The Kintyre shoreline

Kintyre, not too unlike a finger of home-made shortbread on the map, leaves Argyll behind by bending a knuckle at Tarbert and then pointing nearly due south towards the shores of Northern Ireland, leaving at its tip a gap of no more than 12 miles of open water between the two countries. To Kintyre’s east, and close by, lies the Isle of Arran, wider than Kintyre’s own protective finger, mountainous and hugging Kintyre close enough to force shipping to pass east of it and into the Forth of Clyde, leaving the narrow sound of Arran clear of passing tonnage.

Looking across to Arran from the Kintyre shoreline
Looking across to Arran from the Kintyre shoreline

Arran’s rolling, gentle bulk offers Kintyre shelter from the east so, if shelter appeals, then follow Kintyre’s east coast B road, a dipping and rising affair of kinks, bends and curves that is dotted with passing places without which the road would not function as such.

Almost without exception, this east coast route is without cliffs or steeps. Knolls and hillocks rise up gently from the shore. Narrow hump-back bridges straddle burns as they roll down their glens every two or three miles and where they do, their arrival at the sea has created sandy bays, intimate in scale, enticing in prospect. These walk-able diversions pull the road back from the shoreline, offering tantalising glimpses of the land’s edge or just a knowledge that it’s there but without the visual proof. Dark-barked oak trunks or canopies of beech may obscure the view but oysters-catcher cries or the gentle sound of surf belie the shoreline’s proximity. When the road runs clear and slopes back down, it rejoins the shore like a snap line finding its intended path.

This slow, meandering B road is elevated to hallowed status in our household thanks to these details. Traffic with serious business heading south to Campbeltown will always choose the faster A road that hugs Kintyre’s west shoreline, so peace and calm have been bestowed on this lesser-travelled B road. It is not that it is a road to nowhere; it is that nowhere it passes through fails to delight.

Clear waters on Kintyre
Clear waters on Kintyre

These threads are woven together by the steadfast shoreline. History began here and defences — when needed — were built here. The shoreline welcomed arrivals, repelled invaders and lamented departures. The shoreline is a travel line.

Just over mid-way down the length of Kintyre, this June, we found a spot imbued with these energies. Only fifty metres down from the quiet roadside, through a well-maintained grass path edged with lush bracken, the vestiges of an ancient galleried dun — a defensive farmstead — lay poised on a bluff over-looking the land’s edge. A tumble of bracken, gorse and yellow flag irises fell below it to the water. Arran rose from the misty sea no closer than six miles distant, the faint suggestion of painted cottages on its shoreline silently looking back at us.

Looking down onto the Kintyre shoreline
Looking down onto the Kintyre shoreline
Kildonan Bay with Ailsa Craig visible on the horizon
Kildonan Bay with Ailsa Craig visible on the horizon

Some seventeen centuries ago, this spot was deemed to be right for a small, galleried dwelling, a small farmstead. A bronze pennanular brooch dating from the 9th century was found here and there is evidence that the place was abandoned and then re-occupied between the late 12th and early 14th century, later being re-used as a livestock enclosure. The dun’s outer walls have tumbled to shoulder high these days but they remain two metres thick. Ferns and mosses cling to their rough-hewn blocks. Grasses and wild flowers dress the top-stones of the dun and no finer vantage point over the shoreline can be imagined.

Entering Kildonan Dun
Entering Kildonan Dun
Kildonan Dun
Kildonan Dun
Stock enclosure-cum-defensive dun wall dating back to the second century
Stock enclosure-cum-defensive dun wall dating back to the second century

Eider ducks — three male and one female — bobbed at the water’s edge beneath us, with the water clear enough to see the flap and paddle of feet as they dibbled about under-water. In the space of two hours, we saw a dozen dolphins, thrillingly travelling up the coast in groups of half a dozen, threading the sea’s still surface. Gannets patrolled the shoreline, fifty metres out, fifty feet up. Purposefully scanning the water beneath them, they would maintain straight flight until that peril-eye, rimmed with Arctic blue, picked out and locked onto target, at which point they’d curve round and back before tipping over and plunging, spear-like and heavy. Rarely vertical, they would smash down displacing a froth of white water upwards and we’d hear the sound a couple of seconds later. We found them mesmerising. All day, at every stop we made, gannets were on patrol, always heaving into the sea, eventually pulling themselves back into the air, streaming south as the day lengthened. We imagined them heading for Ailsa Craig, just visible south of Arran, a twelve hundred foot granite dumpling out in open water, gannet island extraordinaire.

The following day, coming back down from the Mull itself at the end of the afternoon, we watched a string of over a hundred gannets beating past below us, heading south in the sunlight, dark water beneath them, intent on covering distance with no deviating for the plunge.

Towards Ailsa Craig, south of Arran
Towards Ailsa Craig, south of Arran

Our first act when re-joining the shoreline was to scan for wildlife: dolphins, gannets, wading birds and seals. Sea otters proved to be elusive this trip, but ringed plovers were abundant. Pairs of them seem to have claimed their own stretch of shoreline, using it as a stage on which to dash about, sharp-eyed, to forage with short bills, busy and rarely stationary. At Peninver, ignoring the cluster of static caravans — that would probably have offered sublime views from their melamine kitchens — common seals disported themselves but metres from the green, escapees from the circus, a line of fifteen or so, scattered on impossibly small rocks. Some were in the classic circus pose, just lacking the ball that balances on their nose or in their flippers. Others adopted a mostly-submerged posture, like a Dali moustache showing nothing but nostrils at one end and tail flippers at the other. These over-inflated grey inner-tubes occasionally issued a reverberating rush of after-dinner air to punctuate the haul-out scene. A mottled matriarch surveyed us just in case and the rest settled into slumber.

Kintyre to Arran
Kintyre to Arran

Imagine the abundance of nature crowding round this place seventeen centuries ago. One might have been able to walk the water to Arran on the backs of dolphins, splash-soaked by gannet-strike the whole way!

Kintyre to Arran
Kintyre to Arran
Small section division image of a chestnut leaf

This is a place where getting away from it all can be accomplished with relative ease, both for us and for the planet. Man’s footprint treads relatively lightly here with no high-rise, no crowds and no crazy traffic. It is true that there are less butterflies, birds and insects — even here — than there were ten or thirty years ago — and one can’t get away from that. But if the wrecking ball ever came to swing here, I for one would want to be able to come and stand in its way.