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Issue 84 - Lochaber's Almost-Island

Scotland Magazine Issue 84
December 2015


This article is 2 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Lochaber's Almost-Island

Ben Williams explores Ardnamurchan

A map communicates nothing of the distances one must travel to reach the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula and very little of the drama. On paper the place is almost inconspicuous, a fat finger of land jutting in among the islands of Eigg, Rum and Muck which float in the Atlantic just to the north. Ardnamurchan is literally out on a limb, a long way from even the towns of Oban and Mallaig which serve as its nearest hubs.

The people of Ardnamurchan think of it as being an almost-island and it has something of the interiority of island places. But according to lighthouse man Davie Ferguson, whose family have resided on the island since coming from Eigg in the 17th Century, the people of the peninsula ‘have always welcomed migrants.’

You can see Eigg through the hazy sunshine, topped with a mountain shelf which ends abruptly with a sharp, inverted horn, from the lighthouse which Ferguson now manages on the westernmost point in the British Isles. Standing in the door of his office as the wind flies in off the sea, the robust Highlander, erudite and composed but with the fluttering eyelids of shy man, tells me:

“We’re at the end of a pretty rough road here and often people just want to stop in to use the toilet. But we also get the real fanatics. We had a visit from the Australian Lighthouse Society recently. When people like that come. I can sell a lot of things with wee lighthouses on them.”

The Point of Ardnamurchan has always been a draw to visitors because of its place at the edge of the map, but Ferguson is being modest about the success of a community initiative which now sees 20,000 people visit every year. The lighthouse was de-manned in 1988, and since then it has come a long way. The current visitor centre and coffee shop are a far cry from the ruined and unroofed buildings the community inherited, ‘with the windows missing and doors kicked in’.

Ferguson is also quick to point out the knock-on effect of these 20,000 visitors on the local economy and the area now boasts hotels, shops – and jobs. Ferguson might be fiercely local, being from the nearest village to the Point – Achosnich – but he is also a pragmatist who sees that ‘you need new blood in every community’.

In the 1980s many of the old buildings were sold as holiday homes; now, says Ferguson, there are more people living on Ardnamurchan all the year round, a change he attributes in part to the ‘new connectedness’ of the modern broadband age. Even so, “Some people have a romantic idea of what it’s like to live here and its only after 18 months or so that you begin to think they might be here for the long haul.”

Ferguson describes how previously the number in the local primary school had dipped below ten, and was struggling to maintain a single teacher. “Now there are two teachers in the primary school and we also have a high school in Strontian, so the kids don’t have to go off to boarding school in Fort William.”

A short drive inland away from the most westernmost point, is the picturesque village of Kilchoan, set prettily among the rare sea grass Zostera marina. The village is a jumble of hardy architectural styles.

Jackie, who owns a craft shop in the village, informs me that the peninsula’s children are all away today, “singing at the Royal National Mod”, a Gaelic cultural festival a short ferry ride away in Tobermory. Jackie is from Hampshire in England and still has the neat, brushed back hair of the Home Counties, albeit a touch more windswept. Having moved here 15 years ago, she runs a hippy-ish café and craft store with pictures and ceramics for sale, plus home made driftwood clocks and thermometer / barometers bordered in rope. The weather is clearly a preoccupying theme here. It is sunny outside but it is easy enough in this exposed place to imagine the weather turning. How does Jackie deal with the austere winter months? “It’s nice in a way because you can get busy with projects.” Then she clarifies her point, “It’s alright. You just have to get your head down and pretend it’s not happening.”

Jackie’s partner then makes a brief, smiling appearance before disappearing back into his workshop. Somehow the couple seem a little uncertain talking about life on Ardnamurchan. Jackie then explains how a journalist from the London Guardian once came to enquire about the relationship – and potential tensions – between ‘natives’ and ‘newcomers’; and how days later her partner found his opinions writ large across the pages of one of Britain’s pre-eminent broadsheet newspapers. “One lady in the village wouldn’t speak to us for a year,” says Jackie.

Another woman we interview in Kilchoan later emails me to request that I omit her name from any account, which begs the question: Why are some of the people on Ardnamurchan so nervous?

The sheer beauty of the place, the elemental mix of water, land and air at this northern latitude, views of which are today stirred together by a strong easterly wind, is something to be protected. Ardnamurchan is unspoiled in an ecological sense and unsullied by what one commentator has called ‘the hordes put off by midges and rain.’

A visit to the peninsula’s ring dyke, a spectacular volcanic formation perhaps two miles across, does much to confirm the wildness of the place. From the centre of this windswept crater you can see, through gaps in the high perimeter crags and a haze of moisture drawn up by the gales on this clear autumn day, as far as the striking Cuillin range of mountains 30 miles to the north on Skye.

In the middle of the ring, accessible only after a thirty minute walk through bracken-choked land, is the abandoned village of Glendrian. Census figures show the last inhabitants left Glendrian as late as the 1940s and the village still feels spookily lived-in. To visit the village is to hesitate before crossing the stone thresholds. To approach on foot is to approach the ruins of a closely built hamlet with houses huddled together, now un-roofed – the roof as much a sign of civilisation as the fireplace. Examples of the latter still exist with the crumbling houses as if a welcome might be rekindled at some point in the future.

Glendrian was likely abandoned due to its remoteness, but other settlements on the peninsula were cleared of people to make way for sheep – at the time considered an economic miracle – in the infamous Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries. On Ardnamurchan in 1828 alone, the townships of Coire-mhuilinn, Skinod, Buarblaig and Tornamona were all cleared. These evictions forced tenant farmers onto poorer land, or worse, to emigrate, which must have had a terrible and a long lasting effect on the tightly-knit communities of this peninsula. This is a place where, according to the woman who preferred me to omit her name said, “The culture is still of crofting and a lot of families have lived in their crofts for five or six generations. The memory of events such as The Clearances is really emotive still.”

With this in mind, it is also possible to understand Iain Thornber’s initial refusal to see me, but after a flurry of mutually affronted emails we finally agree to meet. Thornber cuts a dapper figure with a complexion which fades from a rich and weathered crimson during the course of our meeting in a Strontian café. He has been deer stalking and arrives in a black VW Polo with a half sandwich abandoned on the passenger seat and a small white terrier barking from a cage in the back.

Thornber is descended from the Campbells of Ardnamurchan whom, he tells me over a long and pleasant lunch, once owned the entire peninsula but drank their fortune away. His aristocratic perspective seems bred of a supremely well-travelled life and a host of esoteric interests only matched by an eccentric curriculum vitae. Thornber ran away from an English public school, lived for 25 years in Inverailort Castle, and has worked variously as a wildlife photographer, historian, Army Intelligence Officer, diarist, magistrate and obituarist.

Thornber is clear about what he sees as the reason for the Ardnamurchans’ hesitancy in speaking up, “It’s a Highland thing,” he says. “People just don’t want to get involved.” He has no such issue and suggests that local people have simply got used to not having a say in matters; they have become accustomed to not having a voice, a fact he believes goes back to the days of the landowners and estates, an essentially feudal structures where to speak out was to risk offending your laird and losing your home – or worse.

Like the visible foundations of the abandoned village, the remains of asymmetrical power arrangements, and historical injustices, maintain in the collective consciousness here, even to this day.

Chris Millar-Craig, for one, is determined to address this, and as Headteacher of Ardnamurchan High School is well placed to work directly from the centre of the community. From his office at the Strontian school, he describes how, “The villages have always had their own identities, but now the young people have this much wider Ardnamurchan identity.”

Today, this identity goes beyond crofting. Millar-Craig is keen to dispel an overly romantic notion of life on Ardnamurchan. “Not everybody is interested in the land,” he tells me. Millar-Craig lists fish farming, mining, tourism and new ‘remotely-held professions’ which build on the new super-fast broadband service – “there’s even a banker who works on the peninsula.”

Forging an Ardnamurchan identity is key to what Millar-Craig describes as “stemming the outflow of population” and creating an educational experience which helps residents feel more settled on their own land.

The Ardnamurchan landscape is full of hidden meanings only revealed by a knowledge of Gaelic. To rekindle this language, as Chris Millar-Craig endeavours to do, is to allow access to a history which is close to the surface, an invaluable compass in this least accessible of places.