Tarbert Loch Fyne: The Gateway to Kintyre

I still find myself a bit lost in this part of Scotland, where Tarbert is included in various regional and geographical locales, although it’s probably best known as “Tarbert Loch Fyne” due to its position on an inlet of the wider Loch Fyne. But it is also part of Kintyre, it’s part of Argyll, and it is in the Argyll and Bute council area… Anyway, Tarbert is a charming wee fishing village on the west coast of Scotland that offers the ideal vantage to explore the nearby islands and whisky routes including, on our visit, the island of Islay. At the same time, it continues to escape the more touristy trails of the area, and remains rather characterful and charming, with lofty hills on one side, and choppy harbours and sea on the opposite. In short, it is the perfect gateway to exploring this beautiful stretch of western Scotland.

Drinks at the Local Pub (The Corner House)

We arrived to Tarbert following a rather scenic drive, past Ayr, the outer ring roads of Glasgow, and Loch Lomond, as it is the quickest route from our arrival port of Cairnryan with our Stenaline crossing from Northern Ireland. So I was due a nap. I then woke to an empty house. But it’s really not hard to find people in Tarbert, where a short walk along the seafront promenade finds them all laughing and loud at the local pub (The Corner House) along with some salty seadog sort. An ol’ fella, white beard, haggard teeth, and with a lifelong mariner look about him. Surprisingly, he was from Northern Ireland, at least originally, he was familiar with Bangor, and I guess there is always a close connection with sea and fishing routes along this coastal part of Kintyre. We’re pretty much just across the water. Anyway, he wasn’t fussed for either whisky or haggis, which was first on my to-do list during my visit to Scotland.

Corner House Bar in Tarbert Loch Fyne. Whisky Selection in a Traditional Scottish Fishing Village

Local Whisky Exploration

It is unfortunately rare to find local and independent bottlers in Scotland these days, as whisky tends to be mass-produced by huge companies (Diageo, Suntory etc.) who ship it straight out to global markets. So I feel I hit the jackpot when ‘sampling’ the local whisky selection at the Corner House where I found a rather amazing peat-smoked scotch from the Springbank Distillery located not-so-far down the coastline in Campbeltown. It is a limited edition 8-year-old Springbank. So this Scotch is not only 56.8% but it cost only £4 at the bar. But when I checked the listings on Whisky Hammer for the same bottles, they sell for around £150. So, doing the sums, I was being served whisky, in a pub, at around half the current market value. This was pretty much the highlight of the entire road trip in Scotland.  

Unforgettable Seafood (Starfish Restaurant)

I had hoped to explore the local fishing culture in Tarbert, the obvious local grind in these small fishing villages on Scotland’s west coast. But the boats can spend days at sea before returning their catches, and really I was just too hungover to seek them out in the mornings. So the restaurants are the next best thing for fresh fish and so we find ourselves at the Starfish Restaurant and Gallery. Before now fish and chips would be the height of adventures in seafood in Scotland and Northern Ireland, so I was a bit apprehensive when ordering the Scottish staple soup of Cullen Skink along with a monkfish dish. And I really need to start eating more seafood, as this food was unforgettable, despite the many Loch Fyne Ales (ever heard of vital spark) and Scotch Coffee (coffee with peated Scotch Whisky). We then ended up in… I really can’t remember the bar we ended up in, and everything else is a blur.

The Local Chippie (Loch Fyne Fish Bar)

Otherwise I was in the local chippie every night, the Loch Fyne Fish Bar, which would be best described as “yellow”. And it is a traditional chippie offering such Scottish chip shop delights including battered haggis, deep-fried pizzas, and this is where I first came across the ‘Hogi’, a delicacy of sorts, that brings together a doner kebab with a cheesy chip in a massive pita wrap. Unfortunately, I was beaten to them by the locals who had spilt out from the Corner House Bar after the Old Firm Rangers/Celtic derby match at the time. Apparently the chippie had run out of kebab meat which they normally source from the nearest kebab shop over 13 miles away in Lochgilphead or somewhere. But I at least got some proper chip shop scenes, with some lad asking if I played darts, before telling himself “awk he dan nae”, and staggering into the shop shouting “180”. Some fella was willing to pay a million quid for half the last hoagie. So I was now on a mission now, and I managed to track down a ‘hoagie’ 134-miles away in the Indian/Kebab shops of Ayr (below right).

Cornwall House Maisonette

We chose Tarbert as our base when exploring Islay and the region of Kintyre, and Loch Fyne, and Argyll….etc. And while a hotel would be best for a night or two in the region, we opted for an Airbnb with a 3-night stay at the Cornwall House Maisonette for 3-nights. There were a number of reasons for this, the obvious in cutting costs, but it also gives us a more ‘local’ experience, and the freedom to cook and explore the foods of the local shops. And 2-3 times a day I was at the local Co-op stocking up on haggis, Scotch pies, dumplings, and, my new favourite beer, Innis and Gunn (it’s aged in oak). But there was just a lot of charm in the location overlooking Tarbert harbour (pictured below), and next to a shiny new promenade that’s all lit up in the evenings.

Tarbert to Islay Day Trip

Islay is why we chose to stay in Tarbert. Where it is only a 10-minute drive to reach the port of Kennacraig, which is technically in wider Tarbert but outside of town. At Kennacraig there are then regular-ish ferry crossing to the 2 main arrival ports of Islay (Port Ellen and Port Askaig). The crossing takes roughly 2 hours each way, which can easily be done on a day-trip from Tarbert, as we did, with an early crossing and late return. A designated driver is advised. It is also a simple crossing driving straight onto the Calmac Ferry on one side at Kennacraig (timetables here) before driving straight off again at the opposite. Then, vice versa. And while we did consider staying on Islay itself, accommodation is unsurprisingly limited and expensive, so our stay in Tarbert was the smart option at the time. There is an alternative hotel nearer Kennacraig (West Loch Hotel) but it is still 6-miles out so private/public transport is still necessary (our full Islay guide here).

Tarbert Tourist Attractions

There’s also a bit of history stuff in the sleepy wee fishin’ toon of Tarbert, including Robert the Bruce’s Castle, a 14th-century ivy-covered ruin set atop the village’s skyline. It’s an easy enough walk straight up from Tarbert harbour. Tarbert Castle also marks the start of a long walking path, with some fantastic views between Tarbert to Skipness, and it follows right up to Loch Fyne, towards Lochgilphead. There are also a handful of tourist attraction in Tarbert itself, including two art galleries, the Loch Fyne Gallery and the Luckenbooth Gallery, each sharing an interest in the region’s art, culture and history. There are also several outdoor activity and adventure tour operators, there’s the Tarbert Golf Club, as well as Shell beach which is a relatively small but striking beach just off the far end of Pier Road, and a short stroll from the Tarbert Castle.

Tarbert Ferry to Portvadie

A simple day trip from Tarbert is Portvadie where I am told there is a famous spa of sorts as well as some great pizza. It is also one of the Loch crossings for those travelling along the more scenic coastal route from the south of Scotland, as we had considered to avoid the ring roads of Glasgow. Regrettably, we never did make the journey, as it is just a simple walk to reach the Tarbert Ferry Terminal, where it’s roughly 100-metres and 2-minute from the main street of Tarbert, just past the castle walk. Regular boats travel from Tarbert to Portvadie with the journey taking roughly 25-minutes to the opposite side. I’ve added the timetable below for travel to Portavadie from the Tarbert Ferry Terminal.

Events in Tarbert

The village of Tarbert Loch Fyne still accommodates traditional fishing families, so events tend to follow similar, namely, the annual seafood festival which is a perfect way to explore the region’s famous cuisine. As well as the seafood festival, Tarbert Loch Fyne also hosts the Scottish Series, Britain’s second most popular Yacht race, which attracts a swell of yachtsmen and yachts although anyone can visit to join in the excitement of the event.

Hotels in Tarbert

For shorter stays, there are two main hotels in Tarbert, the Anchor Hotel and the Islay Frigate Hotel, both situated along the main stretch of Harbour Street and opposite the boatyard and harbour. There are also a handful of AirBnBs and apartment rentals just further along the coastal road, as well as the rather luxury/bespoke alternative at Stonefield Castle which is found roughly 2km out. Full List of Tarbert Hotels Here.

The Local Shops and Crafts

The shops still feel very local. And while I would grab my cheap Tesco petrol and Chinese food en route through Lochgilphead, which is the next nearest largish settlement (22 miles away), I was always excited for the local shops, boutiques, and crafts, which add a bit of local charm to Tarbert Loch Fyne.

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