Tarbert: a village vacation

The layers of human existence in ready evidence are among the things I love most about Scotland — these neighborhoods are long occupied.

The village of Tarbert


Liz and I were sitting on a bench along the main drag the other day when she noticed a woman seated nearby talking on her mobile: “Isn’t that Shereen?”

It was indeed our friend, and when she rang off, we chatted for half an hour, catching up on happenings since the last time we spoke.

Just another day in the neighborhood — except it wasn’t our home ground of Fisher Park in Greensboro, NC, but across an ocean in Tarbert, a village at the head of the Kintyre Peninsula on Scotland’s West Coast. Nearly every spring we spend a week or more in or near Tarbert.

Tarbert’s a neighborhood where the residents and businesses know everyone, and take notice when someone’s new in town. The great pleasures of visiting there include getting to know some of the locals and getting recognized by people we’ve seen on earlier holidays: I was on main street waiting for Liz to finish in a shop when the woman running the local fish-and-chips place waved and said, “Hiya, heard you had lunch with Heather and David.”

The view from our front stoop on Loch Tarbert

While we enjoy Glasgow, it’s no village. In Tarbert, by contrast, we get a sense that people are a deserved bit proud that we think enough of their home to pay repeat visits, and we’ve watched some of their lives unfold. Last year, I stopped at the local gas station, run by a young man who has developed into an accomplished bagpiper. John had come to the house where we’d stayed with larger groups several times to play for us, along with his brother, David, who plays accordion.

John’s pipe band had just placed fourth in the Scottish national piping competition, and he was rightly pleased with his progress over the 10-plus years of our acquaintance.

He asked me inside to introduce me to his new bride, saying, “I played my first gig with their group.”

I asked after David, and John told me he was working at the ferry running from West Loch Tarbert to Islay and Jura. Later that week, we said hello to David when he took our ticket as we drove on board the ferry for a long day trip. The layers of human existence in ready evidence are among the things I love most about Scotland — these neighborhoods are long occupied.

The folks at the chemist shop are jacks of all trades.

The village of Torinturk is about a 15-minute drive south from Tarbert on the southeast coast of Knapdale.

Turn up the hill at the phone box to follow a rough, unpaved road and you arrive at parking for Torinturk Walk. In a mile and a half, this hill loop takes in three ancient sites. I always make it up there when we visit the area, and I enjoy going around 9 at night during the long May twilights at these latitudes.

A gradual slope gets steep before topping out in a meadow where a Neolithic burial mound lies a few paces from a Bronze Age grave. Together these remnants of earlier folk — separated themselves by more time than we are from the people who built the later site — are called the Achaglachgach burial cairns, named for the Forestry Commission estate in which they’re found.

Continue up and over a steepish hill and down a more gradual slope, and in a few minutes a smaller path turns off the main track. That leads up a steep, often slippery grass path into twilit woods, emerging into a clearing below the final steep hike to Dun a Choin Dubh, the Dun of the Black Dog.

This Iron Age hill fort was occupied some time between 500 and perhaps 1100 A.D. A formidable, dry stone summit ring remains, along with a less-intact outer ring lower down. I’ll sit a while, look down on the departing Islay Ferry in West Loch Tarbert, and just let the weight of history sink in.

Returning through darkening woods, I’ve startled — and been startled by — deer crashing through the brush. Last year my approach from above rousted an owl from its perch. A little spooky that time of day, but in a good, tingly way.

Torinturk mound

Torinturk’s also home to Heather and David and their children. We met them during stays at nearby Achaglachgach House, where David ran the farm and part of Heather’s work was on the property and several buildings. Liz and I were finishing up a drive around Knapdale and saw Heather outside as we passed. We stopped, and she invited us in for a quick visit — she offered us tea, but with Dave under the weather we didn’t want to impose, so we left after a brief catch-up, making plans to meet up a few days later. We weren’t a complete surprise, as I’d been able to give Heather and Dave a heads up via the miracle of Facebook to let them know we’d be in the neighborhood.

It’s always good to get back to Liz after my walk, and typically it’s chilly enough to light a fire. (This past year was an exception — brilliant sun every day with temperatures reaching the mid-70s.) We’ll pass a quiet evening reading or perhaps take a walk outside to see whether seals are in the loch.

A nesting oystercatcher enjoys the view.

Liz on the front stoop at Ardyne

The next morning, we might go see Dougie, the local “fishmonger.” He’s been at it for hours by the time we arrive, accepting deliveries of fish fresh off the boat. You have to go around some corners and up a lane to find his garage-like space.

A load of halibut was coming in as we arrived for our second visit of the week this past May, with several of the huge fish going right back out with one customer, destined no doubt for a restaurant or two. Dougie showed us some filets he’d just cut, and they were so large we just had him slice half of one into two pieces.

Liz did the halibut justice that evening, too.

While we of course would never qualify as locals, Tarbert’s a community that warms to well-behaved outsiders, and while we’d never qualify as locals, this year English tourists asked me for directions a couple of times. Maybe someday …

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