Campbeltown Loch no doubt provided a sheltered safe-haven for seagoing peoples from the earliest of times. It appears that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were visiting our shores from as early as 8000BC. They continued to do so for 4000 years, until the arrival of the early farmers of the Neolithic era (4000 BC) who bequeathed us the standing stones and burial monuments which dot the surrounding landscape. The flints and stone age artefacts they left behind are on display at the Campbeltown Museum in the Burnet Building.
In the 6th Century Irish missionaries sailed to Kintyre to preach Christianity. St Kieran (or Ciaran) is thought to have established a religious cell where Campbeltown now stands; the Gaelic name for Campbeltown is ‘Ceann Loch Cille Chiarain’ or ‘the Head of the Loch of Ciaran’s Cell’. Incidentally, it’s also thought that, as well as Christianity, the early Irish monks may also have brought the knowledge of distilling to these shores.
In 1609 the 7th Earl of Argyll, Archibald Campbell, was instructed to “plant a burgh to be inhabited by Lowland men and trafficking burgesses”; the natural harbour of Campbeltown Loch offered theperfect situation for the brand new burgh. The small settlement of Lochhead, as it was then known, was renamed Campbeltown and in the year 1700 was promoted to a Royal Burgh, the purpose of which was to ‘improve trade and commerce’ in Kintyre and, as the most westerly burgh in Scotland, to become a trading hub for northern Europe and America.
The importance of herring fishing to Campbeltown’s economy during the 18th and early 19th century cannot be understated. Within a period of 30 years Campbeltown, according to a report from 1770, had ‘risen from a petty fishing town to its present flourishing state’. Boats and crews crowded the harbour and town – as many as 260 busses (large fishing boats) at one time – and between 1750 and 1786 the population of the town doubled to over 7000. In 1820 there were 145 boats, manned by 435 men and boys, working out of the town.
The first license to distil ‘acqua vitae’ was granted in Campbeltown in 1609 but it was the early 19th century before the real ‘whisky boom’ took place. It seems incredible now to think that a town of a mere 6000 souls could house over 30 distilleries, but that it did, earning itself the epithet of Whisky Capital of Scotland. Sadly the boom couldn’t last indefinitely and today just three distilleries, Springbank, Glen Scotia and Kilkerran, continue the proud tradition of single malt production in Campbeltown.
Today, the great fishing fleets are gone and the sound of ship-building no longer rings over the quays. But the beautiful harbour is here, dotted with yachts and soaring seagulls, and the surrounding hills are green and inviting. Campbeltown is a wee bustling town of fine, welcoming hotels and restaurants, museums and playgrounds, golf courses, shops and pubs, and the oldest purpose-built cinema in Scotland. And, of course, Campbeltown is still producing world renowned single malt whisky.