On the long drive to Campbeltown, Tarbert follows Lochgilphead as a key marker of your progress south. It is also the gateway to the Kintyre peninsula: north of here you are still in the less well known Knapdale.
Tarbert is a pleasant fishing town popular with the yachting fraternity. As you approach, your first sight is of the distinctive tower of the church, then the sweep of the attractive and busy bay, backed by rocky hills.
There are a number of Tarberts (and Tarbets) in Scotland, and each is characterised by a narrow strip of land, usually where two lochs nearly meet. The name comes from the Gaelic Tairbeart. This is literally translated as "draw-boat" and more usually as "isthmus".
At Tarbert the isthmus preventing the rest of Kintyre becoming an island is just a mile across, where West Loch Tarbert bites deeply into the peninsula and only just fails to meet East Loch Tarbert, around which Tarbert's harbour is built. The Gaelic name was demonstrated in practice in 1093. To prove that he could add Kintyre to his claim for all the western islands, the Viking King Magnus Barelegs rode in a longboat as it was dragged across the isthmus. An island was something you could travel round in a boat: therefore his journey made Kintyre an island. And therefore, he claimed, it was his...
In the 1200s Tarbert acquired a castle overlooking its harbour from the south. This was strengthened by Robert the Bruce, and James IV later captured it from the Lords of the Isles and extended it further. It last changed hands in 1685, before becoming the ruin you see today. It can be reached by the footpath leading past the old police station opposite the fish quay.
By 1894 Tarbert offered two steamers a day to Glasgow. It was also operating as a staging post for Islay, with passengers arriving from Glasgow at Tarbert, being taken by carriage to West Loch Tarbert, and then embarking on another steamer to complete the journey to Port Askaig or Port Ellen.
Today the town is a crossroads linking together no fewer than four different ferries. The Islay Ferry sails from Kennacraig, a few miles down West Loch Tarbert. Tarbert itself is the terminus for a ferry to Portavadie on Cowal, while a few miles south at Claonaig is the terminus for what has been called Arran's "back door": the ferry to Lochranza. The final ferry gives access to the Isle of Gigha, and runs from Tayinloan, a dozen miles south of Tarbert on the A83.