Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 16.01.20

The entrance to Loch Aline off the Sound of Mull. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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‘The wind is fair, the day is fine,
And swiftly, swiftly runs the time,
The boat is floating on the tide
That wafts me far from Fuinary.’

(From the well-known Gaelic song, Farewell to Fuinary, written by Rev Norman MacLeod of Fuinary in 1808)

Loch Aline (Gaelic, Loch ath a’ linne, ‘the loch of the ford of the pool’), with its sheltered anchorage, has been an important natural harbour from time immemorial. Prehistoric man, ever in search of food and fertile land, came to Morvern by sea more than 12,000 years ago and left behind stone circles and burial cairns at Kinlochaline, Claggan, Acharn, Killundine and Achnaha.

The roving Vikings who followed were active around the loch’s thickly wooded hillsides and must have found it a perfect haven for building and beaching their long-ships. Although they left Morvern more than 900 years ago their influence survives in local place-names, reminding us that this area was once part of the Sea Kingdom of Norway.

It was in Morvern that Somerled, a Hebridean/Norwegian warrior prince, defeated the Vikings in a battle at the head of the Black Glen on the way to Strontian. His descendants created the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles and built the nearby Ardtornish Castle, whose ruined 13th-century walls still stand guard the entrance to the loch.

The MacDonald power lay in the sea, which they controlled by small galleys, called birlinns. These were faster than any other vessels of the time and kept at anchor in Loch Aline in a state of constant readiness.

According to tradition, Donald, Lord of the Isles (1387-1423) mustered over 800 of them in Loch Aline in preparation for the Battle of Harlaw, fought in 1411. The Lords of the Isles, when they were not indulging in acts of piracy, established religious foundations on Iona and elsewhere throughout their vast territories, including one at Lochaline.

Tradition has it that the church of Cill Choluimchille (Gaelic, ‘the cell of Colm of the churches’ – now known as Kiel) was established by St Columba in the 6th century. In the little museum at Kiel there is a collection of finely carved medieval grave slabs and free-standing crosses decorated with swords, warriors, churchmen and high-prowed birlinns – the favourite motifs of the Lords of the Isles who commissioned them.

 Thousands of tons of timber are exported from Morvern every year by boat. Photograph: Iain Thornber

Thousands of tons of timber are exported from Morvern every year by boat. Photograph: Iain Thornber

History has not recorded when the first stone pier was built in Loch Aline. Those used by the Vikings and the Lords of the Isles were most likely made of wood and have long since disappeared. However, a large, derelict stone jetty still exists on the northern shores of the loch and to the east of the entrance, which may be several hundred years old and was probably in use until the construction of that near the Fishnish ferry terminal.

This pier, originally known as the Relief Pier and now called the Lochaline Old Pier, was built in 1843 by John Sinclair, a local landowner who founded the village of Lochaline about 1830, and completed by the British Fisheries Board five years later. It was financed by the Highland Relief Board to provide work for 31 Morvern families who were victims of the potato famine and the infamous Highland Clearances.

The men, women and children who built it received food (oat and wheat meal) instead of money. The general allowance for a man was one-shilling (5p) worth of meal each day but quantity allowances varied. In some instances, a man was given 14lbs of meal a week and others 10lbs.

The allowances for women were 5lbs per week and children according to their age. At the time of its construction, there were more than 1,500 people living in numerous villages scattered throughout the Morvern Peninsula. In the years that followed, more than half of that number left this pier in emigrant ships bound for America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Cuid chaidh thar cuan, cuid sa chill ud shuas
‘S cuid cha’n eil fhios caite

(Gaelic: Some went across the ocean, some went to the graveyard, and where are the others? No one knows.)

One village which was cleared of Gaelic-speaking people in 1824 to make way for large-scale sheep farming was Inniemore (Gaelic, Aoineadh Mor, ‘the great steep promontory’) near Loch Arienas. Here the ruined walls of the old houses, sheep pens, enclosures and barns have been carefully preserved and interpreted by the Forestry and Land Scotland which welcomes visitors to this interesting historical site.

Although the Lochaline pier gave badly-needed local employment and provided a suitable ferry point across the mouth of Loch Aline, it unfortunately dries out, making it impossible for larger vessels to come alongside. Only the smallest boats could call on the flood tide and, when the currents were suitable, otherwise regular steamers anchored off the mouth of the loch from which small boats inconveniently ferried passengers and freight to and from the steps of the Relief Pier. A rise in visitor numbers to the area and the establishment of a regular steamer service between Oban and Tobermory, calling daily at Lochaline, sounded the death knell for the Relief Pier.

Another pier, now called the West Pier, was built in 1883 to the south-west of the village on the Sound of Mull. It could accommodate large ships at any state of the tide, leaving the Relief Pier for small pleasure craft and the occasional puffer and small lighters bringing coal from the Clyde.

By 1992, the Relief Pier had almost been abandoned and was decaying rapidly. In that year, an enterprising local voluntary group met to see what could be done to save the structure from further damage. The Lochaline Old Pier Association was established and, with financial assistance from several government agencies and other sources, it managed to restore the pier to his former pristine state.

Memories of the Clearances and the potato famine have now almost vanished but the Relief Pier is being used again and is a monument to a hard period in the life of our forebears.

Today the Morvern Peninsula still relies on its maritime links. Lochaline silica sand, among the purest in the world and the only source of sand in Great Britain suitable for high grade domestic glass and lens manufacture, is shipped regularly to England, Northern Ireland and Scandinavia.

Aggregate Industries Ltd exports millions of tons of granite aggregate annually by huge ore-carriers from its massive Glensanda super-quarry operation in Loch Linnhe and both the Forestry Commission and the salmon fish farms in the area also use the sea to move their products to well established markets.

‘….. All ends in sea:

No valley so hazed with green, but the sea
Runs its salt tongue inland, abrading
Rock and face to a harsh sweetness
That is nowhere else. More durable
Than a child’s summer, here the salt earth holds
Its yellow daffodils like flags for the heart
And the Sound lies like a sword between
Mull and Morvern –
Sword of Tristan and Isolde,
Familiar as a forgotten childhood,
And secret as love…’

(Lines from the The Sea’s Country by Morvern Cameron.)

Iain Thornber