Morvern Lines – with Iain Thornber

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A rare Highland brooch
Last week I referred to the Rev Alexander Stewart, the Church of Scotland minister of Ballachulish who collected information on the natural history, legends and folk-lore of the West Highlands which, without his interest and foresight, would have been lost.

Scotland owes another debt to this man for ensuring that one of the Highlands most beautiful and valuable 500-year-old objects found its way into the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, now called the National Museum of Scotland, from a most unlikely place.

In October 1881, an Appin shepherd was taking a breather a few yards below the summit of Beinn a’ Bheithir (Gaelic, the mountain of the thunderbolt), a 2,500ft hill above Ballachulish on the south side of Loch Leven, when idly poking into the moss beside him with his cromach, he turned up the shoulder brooch shown in the accompanying drawing.

The brooch, of solid silver, measures three and a half inches in diameter and would have been attached to a cloak or outer garment by a pin, or tongue, which is missing probably because it was of iron, bronze or silver gilt which would have rusted away.

The brooch, however, is as fresh and striking as it must have been on the day when it was lost or hidden where it was found. It is engraved, on one side only, and shows strange beasts and ornamentation typical of the period but in the highest style of medieval Celtic art.

Evidently the nameless shepherd who, on knowing of Mr Stewart’s interest in such objects, must have taken it to him for an opinion and was persuaded to sell it to the Edinburgh museum. It was greatly admired locally and created a good deal of speculation at the time. Whom had it belonged to and how did it come to be on the top of a remote hill in Appin where it was recovered?

We will never know but Nether Lochaber offered some thoughtful opinions. ‘We know that Appin was at one time so famous for its stags and wild-fowl, that two at least of the Stuart kings, James IV and James V, frequently visited Duncan Stewart, the chief of the clan in his stronghold of Castle Stalker, for the purpose of hunting and hawking.

We may easily fancy a hunting party, consisting of James IV and a score of favourite gentlemen, attended by the Chief of Appin, following the stag in Glen Duror and Glen-a-Chaolais, and the brooch being dropped or lost, as in the evening the party were crossing the mountains homewards to Castle Stalker. The Chief of Appin himself may have lost the brooch; for it is an article not likely to have belonged to anyone of meaner birth, or, for that matter of it, may not this beautiful brooch have adorned the royal shoulder of the king himself?’

Perhaps this rare artefact will one day be repatriated to Lochaber where it rightly belongs – in the same way as the complete set of Lewis chessmen should rest in Stornoway. The trustees of the West Highland Museum in Fort William, should act to acquire what is now known as the Benvare Brooch either permanently or on loan for an extended period.

If the Rev Alexander Stewart had been alive today, I feel sure he would have been fascinated by a small group of Corran Ferry users who, unlike the usual daily commuters, have taken up residence aboard for a few weeks. I am referring to several pairs of black guillemots who have not only been hitching a lift across the Narrows and hopping off midstream when it takes their fancy during operating hours, but have actually nested aboard.

It all began some years ago when a small colony of these attractive black and white birds decided the reinstated old Ardgour Estate pier adjacent to the slipway and which acts as a windbreak for the ferry tender, would make an ideal home during the nesting season.

Bored, perhaps, waiting for their sitting partners to produce young, the males began flying to and from the ferry in the evening until, eventually, throwing caution to the wind or taking a shine to the ferry crew, began alighting on the moving car deck and upper structure where some of their partners, not to be outdone, elected to lay their eggs under some pieces of equipment preferring a bare deck to a nest.

The black guillemot belongs to the auk family and in many ways differs from the common species and is not so widely distributed. It is contained to Scotland, the northern half of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Scottish islands.

The birds are usually black all over except for a broad white bar across the wing. In winter, however, it is white, with black patches and on the wings. It lays two eggs and prefers to lie on them instead of standing over them and probably eats more crustaceans than fish. Unlike most other divers, it is said to use its feet when swimming under water and not its wings.

Iain Thornber