Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber

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The Rifle

The Rifle was a 15-ton, private steam yacht which sailed up and down Loch Arkaig in West Lochaber from 1861 until 1939.

She belonged to the Camerons of Lochiel, who owned Achnacarry Estate, and was used all the year round in the days before there was a road along the north side of the loch.

Angus Kennedy, captain of the Rifle. From a sketch drawn in 1869 by General Henry Crealock.

Her captain for many years was Angus Kennedy (1829-1907), the Achnacarry blacksmith. Angus was formerly head lock keeper and smith to the Caledonian Canal Commissioners at Corpach.

When Donald Cameron of Lochiel bought the Rifle in 1861, he engaged Angus to transfer her through the canal to Loch Lochy and then into the land-locked Loch Arkaig. This operation involved hauling the 40ft vessel out of the water at Clunes Bay, placing it on large wooden rollers, and pulling it with men and horses up the Dark Mile – a distance of just over two miles.

So successfully did Angus Kennedy accomplish this difficult task that Lochiel offered him a job, simply saying: ‘You will suit me, Angus.’  That’s how it was done in those days.

For 40 years Angus commanded the Rifle during which time he conveyed many famous stalking tenants and visitors up and down Loch Arkaig. The most notable was Queen Victoria, who came to Achnacarry in 1873, as a guest of Lochiel, while she was staying at Inverlochy Castle.

Mr Kennedy used to relate that, much to Lochiel’s annoyance, John Brown, the Queen’s personal attendant, gave orders to turn just at the point on the loch when the finest scenery was opening out. As a souvenir of this excursion, Angus kept the kettle used by the august guest for afternoon tea.

Queen Victoria recorded in her journal: ‘He [Lochiel] received us wearing his kilt and plaid just above the pier, and we all went on board the little steamer. The afternoon was beautiful, and lit up the fine scenery to the greatest advantage.

‘We went about half way up the Loch (which is 14 miles long), as we had not time to go farther, to the disappointment of Lochiel, who said it grew wilder and wilder higher up. To the left (as we went up) is the deer forest; to the right he has sheep.

‘It was, as General Ponsonby [the Queen’s private secretary] observed afterwards, a striking scene. “There was Lochiel,” as he said, “whose great-grand-uncle had been the real moving cause of the rising of 1745 – for without him Prince Charles would not have made the attempt – showing your majesty (whose great-great-grandfather he had striven to dethrone) the scenes made historical by Prince Charlie’s wanderings. It was a scene one could not look on unmoved”.’

The Rifle was a handsome little steel schooner built in Greenock for a Mr A Chaplin, who must have sold it to Lochiel almost immediately. Not only was it used for transporting stalking guests during the season but it also delivered mail and provisions throughout the year to the various houses along both sides of the loch and to the 10 or more families living at Kinlocharkaig and Glendessary.

In the early days the Rifle, known affectionately as ‘the yacht’,  would often anchor overnight in the upper reaches of the loch in order that the stalking party could sleep aboard to avoid wasting time steaming to and from Achnacarry. However, this came to an end after some years when the internal arrangements were rearranged to allow more cargo to be carried. Stalking parties were landed in a small boat. When they returned from the hill and wanted to be collected, they lit a fire on the beach to attract Angus’s attention.

Around 1933, when the road to Glendessary was upgraded to take motor vehicles, the Rifle was made redundant. She lay alongside the Achnacarry pier until she was partly scrapped and scuttled in shallow water.

Later, during the Second World War, when the commandos wanted to use the pier for training exercises, they pulled her into deeper water where she lay until 1986 when she was raised and transported to the Scottish Maritime Museum in Ayrshire where she awaits restoration.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com