Once upon a time there were old tracks the length and breadth of Scotland. Before the advent of trains, buses and cars, the majority of people had no alternative but to walk. Tracks went up hill and down dale, often taking the most direct route possible from one place to another. However, over the years many of these old tracks have disappeared; become overgrown, built over, ploughed up, forgotten. But a few still exist, and have been incorporated into the growing number of newly-created walks and trails.
One of these is the Stoneymollan Road, an old track that runs from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. It may seem strange to us today, but this route was once an old coffin road. Why such a curious name? The answer to that goes back centuries. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and these churches were often few and far between. Rural settlements were scattered and often remote from a church. As the population grew and spread, new settlements appeared, and people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. And the coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way!
The tracks became known as coffin roads, though there were many other names too: corpse roads, funeral roads, lych-ways, burial roads, coffin lines, bier roads, church-ways and more. These coffin roads were often long and across difficult terrain. Imagine having to undertake the journey in the snow, or torrential rain!
Over time, numerous eerie superstitions, some very ancient, others newer, became attached to these old tracks: the coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home; the coffin bearers must not step off the path onto neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns; you could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad! Spooky!!
However, as communities grew more churches were built and the need for these coffin roads declined and finally died out altogether. So instead of being a route for coffin bearers, the old Stoneymollan Coffin Road is now part of both the Three Lochs Way and the John Muir Way and links Loch Lomondside with the Firth of Clyde (and vice-versa). And the people you’re most likely to meet today will be walkers, joggers and even cyclists!
Setting off from Balloch we noticed the crumbling remains of Woodhall House, with an array of rusty iron gates, nearly invisible under shrubs and trees: almost like the hedge of thorns that grew up around Sleeping Beauty. This area used to be full of such grand houses even though the settlement at Balloch itself was small. But Balloch had its pier and boats regularly plied the waters of Loch Lomond. Later came the railway, which for many years ran right up to the pier, until that spur was closed in 1986.
The track goes upwards and the higher the track, especially atop Stoneymollan Muir, the better the views back over Loch Lomond. When you reach the highest point a spectacular panorama opens up westwards, over towards Cowal and, if you’re lucky with the weather, sometimes even as far as Arran. There is a tremendous sense of space and openess on this track: a real sense of freedom.
Then it’s downhill all the way to St Mahew’s Chapel in Kirkton. This lovely old building was restored in the 1950s, but it’s history goes back to at least 1467, and it’s possible that there may have been a Christian missionary building on this site from the early sixth century onwards. For almost two centuries the building served as a school prior to its restoration, but the site was one that had long been held sacred, and is so again today.
When you come Cardross at the end of the walk you can take the bus or train back into Glasgow. While if you walk the route from Cardross to Balloch (ie west to east and sometimes easier in the prevailing westerly wind), you can likewise take the bus or train from Balloch back into town: but don’t forget to check the timetables. Alternatively get a friend to pick you up from whichever end you arrive at!
But watch out for any spirits that might just still be lingering along this old coffin road!