Morvern Lines – 2.1.20

Loch Arkaig looking south to the pine woods destroyed by the commandos in 1942 during a training exercise. Photograph Iain Thornber

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If you live in Lochaber and feel like a spot of treasure-hunting there is no need to rush down the A82 to Tyndrum hoping to pick up the odd nugget or two from the spoil heaps of Scotland’s latest gold mine, or buying a metal-detector and going up to Loch Arkaig to look for the fabled French Louis d’or sent across from France to prop up the ailing Jacobite army.

Just pull into the new Alexander Ross House car park next to the Charles Kennedy Building, formerly Fort William’s Secondary school on Achintore Road, and look for the sign which says Archives. Enter and be prepared to find treasures that will take your breath away.

This is no rusting back-shed containing a few dry, dusty files on Bonnie Prince Charlie and what he wore and had to eat when he was on the run after Culloden.  It is much more. The Lochaber Archive Centre is a modern building. It conforms to the highest international standards in terms of preservation, storage and cataloguing.  This place holds a truly amazing variety of records relating to Lochaber, old and new, in minute books, correspondence, maps, plans and photographs.

The collections include: education records from the 1860s, including logbooks and admission registers for more than 60 Lochaber schools; Poor relief records, 1845-1930; Property valuation rolls, 1874-1990;  Fort William Burgh records, 1874-1975; Police archives, 1875-1946; Abridgements of Sasines: (property transactions from 1781 to 1971, Inverness-shire and Argyllshire); Church records including kirk session and presbytery records for parishes in the Lochaber Presbytery, 1724-1991; Estate and family papers of the Camerons of Lochiel from 1624, which consists of a large collection of material relating to the 1715, 1719 and 1745 Jacobite risings; the Cameron-Head of Inverailort papers, from 1799 including letters, reports and accounts of the commando occupation during the Second World War; boxes of papers relating to different MacColl families; Knoydart estate papers, 1810-1945; the West Highland Museum collections which include: Jacobite material,  Arisaig estate papers, Ben Nevis Observatory visitors’ books, smaller private collections.

There are small archives of individuals, estate and solicitors’ offices – societies, and other organisations. Maps and plans, Ordnance Survey plans scale 25″:1 mile dating from 1870. Genealogical resources on microfilm for the Lochaber area, census returns, 1841-1901, Old Parish Registers, the International Genealogical Index and a substantial run of Oban Times from 1861 on microfilm. All open to the public and available for copying other than in a few isolated cases to conform with the current Data Protection Act.

My favourites are the fabulous Lochiel and Inverailort papers which are a mine of information on estate management, forestry, deer stalking, crofting and just about every other aspect of how large estates used to function.

Of interest is the correspondence between Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel’s agents and Scottish Command in 1942 about a fire started by the commandos during a training exercise near Achnacarry Castle where they were billeted.

On 29 April that year Lochiel’s secretary sent the following letter to the Command Land Agent in Edinburgh: ‘Dear Sir, I regret very much to inform you that a very serious fire occurred on the Lochiel Estates, starting about 12.30pm on Monday 27th April. The fire started on ground covered under sections 51 and 52 of the Defence of the Realm Regulations and the inference is that the fire was caused by the operations of the War Department. The matter is being investigated by the police. Meanwhile I have to inform you that the whole of Lochiel’s Old Forest [on the south side of Loch Arkaig] consisting of very valuable pine trees, has been completely destroyed from Achnacarry to the head of Glenmallie – a distance of nine miles. There have also, I fear, been a number of sheep burned in the fire. The fire is still burning, in spite of all efforts that have been made and the number of people that have been collected. The extent of the damage is not possible to ascertain at this juncture. I, therefore, must intimate that a claim will follow…The gravity of this matter, which involves the destruction of a large part of the Lochiel estate, is one which I hope you will appreciate and give your immediate attention to’.

The claim included twelve and a half miles of fencing, the loss of timber, sport and grazing over a five-year period of rehabilitation, plus legal fees, amounted to £123,694. After a long delay the army offered £20,000 but Lochiel stuck out for £50,000 and eventually a figure somewhere between was agreed. Subsequent investigations and at least two special courts of inquiry put the cause down to a soldier, or soldiers, throwing lit cigarettes away when they were rock-climbing in the area.

When the War Office requisitioned Inverailort castle and estate in 1940 for a top secret Special Training Centre where groups of selected volunteer soldiers were to be taught new methods of irregular warfare, Mrs Cameron-Head, the owner, was furious. The Cameron-Head papers reveal not only was she turned out of her home that year but she had lost lucrative stalking and fishing lets and incurred expenses hiring extra gillies and stalkers for the forthcoming season.  Her patience was sorely tested when army trucks taking most of her furniture from the castle to a storage depot in Fort William, went off the road destroying the contents. From then, until her death the following year due to her anxiety, she waged war on the unfortunate officer in charge. In one letter she complained bitterly about commandos climbing the kitchen garden wall and stealing her gooseberries, accusing him of putting them up to it in order to get fresh food for the mess. It did not seem to occur to her these men were about to leave the UK and dropped in enemy territory to try and halt an invasion and all she could do was complain about a few bits of fruit!

There were other similar incidents. Early in 1904, there had been a dispute over the boundary between Inverailort and Glenaladale estate. The matter raged on for some months until the 9th of July when Colonel John MacDonald, the owner of Glenaladale, sent a letter from the Cadogan Hotel, Sloane Street, London, to MacDonald & Graham, the Head’s Inverness solicitors, saying: ‘Dear Sirs, I have your letter of 2nd inst with copy letter from Mr Head to you of the 1st.  I have never in my experience known of anyone, laying claim to the position of a gentleman, behaving in the manner in which Mr Head has thought fit to do in this matter. Without reference to me he has sent a copy of a private letter of mine to him to Mr Bainbridge [the stalking tenant]. By his own actions he has superseded the necessity of any one on my part. I decline to take further notice of his letter. Yours faithfully (Signed) John A Macdonald”.

The Lochaber Archive is a valuable asset for the West Highlands and needs to be supported. Visit it, contribute to it, use it – or lose it.