Morvern Lines: Shameful state of our graveyards

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The Rev Alexander Stewart (1829-1901).

The Reverend Alexander Stewart (1829-1901).

I was passing through North Ballachulish recently and was disappointed to find the little Highland Council graveyard at Creag Mhor in such a poor state of repair. The grass and weeds were knee high and a section of the surrounding wall had been knocked down and replaced with a cheap wooden railing.

Although small, the site has many interesting headstones, including that of the well-respected parish minister, the Rev Alexander Stewart (1829-1901) or ‘Nether Lochaber’, as he was known all over the Highlands. For more than 40 years his regular articles and letters graced the pages of this and other newspapers and periodicals, resulting in two books, Nether Lochaber (1883) and Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe (1885).

Nether Lochaber was so popular and revered that the largest number of people possibly ever to assemble by Loch Leven, gathered on January 22, 1901, to attend his funeral. According to  a contemporary account, it was a day of low cloud and mist passing across a backdrop of snow-clad mountains.

Pipers of the Ballachulish Volunteer Company, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, preceded the procession from the manse at Onich, playing MacCrimmon’s Lament, Lochaber no More and The Land o’ the Leal.  Then came Lochiel, representatives of the clans, learned societies, the Presbyter of Abertarff and the Stewart Society.

More telling, almost every man and boy in the locality followed, and women and girls stood along the mile-long route, or watched from the hillside above the churchyard.

Nether Lochaber’s greatest quality was his ability to write in an unaffected, graceful and unpatronising style. He talked about archaeology, natural history, the habits of birds, beasts and fishes, and could communicate to his readers the wonders of science in an easy and pleasant manner.

He once wrote an amusing letter about a habitual tearer-up of books, Jack the Ripper, his pet jackdaw, who was excused the complete destruction of a Book of Common Prayer in an Episcopalian home in Onich because ‘he had been brought up a Presbyterian’.

Two-and-a-half years after Nether Lochaber’s funeral, a huge crowd gathered on July 18, 1903, at Onich, to pay homage to the beloved pastor and man of letters. A public subscription organised by the Stewart Society, provided a memorial in the form of a 20-feet high Celtic cross which was unveiled by Stewart of Achnacone.

Stewart of Ardvorlich gave the address to the memory of a great clansman, venerable divine, a learned doctor, a great Celtic scholar, a lover of nature and a true Highlander well versed in the lore of his country. Later the cross was removed for safety from quarrying operations in 1955 to the new village cemetery at Innis a’ Bhiorlinn.

The day I visited the Creag Mhor cemetery, I could hardly read the inscription on the minister’s headstone because the grass had not been cut. Shame on the Highland Council, the Stewart Society and the village of North Ballachulish.

If there is one consolation, Highland Council officialdom has not yet laid its heavy hand on Creag Mhor’s headstones by toppling them as it has done recently with some of those at Strontian and Ardgour.

A few years ago a headstone somewhere in Highland region fell over. The knee-jerk reaction by the council was to let down others that they considered a hazard. Fortunately, there was such a hue and cry the practice ceased. Of course no-one wants to see someone being injured by a falling stone but you cannot protect the public from themselves. Graveyards are not playgrounds.

If you take the argument to its logical conclusion, the council might as well put a notice on every road bridge telling the public not to leap over the parapet because the water below is cold and injurious to health.

One of the two casualties in the Strontian Parish Church cemetery commemorates two only sons aged 19 and 20 who died at the Somme and Arras in 1916 and 1917. One is buried in Strontian which, incidentally, lost more men per head of population than any other village in Scotland, and the other in the Great War cemetery at Delville Wood, France. Their memorial stone was considered ‘less than safe’. How much less than safe were these two young Gordon Highlanders who climbed out of their trenches and ran towards the German machine-guns for King and Country?

At a time when the 100th anniversary of the Great War is being remembered across the world, it is surely a sad reflection on today’s values when those in local government and others in the Highlands choose to forget the sacrifice their community made.

Strontian is being lauded for building its own primary school. It would be a graceful act on the part of the many local builders and contractors who will be involved if just one of them would volunteer his skills and cement bucket and reinstate both stones.

Etched on the Strontian war memorial on its knoll above Loch Sunart, is the legend: ‘These were ours in the days of their boy hood and their names have become our heritage.’ Indeed.

Iain Thornber