Killundine – an old Highland estate

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Killundine Estate, lying between Lochaline and Drimnin on the southern shores of the Sound of Mull, was the subject of a recent attempted group buyout which failed because it did not get the backing of the local community.

The amount of media attention was interesting, probably as nothing like it had ever been tried in land-locked Morvern before and because the bidders assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that they could hardly fail in the current political climate.

Doubtless there will be more to come when the name of the new owners and their future plans for the estate are revealed. In the meantime what of Killundine’s history and the people who used to live there?

In his History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (Edinburgh 1929), William J Watson (1865-1948), Professor of Celtic Languages and one of the greatest Scottish scholars of the 20th century, tells us Killundine takes its name from a monastery established by Finten, one of St Columba’s followers.

St Adomnan (627-ca704), 9th abbot of Iona Abbey, wrote a book called the Life of St Columba in which he gives an account of St Columba healing a sick youth, Finten, by his prayers, and prophesying he would live to a good old age. Apparently Finten did fulfil the Saint’s prophecy and died, ‘after founding the monastery of Kailli-au-inde’.

The footings of an ancient church site and graveyard shown on old maps as ‘Cill Fhionntain’ can be seen near the mouth of the Killundine River. On the hill above are the remains of two burial cairns ascribed to the Bronze Age period. Both have been heavily robbed of stone for nearby walls; originally they would have held central stone coffins, or cists, containing clay urns of cremated human bones.

Down by the shore, but no longer belonging to the estate, are the remains of the 17th century Caisteal nan Con (Gaelic – Castle of the Dogs) which stands on an earlier prehistoric fort). According to local tradition the castle gained its name from the time when the Macleans sailed across from Aros to hunt deer on the Morvern hills and kennelled their noisy hounds overnight in or near the castle.

The ruined castle and fort came back to the Macleans not long ago but no howling has been heard since.

Although the estate has had many owners in its recorded history, it is no different in that respect to many other West Highland properties as family fortunes, litigation and government taxation took their toll.

The earliest were the MacDougalls, followed by the MacDonalds Lords of the Isles, who had the power of life and death over just about every living thing.

Then up popped the Campbells bringing a degree of sanity to a previously feud-torn countryside, to be beaten back by the Macleans of Duart who, although enjoying a fight, were marginally civilised for the time.

The Duke of Argyll sold out in 1821 to Donald Campbell, his sitting tenant, for £7,500 who promptly passed it to a Dr John Maclean from Mull whose trustees sold it in 1858 to Charles Cheape of St Andrews for double the price. It is interesting to see in the original deed of sale that the trustees were not to interfere with the woods on the estate indicating they must have been of considerable value even then.

The Cheapes hailed from the east coast of Scotland where their name was writ large and deep across the Kingdom of Fife. Later, when they bought land in Mull and Morvern, their reputation was good and popular farmers and landowners followed them.

Being enlightened agriculturalists they were most likely responsible for draining and improving the land and erecting the better quality houses and farm buildings which are in evidence at Killundine today.

There were 43 people occupying seven houses on the estate in 1779 and 41 living in six houses 62 years later – an unusual statistic for the time suggesting that unlike many other Morvern properties in the 19th century, there had been few if any evictions.

The Cheapes were also soldiers. Charles, who bought Killundine, was a colonel in the Bengal Army. There were two daughters: Ann Lilias married Sir John Morris who, on the death of his father-in-law in 1890, inherited Killundine and Rose who married another British officer attached to the Bengal Engineers.

The Cheapes, who established one of the first herds of pedigree Highland cattle in Argyll, held onto the estate until 1895 when it passed to the Morrises – some of whom are buried and commemorated in a small private cemetery close to the ancient church site near the mouth of the Killundine River.

It was Colonel Cheape and his wife who paid for the building of Ferenish Church between Killundine and Bunavullin near Drimnin in 1892. On the day it was opened, the Rev Dr Norman Macleod, a son of Rev John Macleod of Fiunary, known as ‘the High Priest’ on account of his great height, told the congregation ‘Colonel Cheape was a man who was not only deservedly respected but universally beloved in this parish. No one could have come in contact with him without appreciating his many good qualities of head and heart. A kinder friend or a better neighbour there could not be’.

Sir John Morris was the eldest son of Henry Morris of the Madras Civil Service. He and his wife Lilias had five sons and four daughters. Nearly all of the sons were in the Indian Civil Service. Sir John had a gift for languages and won a gold medal in Persian, Urdu and Hindi. He was the Assistant Commissioner, Magistrate and Collector in the Punjab where he was once nearly killed by mutineers. When he retired in 1883, he received the thanks of the Government of India and created Knight Commander of the Star of India. He enjoyed wonderful health and, despite being 85, was out on the hill at Killundine where he shot several brace of grouse a few weeks before his death on  September 14 1912.

Four days later, a large number of mourners gathered at Killundine House at 11am to pay their respects. The chief mourners were the widow and the only son, Mr Lawrence Morris, Mr Alexander Morris (brother), Major Richard O’Connor (nephew) and Dr Angus Miller, Morvern’s GP. After the short service, which was conducted by the Rev Kenneth Maclean, the coffin was carried shoulder high by men, most of whom had been employed on the estate since their youth, to the SS Princess Louise moored at the ‘Dripping Cave’.

According to an eye witness account it was a calm and cloudless day with the Sound looking like a sheet of silver as the remains were carried aboard the steamer specially chartered from Oban for the occasion. ‘It was a touching sight,’ remarked one mourner, ‘to see not only the men but also the women of Killundine standing sadly on the shore as the steamer moved away.’

To be continued next week.