Wild hills that tower over the long road round Loch Linnhe
In most of Britain people have been content to let the memories of ancient battles fade beneath modern fields and suburban development. But no changes have come to this landscape, whose stern and dramatic beauty is particularly suited to the tales of battle, murder and sudden death with which it is liberally sprinkled. For the traveller among these wild and sombre hills, names like Glen Coe and Appin take on a deeper significance.
The road from Strontian on Loch Sunart runs 8 miles through towering Glen Tarbert and emerges on Loch Linnhe at the tiny hamlet of Inversanda; it then bears north to Corran. There is some magnificent scenery in and around the glen, and some good climbing too, especially on the 2,903 ft Garbh Bheinn, beloved of cragsmen, to the north; but it is not for unaccompanied novices. The 2,800 ft Creach Bhienn to the south is easier and offers splendid views, but for visitors without the right equipment and muscle-training, it is better admired from the road.
With its high black peaks and naked, sunless rocks eternally spouting water, Glen Coe is an appropriate setting for the most infamous murder story in Scottish history. The victims were some 40 members of the MacDonald clan, who had failed to swear allegiance to William III and to forswear the Jacobite cause by the time appointed by the Government.
On February 1, 1692, a company of Argyll militia arrived in the glen, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. Campbell told Maclan, chief of the Glen Coe MacDonalds, that his barracks were overcrowded, and asked if he and his troops might be billeted upon the Mac-Donalds. After enjoying 12 days’ hospitality, the troops turned on their unsuspecting hosts and butchered them. It is possible, however, that some of the soldiers were not overzealous in carrying out their duty; they were, after all, Highland men themselves. Most tragic were the women and children who fled to the high corries and died, within hours, among the ice and snow. Something of their anguish seems to cling to the place still.
The National Trust for Scotland runs a Visitor Centre 1 1/2 miles south of Glencoe village.
By the end of the bridge at South Bal-lachulish, and looking down the whole lovely length of Loch Leven, there is a monument to James Stewart, or James of the’ Glen, who was hanged on that spot in November 1752. As everyone who knows Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona is aware; he was hanged for a murder he had no part in.
The victim was Colin Campbell of Glenure, Government Factor for the forfeited Cameron and Stewart estates in the neighbourhood. On a May afternoon in 1752, as he was riding homewards, someone shot him. The place is marked by a cairn in the woods, about a mile south-west of the Ballachulish narrows, and just south of the present road.
Whoever the assassin was, it was not James Stewart, who was seen working in his fields at the time. Nevertheless, he was charged as an accessory before a predominantly Campbell jury and sentenced to death. After his execution, the corpse was suspended until it rotted, then the bones were wired together and re-hung. Finally, they were laid to rest at Keil churchyard by Loch Linnhe. The real murderer was never discovered.
A stone in the churchyard records a bloody battle fought between the Stewarts and the
MacDougalls in 1468. But a better-known monument is Castle Stalker, which stands on a grassy knoll in the midst of seaweed-strewn sand-flats near by, Its Gaelic name is Caisted an Stalcaire, ‘Castle of the Hunter’, for in the mid-16th century it was a hunting lodge of James V. Ownership of the castle alternated down the centuries between Stewarts and Campbells. It is now in private hands and rarely open to the public. Nevertheless, its tall, rectangular shape set against the majestic gloom of the peaks of Appin makes a memorable spectacle.
The short route to the island is by pretty Port Appin, a harmonious collection of low stone cottages, an old black-and-white hotel and a lighthouse near the pier. Cars, however, must travel from Oban.
Geographically, the 10 mile long island is one of the Inner Hebrides, but it is so wrapped about and leaned over by land that it is sometimes difficult to remember that it is an island at all. Certainly there is no finer viewpoint in western Scotland. Stop anywhere on the single-track road, and all about there are islands and mountains rolling away into the blue distance – Mull, Jura, Ben Cruachan, Ben Nevis, all of wild Lochaber, Lorn and Appin.
Lismore is a calm, green and gentle place, eminently suited to its role as one of the earliest Christian sites in the country. St Moluaig arrived there in about 560, at the same time that Columba was working in lona, and after founding a number of religious communities in different parts of Scotland, died and was buried in the churchyard at Lismore in 592. The parish church of Kilmoluaig is the choir of a cathedral built and dedicated to him in the 13th century. The remainder of the building was destroyed at the Reformation, but Moluaig’s staff still survives in Inveraray Castle.
The Sea Life Centre which has been established about halfway along the southern shore of the loch is one of the most exciting and original concepts of its kind in the world. In its waters there live some 2,000 specimens of Atlantic sea-creatures – eels, dogfish, salmon, cod, sole, bass, wrasse, mullet and dozens of others including such curiosities as angler-fish, pipe fish and blennies. But the ingenuity of the place lies in its lighting and reproduction of habitats, so that looking into the tanks – through which new water from the loch constantly flows – is like gazing into the twilight world of the undersea.
The show-stealers are the young seals, who can be seen on the surface outside the building, or underwater within. They grin through the glass at the audience, then show off in a display of sub-aqua acrobatics.
The Centre is owned by a fish-farming company, and there are displays of fishfarming techniques. Some products, such as salmon and lobster, are eaten in the restaurant. Near by, the Forestry Commission laid out some delightful, if steep, walks, and near the mouth of Loch Creran can be seen the 17th-century Barcaldin Castle.
Beneath the unlovely but practical bridge that carries the road to Fort William are the famous Falls of Lora which, if not exactly falls, are nevertheless extremely impressive rapids. At ebb-tide, the weight of Loch Etive’s water is forced through the Connel narrows and across a submerged ledge. There its dark smoothness is abruptly converted into great kicks and swirls of white, pouring under the bridge down towards Loch Linnhe.
The 10 ft thick outer walls are now almost indistinguishable from the black crag on which they were raised in the 13th century. The castle is on or near the site of the capital of Dalriada, the original Kingdom of the Scots, where the Stone of Destiny was kept until its transfer to Scone in AD 843.
In the 14th century a branch of the Campbells became hereditary constables of Dunstaffnage Castle, and their descendants have been known as the Captains of Dunstaffnage ever since. A large number of them are buried in the roofless chapel that lies half concealed in a nearby wood. In 1746 Flora MacDonald was imprisoned in the castle for ten days on her way to the Tower of London.
There is a touch of the eccentric in Oban’s undoubted charm. Its curiosities include a blue and white railway station, whose architectural style is somewhere between Scots baronial, Tudor and the Wild West; the unfinished shell of the salt-water spa that never was; and McCaig’s Tower, a granite building resembling the Colosseum of Ancient Rome, which is floodlit by night. John McCaig, a banker and art critic, built the Tower between 1890 and 1900, partly as a monument and partly to give work to local masons. It was to have been a museum and art gallery, but it was never finished.
Oban, essentially a creation of the railway and steamer, looks inland for tourists and outwards to the Isles, and serves both very well. There are shoals of hotels along the front, Highland games and ceilidhs, shinty (a devastating ancestor of hockey), an annual regatta and excellent facilities for yachtsmen, water-skiers and divers. By the piers and among the fishing boats there is a constant coming and going of big ferries for the Inner and Outer Hebrides, smaller ferries serving tiny ports up lochs and inlets, and puffers, the once ubiquitous coasters of the Scottish mainland and islands.
An older Oban is apparent in the creeper-clad ruin of Dunollie Castle, nobly sited on a crag at the northern end of the bay. The present structure was a MacDougall stronghold dating mostly from the 15th century, but there has been a stronghold on the crag for much longer.
Considering how close it is to bustling Oban, the island is surprisingly wild and lonely; sad, too, with the memory of vanished farms in its tumbled walls. Reached by a ferry 2 miles south of Oban, it provides good, rough walking, and glorious views of Mull and the islands of the Firth of Lorn.
The ruined Gylen Castle, majestically brooding on its crag over the waters of Lorn, was a MacDougall fortress which, during the Civil War, was stormed and burned by a force of Covenanters. One of the Covenanting officers, a Campbell, took from the shambles the famous Brooch of Lorn, a MacDougall heirloom that had reputedly belonged to Robert Bruce. For nearly 200 years, the MacDougalls believed that the jewel had been destroyed in the fire; then in 1825 it was returned to them by a descendant of the Campbell officer.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Ardchattan Priory, 12 miles NE of Oban, on N side of Loch Elive. Ruined 13th-century priory and gardens. Gardens daily in summer.
Barguillean Gardens. 14 miles E of Oban, via Taynuilt. Daily in summer.