Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 50

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Why do we love old buildings and historic monuments so much?

One of the reasons they are attractive to us might simply be that they are old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also ancient.

They speak to us of another time, of particular events and even of historical characters. Perhaps they are the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past. Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards.

There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen.

Having said all that, if old buildings really touched us deeply, then why are they still being demolished or altered out of all recognition with hardly a word of protest from any but a minority of architects and ‘radicals’?

The loss of so many lovely old buildings in Morvern and throughout Argyll
can’t just be put down to greedy developers. The fact is few people care. The spirit of the times was to look ahead, not backwards. The love of things old and rare might not be ‘in the blood’ of most
people.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES), formerly Historic Scotland, is the leading public body established to investigate, care for and promote the country’s historic sites and architecture as far as possible in the form in which they have been passed down to us today.

This is done through what is known as ‘Scheduling and Listing’. Scheduled monuments are not always ancient or visible above ground.

There are more than 200 categories which range from prehistoric standing stones and burial mounds, through to the many types of medieval site – castles, monasteries, abandoned farm-steadings and crofting settlements – to the more recent results of human activity, such as mines and quarries.

Once a monument is scheduled, its national importance is legally recognised and it receives protection. Many owners consider it a privilege to be the guardians of these special buildings and sites – others see them as a nuisance and a hindrance.

But no matter, it is a serious offence to carry out any work on a scheduled monument or listed building without applying to HES and the local planning authority, even to the removal of chimney stacks and replacing windows and doors with modern materials.

Listing covers buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic, or fine little-altered examples of some particular period, style or type. They fall into three categories depending on their rarity.

Morvern has 27 scheduled monuments and 48 listed buildings. The former includes all the medieval castle sites such as Ardtornish, Glensanda, Killundine and Drimnin but not Kinlochaline which is listed because it has been altered in appearance over the years. Other sites are the Iron Age vitrified fort at Rahoy; Carnliath chambered (Rahoy); Aoineadh Mor cleared township; Acharn Bronze Age cairns; the old parish church at Kiel; Ardness Bronze Age cairns; Beinn Bhan standing stone; Killundine kerb cairns; Killundine chapel and burial ground; Carn na Cailliche, cairn; Mungosdail fort and burial ground; Eilean Uiline fort, Drimnin; Auliston Point and Port a Bhata cleared settlements; Airigh Shamhraidh, house, enclosures and field systems; Carnoch burial cairn; Liddesdale store house and ancillary buildings; Lurga lead mine; Creach Bhein, survey camp and cairn; Uladail, cleared settlement; Loch Tearnait crannog (lake dwelling).

The listed buildings include Achleek and Laudale houses; Glencripesdale house; Doirenamairt Cottage; Acharn farmhouse and single cable suspension bridge; Claggan School and Schoolhouse; Cloanlaid Cottage; Beach house, Achnagowan bridge, Nos 1-6 Larachbeag and old laundry; Rose Cottage; Castle Cottage, Ardtornish mansion house and clock-tower; Boat-house at the head of Loch Aline; Achranich Smith’s barn; South Corrie farm steading; North Corry Farm house, steading, gateposts and courtyard wall; Nos 1-5 High Street, Lochaline; Kiel Church and house, Lochaline; Achnaha cottage and steading; Fiunary Old Manse; Glenmorvern cottage and walled garden; Mungosdail House; Stewart mausoleum, Killuntaig, Drimnin; St Columba’s R C Church, Drimnin, Dorlin cottage; Ferry house, Old Ardtornish steading; Inniebeg cottages; Ivy bridge, Kinlochaline; Achranich House and estate offices; Kilmalieu house, steading and barn.

A good example of why a building is selected as being suitable for listing, is Achleek, on the south shore of Loch Sunart within Laudale estate, described thus in HES’s list: ‘Achleek house. Late 18thcentury. 2-storey, 3-bay, rectangular-plan, symmetrical tacksman’s house. Harled, squared sandstone rubble.’

Part of a group of similar houses in the Highlands of this period, a Georgian box first developed as the standard form for manses and quickly adopted for other purposes such as inns, customs houses and homes for the newly emerging Highland middle-class of tacksmen turned estate managers, farmers, lawyers and military officers. Tacksmen had been the regional chiefs of the Highland chieftains acting as tenant and subletting and as military lieutenants.

After 1745 and the onset of the first clearances, the traditional role of the tacksmen was lost with many leading emigrating groups to America and Canada. Those who remained were often those closest to the chief, or landowner as they had then become, and found themselves with considerably more wealth and status as tenants of large and profitable farms. Listed as representative of a disappearing and historically important legacy of the history of the Highlands.

The highest and most isolated scheduled monument on the Morvern Peninsula is on the summit of a mountain between Loch Linnhe and Glen Tarbert. It consists of the remains of a campsite, constructed by soldiers of the Ordnance Survey early in the 19th century as part of the first triangulation of Scotland. It is situated near the summit of Creach Bheinn at around 2,740ft in open rocky grassland.

Such camps are often known as Colby Camps, named after the officer commanding the Ordnance Survey at the time. The nature of the instruments of the period, the need for very precise measurements and the exigencies of Scottish mountain weather frequently necessitated lengthy stays at high altitude (in one extreme case, three months) to complete the measurements required.

This survey programme laid the backbone of the mapping system that served Britain until recent advances in satellite and electronic distance measurement. The monument has the potential to provide valuable insight into the early efforts of scientific cartography, and the great importance that was attached to map-making at this time. Such survivals are rare.

If you are worried that an old building or an ancient site in your area is in danger of being altered, damaged or demolished on private or on public land, including state-owned forests, you can nominate it for inclusion in an HES or local list by getting in touch with the Historic Environment/conservation officer or archaeologist at Argyll and Bute or Highland Council or through PASTMAP. They may also be interested in any new information you might have about a historic building or archaeological site.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com