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Issue 58 - By the Loch's Edge

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011


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By the Loch's Edge

John Hannavy explores the history and landscape around the loch.

What constitutes a Parliament?

According to folklore, at Ardchattan on the north shore of Loch Etive, King Robert I, Robert the Bruce, held the last Scottish Parliament to be conducted in Gaelic, but probably closer to the truth is that he called a Royal Council of local chieftains after he had taken nearby Dunstaffnage Castle in 1309.

On a summer’s day, the clear waters of Loch Etive can be as still as the proverbial millpond. A few small boats lie at anchor offshore, while the surrounding landscape is punctuated only infrequently by buildings – a farmhouse here, a church there, and beyond, magnificent distant mountains – amongst them the distinctive shape of Ben Cruachan – are bathed in that soft blue light which shines through the heat haze.

At its western end, Loch Etive meets the Firth of Lorne at the beautiful tidal Falls of Lora, crossed by the Connell Bridge built more than a century ago for the long-abandoned Connell to Ballachulish branch of the Callander & Oban Railway.

The falls only appear as the tide ebbs, and the level of the Firth of Lorne falls below that of the Loch, creating white water beneath the bridge, sometimes with whirlpools. As the tide rises, the falls disappear, and the waters of Loch Etive become calm once more. The rise and fall of the tides at this point can be more than four metres, and are rarely less than two.

Today’s motorists see only fragments of the loch as the A85 skirts its shore heading west towards Connell, or as they cross over the Connell Bridge north towards Benderloch on the A828. Nowadays, anyone wanting to get to the north side of the loch is restricted to the narrow road which winds around the first few miles of the north shore from Connell Bridge and through the tiny settlement of Black Crofts. That little road also leads to Ardchattan, about three-quarters of the way towards Inveresragan.

The venue for King Robert’s meeting with the clan chiefs was St Modan’s Priory at Ardchattan, home to a small group of Valliscaulian monks who colonised the remote site by the banks of Loch Etive around 1230, and tradition has it that the foundation caused some delight at the Scottish Court as it was an order of monks which had no connection whatsoever with England!

By the end of the 13th century, however, like so many others, Ardchattan’s prior had sworn allegiance to the English King Edward. Such was the English threat that even a remote priory 80 miles from Stirling felt the need to demonstrate its subservience!

The priory was established by Duncan McDougall of Lorne in 1230 or 1231, and foundations of the church were laid in 1236. Sadly little trace of it remains today apart from part of the choir, as, like many of the other priory buildings, its stone was used in the house with today occupies part of the site. That house was rebuilt after a fire – allegedly started by Cromwell’s troops stationed at nearby Dunstaffnage Castle – and extended in the 19th century.

Within the house, however, the monks’ refectory still survives, albeit now as two rooms, and it was in that chamber, it is claimed, that King Robert held his Royal Council in 1308 or 1309.

For much of Loch Etive’s 20-mile length, there is not a road in sight. Until 1966 there was a little car ferry running across the southern end of the loch at its narrowest point at Airds Bay, but that ceased operation 45 years ago, although the slipways still remain. That ferry could trace its origins back at least until the 16th century when it was used as part of the annual cattle drove from the western Highlands.

But it got a new lease of life in 1753 when the Lorn Furnace Company was established. Now, building an iron smelting works in this idyllic part of Scotland may see odd, but there was method in the apparent madness of its founders, Richard Ford & Company, also known as the Newland Company, of Barrow-in-Furness in present-day Cumbria.

18th century iron smelting required a prodigious amount of charcoal, which was hugely expensive to transport by either ship or road. Charcoal was bulky, so required large vessels. Thus transportation was a huge part of the manufacturing costs, making it, effectively, uneconomic to take the charcoal to the iron ore. So Richard Ford hit upon the simple idea of taking the iron ore – in this case Cumbrian haematite – to wherever there was a ready supply of coppiced wood from which to make the charcoal.

The Benderloch area fitted the bill nicely – easy to get to by sea from Barrow-in Furness, with vast acreages of birch and oak forests, plentiful cheap local labour and, just across Loch Etive by ferry, there was a green-field site upon which to build the ironworks. And so was established Bonawe Ironworks on the east side of Airds Bay just north of Taynuilt, around which grew a thriving little industrial community.

From 1753 until the end of 1875, ships laden with iron ore sailed regularly from Barrow into the loch itself. And given the massive tidal range across the entrance to the loch, quite large ships – in mid 18th-century terms – could make their way up to the quayside by the ironworks when the tide was high.

At the height of its operation, the works turned out more than two tons of pig-iron every working day, and gave employment to around 600 people – most of them in coppicing and charcoal-making in the surrounding woodlands.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Bonawe’s workforce even cast cannonballs for the British forces. So important was Bonawe, that a military road was laid to Taynuilt and on to the works as early as 1856. It took a further 20 years before such a road reached Oban!

As the economics of scale encouraged the development of ever-bigger ships, access to the loch became more difficult, and using smaller vessels was, simply, impractical. The works eventually closed down in early 1876 and the site was effectively abandoned.

And there it lay virtually unaltered, Scotland’s last charcoal-fuelled blast furnace, until it was taken into the care of the old Ministry of Works. Now in the custody of Historic Scotland – as is Ardchattan Priory – the site is open to visitors daily through the summer and autumn. The surviving buildings contain a fascinating exhibition of the history of one of Scotland’s most important survivals from the Industrial Revolution. There can be few, if any, industrial sites in such an improbable location, set as it is in the heart of some of Argyll’s most spectacular scenery.

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