At the head of a deep loch sheltered by Davaar Island and surrounded by hills lies Campbeltown, one of the largest towns in Argyll. Located some 38 miles south of Tarbert on the A83, it is often thought of as being the most remote of Scotland's mainland towns. In reality it is the ideal base for exploring the many attractions of scenic southern Kintyre.
The town, originally known as Kinlochkilkerran, was renamed in the 1600s by the then Earl of Argyll, the Chief of the Clan Campbell. Elizabeth Tollemache, Duchess of Argyll prompted the building of the first harbour in the early 1700s and the town grew steadily in importance and economic strength over the following 200 years. Its heyday was during the Victorian era, when the town's shipbuilding industry was thriving, its fishing fleet comprised over 600 boats, and it seemed there was a distillery, or several, on every street. There was even a light railway linking the coal mines of the Machrihanish coalfield to the west with Campbeltown Harbour.
The decline of these industries heralded a decline of the town's fortunes. Shipbuilding in Campbeltown has disappeared as it has across most of the rest of Scotland. Only one distillery, Springbank, stayed in continuous existence, and the town's fishing fleet has been ravaged by declines in catches and, more recently, EU quotas.
There have been more recent disappointments, too. In the closing years of the last century a new car ferry link was established between Campbeltown and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland., but it ceased sailings after two years. And though the fine new ferry terminal still stands at the end of the harbour, it has been some time since any hopeful noises were heard about the prospects of the service restarting.
On the other hand, anyone visiting Campbeltown today finds signs of a revival under way. The harbour remains busy with leisure craft and is still home to a number of fishing boats. And freighters supporting the major wind power industry that has established itself on the Kintyre peninsula are frequent visitors.
Three miles to the west, Campbeltown Airport provides an increasingly busy link with Glasgow Airport. The small passenger aircraft used on the route require only a tiny fraction of the length of one of the longest runways in Europe which, at over three kilometers long and built as RAF Machrihanish, was used as a diversion airfield during the initial testing of Concorde. Meanwhile, Machrihanish itself, five miles west of Campbeltown, is increasingly making a name as an internationally important golfing destination.
There is also something of a revival of the distillery industry under way. In all, some 34 distilleries were established in Campbeltown, or Whiskyopolis as it was sometimes called, with as many as 25 operating at any one time in the mid 1800s. 20 were still in production in 1885, and 17 remained in production into the 1920s. But by 1930 the number still active was down to just 3, and by the early 1990s only one, Springbank Distillery, remained.
The turning point came in 1996 when the old Glen Scotia distillery was acquired by the Loch Lomond Distillery Company. Having refitted the distillery, they began production of the first Glen Scotia for many years in the first distilling season of the new millennium. Meanwhile, Springbank Distillery has since 1973 been producing a second distinct malt in its existing distillery, called Longrow: and a third, Hazelburn, has been distilled every year since 1997. In 2004 Springbank reopened production in a near neighbour, Glengyle Distillery, in which they distil Kilkerran single malt Scotch whisky.
It was once said that there were nearly as many churches as distilleries in Campbeltown. Though most of the distilleries are gone it seems many of the churches survive, if not in their original use. One such change of use is of the former Lorne Street Church, which is now the Campbeltown Heritage Centre. The building itself is most striking, with its stripy stonework and pinnacles: it is locally referred to as The Tartan Kirk.
A number of churches do retain their intended use. The most obvious is signalled by the huge tower of the Lorn and Lowland Church, built off Longrow in 1872. The tower is out of all proportion to the church itself and opinions differ as to whether it represents a lighthouse, highly appropriate for a seafaring town, or simply the influence of its Glaswegian architects. Further to the south is the Highland Parish Church, built in 1808 to accommodate the Gaelic-speaking Highland population of the town.
As you wander around Campbeltown you rapidly realise that it has retained a remarkable collection of extremely fine buildings. Perhaps the most striking is the Town House on Main Street, often considered to be one of Scotland's best town halls. Built in 1760, it had a stone spire added to replace the original wooden one in 1778.
Some of Campbeltown's most interesting buildings overlook the harbour. Here you find the Campbeltown Picture House, more normally known as the Wee Picture House. One of Scotland's earliest purpose built cinemas, it opened its doors in May 1913. Today it is certainly the oldest cinema in Scotland still showing films. Next door is the Campbeltown Library and Museum, built in 1898 to a design by the Glasgow architect Sir John James Burnet.
Standing surrounded by railings in the roundabout where Main Street emerges on the quayside is Campbeltown Cross. This is a magnificent stone cross covered by extremely intricate designs including saints, animals and interlaced foliage. It was probably carved in about 1380 and first erected in the church at Kilkivan near Machrihanish. It seems to have been moved to Campbeltown after the Reformation, being slightly defaced in the process. It has since served as the town's mercat, or market, cross. The Cross stood in the middle of Main Street outside the Town House until 1939, when it was removed to guard it against damage. It was set up in its current location in 1945.
Clearly visible from Campbeltown and well worth a visit is Davaar Island, which can only be accessed at low tide. A mile long causeway leads from the mainland to the island where, in a cave, a painting of the crucifixion mysteriously appeared in 1887. The mystery was solved when, in 1934, a local artist, Archibald MacKinnon, claimed the work. The following year, at the age of 85, he returned to renovate it.
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