Beaches and valleys in Kintyre and peaks and plains in Arran
Were it not for a tiny isthmus, Kintyre would be the innermost of the Hebrides, and indeed it possesses much of the remoteness and individuality of an island. And of a tropical island at that, with its long, rarely trodden beaches and secret valleys filled with ferns and great trees. Arran, a true island, is quite different – a gentle southern plain, and to the north wild mountains that are treated with respect even by Himalayan climbers.
The name Gigha means ‘God’s Island’ in Gaelic. It is a serene and temperate place, scattered with the duns, or forts, and standing stones of prehistoric peoples, and there is a tiny, ruined chapel dedicated to St Cattan. A little to the south of the hamlet of Ardminish is Achamore House Estate, belonging to the National Trust for Scotland, whose 50 acre gardens are a glory of magnolias, fuchsias, camellias, azaleas and other flowering trees and plants.
Most of Gigha is easily explored on foot, and Ardminish is only half an hour on the passenger ferry from Tayinloan on the mainland.
Six miles north of Tayinloan on the A83 along the west coast of Kintyre, look out for the car park overlooking Ronachan Bay. From there, among the bracken and wild flowers, there are wonderful views across the Sound of Jura to the Inner Hebrides; and keen inspection of the reefs offshore reveals grey seals, the largest of British wild mammals.
There are few beaches on this coast of Kintyre, but the one at Machrihanish makes up for it – 3 1/2 miles of sand the colour of pale corn, running north to Westport, with pale green surf racing in from Islay, Jura and the coast of north Antrim. It is a tempting shore, but one better suited to beach-walking than to bathing or surfing, for the undertow is dangerous.
At the Machrihanish end there is a breezy golf course, much favoured by those who like the game with scenery. Not so attractive are the low shapes of the buildings of the airfield, which is part NATO and part staging-post for the gallant little Trilander aeroplanes that hop between Glasgow and the Highlands and Islands.
The little resort with its sandy beaches and golf links is almost at the southern extremity of Kintyre; Ireland is no more than 15 miles away. Tradition has it that St Columba first set foot on Scottish soil there, in about AD 560, and a ruined chapel at Keil Point, 1 mile to the west, is dedicated to him. Behind the churchyard is St Columba’s Well, whose waters are considered holy.
The caves below Keil Point contain a slab that may have been an altar, but most remarkable are the prints of two right feet incised into the rock of the knoll at the churchyard’s western end. These are known as ‘St Columba’s Footsteps’, but may be as much as 3,000 years old, and are probably an example of the ‘Fealty Foot’, in which chiefs of long ago used to stand to promise protection and allegiance to the tribe.
The site may once have been the capital of the ancient Celtic kingdom of Dalriada, but the present town and its name belong to the early 1600s, when Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, was given a licence to develop the lands in Kintyre formerly belonging to Clan Donald. With its old stone buildings about the harbour dwarfed by the high, bare hills behind, there is something grim about Campbeltown; and there is something wistful about the little group of fishing boats tied up in a harbour designed to accommodate many times their number. A century ago, the burgh was important in the whaling, coal, distilling and herring-fishing trades, but the first two have vanished, and the others are diminished.
But Campbeltown is recovering swiftly, and is making a name for itself as a sailing and holiday resort. Island Davaar at the mouth of the loch makes for sheltered moorings, and there is good sea-fishing. A museum presents a thoughtful portrait of the burgh’s past.
The little natural harbour on the east coast of Kintyre is snug even when it is blowing half a gale in the Kilbrannan Sound outside. There is a small fleet of fishing boats, a few houses and a combined grocery shop and tea-room; most of the village is on the hill behind. Perhaps the chief attraction for visitors is the selection of forest walks on the Forestry Commission’s 16,000 acre estate. Beginning at the little Forest Centre, the walks radiate outwards to offer views of Arran – dominated by the 2,345 ft bulk of Beinn Bharrain – and shore walks to Carradale and its point, where there is a vitrified fort dating back to 1500 BC.
Almost buried in the trees and shrubs at the seaward edge of Saddell Forest, 4 miles south of Carradale, are the melancholy remains of Saddell Abbey, which in the early Middle Ages rivalled Iona in ecclesiastical importance. All that remains are a few crumbling arches, but their setting is glorious, and at the entrance there is a shelter protecting a dozen tombstones carved in Argyll between 1300 and 1560. They portray warriors in pointed helmets and armour, a priest with his chalice and a Cistercian monk. The background to the figures consists of a tangle of weapons, foliage, deer hunts and war-galleys.
The village by the curving, sandy beach is tiny, and made to seem all the more so by comparison with the massive red castle. Dating in part from the 13th century, this lacks a roof but is otherwise well preserved. It was never involved in a major battle, and was a Campbell stronghold until it was abandoned around 1700.
At speeds up to 180 mph the peregrine falcon dives on other birds and kills its prey with a single blow of its talons, then swoops down to retrieve its meal from the ground. The birds pair for life, and breed on inland crags and sea cliffs on Kintyre and the Island of Arran.
The hills of north Arran sweep superbly down to Glen Chalmadale and the little sea loch at its foot. There is a scattering of stone cottages about the harbour and pier, where the ferry arrives from Claonaig on the mainland. The ruined, twin-towered castle overhanging the loch dates mainly from the 17th century, but an earlier one on the same site is believed to be where Robert Bruce stayed when he first came from Ireland in 1306 to make his bid for the Scottish throne. The beach is wide and pebbly, but bathing is safe and the underwater scenery spectacular, it is particularly attractive when the open sea is too rough for diving. Cod, conger and haddock may be fished from the shore or from a boat.
It is often said that Arran is Scotland in miniature – having wild mountains to the north and a quiet fertile plain to the south. Blackwaterfoot is very much a Lowland hamlet, and the fact that people have made a living thereabouts for a very long time is apparent from the large number of standing stones, forts and burial chambers of the Iron and Bronze Ages, and traces of even earlier occupation. Most evocative of these misty eras are the 15 standing stones grouped about the graves of long-forgotten Bronze Age chieftains some 4 miles to the north.
On the coast 2 miles north of Blackwaterfoot is King’s Cave, one of a number of Scottish caverns believed to have been inhabited by Robert Bruce before he gained the throne; but the king referred to may be Fingal, the legendary Celtic hero.
Blackwaterfoot offers safe bathing from sandy beaches, good fishing, pony trekking, a golf course and indoor swimming pool.
Arran’s largest village and its serene, shingle-edged bay are protected by the 1,000 ft high sentinel of Holy Island. The island’s holiness is derived from St Molaise, or Laserian, who accepted 30 diseases all at once in place of purgatory, and died in AD 639. The cave in which he lived has Runic inscriptions and is situated on the bay side of the island, which can be visited by boat with permission.
Lamlash Bay offers good dinghy sailing and superb fishing for flatfish, conger, haddock, ray and skate, while underwater enthusiasts can visit the Derwent brig, wrecked off Holy Island in 1880. There is a golf course with views out to the island.
Situated on a sandy bay that is outstanding even on this lovely coast, Brodick is generally regarded as the capital of Arran. It is certainly the island’s main port; into its harbour come the ferries from Ardrossan, and even the occasional ‘puffer’, last sur- vivors of that breed of little cargo steamers that wander the Highlands and Islands, and were immortalised by Neil Munro in his Para Handy tales.
Many visitors are drawn to Brodick to attempt the ascent of the 2,866 ft Goat Fell, whose sombre bulk leans over the village. It and neighbouring peaks are under the protection of the National Trust for Scotland. So too is Brodick Castle, a stark fortification that for centuries was a seat of the Dukes of Hamilton. It was enlarged in 1844 and contains a priceless collection of furniture, porcelain and paintings. The gardens include rare rhododendrons, semi-tropical plants and a walled garden.
Brodick has diving and sea-angling centres with boats and tackle for hire.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Auchagalion Bronze Age Monument, 5 miles N of Btackwaterfoot. Daily.
Heritage Museum. Brodick. 19th-century Arran cottage and blacksmith’s shop. Most days in summer.