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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter V - Kerrera


"Delightful would it be to me to be (in Uchd Ailiun)
On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see
The face of the ocean.

. . . . .

That I might hear the thunder of the crowding waves upon the rocks;
That I might hear the roar by the side of the church of the surrounding sea."
[Song by St. Columba.—Skene's Ancient Alban.]

Loudoun.—To-day let us be idle. We need not go out immediately after breakfast. We shall stay a while, and look at the sun brightening the Morven hills, which were left to blacken under shade last night. We shall afterwards wander about the town, and see if there is anything to amuse us. I always meet some one here I know, just as I do at Charing Cross in London, where you are sure, some time or other, to find everybody that goes to London. This is a wonderfully well protected little bay, and is well named. The precipitous rocks near it, especially on the south, show the long continued washing of water that has taken away the lower part, and caused the upper to project so as to form a precipice. It is the sea that makes precipices by hewing continually from below.

I see that no efforts make this a great fishing station; it has turned out very different from the expectation. No efforts can make the fishermen go to the south shore, and clean their fish in sheds built for the purpose. But gentlemen have gone there to build fine houses, and the people have wondered that the place was so much admired. The Professor sits on the top of his precipice, and looks out on the northern hills, and delights in the squalls and the sunsets —both seen in such grandeur; and the artists come from many cities, and paint the small remains of the Castle of Dunolly, which are still a rich field of thought, of esthetic emotion, and of wonder. The hills near here are small, but they are numerous, and every one supplies a new scene, so that one may take a long time to learn all the walks; you soon learn them on a flat shore. Here every street is a study, and you need a separate study to know how to enter those on the hill.

Margaet.—Where is the parish church? Is that it?

Cameron.—It is so in reality, the parish having been separated from that of Kilmore, a lone but pretty place over at Lochnell, which we shall see. That was the more important spot, and probably many people dwelt there; at least many were buried there. Nobody great has of late lived permanently in the little bay itself, which was probably only a piece of Macdougall's grounds.

Loudoun.-I think I can tell you where some of the people who were near this lived; but, first, let us call a boat, and we may tell the boatman to be ready for us at four o'clock. At present we may take a little walk along the Dunolly Road—a very pretty road ; then let us look at the water of the bay. I fear it is becoming very dirty, and people are throwing rubbish into it. I hope no sewage will ever be allowed to enter; the bay is far too small for that; there is not a sufficient sweep of the current, and the tide is not enough for the purification required. Oban must think of this in time. It may waken up some day, and find the bay putrid, and all the people deserting it. These things come suddenly to men's sight and not the sight only, and one wonders why they do not come gradually.

Margaet.—Now I am tired.

Loudoun.—Yes; a little ramble tires us to-day, and we shall have a very early dinner which we need not call luncheon, and we may lounge or sleep a little after it.

After all, we are down by four o'clock.

Let us row across to Kerrera, to the northern bank. Now this was the populated portion of the shores here, and I do not doubt that the island was of some importance. There is a little flat portion, on which is a burying ground, called Cleigh Bhearnaig or Cleigh na Bhearn, the burying place of the gap or notch. And one sees a peculiar cleft in the little hill there, as if a hatchet had cut it open. We do not imagine this to have been merely a place for burying in, as we see clearly the remains of the houses; at any rate I know of no such burying places among the people here. These are evidently oblong dwellings, and the collection of dwellings is surrounded by a wall. More than this, at the extreme north there is a very solid projecting building which gives the idea of a watch tower, and just on the point where such a thing would be useful. We have, in fact, a very great curiosity here, a little walled city in ruins, and here it lies beside Oban and no one cares. It has the name of a burying ground. I believe some people have been buried in it, as a collection of stones in the south-west suggests a grave, and this suggests again great antiquity for the time of the living, since the name of "burying-place" is old, and of the people there is no record. The style is very much like that of an ecclesiastical small town, such as Dr. Petrie mentions as having existed in Ireland, formed by a number of small buildings surrounded by a wall too small for a fort. But I know of no church or cell. That may be destroyed so much that it cannot be distinguished from a house.

Margaet.—Rut a watch tower—that looks like fighting.

Loudoun.—It may also have been a round tower, which is quite proved to be an ecclesiastical structure; and monks, poor fellows, needed watch towers as well as less holy men in these islands.

There seems to have been no church in it in the time of Columba, and he was of the sixth century. There is a story in his life of twelve vessels going to the mouth of the river Sale (Sell), in Lorn, [See Dr. Reeves' notes in St. Columbds Life, and the life itself, cap. 46.] to bring wood to Iona to repair the monastery. On returning they were rowing to the west when a westerly wind rose which made them run to Airthrago for shelter. The rowers said, "Does this please thee, O saint?" for they were unfortunately detained, when immediately the wind changed, at the desire, as we are led to believe, of St. Columba, and they raised the sails in the form of a cross, and so got the same day to Iona "rejoicing in their cargo of wood." That island Mr. Skenc thinks to be Kerrera, and it suits the account very well. One fancies that they would have called there in the storm had there been a station. It would seem that Columba himself had gone with the monks for wood. I dare say the Castle of Gylen was not there, the present one certainly not, or it would have contained a very fierce occupant one would think. On a stormy day it looks as wild as the rock around, and I cannot believe that the island looked so when this building rose. Indeed, these trees from the Seil district tell a wondrous tale, and we neglect the country by not growing them still. One of the Macdougalls built the present tower of Gylen on Kerrera.

But the island suggested no homely ideas to these men of Iona in the twelve boats, although the name was Scotic, and Dalriads had apparently occupied it. We may, however, suppose that Columba was in a hurry to get home with the wood. Mull, then, must as now have been free from wood opposite Iona; and how could the smooth rounded granite of the Ross of Mull ever bear it? whilst to go to the north was as difficult as to go to Seil in some winds, and to go to the centre of the island would involve a species of carriage rare and difficult, and without good roads impossible. The sea carriage was at the command of the monks.

If we go to a later period, namely to the time of AIexander II., we find that Kerrera offered more accommodation than the Oban side. It certainly has been denied that Alexander II. ever intended to subdue the western isles, with what reason it is hard to say. There is a spot called Ach an Righ, the king's field, and we may as well run to it to-day as we are lazy, and the fine but rather irregular walks of Kerrera may not attract us. We shall pass the old coaly hulk that always lies opposite Oban and keeps stores for the service of the coast guards, fishing boats, and lighthouse surveyors: and then by no great rowing we shall conic to a sloping field of corn, with a quiet farmhouse above it. On some part of this ground the king is said to have died.

Some deny that Alexander died here, because he is said to have dreamed a wonderful dream which prevented him coming; others prefer to say that if he did not die here there is no proof that he ever was here; to some the dream is rather a proof that he was in the district, and if it was wonderful it was so much the more like a dream. Some people are afraid of the wonderful, and so learn little of nature which is full of it. They are afraid of anything that cannot be proved by experiment, and so they narrow their minds very much. The dream merely was that St. Olave, St. Magnus, and St. Columba appeared to the king, the first in kingly robes, stern, middling in size, and ruddy of countenance; the second, slender, active, engaging and majestic; the third, largest of all, his features disturbed and unsightly. This latter told Alexander to go home and not to subdue the islands.

The dream is a most natural one, and if these three persons would have been unfriendly had they met on earth, there could be no idea of their fighting in heaven, and we cannot expect Alexander to have thought of them other than as saints. His conscience might well conjure Columba up and the Scandinavian kings also. The combination is natural, all being opposed to the new interfering dynasty from the cast of Scotland.

I hope now you will think well of Kerrera. What a magnificent breakwater to Oban! Plymouth would be proud of it, yes, and any town on a great and stormy shore. Even the great volcanic wave that broke on Iquique and washed away so much of that and of other Peruvian towns, could not, with its sixty feet of height, wash over Kerrera. It has not the sun of Carrara, neither has it the marble, but it has better grass and sheep, and it has a wonderful variety of hill and dale, if these are small.

Cameron.—Let us go home when the tide is flowing in towards Oban. The steamer has long ago given out its passengers; they will have had time to eat, and will soon come out for an evening walk. Oban will be gay then, but if none of our friends are there, we shall go above the bowling green, as a mode of enjoying that oft-repeated glory, the sun over the hills of Morven.


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