Updated: Nov 17, 2019
There is a stretch of land in Western Scotland that slices a broad swath along the North Atlantic coast known as the Kintyre Way. If you are feeling strong enough to walk the 161 Km trail, starting in Tarbert to the north, you will find a world that is both majestic and at times very wild, positively teeming with wildlife and dotted by castles and ancient hill forts.
Almost at the end of this trail you will find the only town of reasonable size to deserve the term, and the most westerly in the United Kingdom – Campbeltown.
I was only here for a few days and had already spent most of the time locked in a small but cosy cabin in a place called Peninver just a few miles up the eastern side of the peninsula.
Now you would not normally expect a tiny holiday home park to provide you with stunning views and a plethora of wildlife, but Peninver Sands offers these and more.
I had arrived late and it was dark so I could not appreciate any of its attractions but as I stood looking across a very dark bay I was disconcerted to hear splashing somewhere on the shore. The next morning the source of the noise became apparent – eight seals trying to make themselves comfortable on a line of boulders not a stone’s throw from my window. These enchanting creatures actually seemed to spend all day there, casually glancing at me and accompanying seabirds of numerous type. If that was not enough, the early dawn brought with it pink and orange streaks of cloud and I confess that all I could do for a while was just gawp.
The seals remained a fixture for my stay and it appeared as if the entire animal kingdom was jostling for position in front of my window because apart from the seals I saw an otter come ashore, tiny diving birds seeking fish, herons, curlews and oyster-catchers – and that was without even standing up.
Despite the beauty of Peninver, though, I was anxious to explore some of Campbeltown, so on my third and final day I drove down to the quayside with its curious elongated island of palm trees separating the buildings from the sea and went off in a desperate search for something with caffeine in it.
I was immediately struck by how busy the town seemed, a seemingly never ending stream of people and cars, all heading purposely for unknown destinations. I bought a newspaper and found the first cafe that looked suitable, one that looked out across the harbour where fishing boats jostled for position in a stiff breeze, Cafe Bluebell. Whilst I waited for the waitress to bring me my coffee I flipped idly through the rather slender pages of the paper. In the first 3 pages I had read almost nothing about important events on the planet but I did learn almost immediately that:
a) The ozone ‘hole’ is the smallest it’s been since the mid-eighties (but we can’t celebrate this fact because this is probably due to global warming instead of the ban on CFC's)
b) That the actor who played Elliott in ‘ET – The Extraterrestrial’ had been found drunk in his car and
c) Who had won the ‘Tree of the Year Award’.
Whilst I mused that ‘Elliott’ was probably going to need a bit more that a glowing finger to get him out of trouble, my eyes got drawn back to the tree article. The plant in question has been called the ‘Ent’ of Glen Affric and is a majestic Elm of around 300 years old. The description alludes to the wonderful creations in J.R.R Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and seems to be based on the curious ‘face’ with which the tree gazes over its isolated spot. This very isolation has also very likely protected it from the vagaries of the disease of the same name that has felled 60 million of its kind in Britain alone. Quite how it won the ‘Scotland Tree of the year Award’ was not fully explained, nor how it intends to spend its £1,000 prize money, however the article noted that it had beaten off opposition from 5 other, presumably disappointed, large plants and I am sure it showed its appreciation with a stiff bough.
My coffee arrived shortly before the cooked breakfast I’d ordered and once the foam had cleared I looked down into what appeared to be a cup of dishwater containing what I chose to believe was milk.
It is a sad fact that not many UK establishments have mastered the art of placing a spoonful of coffee into a cup and adding water/sugar/milk/whisky (if the fancy takes you) and I’m afraid Cafe Bluebell now joined their ranks. What I had been presented with was a cup of water with one, possibly two, grains of coffee in it – small ones. It was, however, hot and I sipped the brew tentatively, smacking my lips in a totally wasted effort to locate the flavour, or caffeine, or anything, really, that justified the £2.20 it cost.
And that is a shame because Cafe Bluebell is an otherwise great cafe; big enough not to feel cramped, but small enough to feel cosy. The cooked breakfast, too, was lovely – fried to perfection and piled high enough to satisfy even the most cholesterol-starved entity – if you find yourselves in Campbeltown on a cold and windy day, I would recommend it.
Later on I took a short walk along the quayside and found myself outside the combined museum and register office. There seems to be a lot of these ‘shared spaces’ around just now; the merging of civic services as a result of budget cuts. The local library, for example (spacious and well-stocked) shares its building with the gym and I am sure that we are not too far from the day when your local doctor's surgery is twinned with the council tax department, allowing instant access to both your huge bill and someone to deal with the hypertension that results.
The museum’s big double doors were firmly closed, however, so I followed the ‘wheelchair access’ sign around the back to a small and windswept garden in the middle of which sat a sculpture of Linda McCartney alongside a traffic cone.
The cone itself was not, I suspect, intended as a feature. These objects are known the world over to lead highly disorganised and migratory lives, turning up in all sorts of odd places, from people’s front lawns to the roofs of bus shelters and even occasionally lurking in alley ways, waiting for drunk students to walk by when they will viciously and without warning attach themselves to their heads. This one had obviously made this small walled garden its home.
Everywhere there were large signs providing information on Mrs McCartney’s life and works, how the family came to this part of the world and titbits about the making of her famous husband Paul’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and formation of his band Wings. The ex-Beatle himself donated the bronze sculpture, a fitting and lovely tribute to someone who truly loved this area.
However what the garden did not have was another entrance to the museum so I left Mrs McCartney and her garden and walked back to the Old Quay stopping briefly at the aptly-named Tea on the Quay cafe. Here at least I was finally able to get my caffeine fix (Bluebell, please note!) and watched a steady stream of timber lorries heading out to drop a never ending supply of dead trees onto the concrete pier (If you would like to hear more about this important Scottish industry, please see my blog ‘Surviving Scotland’). A helpful sign outside the cafe describes aspects of the timber industry, including the fact that the pile of trunks will weigh 3,000 tons (70 to 80 lorry-loads) before it is loaded into a ship for onward travel and processing.
Before I left the town, I decided to try the museum again and on the way, walked past the little harbour, noting a half-submerged ‘No parking’ cone in the water (another errant species that obviously hadn’t made it to shore). I assume this was to deter anyone who might mistake the sea-filled harbour, with its fishing boats and lapping waves, for a car park.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the big doors to the museum open and ventured in with anticipation.
There was a brief delay as the lady at the counter, obviously surprised to see a visitor, had to check with the group of people in the room adjoining it (and which I would have to walk through) if they were happy to have me traipse through the middle of their meeting. Given the all-clear, I finally entered the museum itself.
The one thing that always hits me in these grand places is the smell. It carries with it an aura of great age, tinted with floor polish, and this museum was no exception. I was mildly surprised to find myself the only visitor there (and according to the visitor’s book the only one that day so far) and I gleefully took the opportunity to walk slowly past the rows of cabinets, my echoing footsteps the only sound. The museum isn’t large, in fact it is housed in just one, high vaulted room, but the abundance of exhibits makes it a worthwhile experience. I cannot bear to miss a single object and spent a good hour or so looking at the accumulated history of 5,000 years of busy human activity in the area.
There was everything from primitive stone tools to large earthen burial containers, their outer shells adorned with patterns and lines. I stared at these in particular for a long while because this is where you can truly see the hand of man at work – quite literally. The imprints tend to cover the whole surface and you can see where the artist has made mistakes, perhaps drawn a line in the wet clay a bit askew and then tried to correct it. I even fancied I could detect a thumbprint on the lip of one of them. I found it amazing to think that I was looking at someone’s finger mark where some 4,000 years ago he or she had carelessly squeezed the unbaked surface, so fresh that it could have been made last week. Perfectly preserved nearby was a beautiful heavy necklace made from Jet, carefully collected and polished by a long-dead ancestor for some loved one. There were cases stuffed with an assortment of bizarre sea creatures I never even knew existed in Scotland and a much larger one with a series of rather startled-looking birds and mammals all trying to sit together on a small pretend beach.
But if there is one thing museums share, apart from the glorious ancient smell, is the complete disregard for information about their exhibits. Yes, many of them did have the regulation tiny card with a line or so describing it, even the smallest chip of flint and tiniest insect, but there were also many that didn’t. I spent some time trying to find something about one of the largest pieces, a huge and flattish stone slab into which a couple of indentations had been formed or ground, but there was nothing. Many other large pieces had little pieces of paper tied to them sometimes with inscrutable and faded lettering or with a couple of numbers in tiny copperplate writing. ‘SP29’ read one (or something similar), leaving me to wonder for eternity if it was referring to a year, or a person or a place or any combination thereof.
So please listen up museums world-wide; if you are going to go to the trouble and expense of showing off our ancient relics, for goodness sake please tell us what we are looking at!
Campbeltown may not be the easiest place to get to by road (although it does have its own airport and regular coaches from Glasgow) and at first glance might seem cold and unlovely (at least in winter) but it has hidden depths and surprises. I came away wanting to discover more.