Morvern hillsLochaline JettyLoch Aline and Lochaline

MORVERN

LOCH ALINE (Gaelic, Loch ath a’ linne  ‘the loch of the ford of the pool’) with its sheltered, deep water and good holding ground for anchoring, has been an important natural harbour for the Morvern Peninsula from time immemorial. Prehistoric man, ever in search of food and fertile land, came to Morvern by sea several thousand years ago and left behind stone circles and burial cairns which can be seen at Kinlochaline, Claggan and Acharn a little way above the Loch.

The roving, sea-raiding Vikings too were active in and around the thickly wooded hillsides of Loch Aline and must have found it a perfect haven for building and beaching their long-ships during their long occupancy of the Western Highlands and Islands. Although they left Morvern over eight hundred years ago their influence still survives in many local place-names which are a combination of Gaelic and Old Norse. AROS on the adjacent Island of Mull is a Scandinavian word meaning ‘an estuary’, as in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, and in Morvern, ARDTORNISH, ‘Promontory of Thor’s Headland’ and ACHAFORSA ‘field of the waterfall’ are also a reminder that this area was once part of the Sea Kingdom of Norway.

It was in Morvern that Somerled, a Hebridean warrior prince, proved himself an outstanding leader by defeating the Vikings in a fierce battle at the head of Glen Geall on the way to Strontian.  His descendants created the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles and built the nearby Ardtornish Castle whose ruined 13th century walls still stand guard over the Sound of Mull and the entrance to Loch Aline.  The strength of the MacDonalds lay in their supremacy of the sea, which they controlled by small galleys, called birlinns, that were faster than any other vessels of the time and kept at anchor in Loch Aline in a state of constant readiness.  According to a contemporary account, Donald, Lord of the Isles (1387-1423) mustered over 800 of these birlinns in Loch Aline in preparation for the Battle of Harlaw, which was fought in 1411.

The Lords of the Isles, when they were not indulging in acts of piracy, established religious foundations on Iona and elsewhere throughout their vast territories including one at Lochaline. Tradition has it that the church of Cill Choluimchille  (Gaelic ‘the cell of Colm of the churches’ – now known as Kiel) was established by St Columba who, on a visit to the Island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe sometime during the 6th century, walked over the Morvern hills to the mouth of Loch Aline where he took a ferry to the other side before climbing to his chosen site.

In the little museum at Kiel half a mile above Lochaline Village there is a collection of finely carved medieval graveslabs and free-standing crosses decorated with swords, warriors, churchmen and high-prowed birlinns - the favourite motifs of the Lords of the Isles who commissioned them.

Beside the Mull ferry terminal and Morvern’s well known snack bar, there is a large stone pier. This was known locally as the ‘Relief Pier’ and now called the ‘Lochaline Old Pier’. It was begun in 1843 by John Sinclair, a local landowner who founded the Village of Lochaline.  It was financed by The Highland Relief Board to provide work for thirty-one Morvern families who were victims of the Potato Famine and the infamous Highland Clearances. The men, women and children who built it received food (oat and wheatmeal) instead of money. The general allowance for a man was one-shilling (5p) worth of meal each day but quantity allowances varied. In some instances a man was given 14lbs of meal a week and others 10lbs.  The allowances for women were 5lbs per week and children according to their age. 

At the time of its construction there were more than 1,500 people living in numerous villages scattered throughout the Morvern Peninsula. In the years that followed over half of that number left this pier in emigrant ships bound for America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Cuid chaidh thar cuan, cuid sa chill ud shuas

‘S cuid cha’n eil fhios caite”

(Gaelic)

(Some went across the ocean, some went to the graveyard, and where are the others? No one knows.)

One such village cleared of Gaelic speaking people in 1824 to make way for large scale sheep farming was INNIEMORE (Gaelic, Aoineadh Mor, ‘the great steep promontory) near Loch Arienas. (Off the A884) Here the ruined walls of the old buildings are being carefully preserved and interpreted by the Forestry Commission who welcome visitors to this interesting site.

Lochaline is world famous for its white silica sand which is mined and exported all over the UK for making high grade glass. The mine, which employs a dozen or so people, is a major contributor to the local economy. During the war sand from Lochaline was used by the military in the manufacturing of bomb sights and submarine periscopes. When the Island of St Kilda was evacuated in 1930 many islanders came to live and work in Morvern.

….. All ends in sea:

No valley so hazed with green, but the sea

Runs its salt tongue inland, abrading

Rock and face to a harsh sweetness

That is nowhere else. More durable

Than a child’s summer, here the salt earth holds

Its yellow daffodils like flags for the heart

And the Sound lies like a sword between

Mull and Morvern –

Sword of Tristan and Isolde,

Familiar as a forgotten childhood,

And secret as love….

(Lines from the ‘The Sea’s Country’ by Morvern Cameron.)

IAIN THORNBER