History, Whisky and Beaches – Highlights of Kintyre
Exploring the Unexplored Peninsula
The Kintyre Peninsula
I’m not entirely sure why it has taken me so long to find my way into this protruding finger that has been geographically insistent about keeping itself separate from mainland Scotland. Such is its isolated and remote feel, the Kintyre Peninsula seems more like an island than most Scottish islands. Coastlines are never far away, island-pace has generally been adopted, it takes ages to get anywhere and Calmac ferries are as common as cars. All very confusing. But therein lies the appeal of one of Scotland’s barest stretches – an area that even most Scots would never think to visit.
While my Kintyre trip starts in the pretty town of Tarbert, which just about manages to retain the tourism buzz of most of the rest of Argyll, I’m very aware that I’m about to step right off the beaten track. Two very different coastal roads south await, converging at the southern hub of Campbeltown. Going even further south, the famous Mull of Kintyre and views over to Northern Ireland beckon. Here’s my highlights.
The East Coast
Is not for those prone to travel sickness. Snaking single track roads with hairpin bends and miles and miles of nothing may sound unappealing, but there are some notable points of interest along the way. Starting in the north, Skipness Castle is a fine ruin. Dramatically located facing out towards Arran and Bute, it’s a drafty and moody place that remains in remarkably good nick given its 13th Century origins. Like most of the ancient fortifications in these parts it was a stronghold for the Macdonald clan – as Lords of the Isles – before eventually being taken over by the Campbells, their eternal scourge. Be sure to add in a lunch stop at the neighbouring Seafood Cabin (I’m going to rant about food a little later on in this blog but this place is an undoubted exception to any criticism).
Heading south and still with the taste of seafood keeping the stupid grin etched on my face, gin suddenly seems like an excellent idea. Fortuitous timing too as the brand new Kintyre Gin has just announced its arrival to the burgeoning world of Scottish spirits. Targeting the tag of world’s first eco-gin, the distillery is not open to visitors as yet (planned for autumn 2017) but I received an invite along to inspect the project in its early stages. With a still that appears to have fallen out of a TARDIS via Caractacus Potts’ workroom, I’m immediately a convert. The stuff is now hitting shelves and tastes fantastic.
Final stop of the day for this stretch of Scotland – that is in open defiance of our impressive summer tourism numbers – is Saddell. Another impressively situated castle awaits – glaring out to sea aside a beautiful glowing beach. Kintyre benefits from the Gulf Stream, making it a relatively mild climate (hence the ubiquitous tropical plants and trees), but the weather seems to veer dramatically and is never settled for any length of time. Fortunately I was just about able to get the drone up long enough to take in its full perspective. While the castle is privately owned, a wander down this stretch or for a melancholic stroll in the eerie abbey ruins nearby give this place an alluring appeal.
Ah. Yes well I’m going to cheat a bit here because Gigha just has to have a mention. I know, I know, it’s a separate island but you’ll be making a big mistake if you’re holidaying in Kintyre and give Gigha a miss. A magically unique little place spread over just 7 miles, this summer saw my first ever visit to ‘God’s Isle’.
While golf, standing stones and beautiful beaches will grapple for your attention, the stars of the show are the Achamore Gardens. Spread over 54 acres and boasting their own microclimate, this has the potential to be the grandest garden in the country. It isn’t. Overgrown and wild for the most part, it now closely resembles a jungle in its appearance. Not being a gardener myself, I love it. My imagination runs wild as I try to get my head around something I never thought I’d see in Scotland. Expecting to hear the howl of a treetop monkey or the ominous glare of a crocodile in the shallows I like the place immediately. That’s not to say there’s nothing for the more traditional garden lovers as the gardens do boast some of the rarest and unexpected plants and trees in the world.
Having quite willingly got lost in the jungle I then turn to Gigha’s next most famous attraction – world class halibut. A particularly meaty and ugly fish, halibut is farmed just off the island. It’s also absolutely delicious and, in Gigha, it’s as good as you’ll find anywhere. The place to go is definitely the Boathouse (a five minute walk from the ferry landing point). Despite, in my view, a slightly overly-ambitious menu all of the halibut dishes are truly, truly fantastic.
You can jump the ferry to Gigha from Tayinloan along the Kintyre Peninsula’s west coastline. The crossing is a mere 20 minutes and the ferries run roughly hourly in summer. I don’t see any need to cross as anything other than a foot passenger personally – there’s no shortage of walking options and a car doesn’t provide much of an advantage.
Long have I wanted to find my way to forgotten Campbeltown. Formerly a whisky capital of international renown, its 30 odd distilleries placed it firmly on the map for every Scotch lover on the planet. The bigger you are, the harder you fall. The Great Depression and prohibition in the United States hit the region with force and now only 3 distilleries remain in operation. Speyside has since taken control of this particular throne.
On the bright side, Cambeltown can still boast some outstanding whisky. Springbank remains a well-loved giant in the industry and offers an impressive range. The 10 year old is a solid standard dram, heavy on the citrus but with all sorts of saltiness, spiciness and sweetness going on at the same time. The 15 year old is described as ‘Christmas in a bottle’. I bought one – the Christmas countdown has begun. A visit to Springbank Distillery is a must. This is a distillery that does every stage of the production process on site (including malting) and the place resembles a museum more than a distillery. While the tour guide was disappointing – the first time I’ve ever said that I think – the chance to see malting floors and every stage of production is an opportunity that must be snatched. I also strongly recommend opting for Springbank’s Taste It tour – where you will be expertly taken on a sampling journey for a fabulous range of malts. For this, I’d nudge you towards the Hazelburn in particular, a relatively unknown champion of a dram.
After having raved about the halibut on Gigha, it’s time for a less enthusiastic note about the standard of food in the area. I’m not going to name names, but the overpriced and uninspired fare on offer in Campbeltown – and much of wider Kintyre – is really saddening. This problem is far from exclusive to the region and I’m increasingly feeling that Scotland needs to collectively up its game massively in this department. We have some absolutely brilliant food on our doorstep, an enviable natural larder, and yet the lack of chefs who know what to do with it is really glaring. Given the huge interest in Scotland as a tourism destination this year in particular, the quality of available food must rise up to match it. In the meantime, stock up when you can in the likes of the Boathouse and the Cabin already mentioned, and seriously consider self-catering accommodation as a safer bet.
South of Campbeltown
In a day of frustrations, the Mull of Kintyre proved to be something of a major let down. About an hour south of Campbeltown at the end of a torrid drive – most of which was spent in a deep mist – arrival here resulted in near-zero visibility. While I like to think this was just bad luck, I am assured that it’s a fairly common reality. A photo opp with the remote lighthouse was not to be and, in truth, I really struggle to see the appeal of making the journey. Much more traffic than the road can handle take on the drive and I can’t help feeling Paul McCartney was playing a very nasty trick when waxing lyrical about this particular part of the world. Empty landscapes that lack the usual Highland drama and soul don’t do it any favours and the end point was just a collection of angry tourists wondering why they put themselves through the grief. I can’t say I can recommend it.
Not to worry, even Scotland isn’t perfect and better luck awaits. A little to the east, Southend delivers a beautiful beach, some friendly seals and historic significance. It was here that St Columba landed in the 6th Century, bringing Christianity with him. Macrihanish Beach on the west coast offered a further tonic and again underlined the fantastic coastal rewards that the peninsula provides. With world class golfing a stone’s throw away, there is a St Andrews feeling in the air as the vast sands stretch into the distance.
So it’s an unusual set of emotions to ponder after my 4 days exploring the unexplored in the Kintyre Peninsula. While the frustrations at the lack of infastructure and high-end facilities underline the liklihood that Kintyre will remain off the tourist map for the foreseeable, there is still much to love. The fabulous beaches, the eerie ruins and the local spirits give this place a firm identity.
You can see my highlights in the map below, which also includes top picks from my previous wanderings in the gigantic region of Argyll. For those that have been to Kintyre, I’d love to hear your views!
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