Old Ways through the Glens: Stoneymollen Coffin Road

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 better that 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.

Stoneymollen Coffin Road

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 these churches were often few and far between. Many rural settlements were 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!

Stoneymollen Coffin Road

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!

Boo!

But watch out for any spirits that might just still be lingering along this old coffin road!

 

 

A bright start to the New Year by Loch Lomond’s Shores

The Maid of the Loch at Balloch with Ben Lomond behind

January 1st 2017 – New Year’s Day – the sun shone and skies were blue. So what better way to start the year than by heading north to Loch Lomond.  We parked at Lomond Shores then set off to walk along a short stretch of the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path. This section of the cycle route is also part of the John Muir Way and takes you onto the Old Luss Road.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine that the road alongside Loch Lomond wasn’t classified until the 1920s or that much of it followed the line of the 18th century Old Military Road. These military roads – built by General Wade and Major Caulfeild (sic) – linked the Central Lowlands with fortified army barracks in the Highlands; barracks which had been established to quell the Highland population after the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715. One of the best known of these today is the old road between Glen Kinglas and  Glen Croe, the Rest and Be Thankful.

“REST & BE THANKFUL: MILITARY ROAD REPd BY 93rd REGt 1768 TRANSFERRED TO COMMRs FOR H, R & C IN THE YEAR 1814”

In the early 19th century the Loch Lomond route was surveyed and improved by the renowned Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford. Telford, a poor shepherd’s son, was born in Dumfriesshire in 1757, yet became the most outstanding canal- and road-builder of his time.  His system of road-building involved several layers of stone, topped by cobbles, coupled with adequate drainage, all of which made for hard-wearing, long-lasting roads: labour-intensive, but not high-tech.

The decade after the First World War saw car ownership increase rapidly and the 1920 Road Act highlighted the poor state of Britain’s roads. Road classification was introduced and high unemployment levels after that terrible war meant there was a ready pool of labour available for a widespread programme of new road building. But, in many parts of Scotland, I doubt Thomas Telford would have seen a huge difference between his roads and those a century later in the 1930s! And it wasn’t until the 1980s that the modern, widened road we know today was built between Balloch Roundabout and Tarbet.

Fortunately for walkers and cyclists a number of stretches of the older road still exist and these follow the shore of the loch more closely that the new road does. So we undoubtedly get the best views! And we certainly saw plenty of cyclists making the most of the good weather.

The stone trough on the Old Luss Road

Here and there are indications of older times: an old stone horse trough, a gate to nowhere, an old lodge house and crumbling gates to former estate buildings. And on one side of the road stone walls and beech hedges have been left to their own devices and morphed into strange hybrid shapes along the roadside!

On our return to Lomond Shores we tucked into a hot and tasty lunch in the cafe high up in the Drumkinnon Tower, while enjoying the stunning views over the the loch, to the paddle steamer the Maid of the Loch and towards Ben Lomond.  The aquarium below was full of visitors, mostly families with children who were full of excitement at the array of aquatic creatures they had just seen: from the family of otters – Lily, Pickle and Cub – to tiny seahorses, sharks and the cartoon-like cow-nosed rays.

The mighty Drumkinnon Tower at Lomond Shores, which houses the aquarium and a cafe with stunning views over the loch

For us this was a gentle day out, but for the more adventurous – and fitter – there’s always the Tree Zone, an aerial adventure course. And if you want a really great way to discover the park area, then go for one of Scotland’s Wild’s active tours. There really are so many different ways to discover and enjoy this wonderful part of Scotland.

And that’s a good thought for a brand New Year!

Maid of the Loch

Sea Life Aquarium, Loch Lomond

Lomond Shores

Lomond and Trossachs National Park

Scotland’s Wild for active tours of the National Park area

Tree Zone Loch Lomond