I’ve spent much of the past few months reading and thinking about Argyll, in preparation for our new club (subscriptions for which open today!)
Argyll is a very beautiful and distinctive part of Scotland, and a lot of my thinking has been about the coastline of a particular corner of south Argyll, and what that coast has meant. In terms of overall landmass, Argyll is relatively small and yet due to its heavily fissured and indented nature, this part of Scotland’s western seaboard has more miles of coastline than the whole of France. It is a landscape that’s shaped by the sea, riven by lochs (of both the salty and fresh water kind), and which is still defined completely by its waterways. And when you are thinking about how the humans of the past lived and worked here, Argyll is a landscape that often makes most sense from the water.
Last week I found myself thinking a lot about the general watery-ness of Argyll, and the way that human bodies (alive and dead) once got about it when Tom and I spent a few days walking around the loch that, prior to the district and regional division of Scotland in 1975, marked Argyll’s northern boundary.
Loch Shiel is most often seen now from the top of the loch, where a famous monument commemorates the spot where Charles Edward Stuart raised the Jacobite standard . . .
. . . and a just-as-famous viaduct carries folk through the landscape on fictional journeys to Hogwarts, or real ones to Mallaig.
But centuries before the Road to the Isles and the West Highland Line brought coaches, trains, and thousands of visitors from around the world to the top of Loch Shiel, people were moving by land and water around this landscape.
Loch Shiel is a freshwater loch that drains into the sea via a short stretch of river at Acharacle. At over 17 miles long it’s a reasonably extensive loch (the fourth longest in Scotland), and enables easy access (by boat) from the coast into the west highland interior. Ancient attempts to protect, defend, and restrict access to Loch Shiel from the coast are still apparent in the landscape – from Iron Age forts to Medieval castles.
Precisely because of its ease of navigability, this was a landscape of enormous strategic importance, and it held (and indeed still holds) great spiritual significance as well. Landing in Ardnamurchan from Ireland, Saint Finan reputedly saw a small island in Loch Shiel from the high shoulder of land above Kilchoan, and decided to establish his cell there.
The location of St Finan’s hermitage became, in time, the site of a medieval chapel, with ground consecrated for burial. Centuries went by, the chapel fell into ruin, religious differences divided Scotland’s landscape. But the communities of Loch Shiel, Sunart, Moidart, and Ardnamurchan continued to carry their dead on foot and by boat to be buried on St Finan’s isle.
If you spend any time at all in the hills above Loch Shiel, you’ll find cairns that mark the places where coffins (and their carriers) once rested on what were once known as coffin roads. These three are marked on Ornance Survey maps as “Captain Robertson’s Cairn.” When Captain WJ Robertson of Kinlochmoidart died in 1869, his body was carried along this route, taken down to the water, and rowed by boat, to be buried on St Finan’s isle.
These three cairns don’t just represent one human, though, but the countless inhabitants of this landscape who were once carried, mourned, and laid to rest on the burial island in the loch.
Highland parishes once covered huge areas, with relatively few spots consecrated for burial, and bodies were, by necessity, carried long distances over what was (and remains) very difficult terrain. It is no wonder that so many cairns and placenames in this part of the world (for example, Corpach / A’ Chorpaich / field of corpses) commemorate the temporary resting places of mourners and bodies on the coffin roads.
From Polloch, from Ardshealach, from Resipole, from Kinlochmoidart and from Carn Mor na Comhdail (the great cairn of the gathering) near Camuschoire, the coffin roads wind down from all directions through the high hills above Loch Shiel – all meeting at St Finan’s burial island. The island might seem, to a contemporary visitor, to be “remote” or curiously inaccessible, but it was a location at the heart of the community in all senses, a place where all roads led.
Both the Catholics and Protestants of Loch Shiel have used (and still use) St Finan’s isle as a place to lay their dead and for many centuries, the island has remained a place of memory and commemoration without denomination. Burials began on the island in the sixth century, and they still occur today: it is said to be the oldest burial site in continuous use in Western Europe, and remains a place of pilgrimage for many (though clearly not sufficiently respected as such by the thief of the isle’s ancient bell)
This is St Finan’s island as seen from the shore of Loch Shiel, near Dailea, on one of our walks along the old coffin roads on a chilly day last week. It really is a very special spot. Perhaps another day, I’ll swim there.
Loch Shiel is certainly one of those places that has made me think very differently about (false) contemporary perceptions of remoteness or marginality, about centres and peripheries, about Argyll’s living landscape, and its human communities, alive and dead.