Heritage–Balnagown–The Broch–Clachan

Heritage–Balnagown–The Broch–Clachan

27 March 2021

Important reminder: All dogs must be on leads, and remember to keep clear of all livestock, especially sheep and sheep with lambs and … please leave all gates as you find them. Thank you.

After several rainy days, we seized a morning of sunny spells for this interesting walk. From the Heritage Centre we took the road opposite through Killandrist, a place rich in ecclesiastical history, the name meaning St Andrew’s Chapel. Although the chapel is long gone, trained eyes, not mine, may be able to see where it had been some 1400 years ago. The abundant St Andrew’s Well is still visible as is the shell of Samuel MacColl’s school (Sgoil Shomhairle), a parish school that served the middle of the island in the 19th century, where one of Lismore’s most celebrated sons, Alexander Carmichael, was educated. As indeed were many others, less celebrated perhaps only because history’s celebrating is random and never neutral. How many ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ held slates here.

As we passed the barn and house, sheep and lambs were baaing loudly, as though expecting to be fed. In between the barn and the house—occupied until relatively recently—a large tree lay uprooted: Lismore’s outdoor art. We stepped off the road on the other side to see the much older St Andrew’s Well, now with reinforcing surrounds.

At the end of a steepish hill beside the loch is the gate to the mill, and very soon concrete steps on the left led to a boating shed belonging, I believe, to the Fells, who have been absentee landlords of a sizable chunk of the north of Lismore since 1866. It happened because Sir John Campbell of Airds needed cash, so sold what was called his Lismore lands to the Haig whisky magnates, and the Reverend Alexander Fell, son of Janet Haig, inherited. And to this day they are my neighbours, although they are yet to call.

At the end of the loch, after a very large ash tree and in sight of the mill house, we turned left, heading diagonally across a field to a bridge that crosses the mill race. We turned immediately right in front of the fence and up a sheep path with great views from the top.

We crossed a sturdy wooden stile, which was once a sheep hole H tells me, and continued north along the cliff looking down on the raised beach and hearing the alarm calls of courting Canada geese. Soon the broch came into view and we joined a track down to a flattish field crisscrossed with sheep tracks. We hugged the hill, as we were making for a sturdy stile between Balnagown and Tirfuir. Once over, we went left up the hill, the broch still ahead and the remains of runrigs visible, with Balure House away ahead on the left. Runrigs are often visible in the sun, remnants of the times in the 1800s when fertile Lismore was one of the granaries of the West Highlands, with every scrap of land sown to bere barley or oats. Around 1830 the population peaked at 1,500, and eighty years later, with sheep grazing everywhere, there were 400 and falling.

We were soon in front of a ruined settlement, almost in the shadow of the broch, and with a minimum of three, maybe four, houses where the people were cleared, not for personal gain, but by scarlet fever. The story is told that Balure farmers, knowing they were all ill, left food outside the settlement, until one day it was not taken away. Towards the end they had known there was only one young girl alive. And so they learnt that she too had succumbed. Their suffering is hard to imagine; pre-penicillin days offered no hope. The entrance to the abandoned houses is very wet, even on dry days, and the place very sad.

We left the way we came, and headed across a very wet field to a gate and towards the 2000-year-old Broch with information boards and, on a good day, views north to Ben Nevis, east to Ben Cruachan and south to the Paps of Jura. It is thought to have been inhabited during the Roman occupation, as shown by the discovery of an enamel brooch in the foundation layer, at least to the Middle ages. A decorative pin from the 8th century and a Norse pin and rivets, from the 11th or 12th century were also found.

In his book, Sgeul no Dhà às an Lios: A Tale or Two from Lismore, Donald Black says, ‘The broch at Tirfuir is evidence of the presence of the Picts on Lismore, and there are possibly two others, though ruined.’ We saw another on the Miller’s Port walk above Loch Fiart. This Broch is reasonably well preserved, with 15-feet-high walls and a visible internal passage, now barred to prevent sheep entering, which lies between ten-foot-thick walls. It is most important that visitors remember the age and the delicacy of this monument and treat it with care. Finding a plastic bottle in the inner broch tucked neatly under a stone was not a good moment. From the iron to the plastic age.

As part of the Lismore Landscape Project, Dr Ewan Campbell and colleagues from the Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow, excavated areas of the interior and surrounds of Tirfuir Broch in 2004-5. Read about this on the Comann Eachdraidh website and see what they unearthed. There is also lots of information about Scottish brochs on the Historic UK website.

We crossed to the gate and turned right onto the Balure road. At the next gate we turned sharp left and continued ahead, veering slightly north past a clump of trees and a field, keeping an electric pole on the right, then down onto a flat field. At the last pole before the gulley, we walked around the top of a horseshoe ledge with views down to Loch Balnagown. A little iron gate ahead had an Explore Appin and Lismore badge, and a little further ahead a white pole indicated a stile. We climbed up and ahead and were soon in a field looking at Bachuil house and a gate to the road.

We turned left towards the church with the medieval grave slabs and, in the opposite field, the Sanctuary Stone (Clach na h-Eala/idh), a refuge for fugitives fleeing from the Hill of Justice some miles away. If they reached the stone and circled it they were given sanctuary. It is a granite erratic which had mythic status in pre Christian times. The Hebridean Folklorist Otta Swire wrote: “anyone who claimed such sanctuary had his case considered by ‘the Elders.’ If they considered his plea justified, they ‘came out and walked sun-wise round the Swan Stone.’ If they did not approve of his right to sanctuary, they walked round it anti-clockwise and the man was then given over, not to his enemies, but ‘to Authority’ to be tried.”

The old manse, now a private house, was on our right, and the smithy opposite. Known locally as The Smiddy, this was a working site in the 1800s and until shire horses were no longer in need of the blacksmith’s services. These days the farrier comes from Oban for the non-working Lismore horses.

The last notable buildings on the left are the fire station with our new ambulance, and the telephone exchange, plus a cherry picker which may be being used to get up the pole and improve our broadband. We hope. The new signage at the museum is soon visible at quite a distance, mainly because of the bright Heritage Centre colours.

Our weather window lasted, and rain fell only at the end.

Enjoy your walk and remember to leave all gates as you find them.

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