Kintyre, the Argyll peninsula stretching south towards Ireland, has a turbulent and bloody past. Fought over, invaded, captured and recaptured, this finger of land has a fascinating tale to tell. One way to get closer to area’s history is to visit its castles and abbeys, from Tarbert Castle in the north to Dunaverty Castle is in the south. Travel through epic landscapes as you follow this historical trail which criss-crosses Kintyre. You’ll discover some great places to eat and drink along the way.
The ruined Tarbert Castle sits high on a rocky outcrop overlooking Tarbert harbour. The earliest stone structure on this site dates from the 13th century, possibly earlier. The fortification guarded the anchorage below in the bay, and controlled the land link between Tarbert's East and West Lochs. Robert the Bruce played an important role in its reinforcement and enlargement in 1325, with the extensive curtain wall and drum towers enclosing almost two acres. The Castle Heritage Park is an excellent spot for a family picnic, with a nature pond and sculpture walk to entertain the kids. There are way-marked walks further up the hillside, including the first section of the Kintyre Way. The castle is free to visit and open all year round. Tarbert is a bustling fishing village, with shops, cafés and art galleries. It plays host to a range of events and festivals throughout the year, including the Loch Fyne Viking Festival.
From Tarbert it’s a short drive to reach Skipness Castle, a partial ruin on Kintyre’s east coast. The main structure of the castle was built in the early 13th century by the Clan MacSween with later fortifications and other additions made to the castle through the 13th, 14th and 16th centuries. You can climb up a narrow staircase to the roof for incredible views across the Kilbrannan Sound to Arran. Look out for the crosslet arrow slits in the west range – these are rare features in a Scottish castle. The location is stunning and there are lots of things to see and do. Enjoy some great seafood at the Skipness Seafood Cabin, pop into the Skipness Smokehouse Shop and walk along the shore to St Brendan’s Chapel. The castle is free to visit and open all year round.
Little remains of the ruined Dunaverty Castle, which is located at Southend at the southern end of Kintyre, but the site has a intriguing story to tell. Robert the Bruce stayed here in 1306 while on the run from Edward I of England. Over the following centuries it was often the scene of conflict. In 1647 in the Battle of Dunaverty some 300 people, mainly MacDonalds and MacDougalls, were killed in a massacre. Their bodies were later interred in a mass grave today marked by a cottage-like stone tomb standing in a field just to the south of the village of Southend. There are several other interesting historical sites nearby, including Keil Caves, St. Columba’s Footprints and St Columba’s Chapel. Feeling peckish? Head to Muneroy Tearoom for fabulous cakes.
This castle was built in 1834 by a Dugald McTavish, an under-sheriff of Kintyre and a Macrihanish mine-owner. The castle rests on ancient, partially vaulted foundations, the precise origins of which are not known. Fancy bring the king (or queen) of the castle? Kilchrist Castle is available to let all year round and sleeps up to 12 guests. Or you could stay at Kilchrist Castle Cottages, which are set in a lovely location in the lea of the castle.
This historic house is situated in the pretty village of Glenbarr on the west side of the Kintyre peninsula between Muasdale and Bellochantuy. It’s currently closed for remodeling and maintenance, but when it does reopen make sure you pay a visit. A tour offers a glimpse of family living in a beautiful 18th-century house, with a wealth of exhibits on show including 19th-century fashions, antique toys and gloves worn by Mary Queen of Scots. Nearby Glenbarr Stores, Café and Nursery is a great spot for refreshments. Tuck into delicious home baking and tasty lunches featuring lots of local produce.
Follow the B842 up the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula from Campbeltown to Carradale and you’ll come to the tiny hamlet of Saddell, home to Saddell Abbey. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1207 by Ragnall, son of Somairle mac Gille Brigte. It’s now ruined, but is a fascinating and atmospheric place to explore. The highlight is a remarkable collection of late medieval grave slabs, displayed in a shelter. There are twelve of these stones altogether, dating back to the 1300s or 1400s. From Saddell you can walk to Saddell Bay, passing Saddle Castle, which is now fabulous self-catering holiday accommodation run by Landmark Trust. This wild and remote beach was used in the video for Mull Of Kintyre, the song by Paul McCartney and Wings. Look out for the sculpture by Anthony Gormley standing on the rocks in front of the castle.
Photo: Tarbert Castle by Janet West