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Remember man as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be, therefore prepare to follow me.
From an inscription on a Perthshire gravestone dated 1666.
If you are visiting a part of the country you have never been to before and want to know who was who, which trades were carried out in the area and much more, do not waste your time going to the Tourist Information Office or a museum, but find the nearest graveyard. There, simply by walking around looking at the monuments you will find the answers to these questions and many others because they are the Facebooks of the past.
A little known gem is Dail na Cille, near Kingairloch in the parish of Ardgour, Lochaber which, means the Field of the Church.
The earliest reference to a church at Kingairloch appears in a charter of 1509 when Kilbedane and other lands around Loch a’ Choire were granted by King James IV to Ewen, son of Hector Maclean of Kilmalieu for the services of 22 oared galley. The name Kilbedane comes from the Gaelic word meaning church and the personal name Mhaodain suggesting that the dedication was in honour of St Modan, an Irishman who was active along the Clyde in the 6th century. Although it is unlikely that the dedication dates back to that period, there is some evidence to suggest that a religious community may have existed here for hundreds of years.
In St Adomnan’s well known Life of St Columba – the first surviving Scottish book written more than 1,300 years ago – it is recorded that on one of his many journeys from Iona to the Scottish mainland, St Columba stayed at a place called Corie Salachan where he made a certain prophecy. Historians who have studied Adomnan’s book maintain this is An Coire, west of Kingairloch House. If correct then it is not too far-fetched to assume that because of the veneration in which this great saint was held, a place of worship was established in the 6th century at Kingairloch just across the water from St Moluag’s monastery on Lismore. Although the place-name Kilbedane has been replaced on modern maps by Dail na Cille, ‘the field of the church’, the importance of the site is preserved in the surrounding Allt na Cille (the burn of the church), Camus Dhail na Cille (the bay of the field of the church) and in the massive Beinn na Cille (the mountain of the church) which rises 2,511ft to the north.
Kilbedane, lying a few feet above sea-level, consists of a walled-enclosure surrounded by about 70 stones, cairns and boulders. Although there is no building to be seen above ground now, the east-west orientation of the enclosure and the concentration of graves at its east end suggest it may well overlie the original place of worship. Further evidence are the graves of the Maclean chiefs of Kilmalieu and Kingairloch who, as the oldest local family and principal heritors in the parish, would have claimed the time-honoured right of burial inside the church known in Gaelic as An Caibeal – in the chapel.
The earliest inscribed stone is a plain slate dated 1760 commemorating H. McL who was probably one of the Maclean bigwigs. Although these chieftains held their land ‘from the sky to the centre of the earth’ direct from the Crown, they had no delusions of grandeur when it came to death. The funeral feasting might have lasted for days – weeks even – but, alas, for future genealogists, they cared little for costly mortuary honours and were content to lie under plain slabs along with the humblest of their kin.
The stones are simple and without symbols and consist largely of Ballachulish slate, limestone from Lismore and local granite. Considering the age of the site it must be obvious, even to the casual visitor, that there are fewer inscribed stones than there were people living around the shore of the adjacent loch over the years. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it was only relatively well-off families who could afford to pay a mason to produce a headstone and, secondly, it was considered by many old Highlanders that to put a name on a grave marker would bring bad luck to the deceased’s family which is why in so many small graveyards burials are often marked by a few stones or a single boulder. A sentiment echoed in a Latin inscription on the gravestone of a 13th Franciscan, now in the Museum of Budapest, which translated reads: ‘Stranger do not seek my name but when thou pass say an Ave for my soul’.
Some of the stones: In memory of John Cameron, died 24 May 1883 aged 75. For fifty years a valued and faithful servant in the family of Charles H Forbes of Kingairloch. Also in memory of Catherine Rowan, also a servant in the same family. [John Cameron, born at Kingairloch, was the butler in the mansion-house. His wife Mary was born in Appin. Catherine Rowan, born in Kilbrandon, was unmarried.
Sacred to the memory of Sarah MacDonald, spouse [wife] to Allan Maclean, shepherd, Conach who died 12 January 1842 aged 64 years. Conach was the old name for the area of land stretching along the north side of Loch a Choire to the River Coinnich, including the site of the remains of the present Kingairloch House.
Sacred to the memory of Charles Henry Forbes of Kingairloch JP and DL of Argyll, Born July 23, 1803, died November 28, 1876. And of Charlotte, his wife, daughter of James and Lady Janet Buchanan, Caigend Castle, Stirlingshire. Died 2 August 1902 aged 81. Interred at Hove, Sussex. Charles H Forbes was the son of James Forbes of Hutton Hall, Essex who purchased Kingairloch Estate in 1800 from the trustees of Donald Maclean of Kingairloch who, according to family tradition,. was forced to sell his ancestral lands to pay off a £40,000 gambling debt incurred in the fashionable Almack’s Club, London.
The Forbes, who came from Aberdeenshire, owned the estate until 1881 when it passed to John Bell Sheriff, the grandson of a notable engineer who was trained by Boulton and Watt (the famous James Watt of steam and kettle fame). While they owned the estate, the Forbes’ enlarged the mansion house, built the present church at Camusnacroise, opened a granite quarry on the north shores of the loch employing 20 men and two boys and tastefully reconstructed and remodelled many of the estate cottages and farm buildings.
John Blacklock, late tenant Corry, died 17 March 1831, aged 37 years. Corry was the name given to an area of rich arable land lying at the head of Loch a’ Choire. It appears in the 1509 Maclean charter where it is described as a great pennyland. It was subsequently divided into two farms which became known as North and South Corry.
The latter is still called by its original name, while the other has become the Home Farm – a Low Country affectation introduced in the last century. Loch a’ Choire, from which Corry is derived, means the Loch of the Cauldron, alluding to the constant and extreme wind funnelling down from the corries above – well known to yachtsmen in search of would-be shelter.
To be continued next week.