Inchcailloch: “A part of the world and a world of its own”

“Nights and days came and passed, and summer and winter and the rain. And it was good to be a little Island. A part of the world and a world of its own, all surrounded by the bright blue sea.”
― Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Island

The Margaret at the landing stage on Inchcailloch with Conic Hill and the West Highland Way beyond

The Margaret at the landing stage on Inchcailloch with Conic Hill and the West Highland Way beyond

It’s little more than a ditty, but Margaret Brown’s poem sums up beautifully what it means to be an island: “A part of the world and a world of its own”. I suspect that also sums up the way many of us feel at times! An island offers that bit of distance, that apartness that we often need to slow down and deal with all that goes on in our busy, and all-too-often fraught, lives.

I’m exceptionally fortunate to live on the West Coast of Scotland and have islands all around. This week my son and I drove to Balmaha on the east bank of Loch Lomond, where we had lunch in the delightful Oak Tree Inn. We then took the little mail boat from Macfarlane’s Boatyard over to Inchcailloch. The ferry, the 1947 30′ long Margaret, plies back and forth throughout the day taking visitors to and from the jetty at North Bay on Inchcailloch. It’s only a few minutes sail away, but as soon as you step ashore realise that you’re in a different world.

Welcome to the island!

Welcome to the island!

Up the steep and twisting stone steps and then through the woods we went. Oak trees abound here, providing a rich habitat for animals and plants. Alders too, those water-loving trees that thrive in damp conditions and help fight erosion. Rowans, or Mountain Ash, are there in plenty as well. With their rich red berries they were believed to have magical properties for combatting evil and were often planted beside cottage doors to ward off malign spirits.

The sun shone through the trees and dappled the path in front of us. Our first stop was the old burial ground, where ‘saints and sinners’ alike lie buried. The island’s original Gaelic name is Innis Caillich, which means the Isle of the Old Women, or Cowled Women (ie nuns). This ties in with the tradition that St Kentigerna, the daughter of an Irish King, settled on the island and then established a nunnery here. She is believed to have died in 733 AD.

With such sacred associations the island became home to a 12th century chapel dedicated to St Kertigerna’s memory, with a later parish church and burial ground used by people living in the small scattered communites around the shores of Loch Lomond. Islands were often favoured spots for graveyards as they were safe from scavenging wolves and other wild animals that might be on the lookout for fresh bones! So far, the earliest gravestone discovered dates back to the 13th century.

Foxgloves

Digitalis or Foxgloves

Before there was a pier at the North Bay, boats beached on the shore below Ballach an Eoin, the Gaelic for Pass of the Birds. Almost everthing that arrived on the island, or was transported from it, came this way, and that included the coffins for burial in the graveyard. It’s not unusal to find Coffin Roads or Coffin Glens in Scotland, and this was one of them.

Over the centuries Inchcailloch was many things: a hunting ground for kings and queens, where deer could roam safely away from predators (other than human ones!): while for centuries there was farming on the island until the landowner ended agriculture in favour of the (for him) more profitable planting of oak trees, which became important as a rich source of timber and bark for tanning.

Today it’s a peaceful place, carefully managed by Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, there for both people and nature to enjoy.  And this little “world of its own” is just waiting for you to come and visit!

 Useful Links:

Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park

Balmaha Boatyard

Oak Tree Inn

Scotland’s Wild, Tours of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

 Camping on Inchcailloch

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