We may not always realise it, but it’s surprising how often we’re following in the footsteps of General Wade or Thomas Telford when we travel around Scotland; particularly the further north we go. And though their roads were fairly basic, they were undoubtedly a great improvement on what went before, when the majority of people had no alternative but to walk and roads were virtually non-existent.
War, and then commerce, led to gradual infrastructure improvements in the 18th and early 19th centuries: initially under the military and General Wade, later Telford and the Highland Roads Commission. The stories of these two men and their achievements make for fascinating reading. Especially Thomas Telford, a Border Scot, who was the finest civil engineer of his day. This is at the heart of my article in June’s edition of iScot magazine.
However, humans have always been on the move and, from necessity, have found ways to get about. And so the article also looks at drove roads, drowned roads, and one type of old road that served a very particuler function: coffin roads. Though I have to say right away that they weren’t ‘roads’ in the sense we understand them, rather narrow tracks or paths.
The Stoneymollan Road is a former coffin road 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. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and such churches were often few and far between. This was often as a result of the rugged, mountainous landscape of much of Scotland’s west coast, where for many centuries travelling by boat was an easier option than attempting to traverse the Highlands on foot. Consequently many of these early Christian settlements were to be found close to water, established by those determined missionary monks (think Columba onwards!) who plied the sea roads of the west, sailing among the islands and up long sea lochs such as Loch Long and Loch Fyne. This left many rural settlements remote from a church and so people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. And the coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way!
Over time, numerous eerie superstitions 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!
The crumbling shell of Woodhall House
Today the old Stoneymollan Coffin Road is 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 hidden gates to Sleeping Beauty’s palace?
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 openness 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 to 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!