The lost village of Port a’ Charrain

The lost village of Port a’ Charrain

25 January 2021

A flock of sheep are stock-still on the beach, heads raised, horns alert. A curlew, a blackbird, and a gull are busily rearranging the seaweed; they appear to be squabbling. Three oystercatchers are hurrying somewhere. A heron, like a predatory medieval cleric (can’t explain that metaphor I just like it), is looking on snootily from a large rock. It’s there most days. The seashore is always busy and movement catches my eye as I work.

Later the sheep take a break and sit together ruminating. Discussing ante-natal care. What will it be like during a pandemic. Some of them already know.

The afternoon sun is winter bright when we walk from the church through Balimackillichan towards Port Castle where Castle Coeffin is posing showily in full sun. The sheep are grazing on every level with one on the top. It’s ours now, they say. And they are right, to a point.

On this prominent site on the raised beach, the MacDougalls built Castle Coeffin in the 13th century. There is some evidence of earlier Iron Age activity and a well-told Norse legend is associated with the name (more in later blogs). Historic Scotland care for it and ask visitors not to climb it; its precarious state is a danger to the castle and the climber.

The raised beach south is mostly sodden but navigable and the view of the castle changes with every step.

We come up into Port a’ Charrain, and wander through its abandoned township which was, according to the 1841 census, home to 40 Liosaich. Ten years later there were 28 and by 1861, 16. More than half away in 20 years. But the dwellings remain, in ruins of course, the stones surviving as stones always will. I imagine the people cooking, fetching water, giving birth, tending to fires, to the land, to children. I can hear them singing, dancing, and then weeping as loved ones leave. It is thought to have been weavers’ village for the linen industry and lies beside Glac an Lìn—the field of flax. That field must have been a sight when the flax bloomed. They were surrounded by beauty anyway.

Flax was first grown in the 17th century and linen produced to industrial levels early in the 18th century. Government grants from early in 1707 encouraged it. Lismore had three flax mills, the most well-known at Balnagown.

Sloc a’ Mhuilinn is one kilometre to the west of Port a’ Charrain. The story of flax on Lismore is told in Bob Hay’s book, Lismore: The Great Garden; you can read an extract on the Comann Eachdraidh website. To quote Bob:

Lismore tenants and cottars in the 17th and 18th centuries living at subsistence level were effectively self-sufficient. They fed themselves from the land and the sea and clothed themselves from wool, flax and leather produced on the island.’

Lismore: The Great Garden, Robert Hay

Many of us would like to be able to do that now. I believe earlier Liosaich relied on bartering.

In 2007 the Museum Development Officers Catherine Gillies and Jennifer Baker decided to produce a flax crop in the museum grounds. The late Tony Baker sourced the seeds, in Belgium I believe, and Archie MacColl cast them in the traditional manner. In June, a large notice appeared asking visitors to ‘Keep off the Flax’. It was, after all, the first crop grown on the island for around two centuries. 

Taigh Iseabal Dhaidh with flax crop July 2007

In October a team of volunteers harvested the crop and Catriona White taught herself to ret, scutch and heckle it so that Freda Drysdale could spin and weave it. There were already fine examples of Lismore linen in the museum donated by founder Cathie Carmichael and the late Jessie Stewart.

We walk back through Clachan, passing the important medieval grave slabs that far-sighted islanders have rescued and restored. Here, medieval Liosaich are memorialised. No such option for those who left Port a’ Charrain.

Medieval grave slabs outside the Church

This interesting lost village is just a wander from the main road. Wherever you go on Lismore you are in the presence of many centuries of occupation, tradition, and activity. We are steeped in it and the variety is breathtaking. In the words of the late Donald Black:

Lismore is an island where each ruin, each knoll, carries some tale, some secret tradition unique to that spot.

Sgeul no Dhà às an Lios: A Tale or Two from Lismore, Dòmhnall MacIlleDhuibh

A highly recommended wander.

Important note: I always welcome comments and corrections and, while I try to get my facts as accurate as possible, Lismore’s story belongs to us all and the more we know, the better every ruin and knoll becomes.

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