Glenelg – tours through the past - stage 1.
Welcome to Glenelg, or, rather, the Glens of Eilg, for that is what the wisest tell us it should be called: Na Glinn Eilg in Gaelic.
The first tour begins once you have made your way up Mam Ratagan from Shiel Bridge,and if it is your first time you'll award yourself a medal for courage. Here you come to a widening of the road and you can stop a while and there it is: the Great Glen of Glenelg sweeping up from the sea and curving left till it ends in the narrow cleft of Bealach a'Chasain. Before you a little to the left is Ben Sgriol, our Munro. On a clear day it's well worth a climb for the view over the islands. Next to it on the right is the great square lump of Beinn a'Chapuil (the hill of the mare – though what storylies behind that no one knows).
At the bend of the road a muddy track descends straight into the forest: this follows the line of the old military road, built in the 18th century to link Bernera Barracks and the road to the west with Fort Augustus. If you could fight your way through the trees you might come to the spot where in the age of the heroes Diarmaid was killed by the giant boar while unforgiving Finn refused to help.
The main road turns right now: in a few paces you get a better view of the Glen, your first glimpse of the sea and beyond it the Isle of Skye. Through the glen of Kylerea in the far distance are seen the rugged peaks of the Cuillin Hills. They're jaggy and raw because they are relative newcomers to Skye and are not yet at home in it! The great hills and cliffs of Skye are majestic in their 650 million years: only recently, a mere 65 million years ago, did the Cuillin thrust up from the bowels of the earth.
About half a mile down the road find a place to pull in (not in a passing place, please!) Now look left and there in the distance the glen comes to an end: that top section contained many summer grazings (sheilings). Ancient walls and ruined cottages can be seen, deserted since the cruel evictions of the early 19th century.
Still to the left: see the sad little lochan of Ian MacInnes (Loch Iain Mhic Aonghais) Ian one day got the help of a fairy horse in his ploughing, a blessing which he so abused that the horse galloped into the loch carrying the unfortunate man with it, never to be seen again. But on a dark night when the wind is strong you might hear.......
With keen sight you can make out near the loch the bothy of Swordland: a 19th century shepherd's house and beside it an enormous stone-walled corral built to gather the thousands of sheep with which the greedy landowners had replaced the native farmers. This industrial sheep ranching failed to produce the expected fortunes. Excessive grazing quickly ruined the pastures which thousands of years of care and toil had built up (the “sword” in the name is Norse for bright green sward) The exiles in New Zealand and Australia were soon able to send back refrigerated mutton to British markets better and cheaper! Today the bothy is used by hill walkers. The ancient village is nearby: there is a story that in 1746 one of the tenants, Angus Macleod, fell at Culloden with four of his sons: a fifth son came home with terrible injuries: Glenelg, with the rest of Macleod of Dunvegan's lands, fought for King George, while the Macleods of Raasay took the other side. Neither was present at Culloden so the story is problematic!
Further down, when you get clear of the trees, stop again. Now the houses and crofts of the upper glen lie visible to your left. Today this whole area is known as Moyle, but historically Moyle was only part of it: you'll see barely six houses where once there were six villages each at the centre of a shared farm. Far to the left were Upper Moyle and Lower Moyle; then came Pitalman (the furthest west place-name in the Pictish language), then, right below you in a small cleft, Cnoc Fhionn (Finn's Rock) with tracesof twelve buildings – houses, barns and a kiln. Across the river were Big Scalasaig and Little Scalasaig, now the croft of Braeside.
By now you're past the Moyle road end and before you stands the farm of Achachuirn: but, if you have time, climb up to the right and find on a small ledge the four orfive buildings of the old farm with its in-by field stretching above, and try to imagine two or three families making their whole living here!
Scalasaig, highland games and the smiddy
Next you come to a sign pointing across the river with the word “Scalasaig” on it. This takes you to the ancient farm of Beolary: and I'll have to stop and explain this. In the 1840s Mr Baillie the proprietor cleared all the farms of the glen and made the whole into just two economic units: the south bank he called Scalasaig and the north bank Beolary, which is why Beolary is called Scalasaig, Scalasaig is called Braeside and Achachuirn is called Beolary. After the First World War the farms were divided into crofts for ex-servicemen.
Over to the left, across the glen, are the ruins of Baile a'Mhuilinn, the ancient mill-town of Glenelg. It is strange today to think that up to the 18th century the uplands were greenpasture and the low ground fields of corn providing work for a mill! But drive on to the Lamont Chalets and the Waterworks: this is Immeraghradain, the place of an even older process. Gradan is the method whereby corn was separated from the chaff and dried by holding the stalks over a fire or laying them on a heated stone.
On a bit and on the left is the fine 1830s house of Balcraggie, until recently the Manse of Glenelg: it was in the drawing room of the Manse that the Minister and the Schoolmaster recited thedescription of Cuchullin's chariot to James Macpherson, who translated it as part of the epic of Ossian. On the right, high on the hill, is the Baghan Buarblach, a hill fort from the Iron Age but used for long after.
Passing Balcraggie: below on the left is Bac an Duin, the field where of old the Highland Games were held: here also, in the times when many hundreds attended the annual Communions, the Sacrament was celebrated in the open air. Round the corner with its pond is Cnoc an t-Sabhail (Barnhill) and behind it Cnoc a'Bhainne (Milk Hill) though what that signifies is long lost to memory. We are now in the little hamlet which grew up around the smiddy: here the road divides, one part heading right to the ferry to Skye,theother left to the village and beyond.
On our right is the old School and Schoolhouse: behind these rises Creag an Iasgair (fisherman's rock) Round the corner is the Free Church. On the left is the Cemetery: the field on its right is still called the Nursery – here the thousands of trees were grownfor the avenues, parks and river-banks of the 19th century “improvements.” Then comes the former Smithy and behind it Tobhta Mor (big ruin) where Ruarie Morrison, An Clarsair Dall (the blind harper), lived. Here this part of our trip ends.
Stage 2 - the Road to the Ferry
Our second stage is the Road to the Ferry. We start off at the cross-road and turn right. After the Free Church there is a great bay carved out of the hillside and this is Galltair, the Strangers' Place: most likely a Norse settlement in the years before 1265 when the Isles, including Glenelg, were ruled by Olave King of Man who was in turn a vassal of the King of Norway. This Olave had a son called Leod who is the ancestorof all the Macleods.
Galltair today has about eight houses, some quite new: at one time there were many more. There is a cluster of interest at the end of Galltair, where we are suddenly under a high cliff. Two houses there bear the names Cremona and Maranatha: the first witnesses to the belief that the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the Macleod chiefs, were brought from Cremona in Italy by a Macleod returning from the Crusades; the second to a much more important future event. High above on the edge of the hill is a 2000 year oldfort: it bears the name Macleod's Castle which it never was. Tradition has it that the Talla Mor (Big Hall) of the Macleod chiefs was on the seaward side of the road near the former Free Church Manse.
But before we leave Galltair, observe on the left a foot bridge. This leads to the salt-marshby the river. It is also the way to Bernera Barracks, one of Glenelg's famous landmarks. These barracks were built around 1719 at the time of the abortive Spanish invasion: a regiment of Marines from Naples landed at Eilean Donan to support a larger landing in the south of England which never materialised. The Spaniards and the Highlanders who joined them were defeated in Glenshiel: the marines were repatriated with honour. The real purpose of the barracks was to guard the road to the isles and discourage rustling and blackmail: it served as a de-luxe police station for Highland companies like the Black Watch, who introduced the entirely novel idea that it was wrong to nip over to Glenshiel and steal cows even if you don't beat the owner to death!
Market Stance and Thomas Telford
Move on! At the end of the fields on the left we come to the Market Stance, the place where cattle and other goods were bought and sold. Now we cross Bernera beach and the mouth of Glen Bernera. The road up the glen leads out of Glenelg and over the hills to Ardentoul. Dominating the hill road is Glas Bheinn with MacCrimmons' Cairn on top, remembering an ancient fight in which that clan came off second best.
To the right of the main road to the ferry is a raised beach: at the far end, near the two modern houses, is a mound known as the Ridge of the Big Men, burial ground of the heroes of the Fingalian era. Now round the corner: if you come just after the tide turns you'll see how fast the sea flows here! You are alsoon top of a wonderful piece of Thomas Telford's work, the high retaining wall as the road crosses little bays above the shore. Sadly it is much dilapidated. Before we come to the ferry slip (also designed by Thomas Telford) observe stone and turf walls sweeping across the hillside: the former hill-dykes of the ferry croft. The house in front of you is the former Ferry House and Glenelg Inn. In an older building on this site Dr Johnson stayed with his companion James Boswell in damp and hunger. From the car park you can take a fine coastal walk to Ardentoul or even to Letterfearn. Now descend to one of Glenelg's treasures, the ferry.
The Glenelg to Skye ferry
The present vessel, the Glenachulish, was built for the crossing of Loch Leven at Ballachulish: after that was replaced by a bridge it was brought here.The Glenelg ferry was for centuries the principal link between the Western Isles, Skye and the mainland, but when the boat was wrecked in a gale in 1915 that seemed to be the end of an old story: there were better equipped crossings at Kyle and Mallaig and they had railwaystations! But through the encouragementof the Minister of Glenelg, Tom Murchison, the ferry was revived in 1935 and today is run by a Community Interest Company. Cross over! It's worth it just for the ride. The view is great and the seals and birds will cheer you on: if you're lucky, so will ottersanddolphins: if you come at the rising tide you may even see the White-tailed Eagle fishing, to the annoyance of the gulls.
And this is the end of the second section and the start of stage 3!
Back to the crossroads and this time head for the village.
The sign reads “Glenelg” which is silly, as we are already in the heart of Glenelg! The correct name for the village is Kirkton of Glenelg or Clachan Chill Chuimein (the Kirktown of St Cumine) Over the bridge and we are in the Avenue, still an impressive tree-lined approach to the village. First left are the Forestry Houses, a reminder of the broken promise of endless local employment after so much of the land was planted with trees: forestry work now is performed by outside contractors! Then come the playing field and children's play area.The third road on the left leads to the Health Centre: the fourth brings you to the school and the Community Hall. On the other side of the road is a footpath to the Barracks. We swing into the village proper. Main Street, the stone houses on both sides of the road, was built at the same time as the Barracks to house the officers; the next group, Blantyre Terrace, is named after a former landowner, the Master of Blantyre. At the end of the street a track leads left to Cosaig, once a thriving crofting community but now mostly deserted: brave men lived there in the days of the struggle for land!
On the right at the end of the village street is the Glenelg Inn. In the great days of Victorian tourism a grand hotel stood in what is now the car park: guests came mostly by the regular steamer from Glasgow and Oban, which anchored in the bay while passengers disembarked in small boats. The hotel burnt down in 1948 and later the present Inn was opened in what had been the stables and stores.
Passing the Inn we come to the Parish Church and Churchyard. On the left, opposite the gates, is Tobar Fhionn, an ancientholy well, now nearly lost under the little cliff. The Church stands on an old site of Christian worship: it is dedicated to Cumine, the seventh Abbot of Iona in succession to Columba, who led or promoted the evangelisation of this area in the 7th century. We know not what kind of church stood in the early period, but a stone building was erected in the 13th century by Crotach MacGilligormfrom the monastery at Beauly. In the churchyard are many memorials of the different folk who lived here over the centuries: the ornate recumbent stone of Alexander Watt and his wife Elizabeth Macdonald (early 18th C), the graves of the four children of Alexander Beith, the Minister, who all died in one year, and doctors, farmers, teachers and many families who lived in Glenelg over many generations. Graves from oldertimes were simply marked by unshaped stones.
We now pass the lagoon where many boats are stored:the huge shingle banks change their shape every year. At the edge of the water a track curves right to form a quay and stone pier and beside it a roofless storehouse: these are famine projects, built at the suggestion of Mr Beith by the local farmers during the potato famine of 1837, to receive the quantities of food aid which came from the south – it being better, he said, to be seen to do some work for this life-saving help.
Glenelg War Memorial
Just behind the old store is the Glenelg War Memorial, one of the most remarkable structures in the West of Scotland. It was presented to the community by Lady Scott of Ellenreach, designed by Robert Lorimer and sculpted by Louis Deuchars. Walk round and study the detailed symbolism. The first name on the list of fallen is Valentine Fleming, proprietor of Arnisdale and father of Ian, the creator of James Bond. This brings us to the end of Kirkton
Stage 4: Quarry to Balvraid in Glenbeg.
Quarry is the Riviera of Glenelg: a street of houses with remarkable views across to Skye. The name may come from a source of limestone found nearby when the barracks were being built. Part of the row is called Dail-Dreaganais, which may relate to wrens, dragons, ghosts or meteors – help yourself in the Supermarket of the Imagination which is Etymology! The strips of land are crofts of Culindune, an extinct farm located a mile up Glenbeg. Here are the jetty and moorings where visitors may bring their yachts!
Leaving Quarry we pass the base of the local Fire Brigade and head into Glenbeg (the Little Glen) Little in name and width, but big in history! First we come to Eilean-reach, built as the grand farm and home ofthe factors, now used by the proprietor. Keep left before the bridge and drive up the glen andthere, across a meadow on your right, is A'Bhruaich, a huge bank of glacial deposit which maybe once filled the entry to the glen but now is constantly eaten into by the river, much to the distress of the sandmartins who try to nest in it. Round the bend and there is the Big Waterfall of Culindune, a magnificent sight when full. On your left nearby is a track (much worn) up the hill. On the slope are a sheep fank and the barely visible remains of an older settlement. This is Cul an Duin, the bend by the dun. Climb up the little hill and here is a small Iron Age fort (the Dun): behind it are four abandoned TV relay stations and a new Broadband relay; and behind that the foundations of an Iron Age roundhouse.
The Brochs and more
Soon, back on the road, we come to Dun Telve, the first of Glenelg's three brochs. These were built all over the west and north of Scotland and in the islands from about 500BC onwards. They are huge structures, their double walls protecting against wind, rain and midges, the homes of elite families living at a time of peace and prosperity. The details of their development and construction and the various ideas of their placein history – these you must read elsewhere! There are good information displays on thesites. A short distance up the glen brings us to Dun Troddan, the second broch. Across the road is Corrary farm and over the river the meadows with the slopes of Beinn a'Chapuill, now planted with trees but once pasture, were the farm of Inchkennel.
In 1776 the factor found that the five tenants of Inchkennel with their families had “gone to America” in disgust at the oppressive rents then being charged. Many of the farmers at this time, if they could afford it, did the same. They were the lucky ones: those who stayed were later evicted (about 200 between 1804 and 1810, and 500 in 1849) to make way for sheep. Of the human habitations of Inchkennel there remains notrace. Carry on up: the road crosses a bridge and on your left is a chambered cairn marking a burial of maybe 3000 years ago: the public road comes to an end at Balvraid. Continue along the track: there's a cup-marked stone just past the farmyard but it's not easy to locate: after fording a little stream there's an iron-age round house on your left: and up the steep brae over to the right is the most spectacular of the three brochs, Dun Grugaig, perched on the edge of a roaring gully: watch your step here!
At this point, if you love a splendid walk, you can carry on past sheilings and beautiful river scenes till you come to Swordland in about 2 miles. If you are a hill walker there are a dozen excellent walks with lots to discover from up here, but that's a different story from mine!
So back to Balvraid and down the glen to the Eilean-reach bridge.
Now we head south (sign posted Arnisdale and Corran) and start stage 5.
Cross the bridge and you are in the middle of Eilean-reach. The big house was the residence of the factor until the Macleods were forced to sell Glenelg in 1811. It then became an enormous sheep farm. When that failed it became and still is the property of successive landowners.
In a short distance a rough road leads down to the sea: this track and the massive stone pier at the foot were built to enable timber to be exported by boat. Continue up the steep hill and make full use of the wonderful viewpoints ont he way. In about 2˝ miles you come to the Sandaig road end: from here you can walkdown to the Sandaig Islands to enjoy the beach, the rocks, the mussels and the site of Gavin Maxwell's Camusfearna, the famous “Ring of Bright Water”. If you are lucky you too may spot an otter here, maybe a pine marten and possibly the sea eagle; but not Maxwell's house, which was burnt down and demolished in 1968.
This whole peninsula, now a jungle of recently harvested forestry, was once the home to many people. Farms and villages existed at Rubha na h-Airde Beithe, Sandaig (same word as Sandwich!), Achadadyle, Clambuell and Mialarie: no one even knows where the last two were! If this is indeed the ancient Ards of Glenelg, it paid tithes to the Nunnery on Iona till after the Reformation in 1560.
As the road begins to curve left into Loch Hourn pause at the viewpoint and picnic table: from left to right enjoy seeing Knoydart,Eigg, the Sleat peninsula of Skye with mountainous Rum beyond, the Cuillins and the Sandaig islands: after this there are a number of forest tracks going left and right. These lead to great walks with wonderful views. Down at Port Luinge (Boat's Landing) are the houses of the wood watchers whose task it was to protect Macleod's precious oakwoods from pilfering by the folk of Knoydart and Skye. Just west of Port Luinge in the valley above Rubha a'Chaisteil is a group of ploughed fields wonderfully preserved from who knows how long ago. Further east in Camas nan Ceann (Bay of the Heads – what horrid story is buried here?) is a row of cottages where Coats of Paisley, the thread-makers, once employed two turners to make bobbins from the local hardwood: in this bay you can also see rows of posts going outto sea, where tree trunks were placed for collection by boats.
Now we come near the island of Rarsaidh: it's bigger than it looks. At the east end there was enough level ground for keeping animals, a large field divided in two by a stone wall. At the landing place there are 4 or 5 buildings and a well. On the mainland opposite are several ruins and a cave used in prehistoric times. By now the scene is dominated by Ben Sgriol (or Beinn Sgritheall - 974 metres high)
We pass lonely Rarsaidh Cottage: on our left, up the hill a little, is the burial place of the victims of a mid-19th century smallpox epidemic.
Arnisdale and Corran
A mile on and there, from the summit at Torr Breac, Arnisdale spreads out before us. Climb the Torr and the view is even better, and there's a picnic table! West, to Skye and the Cuillins; south to Knoydart whose many bays, inaccessible by land, were once habitations, and some still are! East up Loch Hourn to Barrisdale and the tracks to Inverie and Kinlochhourn – theloch turns sharp left there and forms a dramatic fjord.
Below us is first Camas Ban and then across the river valley is Corran. Camas Ban (the White Bay) is a row of houses along the shore each with its croft land behind. Before 1900 the houses were thatched cottages right at the edge of the sea: frequent high tides made these unusable so the modern slated houses were built. Among the houses there were once a school and an inn, and are now the Free Church, the Burial Ground,the shore base of the Salmon Farm (whose floating cages are moored on the far side of theloch)and Arnisdale Lodge, built by the Fleming family just before WW1. To the left of the present house is the site of an earlier mansion. After the big house we come to Arnisdale farm with its early 20th century iron steading.
Past Camas Ban is the road up the glen. On the left of the great plain are the barely visible remains of Achaglinmore and Achaglinbeg, and on the right, across the river, Blair nan each which also served as a drovers' inn. The occupants of these places were evicted to make a farm for the proprietor: some were given the crofts at Camas Ban. The road climbs steeply into the hills and passing lochs and mountains reaches Kinlochourn.
We continue on the public road, parking at the Ceilidh House, a modern community centre. We cross the river on foot. In the area of the former farm of Leachronis the modern village of Corran. As with Camas Ban, the houses were built at first along the shore and were moved back because of flooding. The croft lands stretch up the river, old byres stand behind the main street and a row of stores for fishing gear lie on the seaward side.
Nor is this the end! If you walk round the coast, heading up Loch Hourn, you will find yourself walking on a wonderful Famine Path, built in the 1830s to earn money to pay for famine relief. It is beautifully made of large squared stones, and runs round the loch to the little settlement of Kilismore, now holiday houses, but once home to several families with an out-school of their own.And that is the end!
APOLOGIES AND SUGGESTIONS
To scientific historians who will bemoan the whimsical telescoping of facts in my narrative. To linguists who regret my failure to give places and people in Pictish, Gaelic, Norse and English with all the varieties of spelling within each language. To all confused by the use of farm and village to translate Baile, which is more than the first but less than the second. Sorry! But if you want to fill out the gaps, I recommend the following: Arnisdale and Loch Hourn by Peter English. The Western Seaboard by Mary Miers. Glenelg, Kintail and Lochalsh by Roger Miket. Cill Chuimein, a history of the Parish Church of Glenelg by David Kellas. The Making of Scotland, a series of books from Birlinn Ltd with Historic Scotland. Notes for a Parish History by Rev. T. M. Murchison - Gaelic Society of Inverness 1957: p 294. Ordnance Survey Explorer 413.
Sincere thanks to Rev David Kellas for producing what must be,
the quintessential mini-history of Glenelg, written in his own quirky style!
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