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There is a gentleness and a sense of continuity which lingers among the old farms and crofts on the south-facing, sunny side of Loch Sunart.
Despite a huge increase in the number of vehicles on the passing highway compared with three decades ago, very little of the things that really matter in life have changed. The long association with the land is as deep-rooted as ever and nowhere is this more so than at Camasachoirce – the Bay of the Corn – where generations of the Macpherson family have turned the soil and bred sheep and cattle for hundreds of years.
Mr Donald Macpherson, or ‘Donnie Camasachoirce’, as he is affectionately known, is as fine an example of a working crofter to be found anywhere in the Highlands. Being given the name of the place where one has lived for a long time is an old custom hereabouts: Jimmy Ardery, John Carnoch, Alan Kilmalieu, Johnny Raeland, Jimmy Acharn, Murdoch Achleek, Neilly Rhemore and Sandy Bunalteachan, are some well used examples.
Born on the croft 90 years ago, Donnie has lived nowhere else. His ancestors lie in the ancient burial isle of Eilean Fhianain (St Finan’s Isle) in Loch Shiel to which, when their time came, were carried from Camasachoirce up the old coffin road by St Kieran’s Burn and through the foothills of Ben Resipole to Achanellan before being ferried to their final resting place. Groups of small cairns mark the time-honoured spots where these corteges halted on their five-mile journey, sometimes for a few hours or occasionally the night in the short winter days. Donnie’s family are no strangers to longevity. His sister Betty, who lives not far away at Clovullin, married Donald Boyd whose ancestors sailed up Loch Linnhe with the Macleans to Ardgour close on 500 years ago after they were given a land charter from the MacDonald Lords of the Isles who lived at Ardtornish Castle.
Donnie’s first job on leaving school at Camusaine, was as a shepherd on Laudale estate on the opposite side of Loch Sunart. He crossed in a rowing boat with his father who delivered mail to that part of Morvern six days a week, and travelled over to Glencripesdale by pony on alternate days – a distance of some 12 miles in all weathers. In those days Laudale enjoyed the reputation of being one of the finest farms in Argyll. This was almost entirely due to Archibald Fletcher from Lochdonhead, Isle of Mull, and his son John Andrew who, from 1871 to 1948, were factors and tenants of Laudale respectively. Their knowledge of cattle was unsurpassed but it was Hugh Graham and his twin sons Dugald and John they relied on for the quality of the estate’s large sheep flock.
I often heard it said that when the sheep were gathered for a sale or some other important date in the hill calendar, John’s powers of observation and prodigious memory were so great that not only could he tell which hirsel every animal belonged to by their facial markings, but their parentage as well. Donnie was billeted at Liddesdale with John and his family. It was a wonderful apprenticeship and one that created in the young shepherd an interest in sheep which is as fresh today as it was 75 years earlier.
Little wonder Donnie has been a leading-light in the Acharacle Sheepdog Society and the Sunart and District Agricultural Society’s annual trials and shows which, much to his disappointment, were cancelled this year due to Covid.
Meeting Donnie not long ago, I asked him if he still kept sheep. ‘Yes Iain, I love my sheep and will have them until the day I die.’
‘And do you have a dog to herd them?’ I asked. ‘I do indeed,’ came the ready reply. ‘When my old collie Meg died over a year ago good friends and neighbours rallied round with their dogs, which later had me thinking that I really should have one of my own again to keep me company and to work what stock I have left. This place used to have 150 sheep and six cows, but making hay and attending to all the other work on the croft as well as having a full time job as a lorry driver with the old Argyll County Council, was not easy, so I parted with some of them. In July this year I saw a dog for sale in the Scottish Farmer that I thought would suit me.
‘Unfortunately I was too late, but the farming community being the close-knit one it is the world-over, the advertiser kindly passed my interest on to another farmer in South Wales and we did a deal.’
Donnie paid £700 for Millie and a further £100 carriage for her to be delivered to Corran ferry where she was met and taken to Camasachoirce by his niece. ‘I was a bit worried that coming from almost 500 miles away and hearing a different accent, Millie might not understand my commands but I needn’t have worried. From her first meeting with a parcel of Sunart ewes it was as though she had been born and bred on the croft. Not only that, we took to each other straight away.’
It is well known in dog breeding circles that collies are among the most intelligent of all species. Their quick thinking, enthusiasm and willingness to work has seen them win many awards by canine psychologists across the world. Amazingly, most collies can learn a new command in under five seconds and retain it. They even have an intense stare technique that intimidates livestock. Watching Donnie put Millie to work among his black-face sheep in the fields below his house, it was obvious she has all these attributes and a gentle nature which will suit each perfectly.
I never leave Camasachoirce and a ceilidh with Donnie without thinking about a poem called, For the Old Highlands, written by Douglas Young (1913-73), a classical scholar, nationalist, conscientious objector, and kilt wearer.
‘That old lonely, lovely way of living
in Highland places – twenty years a-growing,
twenty years flowering, twenty years declining – father to son, mother to daughter giving
ripe tradition; peaceful bounty flowing;
one harmony all tones of life combining,
old wise ways, passed like the dust blowing.
‘That harmony of folk and land is shattered,
the yearly rhythm of things, the social graces,
peat-fire and music, candle-light and kindness.
Now they are gone it seems they never mattered,
much, to the world, those proud and violent
clansmen, and chiefs whose passioned greed
made desolate these lovely lonely places’.
There is much to be said for a man who still lives and works in the place where he was born and continues to preserve the mores of the past. Such a one is Donnie Camasachoirce, shepherd, crofter, tradition-bearer, dog-lover and Gaelic speaker. In the old Scots phrase, ‘Lang may his lum reek!’