Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 49

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Hairy coos of the wood

If you go down to a particular wood in Morvern today you will definitely be surprised, to parody the words of American composer John Walter Bratton (1867-1907), who wrote the popular children’s song, The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.

You certainly won’t see any bears but you will be able to meet a friendly herd of multi-coloured Highland cattle, known locally as ‘the hairy coos’.

You might well ask what are they doing roaming around in a forest far away from any farm. The answer is, they are helping the Forestry Commission to restore an ancient woodland and protect a valuable piece of Highland Clearance history.

Aoineadh Mor, or Inniemore if you prefer, means ‘the steep promontory or face (of the hill)’. In 1779, 45 people, all Camerons, used to live here in 20 or so houses – some barely 12 feet square. Their turf ceilings were covered in peat soot from the open fire in the middle of the floor, kippering not only the fish and meat hung there to cure, but the human inhabitants as well.

There was a horizontal water mill to grind corn, several kilns to dry it in and a few enclosures for kale and potatoes. Further away were walled fields for small cattle, goats and a few hardy sheep which were taken in at night for milking.

Early in the 1820s, Miss Christina Stewart, a middle-aged spinster living
in Edinburgh, acquired a fortune making fancy bonnets for London society and, with the proceeds, bought 10,000 acres of the Morvern peninsula. It was no more than an investment as there is no record of her ever setting foot on the place.

She died in 1829, remembered in Morvern for her cruelty. With little concern or interest for the folk whose ancestors had occupied the settlement for generations, Miss Stewart set about clearing the land for large flocks of sheep.

One day in 1824, her agents came to tear the thatched roofs off the houses and push the inhabitants into a different world. Never had the brutality of the Clearances been etched in sharper relief.

The sheep craze soon failed and the evictions proved pointless.

The land changed hands for sport then, after the First World War, Inniemore was bought by the Forestry Commission and the village disappeared under a thick blanket of Sitka spruce until 1993 when it was uncovered during felling operations and carefully preserved.

What makes Inniemore interesting and unique is the existence of a moving first-hand account of the eviction. It was taken down years later from the Gaelic-speaking Mary Cameron, one of the last inhabitants to leave.

‘That was the day of sadness to many – the day on which MacCailein Mor [the Duke of Argyll] parted with the estate of his ancestors in the place where I was reared. The people of Inniemore thought that the “flitting” would not come upon them while they lived.

‘As long as they paid the rent, anxiety did not come near them: and a lease they asked not. It was there that the friendly neighbourhood was, though now only one smoke is to be seen, from the house of the Saxon shepherd.

‘When we got the summons to quit, we thought it was only for getting an increase of rent but permission to stay we got not. The small cattle were sold, and at length it became necessary to part with the one cow. When shall I forget the plaintive wailing of the children deprived of the milk which was no more for them? When shall I forget the last sight I got of my pretty cluster of goats bleating on the lip of the rock, as if inviting me to milk them?

‘But it was not allowed me to put a cuach under them. The day of the flitting came. The officers of the law came along with it, and the shelter of a house, even for one night more, was not to be got. It was necessary to depart.

‘The hissing of the fire on the flag of the hearth as they were drowning it, reached my heart. We could not get even a bothy in the country; therefore we had nothing for it but to face the land of strangers.

‘The aged woman, the mother of my husband, was then alive, weak and lame. James carried her on his back in a creel. I followed him with little John, an infant at my breast. Our neighbours carried the little furniture that remained to us, and showed every kindness which tender friendship could show.

‘On the day of our leaving Inniemore, I thought my heart would rend. I would feel right if my tears would flow; but no relief thus did I find.

‘We sat for a time on Knock nan Càrn to take the last look at the place where we had been brought up. The houses were being already stripped. The bleat of the “big sheep” was on the mountain. The whistle of the Lowland shepherd and the bark of his dogs were on the brae.’

Iain Thornber