keep you never more than 20 minutes from the coast. It’s a trail that draws in fans of photography and art to the area, with wild vistas, rich Norse and Viking history, old-fashioned charm and a real feeling of serenity all around as you explore.
Tarbert delivers old-fishing-village charm, as well as being a haven for yachtsmen and a venue for the UK’s second-largest yachting regatta, every May. Add in the seafood festival in July and it’s worth booking in repeat visits to Kintyre throughout the year.
Beyond Tarbert, heading down the Kintyre Trail, the views of the Atlantic coast, the Jura mountains and the island-pocked seas and crashing waves make me want to stop time and again to savour the freshness and click the camera button into overdrive.
Then I hit the famed Mull and head towards Campbeltown as the focal point of the south, where I need another break to absorb the surroundings. The Gulf Stream runs the length of the west coast of the peninsula, so the climate is often a lot kinder, and the water a lot warmer, than you might expect from such remote Scotland. A blend of exotically monikered bird’s foot trefoil, blotched monkey flower, field gentians, montbretia and sea rocket fills the hedgerows, and you can’t walk more than a few hundred yards without spotting dairy cows happily grazing in local pastures. It’s not a bit of wonder the Mull of Kintyre cheddar cheese, produced in Campbeltown itself, can uphold claims of a unique flavour.
I get the distinct impression here that, when it comes to things like cheese, a cow is not just a cow. It’s a whole diet and location and breeding equation below the surface. And with cheese being produced here since 1923 and input from 38 local dairy farms, they kind of know what they are doing. Take local farmer Willy Ralston, whose 200-strong Ayrshire herd won AgriScot’s Scottish Dairy Farm of the Year last year. His farm and farming knowledge have been passed from generation to generation, and stand as a great example of the sense of community responsibility that everyone who is part of the industry here feels.
Campbeltown is a place rich in heritage. Before producing the award-winning cheese, the creamery was a distillery, and the whisky industry still has a big part to play in Kintyre’s story, with Springbank Whisky being distilled locally since 1828 from the original start point of an illicit still. Tradition is key to its success, and Springbank is the Scottish whisky that can claim to be the most hand-made, with all elements of the distillation process being led by people rather than technology.
It’s not a big leap from here to conjure up the image of a stunning beach scene complete with seals, a few warming nips of local whisky, a basket of Tarbert oysters and a rough platter of the local Scottish cheddar and oatcakes. A rustic picnic, with a sense of the remote and ancient, all in one perfect package. Especially if, like me, you head another eight or so miles further south, to the point of the Mull and the lighthouse there.
The last stages of the trip are a little narrow and steep to navigate by foot, but the views across the moorland and out to sea are well worth it. Travel should in my view take in all the senses, and Kintyre does that for me. It’s a place worth getting to and a place worth staying around to remember what’s important in life.
And with a full stomach and clear head, an afternoon back in Campbeltown takes in a visit to the Picture House, the longest-standing purpose-built cinema in Scotland – 100 years old next year. It retains full independence and still offers that delightful choice of circle or stalls, in the spirit of a true theatre. I love the outdoors, but indoor structures like this are always a pleasure to discover.
I can recommend Craigard House Hotel as a place to stay if you want great views over Campbeltown Loch and a menu that draws in the best of all the local produce. To me, winter and spring in Kintyre bring the crispness to the fore and leave you refreshed and energised, while summer opens up the beaches where the water’s Atlantic chill clears the head and the body in a different but delightful way.
Springbank Whisky click here to visit www.springbankwhisky.com
A room with breakfast costs from £65 a night at Craigard House Hotel, Low Askomil, Campbeltown click here to visit www.craigard-house.co.uk