Welcome to Tarbert

Paul McCartney’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’, released in 1977, introduced the beautiful Kintyre peninsula to people around the world. Here there are hills, beautiful woodlands, a stunning coastline which offers views over the North Channel to Ireland and some quiet sandy bays. Kintyre also offers some of the major ferry connections to the islands of Arran, Gigha and Islay, not to forget the ferry link to Portavadie on Cowal direct from Tarbert. The peninsula would be an island itself if it were not for the mile wide isthmus where Tarbert lies. Tarbert’s position, guarding the isthmus and therefore dominating north-south land traffic, as well as east-west sea traffic, has led some to call it the ‘Gateway to Kintyre’. Tarbert’s geographical importance is underlined by an interesting history.


Loch Fyne at Furnace

Kintyre, like elsewhere in Scotland, has been inhabited for well over eight thousand years. Flint workings and ‘shell middens’ testify to Kintyre’s settlement from around 7000 BC onwards. Standing stones, at nearby Escart Bay, constructed sometime after 2500 BC, provide evidence of more substantial settlement. However, the first evidence for a settlement at the strategically important Tarbert is not Archaeological. The Annuls of Ulster record that a fort guarding the isthmus was burned down in by tribes who came from Ireland. These tribes came first as invaders and later as settlers.

Within one hundred years this pattern of invasion and settlement was to be repeated with the arrival of the Vikings on Scotland’s western seaboard. Viking settlement culminated in the invasion and conquest of the Western Isles in 1098 by the armies of Magnus Barfod, son of King Olaf of Norway. The resulting treaty agreed between Magnus and the Scots’ king Edgar, allowed for Magnus to claim any of the Scottish lands which he could circle by galleon. Not wishing merely the Scottish islands he had his men drag his galleon over the isthmus at Tarbert; in this way Tarbert and Kintyre fell into Norse hands, much to the distress of Edgar.

Neither the local population nor Scottish kings found this situation acceptable. Alexander II, king of Scots, embarked upon an ill fated military expedition in Kintyre in 1221. Lack of military success forced Alexander to try diplomacy; he sent a number of diplomats to the court of King Haakon IV of Norway in an attempt to buy back the lands, only to have his diplomats imprisoned. Again Alexander tried force, but died on an expedition against the Norse in the Western Isles in 1249. Haakon’s response was to send a war party of his own to plunder and murder along the Kintyre coast. In an act of triumphalism, Haakon had his galleon dragged across the Tarbert isthmus as Magnus had done. In any case, the Scots finally got the upper hand; in 1263 Alexander III soundly defeated Haakon’s army at the battle of Largs. What was more, the Norse king died of the injuries he received that day. The result was that the Vikings were forever banished from not only Kintyre but the whole of Scotland’s western seaboard.

Magnus’ landing point is said to be where Tarbert Castle now stands. The fort came into existence at least as early as the 12th century, where it may have superseded previous fortifications at the isthmus. In any case, Tarbert Castle was later reinforced by King Robert the Bruce in the early 14th. Later still it was captured by James IV from the Lords of the Isles in the 15th century after which it fell into the hands of the Skipness Campbells before being seized by the Earl of Argyll in 1685, before finally falling into the ruins which are all that remain today.

While the village may have developed initially to serve the fort, its most significant period of growth began with the arrival of a number of ferry routes in the 19th century. By the end of the century there were two ferries per day from Glasgow. From Tarbert passengers could travel north into Knapdale, south into Kintyre or onwards on ferries to Port Ellen or Port Askaig. Ferry connections still make Tarbert an important place; linking four different routes. However, with the attractive ruins of the medieval keep over the busy bay and history and natural beauty in every direction, there is more than enough reason to linger awhile in Tarbert to appreciate her pleasures.