Morvern Lines – 16.6.22

Mr Cameron Wilson and Mr William Mowatt, Lochaline, planting trees for the Forestry Commission at Barr above Loch Teacuis in the 1960s when it ceased to become a sheep farm. Photograph: Iain Thornber Collection.

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One of the most rewarding aspects of producing a regular column for the Oban Times, especially one based largely on local history, is the interesting correspondence it brings.

Hardly a week passes but I receive a letter, a telephone call or an email from someone somewhere around the world with Morvern connections and who is able to add to my knowledge or supply an old photograph or a tale or two: the following is a sample.
Mrs Jean MacAskill from Harris tells me that her family were MacDougalls from Glencripesdale on Loch Sunartside.

Her family first came to Morvern in the 1700s as tacksmen of Liddesdale and Achleek when they were part of the great Argyll Estates. But in 1826 when George, the sixth Duke, began selling his inheritance, they were forced to become shepherds to the new proprietors.

Mrs MacAskill and her family worked for the Newtons in Glencripesdale House. In these days there was a school in the glen but when it closed she had to take the old bridal-path over the shoulder of Ben Ghormaig to the school at Kinlochteacuis three miles away. Here she lodged with the school mistress, Miss Isa Mackenzie from Strontian, until Friday when she would make the return journey again on foot.

Education in these days, of course, was considered a privilege rather than the right it has become today. The MacDougalls were well known for their extensive knowledge of sheep and cattle, and some of their descendants are still living in Lochaber and Lorn.

Mr Alastair Cameron, Huntly, Aberdeenshire, came to Morvern in 1928 to live at Ardantiobairt (one of the earliest slated shepherd’s houses in Morvern), near the head of Loch Teacuis. He was born in 1921 at Guisachan on the south shores of Loch Shiel, where for years his forebears were tenants and employees of the Riddells of Sunart and Ardnamurchan. Alastair’s father was shepherd to the Urmstons of Glenmorvern and in charge of the sheep between Ardantiobairt and Barr which, before the Forestry Commission bought and planted it with Sitka spruce, was one of the best hirsels in Morvern.

Alistair, too, attended the school at Kinlochteacuis and could recall five other pupils walking to it from as far away as Barr and Doirnamairt. When they all left he told me with some amusement, that he enjoyed being ‘head boy’ for nine months!
Alastair, who died a few years ago, was one of that diminishing race of seanachies and storytellers who for generations had carried on the traditions of Highland Scotland and whose vigour of mind belied his age. I doubt if there is anyone alive now who could talk as knowledgeably as he could about the old days at Rahoy, Barr and Kinlochteacuis, and of the characters that lived there.

Andrew Macintyre, Fort William, was brought up at the head of Loch Aline and who – like the late Sir Andrew Hugh Smith, chairman of the London Stock Exchange – attended Claggan School before it closed its doors in the 1970s.
Andrew’s late father, Harry, who was employed on Ardtornish Estate, was a first-class piper and a well-known exponent of Pipe Major William Ross’s famous tune, Leaving Ardtornish, which is a variation on an older slow air called Loch Rannoch, composed by John Wilson.

Joining the army before the start of the Second World War, Harry was taught piping in Stirling Castle and later served with distinction as a regimental piper with the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. He took part in the Western Desert Campaign and was present at the Battle of El Alamein. He saw action in Crete, Abyssinia, Scilly and Italy and returned home Morvern’s most decorated soldier. Harry left behind a great knowledge of Ardtornish Estate when it was in its heyday and owned by Gerard Craig Sellar, grandson of Patrick Sellar of Highland Clearance infamy. Clearly the way of life in Morvern has changed out of all recognition. Gaelic has almost disappeared – except from the road signs and through the well-known work of singers Alastair and Riona Whyte, of Salen, Mull, who hailed originally from Morvern.

The late Mrs Annie Cameron, Bunavullin, Drimnin – crofter and well known Morvern character. Photographs the Tain Thornber collection.

The community spirit is less strong and there are fewer colourful personalities. In former times everyone lived directly on the produce of the land and were almost completely self-supporting, despite the fact that the population was higher than it is now; there was no lack of local beef, mutton and venison, with salmon and trout from the rivers and lochs; far more arable ground was under cultivation. Now practically all food comes from out with the peninsula – even the animals are more dependent on the outside world for hay and other winter food.

Highland cattle in loch doirenamart. Morvern is not so self-sufficient as it used to be, even for animal food. Photograph: Iain Thornber

One thing, however, hasn’t altered in the last 100 years and that is the Oban Times continues to be read and enjoyed in almost every home in Morvern.