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Tarbert History

Kintyre Peninsula is only about 64 Kilometre long and between 7 (minimum) and 16 (maximum) Kilometre wide. Archaeological survey of Kintyre has revealed evidence of flint, which is not normally found in Kintyre. It was probably brought in as baggage by people coming here from Ireland which is only 16 Kilometre away from the nearest point. Numerous work floors, necessary for shaping flint into various tools, have been found indicating that people were roaming about the shorelines of Kintyre during the Mesolithic Period spanning from 7000 to 4000 BC. No evidence of their permanent settlements have ever been found but their camp-sites and dump of rubbish (shells, etc) has enabled archaeologists to carbon-date and delve more precisely into their way of life during this period. Although archaeological survey of Tarbert itself has not been conducted in detail, it is however surprising that nothing of note to link Tarbert to Mesolithic period has been found even though only a few (less than 7) miles away there is plentiful evidence. The presence of standing stones at Escart Bay does indicate that people were residing in Tarbert area at least during the Bronze Age spanning from 2500 BC to 500 BC.

Who Were These People?

The Ancient Scots, if we may call them, inhabit the region about 9000 years ago during the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period. Archeological evidence suggests that these people lived along the west coast of Scotland and the Inner Hebrides. By 8000 years ago these ancient people were using flint tools. As no evidence of their permanent settlements has so far been found, these people were probably by all accounts nomadic in their existence. Three stone rings at Lussa Wood on the island of Jura is probably the earliest stone structure in Scotland. Shell mounds and middens, suggestive of Mesolithic period have been found in Kintyre, Oronsay island, Luce Bay as well as in Fife.

Neolithic (New Stone Age) Period

Moving on to Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, about 6000 years ago the ancient Scots settled along the low lying areas of the west coastline. Unfortunately, the last Ice Age drowned most of the evidence of these people except Skara Brae in Orkney where a fantastic settlement has survived as it was covered in sand which preserved it intact. The ancient Scots of this period are known for their elaborate burial customs. They lovingly looked after their dead, they devised a burial system what we call them now as chambered tombs, cairns, burial mounds, passage graves and such other names. A wide variety of buried goods has been recovered - these were obviously meant for the afterlife! Are we justified in digging up goods that are supposed to be for the afterlife? Anyway that's another story.

Megalithic (Large Stone) Period

Then our ancestors entered into the Megalithic (Large Stone) period and left their legacy what we call today as Standing Stones. You can find standing stones almost everywhere in Scotland. About 4500 years ago started a wave of migration from Low Countries of Europe and and they spread from the East coast to the West.

Strategic Importance of Tarbert

The strategic importance of Tarbert however cannot be denied as this narrow stretch of land controlled the safest and the shortest route between the Western isles and the firth of Clyde. The control was effected probably by the presence of some sort of a fortification at the site. Now we see ruins of a castle at a small hill overlooking entrance to the harbour, but how long it has been there is not clear. We know now that an entry in the Annals of Ulster, (U 712.2) exists, the English translation of which reads, "The burning of Tairpert Boiter." It can therefore be safely assumed that a fort of some description stood there that made the Irish invaders uncomfortable to the extent that they felt it important to burn it down.

Who Named it, 'Tarbert'?

Who gave the name 'Tarbert' and when, is anyone's guess however it is generally believed 'Tarbert' attained its name from two Gaelic words; tarruing, which means to draw or drag, and bata, which means a boat. The sound produce by pronunciation of these two words is believed to have eventually ended up as Tarbert. Now the Gaelic name for Tarbert is 'Tairbeart'. In this context it is of interest to note that the spelling of first syllable 'Tar' has remained the same except occasionally spelt as 'Tair' but the second syllable 'bert' has variously been spelled with any vowel that tickled a writer's fancy: it has been spelt as bart, bert, ... etc. In regard to the second syllable the spelling had been further mutated by omission of the letter 'r' and replacement of the letter 't' by 'd'. In these days however it's not the spelling that confuses a visitor but the location; which Tarbert is where? Well, Tarbert is a common name and you will find it in Jura, Gigha, Harris and Ireland, not forgetting 'Tarbet' at the junction of A82 and A83. The real Tarbert is, the one we are interested in, of course located in Kintyre, Argyll.

Now coming back to tarruing bata. Local fishermen have been moving their boats between East and West Lochs perhaps ever since man took to sea however, the credit of dragging a larger boat or warship across the narrow isthmus between these two lochs goes to Magnus Barfod, the son of King Olaf of Norway. In 1098, Magnus conquered Hebrides and concluded a treaty with the Scottish King Edgar that Magnus could claim any island that he could circumnavigate. Magnus wanted Tarbert and Kintyre, so he had his men drag his ship across the 800 meters of land (isthmus) between the East and West lochs of Tarbert to claim his prize. Tarbert and Kintyre therefore were added to the "Sudreys" or Southern Islands under the control of Norwegian rulers. Incidentally, Magnus liked the Scottish attire so much that he himself started to wear it, hence became known as Magnus Barefoot.

While under the rule of Norwegian Kings, loyalty of local rulers of the islands was attained through various means, in addition to Alexander II's 1221-22 expedition against Argyll to pacify this unruly region. Having done that, Alexander II tried to buy back the Western Islands from King Haco of Norway. Haco not only declined this offer, he also imprisoned the Scottish diplomats until Henry III of England intervened to earn their freedom. Alexander II had no alternative but to arrange an expedition to take the islands by force. He embarked on this expedition but unfortunately he died in 1249 at Kerrera island. Haco, the King of Norway took advantage of this situation and he embarked upon expedition of his own. This time he came with a force of over 20,000 men and 140 ships; half he sent out to plunder along the Mull of Kintyre. The attack was of such a ferocity that men, women and children were put to sword; the only survivors were who managed to run away to hide themselves into the woods. What the soldiers couldn't carry, was burnt and destroyed. Haco is said to have engaged himself in repeating what Magnus had done - drag his ship across the East and West lochs of Tarbert. Having done that, Haco set sails towards Firth of Clyde and Largs.
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