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Travel and retreats: Kintyre kicks

28 January 2022

A new route in Scotland opens up beaches, restaurants, and churches, says Robin McKelvie


The fishing village of Tarbet, where the K66 begins

The fishing village of Tarbet, where the K66 begins

SCOTLAND’s Route 66 “started as a bit of a joke”, admits Niall Macalister Hall, a distillery manager at Kintyre Gin, and probably the biggest Kintyre enthusiast. “But then it grew arms and legs, and we thought, what better way to get people to explore this criminally under-explored peninsula?”

Behind Niall, a sinewy road stretches towards gnarly trees and blooming rhododendrons, as the Arran hills sit across the waters of the Kilbrannan Sound (the body of water between the Kintyre Peninsula and the Isle of Arran), off the west coast of Scotland.

It was Paul McCartney who first brought me to Kintyre. Not literally, of course, but, 20 years ago, I could have bumped into him on one of his frequent visits to this part of Scotland. The peninsula, stretching 40 miles from Tarbert in the north, to the Mull of Kintyre headland at its southern tip, spawned his syrupy eulogy. Since Linda died, his returns have been less frequent, though he still owns farmland, and a memorial garden to his late wife graces the only town, Campbeltown.

On my first few Kintyre trips, I dabbled with this little-visited corner of Argyll, unsure how to tackle it. The new “Kintyre 66”, as the route is known, drags this ancient land into focus: all you have to do is get to Tarbert, and point your car, motorbike, or bike south. The route is, indeed, 66 miles long. Split between six areas, it loops around Kintyre on the A83 and B842 roads. Half a dozen spurs break away to allow visitors to delve deeper into the peninsula.

The start is hard. That is, it’s hard to leave Tarbert: a rugged fishing village with an active fleet. It’s hard especially to leave the Starfish, a seafood restaurant with boat-fresh fish and lobster. I’m sent on my way by the owner, who enthuses me about the new route. There is real pride here about the K66, and a hope that it can mirror some of the success of the hugely popular North Coast 500 in the Highlands.

A stretch of white sand shortly flanks the A83, then the real-life treasure island of Gigha, off Kintyre’s west coast, shimmers into view. This community-owned island provides a fascinating detour. The locals generate their own wind power, selling the surplus to the National Grid. Their other export is the celebrated Gigha halibut, best enjoyed in the waterfront Boathouse restaurant, near Gigha’s ferry terminal.

Robin McKelvieWestport Beach

Cutting further south, I plan to head straight to Campbeltown, but Westport Beach detains me — a wide expanse of unspoilt sand, backed by dunes on one side and the cobalt Atlantic on the other. The sun bursts out, and local families join tourists paddling and walking their dogs.

I’m nervous about returning to Campbeltown. This old whisky town had been the epitome of faded grandeur, reminiscent of the days when it boasted more than 30 distilleries and Glebe Street flowed with more money than the City of London. But I find three distilleries thriving, and at Glen Scotia, I chance upon its cheery distillery manager, Iain McAlister. He’s ebullient: their 25-year-old single malt was recently named the world’s finest.

Then there’s the remarkable Campbeltown Picture House: a startling art nouveau cinema dating back to 1913, which the town has fought hard to preserve. “There was no way the community was going to let them knock it down, or turn the cinema — our cinema — into flats,” explains the manager, Ellen Mainwood.

Robin McKelvieThe Campbeltown Cross, dating back to about 1380

Equally striking, next door, is the Campbeltown Cross, for me the finest medieval cross in Argyll, dating from about 1380.

Given the town’s once pivotal place on the old aquatic highway between Scotland and Ireland, Campbeltown is home to churches of different hues. The Highland Parish Church particularly grabs me: a vaulting edifice built in the 19th century for the wave of Gaelic-speaking incomers.

I could head further south to where the land plunges into the depths of the Atlantic on the wild Mull of Kintyre. Instead, I rejoin the Kintyre 66 and head up the east coast. The contrast is arresting: the A83 now felt like a motorway compared with the single track B842, where I battle to avoid sheep. That said, it is a slow-travel joy. I pootle along, admiring the lush Gulf Stream-warmed vegetation of Kintyre’s east coast, sheltered from the worst of the Atlantic storms.

At Saddell Bay (the location used in the video for “Mull Of Kintyre”), I find a solitary Antony Gormley sculpture, an iron figure staring into the nothingness, bereft of his pals who were shipped south. An anonymous benefactor stepped in to save him.

A visit here must include the ruins of Saddell Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded by Norse-Gaelic Somerled, King of the Isles, but completed only in 1207 after his death. The abbey’s active life came to an end when James IV of Scotland surrendered the title of “Lords of the Isles”, but its ruins retain a sense of romance.

The fishing village of Carradale was visited by tragedy in 1990, when a Royal Navy submarine dragged four fishermen to their deaths. Tourism here is valued: order locally landed langoustines in the Glen Bar and Restaurant, the only pub in the village, or dine on local produce at the Carradales Luxury Guest House, next door to the heritage museum.

My final run, back to Tarbert, takes me to the village of Skipness and its castle, holiday cottages, and Seafood Cabin. The latter proves another great treat, as they smoke their own fish.

I gaze out over Kintyre, as the only person on the shore by the Skipness Seafood Cabin, and think of Niall’s description. The Kintyre 66 may have started as a joke, but it has become a joyous artery that could provide lifeblood for the fragile Kintyre economy.

Travel details

A GREENER way to reach the K66 from London — and to save hotel accommodation — is the Caledonian Sleeper (sleeper.scot) to Glasgow. It is then a two-hour drive to Tarbert in a hire car.

You won’t need sat. nav. Pick up the free Kintyre 66 map, produced by Explore Kintyre and Wild About Argyll, at various locations around Kintyre. Alternatively, the K66 website has info and a downloadable map.

Tried and tested hotels along the route include: Portavadie, an oasis of various accommodation options and price-points on Loch Fyne, just across the water from Tarbet (portavadie.com); Ardshiel Hotel, Campbeltown, an old stone hotel and restaurant with an acclaimed whisky bar (ardshiel.co.uk); and Ashbank Hotel, B&B and dining room in Carradale, with views over the Kilbrannan Sound (ashbankhotel.com).

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