Each time we’ve walked or driven along Arran’s west coast I’ve looked across the the narrow strait of Kilbrannan Sound to the low hills of Kintyre and imagined exploring that long peninsula as far as the very tip where, from the Mull of Kintyre, you can see the coast of Northern Ireland, seeming a mere stone’s throw away.
This year, at last, we took the ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig to spend a day exploring this remote and sparsely-populated area. Looking back from the ferry (which had been delayed, due to an exceptionally low tide) the views that opened up of Arran’s northern mountains were dramatic and unexpected: when you’re down on the shore you have no sense of the rugged majesty of the peaks rising behind you.
After disembarking at Claonaig, the single track road heads due south along the east coast of the peninsula, through countryside where there was scarcely any sign of human presence. The road went up hill and down dale: dipping into wooded river valleys before climbing to wild moorland and forest where timber was cut. To the east we caught glimpses of the Arran’s mountain peaks towering over Kilbrannan sound. One of the few settlements of any size was Carradale, a fishing village with a sheltered harbour where great efforts had been made to provide information and varied activities for tourists.
If you look at Kintyre on a map, you can see that the peninsula is almost an island, with Loch Tarbert in the north all but separating Kintyre from the mainland. This gives some credence to Norse sagas which tell of King Malcolm of Scotland agreeing that the Viking leader Magnus Barelegs could have all the islands off the west coast of Scotland round which he could sail his boat. Barelegs was determined to have the Kintyre Peninsula, so he had his warriors pull a Viking longboat across the narrow neck of land that is all that joins Kintyre to the mainland at Tarbert (the name actually means ‘boat pull’) and thus gain possession of Kintyre.
From Carradale a broader road winds towards Campbeltown, the only town of any size on Kintyre with a population of around 5000. The road approaches the town alongside the infamous Campbeltown Loch (infamous, at least, to those of us who, as kids in the fifties, were driven mad when, nearly every week on Childrens’ Favourites, Andy Stewart would sing, ‘Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky, Campbeltown Loch I’d drink you dry’.
How did we ever survive this stuff? The town still has three active distilleries, though a century ago it had 34 and proclaimed itself ‘the whisky capital of the world’. Driving through the town, a superficial impression was of a place in decline, with dilapidated estates and shabby store fronts. It’s near here, though, that Paul McCartney has a farm: someone else who inflicted on the rest of us a naggingly memorable local tribute song that we’d rather forget.
From Campbeltown the road leads direct to Southend where, from the car, we glimpsed a long, sandy beach. Another eight miles of single track road brought us finally to the lighthouse on the Mull.
Mull of Kintyre is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic Maol Chinn Tìre which in English means ‘the rounded or bare headland of Kintyre. ‘Mull’ derives from Maol, meaning a headland, a jutting crag or promontory. And certainly the steep sides of the headland rise out of the sea abruptly on all sides. This, along with the frequent sea mists that McCartney alluded to in his eponymous song, have made the area hazardous for flying, and it has been the site of many air crashes. The notorious recent example was the Chinook helicopter crash on 2 June 1994 when a military helicopter, carrying senior army and police security personnel from Northern Ireland flew into the hill at full speed in thick fog. All 29 on board were killed and the spot is marked now by a memorial cairn.
The restricted, dangerous track down to the lighthouse is very steep. We left our car in the small parking place at the top of the cliffs and walked part of the way down. It was a bright, sunny day and the views across to the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland twelve miles away were splendid.
As we puffed our way back up the steep track, I am almost certain that the bird circling above us was a golden eagle.
A feature of the landscape that caught my eye was the sight of several long-decommissioned telegraph poles, leaning drunkenly in all directions like survivors from some derelict cowboy town out on the western plains.
Leaving the Mull behind us, we drove north along the Atlantic coast road, pausing for short walks along the shore at Westport and the tiny settlement of A’ Chleit. It’s an A road – the A83, signposted to Glasgow – but it must be one of the most spectacular drives anywhere in the UK. For much of its length the road hugs the shore, and affords views of endless, empty beaches of golden sand. Settlements are few and small, with an occasional caravan site or bungalow.
At Westport, the sands were virtually empty apart from one or two dog walkers and a man out for an afternoon run. We stopped again at A’ Chleit, a tiny place with a church on the beach facing the island of Gigha.
Like the road along the shore at Kildonan, our base in Arran, the beach here was thickly bordered with great waves of wild rocket.
From the beach the view took in the low-lying island of Gigha, with the distinctive peaks of Jura beyond.
The church stands at the shore’s edge, and the story goes that the parish church was originally at nearby Kilean, but one Sabbath morning in 1770 the minister there urged the congregation not to enter the old church for the service since he had a premonition of danger befalling anyone going inside. Sure enough, the roof of the church fell in that day, and a new church was built at A’Chliet.
Seen from the machair’s edge
miles of white sand swathe north.
The light is Greek, I’m told,
The green Atlantic merely
whispers of America.
Two black dots in the distance
move and grow, a couple
strolling towards me across the sand.
We are an infinity apart
which takes eternity to cross.
‘Nice day,’ he says, and she, smiling
offers, ‘what a lovely beach.’
I leave my cosmic survey
To hear myself reply,
‘A little crowded.’
William Oliphant, Summer Day on Lewis
We continued north, saw the ferry from Islay heading for Kennacraig, and finally arrived back at Claonaig for the last ferry back across the sound to Arran. We waited in the evening sunshine, lolling in the warm grass sprinkled with bird’s foot trefoil, the only passengers other than a pair of German motorcyclists.
- The walk to Laggan cottage: ruins and ancient footfalls
- Glen Sannox: landscape, nature and industry
- Coire Fhionn Lochan: ‘mountain line and shoreline’
- Back on Kildonan shore
- Walking Arran: two glens and the dog on top of the world
- Walking Arran: Iron Age forts, a Viking burial and Buddhist pilgrims
- Walking Arran: rock of ages
- Return to Arran, where the world was stilled
- On Arran: Millennia deep