Morvern Lines – week 01

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Here’s to the Year That’s Awa

The threshold of a new year is probably as good a time as any to remember and reflect on the one it succeeds.

At the risk of sounding like something from Hugh MacDiarmid’s, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Burns’ Holy Willie’s Prayer and Kipling’s If, here, by request from some of its exiles, is my take on the ups and downs and the joys and travails of life in Morvern in the last 12 months – warts and all.

As this is being written on Christmas morning perhaps I should begin with the positive.

First up must be the continued success of the silica sand mine tucked away inside the mouth of Loch Aline and sending out the finest product of its kind in Europe on small coasters to southern markets.

Not long ago there was talk of shutting the mine down and turning the site into a boat builder’s yard. Fortunately that did not happen as it is now at the heart of the community, providing year-round employment for more than 25 local men and women.

The former Highlands and Islands Development Board which, for a few years owned the Rahoy deer farm, used to calculate that for every one person employed in rural areas at least seven benefit and so it must be in Morvern.

It is a pity that Forest Enterprise and the hydro scheme builders won’t take a leaf out of Lochaline Quartz Sand Ltd’s book and use the sea. If they did, the only road out of the parish would be in a better state of repair.

One of the finest pieces of workmanship seen in Morvern for many a year, has to be a new footbridge over the River Aline where its flows out of Loch Arienas near the Snag Pool on Ardtornish estate. Completed only a few weeks ago, this essential crossing giving access to Morvern’s most popular sandy beach for mums and toddlers in the summer, comprises two heavy metal girders skilfully hidden from view by timber cladding.

The seasoned timbered decking and hand rails are exquisitely finished down to the use of wooden dowels instead of steel bolts. Overall, this welcome, high-quality structure which will undoubtedly outlive most of us, would not look out of place in a ducal deer park and is well worth viewing.

It was designed by Michael Faryma, estate joiner who, along with his assistants, put it together in trying conditions. I hope they found something extra in their Christmas stockings for all their initiative and hard work – they certainly deserved to.

Mention must be made of the skill and dedication of the captains and crew of CalMac’s Lochaline-Fishnish ferry who keep open the link between Mull and Morvern long after their colleagues elsewhere in the Sound have hung-up their sea boots. Thanks also to the Highland Health Board which  continues to support and finance the medical centre in Lochaline and to Dr Susan Taylor, the locums, and their team who look after an ever-increasing ageing population.

Living on the edge and at the end of the road, we should be grateful for what we have on our own doorstep compared to other communities in the Highlands and Islands where patients have to drive or sail many miles to see a doctor.

A huge thanks also to a local resident who, rain, hail or shine, cycles almost daily from Lochaline to the top of Glen Liddesdale picking up bags of litter which louts keep chucking out of their car windows. Without the herculean efforts of this anonymous knight of the road, the Morvern approaches would be a great deal less attractive.

The death in August of Jimmy Laurie, Acharn, farm manager and head shepherd of Ardtornish estate for a long number of years, removed a popular and well-kent figure from Argyll’s sheep and farming circles. Jimmy’s family, who must have given an estimated 300 years combined service to the estate and is one of the very few left in Morvern who can go back more than three generations, came in with the Lowland sheep.

A man with a natural and practical understanding of the land, Jimmy may not have written any scientific papers or given many talks on the subject, but in his own quiet and canny manner he accrued more knowledge of the hill and the ways of its sheep and cattle in his little finger than many of today’s high-flying advisors. We are unlikely to see his like again and send James, his son and successor, best wishes for many more gatherings.

Staying with the land, there is widespread condemnation of the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) for sanctioning the slaughter of deer on their Morvern property for the first time in more than 40 years.

In 1975 the late Christopher Cadbury, Quaker philanthropist and conservationist, made a gift to the nation of 1,750 acres of ground, known for its alpine flora, lying between the summits of Beinn Iadain and Beinn na h-Uamh, for the establishment of a nature reserve.

There was an understanding no shooting would take place so that if the wildlife began to decline roundabout it would find sanctuary here. Mr Cadbury felt that if the plants and grasses had survived rain, snow, natural fires, sheep, goats, deer and cattle since the last Ice Age, there was no need to start interfering with silly management regimes.

Something is now going desperately wrong. More and more deer are being sacrificed in Morvern for new, grant-rich tree plantations which will bring about an ecological disaster through under-grazing and that, in turn, will have a greater effect on the flora and fauna than the alternative.

Members of SWT might wish to question the direction in which the organisation is moving when deciding to renew their annual subscription by recalling the words of King George VI who so rightly said:  ‘The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust. We must account for it to those who come after.’

There used to be a saying among the more irreverent west-coasters that only the Almighty and David MacBrayne know when the ferries were going to call and that the Almighty had to go to David MacBrayne for the information. Echoes of this surfaced recently when Morvern was left without mail or newspapers because CalMac’s Oban-Craignure ferries did not sail. Perhaps the time has come for our post to be routed along a more predictable land link through Perth instead of Glasgow and Oban,  and that Strontian becomes Morvern’s sorting office.

A woodland group has registered an interest with Scottish ministers in acquiring Killundine estate (8,000 acres) and anticipates hearing very soon that its application has been validated.

It is difficult to know what benefits, if any, this will bring to Morvern should it go forward. Do we really want to see more rich agricultural land disappearing under trees to pick up a grant, or lumps of concrete thrown over a river for yet another hydro scheme; deer shot out and mature trees cut down to help finance the buyout?

Iain Thornber

Image and caption

The Rahoy Hills Wildlife Sanctuary where deer are being killed after 45 years (Photograph Iain Thornber)