Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 31

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Roadside cairns and other memorials

Man-made cairns can be found beside roads, on hill tops and wherever people have lived and worked for centuries.

According to folklore, before clan battles, each man would help gather a pile of stones. Those who survived the battle returned and removed one. The stones that remained were then made into a cairn to honour the dead.

A good example of these early war memorials can be seen at the mouth of a high pass between Glen Moidart and Lochailort. The moss-covered cairn, many feet in diameter, is said to have been erected by the MacDonalds of Clanranald when they passed that way on their journey from Castle Tioram to the Battle of Blar na Leine, fought in 1544 against the Frasers under the leadership of Lord Lovat.

The custom of erecting a cairn at a place where there had been a sudden death is an ancient one.

The explanation for this practice lay in the belief that death without a priest would condemn the soul to purgatory. A cairn was put up so that passers-by would remember the deceased and offer up a prayer for the person and as a mark of doing so would deposit another stone on the cairn. This, it was believed, would free the soul and carry it safely to heaven, hence the old Gaelic saying, Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, ‘Peace to thy soul and a stone to thy cairn.’

Donald Hamish Cameron of Lochiel and Archibald MacKellaig, Glenfinnan, at the unveiling of the cairn to Frances Cameron-Head of Inverailort in 1958. Photograph: Scottish Field Picture Agency
Donald Hamish Cameron of Lochiel and Archibald MacKellaig, Glenfinnan, at the unveiling of the cairn to Frances Cameron-Head of Inverailort in 1958. Photograph: Scottish Field Picture Agency

Standing a little way back from the A830, opposite the Loch Eilt boathouse on the famous Road to the Isles, are three cairns, the largest commemorates Duncan Cameron of Inverailort. The inscription on a plaque reads: ‘This cairn was erected by the friends and servants of Duncan Cameron of Inverailort on the day of his funeral, 30 June 1874.’

They carried his coffin from Inverailort House to this point where his property begins on the north side of Loch Eilt and here it was placed in the hearse which conveyed his mortal remains to their rest in the family burying ground at Kilmallie. The oak trees round the cairn, the leaf of which is the Cameron badge, were placed on the sad melancholy occasion. Requiescat in Pace.

Judging by the number of stones in the cairn there must have been several hundred mourners present. A contemporary account records that no fewer  than 33 carriages followed the hearse from Inverailort House in addition to those who walked.

Within the same ring of slabs, a smaller cairn commemorates Francis Cameron-Head, Duncan’s grandson, which was unveiled by Donald Hamish Cameron of Locheil, Chief of Clan Cameron, at an impressive ceremony in the autumn of 1958.

Francis’s widow, Mrs Pauline Cameron-Head, laid the last stone on the cairn and planted an oak tree beside it while a piper played her husband’s favourite pibroch, Thaing mo Righ air Tir am Muideart – My King has Landed in Moidart, composed in 1745 by John MacIntyre of Ulgary, Glenmoidart.

A third cairn commemorates Ronald Macleod who lived at Essan, Loch Eilt, a friend and trusted employee of the Cameron-Head family for many years.

Seton Gordon, the well known author and historian from Skye. Photograph: Brodrick Haldane
Seton Gordon, the well known author and historian from Skye. Photograph: Brodrick Haldane

The private Cameron mausoleum behind Glenshian, known locally as the ‘Vault’, was built in 1922 following the burial of James Cameron-Head. Here also lies his wife, Christian, and their two children, Francis and Christian, whose graves are unmarked. The two large bronze tablets let into the south wall commemorate other members of the family, including Major-General Sir Alexander Cameron of Inverailort, who were buried at Kilmallie, Corpach.

There is an interesting graveyard on a little island in the River Ailort a few hundred yards upstream from Glenshian, called Innis na Cuilce – the island of reeds – where the inhabitants of the once heavily populated Ardnish Peninsula, who were mostly MacDonalds and Roman Catholics, are buried.

As there are no dateable headstones, it is impossible to say when the first burial took place but the graveyard appears on a map of the area dated 1796. The last funeral took place in 1978.

In order to preserve the name in the locality, the late Mrs Pauline Cameron-Head had a stained-glass window placed in the nearby Polnish Church commemorating those who are buried here.

In the hills to the south of Loch Eilt is Coire nan Gall – the corrie of the stranger – called after an English soldier who is buried there. The local story is that after the Battle of Culloden, two Jacobite officers were being chased by some of the Duke of Cumberland’s men. On entering the corrie they looked back and saw one of their pursuers coming towards them. They killed him and buried his body by the edge of the burn which runs down through the corrie.

Another version is that, in an effort to prevent the Prince from reaching the sea, where a French vessel was waiting to take him back to France, the Hanoverians set up a line of troops between Loch Shiel and Loch Morar and it was while some local Jacobites were trying to pass through this cordon that the incident took place.

There is another cairn standing close to the A830 on the north shore of Loch nan Uamh, marking the traditional place where Prince Charles Edward embarked for France on September 20, 1746.

The spot was shown to Francis Cameron-Head and Seton Gordon, the well-known authority on Highland subjects, from an old local man whose great-grandfather had witnessed the Prince leaving Scotland forever.

The cairn, which had been raised at the behest of Francis Cameron-Head, was unveiled in 1956 by the Countess of Erroll, the hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland and president of the 1745 Association, in company with Locheil, Seton Gordon and the celebrated piper, Angus Macpherson of Invershin, who played appropriate laments to a large number of people who had come from all over Scotland to be present on this unique occasion.

The most recent cairn to appear in the Lochailort landscape stands by the A861 a few hundred yards west of Inverailort Castle. It was erected in 1995 in memory of Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort, who died the previous year and is buried at Arisaig.

The spot chosen was not only close to her home but beside the spectacular coastal road to Kinlochmoidart which, as local county councillor, she was largely responsible for having built in 1966. On the day her cairn was consecrated, a large number of friends gathered to take part in a simple but moving ceremony.

Nothing formal had been arranged to divert or halt the traffic on this busy thoroughfare, yet strangers, unaware of what was happening, abandoned their vehicles and took part. It was an appropriate tribute to an extraordinary public-spirited lady.

iain.thornber@btinternet.com