An old Appin landmark

Major James Robertson, the 79th Cameron Highlanders, from a portrait.

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A few years ago, when I was looking through the wonderful Oban Times archives, I came across an article about a little known roadside well in Appin, dated  August 28, 1880.

According to the contributor it had been restored by a Major Robertson [1823-1886] of the 79th Cameron Highlanders who provided an inscribed drinking cup in the shape of a Roman helmet, found in a fort in the Ochils, and a plaque with the following Gaelic inscription: Tobar Chloinn Donnachaidh ‘s e mar thanbhartas do Mhuinntear na h-Apann le deagh rubn a Seumas Robanach, maidsear ann an Reiseamaid Fhir na h-Earrachd, 1880, which translates as: ‘The Well of Clan Donnachaidh as a goodwill gift to the people of Appin from James Robertson, major in the Regiment of the Man of Erracht [Sir Alan Cameron], 1880’.

Further research among the public records and The Oban Times added to the story.

James Robertson, the widower of Isabella Trail Balfour, lived at Glaiceriska Cottage, between North Shian and Druimneil House, where he died on the December 18, 1886, aged 63 years. Major Robertson was the eldest surviving son of Lord Robertson, a Court of Session judge. It seems he took a special interest in the poor, which, in the days before the NHS, made him popular in Appin, to such an extent that when he died his coffin was carried shoulder high to Portnacroish graveyard – a distance of four miles.

The well is a few feet from and slightly above the unnamed public road that follows the coast from Port Appin to Inverfolla on the North Shian Peninsula, and approximately 300 yards south of the present Glaiceriska Cottage.

The well, which appears to be constantly filled by water from the hillside above, is stone lined and measures about two-foot square and of the same depth. As it does not feature in any of the standard printed reference works on healing wells and springs, it is perhaps not of any great antiquity and only came into use after the building of the coastal road for the convenience of man and beast. It does not appear in the first edition of the OS Six Inch to the Mile series (1871) but is shown in the second (1892-1960), most likely thanks to Col Robertson’s activities.

As I was nearing the end of my research I came across another report in The Oban Times of October 4, 1930, written by a Miss Margaret MacDonald, part of which reads: ‘Blessed is the man, who passing through the valley of Baca, made in it a well.’ [Psalm 84: 45] Baca means weeping. The lovely district of Appin hardly suggests mourning but, yet, perhaps the blessing is there, too, for the man who makes a well, and may I humbly submit hope for the woman who restores it!

‘The well actually existed when he went to live there and was the source of supply for a cottage which stood near, but it is now a ruin, and when he [Maj Robertson] had the idea of enclosing and naming it, the people who lived in the cottage were afraid he was going to deprive them of their drinking water.

Needless to say, he did not do so, but only put a fence round, erected a slate bearing the words “Tobar Clann Donnaichaidh, 1879,” and, hung up by a chain, a little brass drinking cup in the form of a helmet. He sent specially to the War Office for a pattern for this. It bears the inscription in Gaelic that this well was given for the use of the people of Appin by James Robertson.

‘Last year [1929] when I visited Appin, I found the well in a very bad condition; the ground around was boggy, the rustic fence and gate all decayed away, the heavy slate headstone was lying flat, and the cup was fastened  to a very thin sapling.

‘I felt then that I would like to restore it, and seeing my way to do so this summer, I sought and obtained the kind permission of the Laird of Appin, Captain Laing Anderson, to do so.

‘The work has been carried out by Mr Donald Black, gardener and contractor, of Appin, who, I am told, has made a very good job of it, the work being tastefully and thoroughly carried out. The slate is embedded in concrete, and has a border of whin stones round it; the ground has been thoroughly drained, and a wooden path leads up to the well’.

Miss MacDonald, I am sure, would be delighted to know that the well still exists but, unfortunately, the inscribed slab and drinking cup disappeared at the time of the Second World War and are thought to have been taken away by some American soldiers who had come ashore from a battleship anchored in the nearby Lynn of Lorn.

It would be a graceful act on the part of the Appin Community if it would ask the present land owner for permission to tidy up and erect a sign at this once notable historic feature.

Iain Thornber
iain.thornber@btinternet.com