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Tarbert derives its name from the Gaelic compounding of tarruing, to draw and bata, meaning boat. The variations of spelling are as numerous as the writers are ingenious ! In the oldest records it is Tarbart, then Tarbard. Later it is spelt discriminately as Terbert, Tarbert, Tarbett, Tarbet, Tarbatt, Tarbat, Torban, Tarbot, Tarbitt, Terbat, Turbet and too Terbart. Take your pick or phone a friend ? There was, though no date of its foundation can be traced, a shire of Tarbert which included Kintyre, Gigha, Islay, Jura, Scarba, Colonsay and Mull plus the various and adjacent smaller islands. Rathlin Island also then reckoned to be within The Sheriffdom of Tarbert. On February 26, 1481, Knapdale too was made part of Tarbert-shire. Previously it was part of Perth-shire ! Eventually, on Friday, June 28, 1633, Tarbert-shire was amalgamated with the shire of Argyll - The last Tarbertshire M.P., elected in September 1628, was Sir Lachlan M’Lean of Morvern. Tarbert’s famous fair appears in records at least as early as 1705.
The Tarbert Canal
In 1771, James Watt, carried out surveys of possible routes for canals between the East and West Lochs at Tarbert, the isthmus just 1,600 yards wide and between Loch Gilp and Loch Crinan. It would seem that James Watt most likely would have stayed at Barmore House, home of Sheriff Archibald Campbell, while carrying out his survey. Campbell himself was responsible for instructing an earlier English surveyor to explore a route for the Sliabh Ghaoil road and the story goes, according to the (then) ‘New Statistical Account’, that the surveyor “attempted to travel over the ground but the rocks were so precipitous, the ferns so gigantic, the Englishman so unwieldy and so unaccustomed to travel such grounds that, after much tumbling and scrambling, he was obliged to betake himself to his boat and finish his survey by rowing along the shore. On making his report to Campbell, the surveyor told him that it was an “undertaking for the Empress Catherine of Russia and not fit (financially) for private individuals”. Campbell persevered and the road completed before his death in 1777. The isthmus at Tarbert, reaching only 47’ above sea-level, might have seemed well-suited for a canal - Watt suggested a channel about 16’ deep and costing some £120,000 - but it was the difficulty of sailing ships having to beat up the narrow channel of the West Loch that discouraged its establishment. With Loch Gilp now the preferred option, the Duke of Argyll promoted a new company to build the Crinan Canal. John Rennie surveyed two routes, one to the north of Loch Crinan and the other to the south. Parliament sanctioned the chosen route, to the south of Loch Crinan, in 1793 and work eventually began on the cutting, expected to take some five years, in September 1794. The new company struggled financially from the outset. The company got a £25,000 loan from The Treasury and even the army loaned soldiers to work on the construction as it was impossible to attract experienced contractors to carry out the work and even the seasoned navvies quickly left, fearful that they might not get paid for their labours ! It was indeed a badly built canal that opened in 1801 and it had to be quickly closed when, even with a reduced water level, it breached. It re-opened again, eighteen months later, in 1806 and was eventually thought to be complete in 1809, complete that was until two years later, in 1811, a reservoir collapsed. Thomas Telford, the engineer on the Caledonian Canal, carried out an inspection and, following implementation of his recommendations, the Crinan Canal, now under the management of the Caledonian Canal commissioners, reopened yet again in 1817 and on Thursday, November 20, 1817, by a singular coincidence, 20 assorted sailing vessels alone made the west to east transit - The Caledonian Canal itself opened in 1822. But, given the introduction of steamships, there was still interest in the canal proposals for Tarbert and, in 1828, Henry Bell, who had built the “Comet”, made a further survey. Just two years later, writing from his death-bed on August 23, 1830, at Helensburgh, Bell addressed a letter to ‘The Gentlemen, Freeholders and Merchants of Argyleshire’. 1
“The straight cut 50’ wide at the bottom, 60’ wide at the top and 3’ deep giving 15’ of depth at high water, the cut of 6’ depth giving 18’ and that of 9’ giving 21’ at high water and, the cuts being made in a straight line, through solid rock and without locks or draw-bridges, the total expense being £90,000. Two stone (road) bridges would be needed, high enough to allow vessels to pass through the arches under full sail. Their arches being 70’ and their breadth 25’. “The monies needed raised by a joint stock company and by passage charges suggested as 2s 6d (12 ½ pence) for small rowing boats, 5 shillings (25 pence) for ½ decked fishing wherries and for other vessels of 10-50 tons @ 1 shilling (5 pence) per ton, 50-100 tons @ 9 d (3+ pence) per ton and 100 tons upwards @ 6d (2 ½ pence) per ton to amply repay shareholders. Fifteen years after Bell’s letter, in 1845 and the defects of the Crinan Canal becoming more and more apparent, an Act of Parliament was passed to enable work to begin on the Tarbert Canal but, due to the monetary crisis of 1847, work never began and the company dissolved in 1849. Another attempt to revive the proposal - and another Act of Parliament passed - in 1882 also came to nothing, the projected revenue in this case was expected to be in the region of some £11,750 from passage dues.