‘THIS is where our story – and perhaps the story of Scotland – all began,” beams Iain McAlister, distillery manager at Glen Scotia, as he sweeps his arm out over the expanse of Campbeltown harbour. “Once this loch would have been alive with ships and today there are signs that the glory days are coming back.” I find more than signs on streets that once flowed with whisky and more money than the City of London.

Campbeltown may seem remote today and still can feel cut off – like it was this summer with issues with the CalMac service from Ardrossan – but it was once the fulcrum of the Celtic world on Scotland’s west coast. “Campbeltown is where Scotland’s story starts,” says Alex McKinven, a local tour guide, as we peer over the impressive natural harbour.

“The Scotti tribes sailed from Ireland and set up the kingdom of Dalriada, which grew into Scotland even before they set up shop in Kilmartin Glen.”

The whisky distilleries grew here too – at one point there were over 30 distilleries buzzing in the beating heart of Campbeltown, leading to Andy Stewart’s ditty hoping to find Campbeltown Loch filled with whisky, and to the town having its very own whisky denomination along with the likes of Speyside and Islay.

By the 1980s the whisky industry was in serious decline, though. At one point it looked like the town may face the unthinkable and be shorn of all its distilleries. The population had halved too: Campbeltown was in dire straits.

The National: The Kintyre town battling back from the brink

“Those were dark days,” explains Iain McAlister as we walk around Glen Scotia, the distillery he has turned around since taking over in 2008. “At Glen Scotia we have turned a corner, going from producing 400 casks a year to over 4000.

We’re very much part of the town; a town that is on the up.” McAlister has every right to feel proud as his 25-year-old has won a world’s best whisky award and there are other distilleries doing well too, including the famous old name of Springbank, who still use a swathe of traditional production methods.

McAlister is also justified in feeling proud about Campbeltown’s renaissance, neatly summing it up as “our town’s confidence is back”.

Indeed Campbeltown was named ‘Scotland’s most improved place’ in the SURF regeneration awards in 2021, after 40 buildings were reborn thanks to a £13 million investment. Walking around streets alive with grand old merchant and whisky baron mansions the architecture is truly remarkable. Campbeltown boasts a legion of church spires too.

Handily I’m in town with Will Tunnell, a dynamic architect specialising in the west coast. He is impressed with the drama, quality and range of the architecture in Kintyre’s largest settlement. “Campbeltown is a smaller chip off the old Glasgow block that has drifted against the flow of the Gulf Stream, marrying stout Georgian grandeur with Victorian indulgence, and unexpected art deco flourishes,” he beams as he marvels aloud at the treasure trove of architecture sweeping all around.

Chief amongst those architectural flourishes is the art deco drama of Campbeltown Picture House. Its manager, Ellen Mainwood, describes her charge as “the world’s most beautiful cinema”. It is certainly striking, with whimsical art deco delights that to me are as much Willy Wonka as they are Charles Rennie Macintosh.

The National: The Kintyre town battling back from the brink

That we are able to tour the cinema at all is a minor miracle. “It was sheer bloody-mindedness that saved Scotland’s only remaining ‘atmospheric theatre’. There was just no way the people of Campbeltown would let it be turned into flats.”

It’s soon time for me to cut out of Campbeltown aboard the Splendour, a small cruise ship that is making an increasing number of calls into Campbeltown. There is plenty to explore. On this visit I also revisit the vaulting 14th-century Campbeltown Cross and the impressive range at Cadenhead’s whisky emporium. I pop back to Kintyre Larder too, which boomed during Covid, offering ultra-local produce, from local whisky, through to Kintyre meat, fish, eggs and chocolate.

But I’m disappointed not to get back up to Kintyre Smokehouse, whose excellent smoked fish graces fine dining restaurants around the UK and is on the menu at Ascot too. Then there is towering Beinn Ghuilean, whose tree-shrouded slopes soar up to 354m. Nor do I take a boat trip with Mull of Kintyre Sea Adventures’ fast RIB out around the Mull of Kintyre.

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I don’t get to stay at the ever-lovely Ardshiel Hotel, where one of Scotland’s finest whisky bars awaits, with more than 1500 bottles of whisky. There I could have met local whisky experts Watt Whisky and enjoyed a guided tasting. Then the next day blow away any lingering cobwebs at Westport, one of the Scottish mainland’s finest beaches.

I do have time to finish on a high, with dinner at Number Forty Two, where the former chef at Gigha’s Boathouse stars. There is good news to celebrate too as a new

Campbeltown distillery has just been announced – the Dal Riata Distillery. Its name and the barley plucked from the old Celtic kingdom site at Dunadd in Kilmartin Glen make it the ideal fit for this re-emerging town. The whisky boom days here really are on the way back.

I finish this visit to Campbeltown tucking into a celebratory wee dram of that gorgeous dram, Glen Scotia. It goes very well with my local queen scallops and Gigha oysters. I follow this treat with a plump local lobster. Then raise a toast to a town that has relit both its whisky fires and its community-driven heart and soul.

For more information on Campbeltown see www.wildaboutargyll.co.uk