top of page

Campbeltown - A Guide

©Shaun Barr Photography

Campbeltown waterfront at dawn.

There's a unique charm to Campbeltown that grows and deepens the longer you spend here. Perhaps it's the friendly warmth of the people who call it home, or the wild location with its breathtaking landscape on a peninsula that stretches out into the wild Atlantic Ocean; or maybe the remoteness of a place that often gives it an island feel. Whatever the reason it's a town that along with the Kintyre peninsula will leave a lasting impression, a place that once you've discovered it, will have you returning again and again. 

All images in this guide belong to ©Shaun Barr Photography and may not be used without permission. Images can be purchased as hi-res digital downloads and prints. Please email for details.

Rainbow3x2DSCF7294-Edit.jpg

©Shaun Barr Photography

Overlooking Campbeltown Loch. In the distance the west coast can be seen beyond the town.

I’ve started to think of Campbeltown and the Kintyre Peninsula as a gift from the grave. Looking to make some connection with my dad, who I lost when I was only a small boy, I first came here 18 years ago, soon after I discovered he was born and raised here. I was in my thirties by then, somewhat late you might think to find out where your dad was from. Up until then I only knew he was Scottish, nothing more about where he was born or lived. 

 

He died in tragic circumstances, understandably devasting my mum and it just never seemed appropriate to ask. Looking back now this seems ridiculous, but there it is. Somehow the subject was finally broached and the conversation brought up Campbeltown, his birthplace and where he spent his formative years.

From that moment, Campbeltown became a very dear place to me, even the very word, those three syllables, meant so much to me; I guess perhaps because it was something tangible to cling to. As I only had a small collection of memories this was a precious addition. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I need no excuse to look at maps; to me they’re magical bits of paper transporting us from anywhere on earth to anywhere else on earth, a world of possibilities quite literally unfolds before the eyes. All those shapes, lines, colours and symbols, a language of journey, keys to another world. So I traced the route towards that long finger of peninsula on the west coast of Scotland which kisses the Atlantic and heads towards the Mull of Kintyre at its southern tip, where Northern Ireland’s coast comes close. 

 

Just a few miles further north from the Mull, on the eastern side of the peninsula was my dad’s birthplace, Campbeltown. Tucked into a sheltered bay I could see an island called Island Davaar on the OS map, not far off the shore; a place I was yet to discover but would soon fall equally in love with. 

 

And so a route was planned and the journey begun, eventually reaching just north of Glasgow in Dunbarton, childishly excited by the road sign ‘Campbeltown 126 miles’. Even by Scottish standards it’s a beautiful journey. I follow the route along Loch Lomond before heading west at Tarbert and then, just beyond Arrochar, begin the climb up to Rest and Be Thankful, a viewpoint of drama on a grand scale where huge swathes of tree-cladded hillsides sweep up and disappear into mists that descend over heathered glens. 

During the climb A83 winds its way between stunning mountains; on the right you can see Ben Arthur (The Cobbler) rising up imposingly, with its recognisable 3-peak summit, then Beinn Narnain and Beinn Ime, the highest of the Arrochar Alps, while on the left Cnoc Coinnich and Ben Donich dominate the landscape.

 

Reaching Cairndow Loch Fyne comes into view, skirting first its eastern flanks, looping around the head and then following its western shores for what seem like hours. Throughout that time you’re greeted with a shifting panorama across a vast expanse of water, fringed with golden seaweed on a tidal loch from which gentle hills rise and fall. The ever-changing light, hues and colours, all depend on the season, the weather and time of day, and are a constantly changing canvas.

 

A handful of houses are scattered here and there, before the road brings you to Inverary, the first sight of the castle as you drive over the bridge, a striking introduction to the town. Busy with coaches and day-trippers throughout the summer months it’s an especially pleasant place to stop and refresh in the quieter months, where you can take a walk by the harbour, pick up some shopping or grab some lunch. 

Passing small settlements and villages, Kenmore, Furnace, Minard, Lochgair, Port Ann and Kilmory before reaching Lochgilphead, situated at the head of Loch Gilp, a short offshoot from Loch Fyne.

Lochgilphead

 

Argyll and Bute’s administrative centre is based in Lochgilphead due to its central location. The Argyle and Bute region extends over a surprisingly large area, covering a vast swathe of western Scotland. 

 

Born from the building of the road between Inverary and Campbeltown in 1790, Lochgilphead became an important link across the Kintyre Peninsula. The opening of the nearby Crinan Canal in nearby Ardrishaig cemented its importance as a connecting link, cutting through the Kintyre peninsula.

Ardrishaig

 

The village of Ardrishaig is the eastern starting point of the canal, known as 'Britain's most beautiful shortcut'. It’s nine miles across the peninsula and links Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura.

From 1819 Ardrishaig had a regular steamer connection to Glasgow, with an onward connection along the canal to Lochgilphead. In 1831 Lochgilphead acquired its own pier, and had by then also been linked to Oban by road. 

Fomerly a small fishing village, by 1829 over 30,000 passengers were travelling along the canal each year. Ardrishaig became a significant port during the 19th century for passenger as well as freight traffic. The harbour still plays a key role in the export of timber, shifting around 100,000 tonnes a year.

Tarbert

 

Tarbert, often described as the gateway to the Kintyre peninsula is a pretty fishing village, its natural harbour clustered with an array of colourful shops, hotels, pubs and houses. It’s sometimes written as Tarbet Loch Fyne, as a way to distinguish it from the several other Tarberts in Scotland. The ruins of the 14th century Tarbert Castle, forever associated with Robert the Bruce, watch over the harbour, commanding fantastic views. 

Tarbert is frequently used as an overnight stopover for those taking the ferry to Islay and Jura from nearby Kennacraig. It’s an important travel hub: a ferry also sails across Loch Fyne to Portavadie on the Cowal peninsula.

I’m taking the main route on the A83 down the Kintyre peninsula along the west coast, passing Kennacraig. Further down the coast we pass Tayinloan, a ferry terminal for the Island of Gigha. From here the road starts to hug the west coast even closer, and it easily competes for being one of the most magnificent stretches of road in the world. 

 

Long ribbons of pristine white sand stretch out south along the coastline where it meets Atlantic azures, teals and turquoise. Restless white horses frequently race towards the land, their manes flying wildly, whipped up by winds that relentlessly pound the jagged coastline.

 

The islands of Gigha and Cara soon come into view, while further south the distinctive Paps of Jura are silhouetted on the horizon. Neighbouring Islay too can be seen to the south.

I pass the settlement of Bellochantuy, and just beyond the popular beach of Westport so loved by surfers, leave the west coast and head across the peninsula to Campbeltown. The road climbs up and across the green fertile hills on which the dairy cows graze, before the eastern coastline comes into view and the road down into Campbeltown.

 

Campbeltown

Affectionately known as ‘the wee town’ (although one of the largest towns in Argyll), Campbeltown nestles below the hills that surround it and is further sheltered not only due to the deeply cut, natural bay around which the town was built, but the Island of Davaar further protects it from offshore winds. Cushioned from the worst of the Mull of Kintyre’s exposure to the wild Atlantic forces, it’s little wonder people chose to build lives here.

There’s a great sense of community here, very similar to the kind found on islands, and geography may well play a part in that. But whatever the reasons, people pull together here, and seem to have a great deal of resilience as well as a sense of real pride in their town. They’re a friendly bunch too, and the civil courtesies of greetings and a chat about the weather, which have all but disappeared in so many place these stays, still remains strong in the town. Long may that continue. 

©Shaun Barr Photography

Campbeltown Harbour

 

When arriving in Campbeltown for the first time it’s a good idea to head for the harbour, a central point which not only gets you to the heart of the town but from where you can easily reach a good deal of what it has to offer – all within walking distance. 

 

The busy working harbour is home to an array of colourful fishing boats as well as leisure craft. You may well see cargo and timber being loaded on to ships from here. And there’s also the ferry terminals with services to Portavadie on the Cowal peninsula, Ardrossan in the summer months. 

©Shaun Barr Photography

Campbeltown Picture House

 

Overlooking the harbour is one of Campbeltown’s architectural gems. Known as ‘the wee pictures’, the Campbeltown Picture House is one of Scotland’s first purpose-built cinemas and today is the oldest cinema in Scotland still showing films. 

 

Completed in 1913 it is a delightful example of an Art Nouveau exterior. It is largely unaltered from the 1935 remodelling which took place when the original architect Albert V. Gardner was brought back to modernize the cinema’s interior with an Atmospheric style, the theme being that of a Mediterranean courtyard. 

 

The two small buildings in the auditorium on either side of the projection screen (one a Spanish mission style house, the other, a half-timbered structure with pantile roof and castellated tower) became known as the “wee houses”. One building houses the manager’s office and the other is a store room.

©Shaun Barr Photography

Campbeltown Cross

Considered to be one of the finest surviving examples of late medieval carvings in Argyll this is a masterpiece of carving and a must-see for anyone wanting to get a sense of Kintyre’s rich heritage. Estimated to have been carved around 1380 this impressive cross was most likely to have been originally erected in the grounds and graveyard of the church at Kilkivan near Machriahnish.

An outstanding work of art, with intricately cut saints and animals which are interlaced with detailed foliage, it is likely to have been carved on Iona. (I had read previously that it was thought to have been carved at Saddell Abbey).

Unfortunately the cross was deliberately damaged around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers taking exception to and erasing the depiction of the Crucifixion, a priest, and Mary sitting on a throne with Jesus in her arms. 

 

The cross was brought to Campbeltown around 1680 to serve as a market cross and was erected in the middle of the road in front of the Town Hall. Removed for safety to Kilkerran Cemetery during the Second World War, the cross was relocated in 1946 to its present position in the middle of the Old Quay Head roundabout at the bottom of Main Street.

Its importance to Campbeltown cannot be overstated; not just for its archaeological value but to its residents, culture and heritage. In 1700 the local townsfolk gathered around it to witness the town proclaimed a Royal Burgh, while still today it remains a focus of both civic and social life, with ceremonial processions of both weddings and funerals taken around it.

 

The cross had inevitably deteriorated over the centuries, cracks had appeared and the bronze plaques and railings that surrounded the monument were in a very poor state. Surveys were commissioned, funds raised, and work began in September 2020 by two conservators from Graciela Ainsworth to restore the cross. The work was completed by November 2020. A new interpretation board was attached to the restored railings, new floodlighting and 3 heritage benches were also added. A beautiful film describing the cross’s story and restoration, produced by local producer Robert Western can be viewed on YouTube.

Campbeltown Heritage Centre

On the Southend Road, housed in the former Lorne Street church, known locally as the ‘Tartan Kirk’ due to its striped appearance from the alternating red and yellow stonework. It was built in 1868 to replace the Gaelic Free and English Free churches that both occupied the site originally and was closed in 1990 when the congregation amalgamated with the Longrow Church.

©Shaun Barr Photography

Lorne and Lowland Church

 

Originally known as the Longrow Church, now the Lorne & Lowland Church. Built in 1872 to the design of John Burnet, the steeple is a significant Campbeltown landmark that can be seen for miles. The Italianate tower and crown spire were financed by the distiller, John Ross.

How A Gaelic-speaking Settlement Became Anglicised To Campbeltown

 

To understand the naming of Campbeltown, a relatively recent title, it’s worth going back to the roots of this place which are Gaelic through and through. The site on which Campbeltown was built was originally occupied by the Scotti, a Gaelic-speaking tribe from Ireland who settled on Kintyre from the beginning of the Christian era. The peninsula became synonymous with Dalriada, named after the Irish chieftan Cairbe Riada.

 

With family on either side of the North Channel, Fergus Mor mac Eirc crossed the Irish Sea in 500AD, with the intention of establishing Albain Dalriada, an Argyll-based province that would expand into the modern nation of Scotland. 

 

Hundreds of years later a planned settlement of Lowland Scots in the early part of the 17th Century, formed part of a plan to nullify the influence of Clan Donald, who were direct descendants of the Dalriadic Scots and who had held authority on the west coast as Lords of the Isles.

 

A deal was made with the eighth Earl of Argyll whereby the Exchequer offered to discharge his Crown dues if within 5 years he would ‘plant a burgh, to be inhabited by Lowland men and travelling burgesses’. It was the Earl of Argyle, Archibald Campbell, that renamed the new settlement to Campbell’s Town. The town’s status as a Royal Burgh was granted in 1700.

 

 

Anglicised to Kinlochkilkerran (shortened to Kilkerran), the original Gaelic name was Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain meaning ‘head of the loch by the kirk of Ciarán’. In the 6th Century Irish missionaries sailed to Kintyre to preach Christianity. 

 

It is thought that St. Kieran (Ciarán) established a religious cell where Campbeltown stands today. There are some suggestions that the early Irish monks that came over also brought with them the whisky distilling know-how that would become such an integral part of Campbeltown’s history, culture and indeed future so many centuries on. 

©Shaun Barr Photography

Campbeltown Whisky

From a peak of well over 30 distilleries in the 1800s Campbeltown’s fortunes changed for the worst and that figure plummeted to just one in the 20th Century. But Campbeltown’s reputation for being the ‘whisky capital of the world’ begins way before legal distilling came into being. 

 

The first reference to Campbeltown whisky in writing goes as far back as 1591. Within 10 years Campbeltown became a whisky smuggling centre and this continued throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was in 1660 that the Mitchell family, the founders of the Springbank we know and love today, arrived from the Lowlands as settlers into Campbeltown, some of whom were already maltsters. Springbank itself was built in 1828 on the site of a previously illicit still, becoming the 14th licensed distillery in Campbeltown. One of the Mitchell’s sons, William, set up the Glengyle Distillery in 1872.  

 

 

 

Legal distilleries grew in number throughout the 1800s providing a huge boost to the town. So much so in fact that by 1891, with a population of just 1,609, Campbeltown was reputed to be the richest town in Britain per capita. 

 

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that whisky trade in Campbeltown began a long and slow demise. The demand for Campbeltown whisky from blenders was so great and competition between distillers so fierce that consistency in quality became erratic as some firms sought to cut corners. Blenders began to look elsewhere for more consistent malt, and a slow death of company after company began to take place. 

 

In the midst of a recession in the early part of the 20th Century William Mitchell sold Glengyle, only for the company who bought it to cease trading in 1925. By 1934 there were only two distilleries still in operation, Springbank and Glen Scotia. 

 

The 1980s saw tough times for many across the UK and Scotland’s whisky trade saw a significant downturn, with Springbank describing their own production at the time as “sporadic at best”. 

 

For a few years Springbank was the only distillery left in Campbeltown after Glen Scotia closed in 1984. 

 

An upturn began in 1989 when full production began again at Springbank and through the nineties a growing international reputation for single malts began to grow. Glen Scotia Distillery went back into production in the 1990s after being mothballed a few years earlier following a number of short-lived ownerships.

In 2004 Springbank bought back the Glengyle Distillery bringing the company bank into the family. The rebuilt business became the first new distillery in Campbeltown for over 100 years. It also secured Campbeltown’s recognition as a distinct whisky region. 

 

At the time the Scotch Whisky Association was considering removing Campbeltown’s status as a distinct region. The Lowlands, another whisky region, held just one more distillery. The rebirth of Glengyle, which brought the number of distilleries to three, effectively saved Campbeltown’s distinct status.

 

Springbank is the oldest independent family-owned distillery in Scotland. They continue to produce three distinct styles of whisky: unpeated Hazelburn, medium peated Springbank and heavily peated Longrow.

Glen Scotia also has a long and successful history under its belt. Newly strengthened in recent times, its reputation continues to grow with both demand and production increasing year on year. 

Take a look at Cadenhead’s whisky emporium and you could also make a visit to the Ardshiel Hotel, which boast over a thousand bottles of whisky!

©Shaun Barr Photography

©Shaun Barr Photography

Davaar Island (Island Davaar)

The Island of Davaar and Campbeltown are inseparably linked together, the island dominating the view from the harbour, it’s soft green slopes, topped with heather, rising up majestically from Campbeltown Loch. Linked physically too as the tide allows, when twice a day the Doirlinn is revealed and allows access to the island for a few hours before the sea reclaims the island to itself once again.

 

Doirlinn is the Gaelic word for a tidal causeway, in this case is a long, curved shingle bank about a mile long that appears at low tide, disconnecting and reconnecting land and sea.

 

Like many I’m naturally drawn to islands anyway, but there’s something particularly appealing about an island that naturally grants access for only a short amount of time, before closing off that opportunity once again. Maybe such constriction of access heightens its attraction. 

©Shaun Barr Photography

How to get to Davaar Island

From Campbeltown, follow the coast road south east for approximately 3 km. Shortly after passing the NATO depot on your right there is a large layby on your left which is the parking area for Davaar Island.

 

You will need to allow 3 hours either side of the low tide so it’s important to check Campbeltown tide times before setting off to Davaar. It takes approximately 40 minutes to walk across the Doirlinn and you’ll need to ensure you allow the same amount of time for the walk back. When the tide turns, it turns rapidly and the Doirlinn can disappear surprisingly quickly. 

 

There’s something quite magical about walking the temporary route along the shell-rich shingle revealed by the ebbing tide. It somehow feels like privileged access. As the tide shrinks back you will see a plethora of wading birds drawn to the feeding grounds that the wet sands on either side of the causeway hold in store. Cocklers can be seen harvesting as they walk over the sands of Kildalloig just east of the causeway. 

 


 

 

 

Once on the island it’s a short walk to Davaar lighthouse and beautiful views across to Arran. There are two holiday cottages here, one of which is the Lighthouse Keeper’s cottage. Many visitors to Davaar head off east, in the opposite direction as they have the Crucifixion Cave as their destination. 

 

The story goes that in 1887 some local fishermen discovered the cave painting of the Crucifixion, which obviously caused a considerable stir as no one had any idea how it had come to be there. There was much talk and mention of miracles but it eventually transpired to be the work of a local art teacher, Alexander MacKinnon. In the 1930s he returned to Kintyre in his old age to retouch his painting and since then locals have restored the painting whenever necessary.

There are seven caves along the base of Davaar here and the walk involves a reasonably strenuous clamber over large rocks and boulders and care needs to be taken. The cave painting is found in the fifth cave. 

 

Sheep are grazed on the island, and there’s also a herd of wild goats so it’s important to keep dogs on leads at all times. During the summer months gannets can be seen flying from Ailsa Craig to fish the waters around Davaar. Basking sharks, whales and dolphins can occasionally be seen at this time too. While seals, otters and sea eagles can be seen at any time of year.

 

To me Davaar has become something of an old friend. My visits to Campbeltown are a given, but even on the shortest of trips the idea of not wandering across the Doirlinn to spend a while on the island seem like the height of rudeness. I guess we all have our special places for which we reserve the upmost affection and to me Davaar is most definitely that place. 

©Shaun Barr Photography

©Shaun Barr Photography

Davaar Lighthouse at dawn, looking out to the Isle of Arran.

©Shaun Barr Photography

©Shaun Barr Photography

©Shaun Barr Photography

©Shaun Barr Photography

Town House

 

Town House (Town Hall). Situated on the site of an old tolbooth this is a striking building, often considered to be one of Scotland’s finest.

 

Built in 1760, its original wooden spire was replaced by a stone one in 1778. 

Campbeltown Museum and Library

A beautiful sandstone building designed by the architect Sir John James Burnet, it sits across from the harbour housing both Campbeltown Public Library and the Museum. The entrance hall sits beneath a striking cupola adorned with engraved glass, a frieze depicting local industries. The museum contains many articles of national importance including a Bronze Age jet necklace and Neolithic pottery discovered in the chambered cairn at Beacharr. The collection also contains a prehistoric stone axe head and Viking remnants.

Linda McCartney Memorial Garden

At the back of the museum and library building is the Lady Linda McCartney Memorial Garden, a pretty little space designed to commemorate Linda’s life and the site of her memorial statue. 

Festivals, Music and Whisky

Culturally rich, Campbeltown has a vibrant music and media scene. It also hosts the annual Mull of Kintyre Music Festival, and the Kintyre Songwriters Festival. 

 

Late May sees the arrival of the annual Campbeltown Malts Festival, hosting tastings, tours, dinners and live music, bringing in thousands of whisky lovers from all over the globe. 

The local radio station, Argyll FM, is based in Campbeltown. 

Campbeltown Shops

Wander along the town’s old streets and you’ll discover an array of independent shops, cafés, and a gallery. The Kintyre Larder, whose owner Linda McLean specialises in sourcing locally produced food and drink such as local whisky (I guess that’s a given), meat, fish, eggs and chocolate. Also worth a visit is the fantastic Campbeltown Pottery, which started up in 1997. The Kintyre Smokehouse offers a range of superb produce with top end clients including Ascot and many fine-dining restaurants.

Beinn Ghuilean

At 354m, the views from the top of Beinn Ghuillean are far more impressive than the altitude suggests. It overlooks the town and loch and commands superb views across the peninsula. Follow the signs for the A83 to Machrihanish until you reach Witchburn Road. After passing the former creamery on your left, turn left into Tomaig Road and continue until you reach a wooden gate. Cross over the stile and follow the track through the fields where you will cross two more stiles. You will then reach the Forest Enterprise sign, marking the start of the walk. Around 4 miles, allow 3 hours’ walking time. 

The Kintyre Way

It is worth trying at least a section of the Kintyre Way, which encompasses head-clearing clifftop paths, beaches and coves, across fertile plains of gently rolling wooded hills that sweep away from the coast. 

Campbeltown Creamery

The site was originally built in 1824 as the Meadowburn Whisky Distillery but was converted to a creamery about 1920, Scottish Pride butter and cheese being among some of its iconic brands. 

 

Campbeltown Creamery closed in 2019 after almost 100 years of business and an 18-month struggle to find a way to secure its future. This was a sad loss for Campbeltown and a blow to a town that has continued to grow in strength in recent years,

 

Despite a crowdfunding campaign by 29 local supplying dairy farmers, a viable solution to save the dairy ended without success. Along with jobs and livelihoods went nationally recognisable and much-loved brands such as Mull of Kintyre Cheese.

In 2020 the site was sold to McFadyen’s Transport – one of the largest employers in Kintyre with over 100 people working in its construction and transport business.

Campbeltown Airport

Three miles west of the town, Campbeltown Airport provides a busy and increasingly important link to Glasgow, where small aircraft get to use one of the longest runways in Europe, originally built as RAF Machrihanish – Concorde was apparently tested here.   

Renaissance

From 2007-2020 Argyll and Bute Council working in partnership with the community, private and social enterprise sector delivered an extensive programme of heritage led regeneration in Campbeltown town centre. 

This included repairs to over 40 buildings including Campbeltown Town Hall, Campbeltown Backpackers Bunkhouse a hotel several derelict buildings renovated to provide residential accommodation and commercial space. 

There has also been the £3 million restoration of the Campbeltown Picture House, bringing it back to its former glory and ensuring it remains a popular attraction for residents and visitors alike.

Campbeltown’s renaissance continues, and with it increasing confidence in the future. The town was named Scotland’s most improved place in the SURF regeneration awards in 2021. 

 

A new distillery has recently been announced, the Dal Riata Distillery. With more than a nod to the town’s Celtic roots, it will use its own local barley grown at Dunadd Hillfort, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata. The company says that this “will allow us to produce single malt scotch whisky with traditions and styles consistent with whiskies distilled and matured on the Western Seaboard”. 

 

The development will include a distillery, museum, visitor centre and a retail outlet, creating around 20 jobs. 

 

 

 

 

The Future

Like so much of the nation Campbeltown will no doubt continue to face economic challenges but with a long history of resilience combined with a newfound energy the wee town's revival looks set to continue. By capitalising on its traditional strengths while at the same time embracing change it would seem Campbeltown's future is encouragingly positive. 

My own short time here has come to an end and so I take one last walk along the harbour. Old, brightly coloured fishing boats are being readied for their next trip. The head of a curious grey seal emerges from the water and maintains eye contact with me, perhaps confusing me for a fisherman and hoping for a bite to be thrown its way.

 

High above I can hear the distant cry of a flock of geese, their v formation gradually coming into view as they head north across the pink dawn sky. Marooned once more by the incoming tide I take a parting look across to Davaar, before hitting the road and heading north back up the peninsula.

 

I feel so at home here that sometimes leaving is a real wrench, but as I drive along the coast and look out across the Atlantic to the shrouded violet silhouettes of Islay and Jura I take comfort in the fact I'll soon be back to enjoy this truly special place once again. 

©Shaun Barr Photography

bottom of page