Welcome to Campbeltown
Campbeltown, one of the largest towns in Argyle, is situated on the Kintyre Peninsula, 75 miles south of Inveraray. It lies at the head of Campbeltown Loch, a sea loch sheltered by Davaar Island. This sea loch marks the boundary between the bulky head of the Kintyre Peninsula known as the Mull of Kintyre, made famous by Paul McCartney’s hit song ‘Mull of Kintyre’ (released in 1977) and the rest of the peninsula. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty: of gentle hills, and a stunning coastline which accommodates both sandy beaches and quiet bays. A short drive from Campbeltown, the southern and eastern coast of the Mull affords views over the Northern Channel to Ireland, just twelve miles to the south-west.
Kintyre’s first inhabitants were Mesolithic hunter gatherers. There being no source of flint on the peninsula, the flint tools they left were most likely brought from the nearest source in Ireland. Examples of their tools can be viewed in Campbeltown’s museum. After 4000 BC permanent settlements were accompanied by burial cairns, 11 of which survive in Kintyre. After 2500 BC, more than 30 standing stones mark the arrival of the Bronze Age on the peninsula. The Iron Age, beginning around 700 BC, marked a period of increased conflict in Scotland and forts began to spring up. The most impressive from this period may be Sron Uamha at the southernmost tip of the Mull of Kintyre. Here three of the fort’s walls remain perched on the top of a 100 foot sea cliff which affords remarkable views over to Ireland.
In the first centuries AD the region which had the most influence on Kintyre was Antrim in the north of Ireland. From the 3rd century a Gaelic speaking colony of the Scotii tribe was in place on Kintyre ruled by Cairbre, who already dominated lands across the channel in Antrim. Migration continued over the following two centuries until three Gaelic brothers arrived and, having lost out to an uncle in Ireland, started to expand the Scottish part of their kingdom, which became known as Dalriata. The eventual success of the tribe led by this family gave the name to the Scottish nation.
Scotii influence was not just confined to migration and military expansion; the Irish version of the Christian faith would follow the same route into Scotland via Kintyre. On his way to found the church on Iona which would become the spiritual centre of Scottish Christianity for centuries, St Columba arrived first in Kintyre in 563 AD. The famed saint is said to have first touched Scottish soil ten miles south of Campbeltown. He went on to crown King Aidan of Dalriata, in Kintyre, the first time that any king on the British Island was given a Christian blessing. Today a ruined medieval church lies at the site of his landing in Kintyre, along with two footprints carved in the rock which are said to mark his first steps on shore.
Within two centuries of Aidan’s death in 605 AD the kingdom of Dalriata came into conflict with Viking invaders from the north. Kintyre was settled by the newcomers from the ninth century onwards and accordingly Celtic control waned. In 1098 King Edgar of Scotland was forced to recognise this power shift when Magnus II of Norway claimed all of the lands of Scotland that could be circled by boat. Edgar was not in a position to argue these terms having been on the receiving end of Scandinavian military success. Flaunting his power, Magnus had his men drag his galleon across the isthmus at Tarbert to circle the Kintyre peninsula and so claimed these extensive lands too. Only after the Scots gained the military advantage in the 13th century did they wrest the Isles and Kintyre back from the Vikings.
It is not clear whether there was a settlement at Campbeltown at this time. The first reliable evidence tells of the existence of the town of Kinlochkilkerran on the site at some point before the 1600. It was this settlement that was enhanced by King James VI as part of an attempt to ‘civilise’ the highlands and islands. At more or less the same time the Campbell Earls of Argyll came into possession of the land and the town took its present name.
Over the coming centuries the town became one of the wealthiest on the west coast due to the success of the fishing fleet and whisky distillation. Indeed, it was once said that there were more distilleries in Campbeltown than churches: and there were over thirty churches! Yet it was in the Victorian period when Campbeltown reached its peak when it became a major shipbuilding centre.
Scotland’s 20th century industrial decline did much to damage Campbeltown’s economy. Nonetheless, it has undergone something of a revival in recent years due to the return of a number of distilleries, the arrival of a Danish wind turbine company (Vestas) which has become the town’s single biggest employer, and the development of the area since the Victorian period as a tourist destination. Tourism too has helped to develop the surfing, sailing, golf and angling facilities which provide for the growing numbers of visitors. Without any of these attractions the town would probably prove popular due to the exceptional quality of its Victorian buildings, its setting on the sheltered sea loch, its temperate climate and its perfect location for the exploration of the historic and beautiful Kintyre.