Aoineadh Mor – Morvern’s past re-examined

“An latha dh’fhàg sinn an t-Aoineadh-mòr shaoil mi gun sgàineadh mo chridhe” (The day we left Aoineadh Mòr I thought my heart would break) – Mary Cameron

Aoineadh Mor, Morvern

It’s strange the things you remember from the past. At my first Scottish History tutorial at Edinburgh University many years ago, our tutor told us that much of history is myth, and that he wanted to start our course with some ‘myth-busting’.  Firstly, he said, the Vikings didn’t go around in horned helmets – certainly not into battle – and secondly, the Highland Clearances were purely economic, had to happen and were not that bad really.

That the Vikings wore horned helmets for ceremonial purposes only made sense – but forcing people from their homes and claiming “it wasn’t that bad really” was another matter altogether. And not one we could accept. While it’s true that economic migration from the Highlands was already taking place – and taking place across all of Europe – the brutal evictions faced by so many native Highlanders tell a very different story indeed.

The still waters of Loch Arienas, close to Aoineadh Mor

Fortunately attitudes to the study of history have changed. The previous approach of kings, queens and dates of battles – the history many of us grew up with – has all but gone.  Sources and events have been re-assessed and a new, refreshing, and more honest emphasis placed on the lives of all.  And it makes history so much more interesting!

No-one can deny that the Highland Clearances are a particularly grim part of our nation’s history.  As large estates passed from hand to hand the new owners – from both Scotland and England – gave scarcely a thought to the people who lived on and worked the land: these people were invisible or regarded as being in the way, worthless.

Ruined house by the Allt an Aoineadh Mhoir burn

One clear and unequivocal example of the inhumanity of that period can be seen in the deserted township in Aoineadh Mòr in Morvern.  In 1824 the land was purchased by a wealthy Edinburgh woman, who promptly had the whole village evicted to make way for sheep.  Home to more than fifteen families, it had 22 houses and outbuildings, run-rigs for growing crops, grazing for cattle, kail-yards, corn-drying kilns and winnowing barns. A young woman, Mary Cameron, with her baby and two other small children, was among those forced from their homes, her husband James carrying his aged mother up the steep path from the glen.  As they looked back, the destruction of their homes was already taking place.

With nowhere else to go they had to make their way to Glasgow and hope for work along with thousands of other dispossessed people.  It was a cruel time of low wages, appalling housing and disease. With help from their minister, James did eventually find work, but both he and their eldest son Donald fell prey to the ‘infectious fever’ so prevalent in the overcrowded and insanitary city, and young Donald died. Mary later told her story to Rev Norman MacLeod, one of the MacLeods of Fiunary in Morvern, thus giving us a first-hand account of the tragic fate of this community.

Lichen – a sign of pure, clean air

Today the Forestry Commission are responsible for Aoineadh Mòr and its beautiful setting close to Loch Arienas. Lichen abounds, an indication of the pure clean air in the glen.  There is a car park and well-marked paths to the former township. The signage includes illustrations of how the settlement would have looked when full of life. It also gives explanations, and helpful pronunciations, of the Gaelic words associated with Aoineadh Mòr.  But be warned! Cleared forestry areas are seldom pleasant places – often more closely resembling WW1 battlefields than anything else! – and even reaching the picnic bench on the other side of the burn was a challenge!

Do we learn from history, from the mistakes and cruelties of the past? I hope so. Change is in the air with the new Land Reform bill proposed by the Scottish Government, and backed by the great majority of people in Scotland.  It’s also worth noting that there are individual landowners already taking innovative steps towards redressing housing problems in the Highlands e.g. the new settlement at Achabeag on the Ardtornish Estate. Wise and fair use of our land is to be welcomed by all.

Aoineadh Mòr – Forestry Commission Scotland

Land Reform Bill

Achabeag

Ardtornish Estate

Take to the hills – the Rahoy Hills in Morvern!

The entrance to the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Ardtornish Estate reserve in the Rahoy Hills in Morvern

The ferry ride from Corran to Ardgour lasts only a matter of minutes. But those few minutes take you to the rugged and little-known Morvern Peninsula in south-west Lochaber on the dramatic west coast of Scotland. The name Morvern comes from the Gaelic A’Mhorbhairne, meaning the Sea-Gap. Head due west and you’ll reach Ardnamurchan, regarded as the most westerly point of the British mainland. Head south from Ardgour and you come to Morvern.

On a first visit to somewhere new it’s not alway seasy to know where to begin. Checking the map we thought the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve in the Rahoy Hills might be worth a visit. And we weren’t wrong. Leaving the car at the small and rough Black Water car park on the Ardtornish Estate, we set out for Loch Arienas. This unusual sounding name derives from the Gaelic for Angus’ Shieling, or summer pasture. The natural beauty of the loch and the surrounding area were immediately clear to see.

Loch Arienas

Rich in plant- and wildlife, the track through the woods wends its way up and down and roundabout, sometimes boggy, sometimes narrow and twisty, but all the while giving splendid views onto the loch and its unusual sandy beaches. It’s also thanks to Morvern’s geology that the soil here is home to so many rare plants.

This reserve is particularly important as it contains rare surviving remnants of the historic native Atlantic oakwoods, once found along much of the Atlantic seaboard all the way from Norway to Portugal. Established in 1975 the Rahoy Hills Reserve is not only an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), but parts of it, as here at Loch Arienas, have been given extra protection as Special Areas of Conservation. And with good reason.

The bridge over the Arienas Burn

By allowing the trees to self-seed, a genuinely natural regeneration of the woodland is taking place and with that comes the accompanying natural growth of habitats for many other flora and fauna. A variety of native Scottish trees, such as hazel, ash, rowan and birch, intermingle with the oak, and under and around them an array of mosses, pure-air-loving lichen, ferns and the primitive – and often rather damp, slimy and strange looking! – liverworts are much in evidence. Add to this primroses, violets, bluebells and other small and delicate spring flora with their lovely yellow, blue, pink and lilac colours, and the setting is perfect.

Some of the ruins of Arienas village

But there is more here. Beautiful as the scenery may be and rich the flora and fauna, the glen has another story to tell. Like so many parts of Scotland the land seems empty now – empty of people that is. Yet like so many places in Scotland this glen was once home to many families. Continuing along the track we came to Arienas Point and the remains of the deserted township of Arienas.

This former settlement of seven houses, barns and a corn-drying kiln was built around 1755, but its inhabitants were ‘cleared’ in the 19th century to make way for sheep. These sad reminders of past lives aren’t the only indications of previous human habitation in this lovely glen. Archaeologically rich Bronze and Iron Age sites also lie nearby. Evidence that this has long been a place where people could, and did, live and call home.

Cairn memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes

We also came across a cairn-memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes, best-known now for the British Naturalists’ Association Guide to Mountain and Moorland. Perhaps it was a special place to him. It was without doubt a special place to many in the past and is here for us all today thanks to the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Ardtornish Estate.