Morvern Lines – 24.3.22

the old stone pier below Lochaline Village, photographed in 1908 from the south-east. Photograph: Iain Thornber Collection

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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 Fiunary.
Eirich agus tiuginn O,
Eirich agus tiuginn O,
Eirich agus tiuginn O,
Is slan gu brath le Fionn Airidh.
(From the famous Gaelic song, Farewell to Fiunary, written by Reverend Norman MacLeod of Fiunary in 1808).

Loch Aline (Gaelic, Loch ath a’ linne – the loch of the ford of the pool), with its sheltered, deep water and good holding ground for anchoring, has been an important natural harbour for the Morvern Peninsula from time immemorial. Prehistoric man, ever in search of food and fertile land, came to Morvern by sea several thousand years ago and left behind stone circles and burial cairns which can be seen at Kinlochaline, Claggan and Acharn a little way above the loch.

The roving, sea-raiding Vikings, too, were active in and around the thickly wooded hillsides of Loch Aline and must have found it a perfect haven for building and beaching their long-ships during their long occupancy of the Western Highlands and Islands. Although they left Morvern more than 800 years ago, their influence still survives in many local place-names which are a combination of Gaelic and Old Norse. AROS, on the adjacent Island of Mull, is a Scandinavian word meaning an estuary (as in the city of Aarhus, Denmark), and in Morvern, ARDTORNISH, Promontory of Thor’s Headland, while ACHAFORSA (field of the waterfall) is another reminder that the area was once part of the Sea Kingdom of Norway.

Ardtornish Castle. Photograph: Iain Thornber

It was in Morvern that Somerled, a Hebridean warrior prince of Norwegian blood, and the founder of modern Scotland, proved himself an outstanding leader by defeating the Vikings in a fierce battle at the head of Glen Dubh near the Kingairloch crossroads on the way to Strontian.

Somerled’s Cave, Glensanda.

Near Glensanda on the shores of Loch Linnhe, there is a well-hidden cave where he and his father concealed themselves on arriving in Morvern from Ireland, which still bears his name. Small it may be but its significance in Scotland’s early history is not. His descendants created the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles and built the nearby Ardtornish Castle whose ruined 13th-century walls stand guard over the Sound of Mull and the entrance to Loch Aline.

The strength of the MacDonalds lay in their supremacy of the sea which they controlled by small, very manoeuvrable, vessels called nyvaigs – these were the first ships of the period to have stern rudders directly at the rear of the vessel. Somerled, having recognised the importance of ruling the waterways, kept them at anchor in Loch Aline in a state of constant readiness. According to a contemporary account, Donald, Lord of the Isles (1387-1423) mustered more than 800 of these ships in Loch Aline in preparation for the Battle of Harlaw, fought in 1411. What a magnificent sight they must have been heading south on the ebbing tide.

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 who, on a visit to the Island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe sometime during the 6th century, walked over the Morvern hills to the mouth of Loch Aline where he took a ferry to the other side before climbing to his chosen site.

In the little museum at Kiel there is a collection of finely carved medieval graveslabs 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.

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 to the silica sand mine which may be several hundred years old and was probably in use until the construction of the present stone pier.

This pier, originally known as the Relief Pier and now called the Lochaline Old Pier, was begun 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 wheatmeal) 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. Today there is a flourishing café on the old pier providing tasty meals and snacks for locals and visitors. The most popular item on the menu used to be a massive filled roll which a roving journalist jokingly referred to as ‘a heart attack in a bun!’

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 in emigrant ships bound for America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. With the area now dying for the want of affordable housing at sensible prices, coupled with a stubbornness by neighbouring landowners to make suitable land available, it is feared the resident population, already at its lowest level in centuries, will continue to decline and lead to the closure of the school, the doctor’s surgery and many other facilities necessary to keep community life thriving.

“Cuid chaidh thar cuan, cuid sa chill ud shuas
‘S cuid cha’n eil fhios caite”
(Some went across the ocean, some went to the graveyard, and where are the others? No one knows.)

One such village cleared of Gaelic speaking people in 1824 to make way for large-scale sheep farming, was INNIEMORE (Gaelic, Aoineadh Mor, the great steep) near Loch Arienas. Here the ruined walls of the old buildings have been carefully preserved and interpreted by the Forestry Commission who have provided a car park, interpretation boards and welcome visitors to this interesting site.

Unfortunately, although it provided much needed employment and was well placed, the Relief Pier dries out at low tide and so another was built to enable larger vessels to come alongside at any state of the tide.