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Issue 27 - Lismore's long history

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 27
June 2006


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Lismore's long history

In the latest in his series on lesser known islands, John Hannavy visits Lismore

My first sight of the island of Lismore was from Duart Castle on Mull in early summer 1991 – a blue grey pencil of land just visible in the distance, and lying quietly beneath a spectacular low rainbow on Loch Linnhe.

Less than a week later, back in Oban, my young son and I were boarding the little Caledonian MacBrayne ferry MV Eigg for the hour’s journey to the island. A total complement of two cars and about six passengers were on board as the ferry set sail, all bound for an island which is dotted with the remains of a thousand years of Hebridean history – a landscape strewn with the ruins of a broch and two ancient castles, and with a tiny parish church which was once a cathedral.

On that first visit, staying in the island’s only bed and breakfast – the former manse next door to the little church – we found ourselves in great company, including a popular writer, and the well known Scottish artist Tom Shanks – the three of us all using different media to capture the essence of the place.

The streetlights went out long before midnight, and my son, then eight years of age, experienced real darkness for the first time. As for myself? Sitting in the late night silence of the guest house garden, a whisky in one hand and a cigar in the other, gazing up at the stars – now that’s a rare privilege.

Fifteen years later, it is still MV Eigg which carries passengers to Lismore, although CalMac apparently has plans to build a new ship in the future.

The manse is no longer a guesthouse, but there are now two others – Achinduin, and the Old Schoolhouse, and a growing number of self-catering lets available to today’s tourists. Little else has changed!

There are two ways of sailing to Lismore – the shorter being a passenger-only ferry from Port Appin, across the northern end of the Linn of Lorn, to Port Ramsay at the northern end of the island.

Our longer journey from Oban brought us to Ardnacroish on Lismore’s east coast, and after negotiating the slipway, it was only a few minutes’ drive past Loch Baile a’Ghobhainn to the hamlet of Clachan where the small whitewashed Parish Church is all that remains of the medieval Cathedral of the Isles.

From the outside, the little building looks like a thousand other Scottish village churches, and only the harled and whitewashed filled-in site of an ancient doorway suggests that the church might be more than it seems.

What seems so obviously 18th century from a distance is, in fact, 500 years older.

Inside, the history becomes more apparent, for surviving in all its splendour set into the 14th century south wall is the medieval Bishop’s seat, or ‘sedilia’, – uncovered during a restoration only 50 years ago.

From Clachan, about half an hour’s walk north westwards brings the visitor to the western shore where, on a tiny promontory almost surrounded by water, the bleak remains of the 13th century Castle Coeffin, stronghold of the MacDougalls of Lorn.

There is much more still standing at Coeffin than at Lismore’s other castle – the Clan Livingston stronghold of Achandun, also on the west coast, but eight miles south opposite the small island of Bernera. Ahalf mile walk from the hamlet of Achandun brings the visitor to a few half-collapsed sections of wall – all that remains of what was once the 13th century fortified home of the local bishop.

On the east coast, however, almost opposite Castle Coeffin, the remains of Tirefour Broch recall an even earlier period of the island’s history. The broch-building period of Scottish history was 2,000 years ago, and then circular fortified towers – which when complete would have had the appearance of dry-stone-built cooling towers – were truly massive structures.

Tirefour remains to a height of about nine feet in places, a mere fraction of what it would once have been.

With a diameter of about 40 feet, and a height approaching twice that, internal staircases within the thickness of the walls would have given safe refuge on several floors to a considerable number of people.

Today Lismore’s landscape is home to fewer than 200 people, and many times that number of sheep. The rolling landscape is punctuated by several beautiful small lochs and the coastline offers some wonderful walks with views of the Scottish mainland with Morvern to the west and north, and Bernderloch and Appin to the east.

Lismore’s greatest appeal is that it is never busy and never crowded. It is an island which still very much exudes an island way of life.

It is a very special place.

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