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Netherlorn and its Neighbourhood
Chapter IV - The Slate Islands: Luing, Torsa, Shuna

"It is a region as utterly unknown beyond its immediate boundaries as
if it had never existed: yet I know of no tract among the Western
Islands which, when properly attempted, is more easy of access and which
will better repay the labours of those who make tours of mere curiosity,
or who are in the pursuit of picturesque beauty. ... But it is alike unknown
and unexpected; and for the usual reason--that every one goes where every
one has been before, and nowhere else."óDr. MacCulloch, Western Isles,
vol. ii. p. 107.

From the higher hills above Cuan Sound a characteristic view is obtained. Below, the receding tide races in its course southwards, but splitting against the shores of Torsa Island, the larger portion is seen sweeping round by the north to join the stream from Clachan Strait, while the smaller branch, passing as a brawling rapid through the narrow channel which separates Luing from Torsa, pours its waters into the main stream two miles further down.

After a placid course of four miles the stream, thus augmented, reinforces off the south end of Luing the great tidal rivers which ebb through the Gulf of Coirebhreacain and the Sound of Luing, to form in their passage southwards the wide expanse of the Sound of Jura.

The speed of the currents in the lateral or tributary narrow passages varies from 4 to 8 1/2 knots an hour; and while in all there is generally an eddy flowing in the contrary direction along the shore, the devious manner and force in which the afferent waters strike the main stream, and the presence of numerous intercepting reefs, skerries, and shoals, produce a perplexing maze of subsidiary currents and eddies which completely baffles the uninitiated, but which the intimate knowledge of the local boatmen makes use of to navigate these waters in safety at all states of the tide and with comparative ease. MacCulloch, who seldom missed an opportunity of gibing Highlanders, their customs and their manners, in speaking of the ordinary Highland boatman, says that nine times out of ten he is neither a boatman nor a seaman, but a bear in a boat, a landsman at sea; that being naturally and essentially a farmer, he is only a boatman by chance, so that if he drives his boat occasionally as he does his plough it is no matter of wonder; but he goes on to say: "There are no better boatmen than the Barra men, whose trade is the sea; and I may say the same of the maritime Argyll men, to whose dexterity and courage I owe many a deep debt."

With flood-tide the process described is reversed, and the currents, flowing north, pour their waters with great violence into the Atlantic. The race and ripple on the flood is quite apparent for some miles from the point of exit.

Encompassed by these ocean rivers, a group of Netherlorn islands - Luing, Torsa, and Shuna - occupies the centre of the view, flanked by the rugged outline of Scarba and Jura on the one side, and the varied coasts of Craignish and Knapdale on the other, with the broad waterway of the Sound of Jura in the offing.

The island of Luing, while deficient in itself of picturesque features, affords, from its comparative flatness and central position, many points of advantage from which magnificent panorama may be surveyed. Roughly, the contour of the island presents two long ridges, with a dark glen between. The glen is known as Dubh-leitir. The word "leitir" in place-names is generally found as a prefix - letterfinlay, Letterfearn, or simply Letters: it means the "half-land," and is usually applied to a long, steep face of land, the half part of a glen. The fact that these hillsides generally merge below into flats of bog and marshy ground before the gentler acclivity on the opposite side begins has given rise to the fanciful derivation of " Leth tioram, 's leth fliuch " (A half dry and a half wet), the "leitir" being the dry side, or "leth tioram."

The glen had an uncanny reputation in bygone days; it was supposed to be the abode of evil spirits (hence, perhaps, the name, daoi, evil), and few would venture to traverse its dark side at night. About midway, a rivulet known as Easan Frogach tumbles down the steep sides, and at the foot encircles a fairy mound. The little hillock is composed of mould and spongy moss; it was the custom, until quite recently, for each passer-by to pull a thread out of his garments and lay it on the mound as a peace offering. Close by is a broad trap dyke, called Cretan a' Ghlaisrig. The Ghlaisrig was the familiar demon of the glen, and until a few years ago a large boulder, with the imprint of his great clawed hand, lay upon the hillside.

Capping each end of the eastern ridge of the island are the remains of hill-forts. These are very much larger than any other in the district. The north fort is oval-shaped, about 110 feet long by so broad; the walls are 16 feet thick at the base, and in places still about 9 feet high. The south, or Leacamor fort is smaller, but in better preservation. At the northern gateway, in the hollow of the walls, the remains of a bar chamber are to be seen; the sides of the chamber were built of small flat stones of slate, so exactly fitted as to leave barely a crevice; from the one end a flight of stone steps led upwards, so that there were probably many similar rooms in the thickness of the walls: the whole enclosed san open courtyard. At the southern doorway two tall pillars of slate, with numerous cup markings, form the doorposts; behind these are deep recesses, into which the bars which closed the door were inserted. The relies of human occupation found in the fort comprised bones of the red deer, me deer, ox, swine, and grey seal (Halichaerus gryphus); the shells of limpets and whelks; bone pins, stone hammers, discs, and querns; and one bronze pin.

The south fort is well worth a visit, not only from its archaeological interest, but also as affording from its site a series of those characteristic views which embellish the coast. At the foot of the ridge upon which the fort is built there is a small tarn called Lochan Iliter, whose reed-covered shore is a favourite resort for flocks of mallard. Across the Sound of Luing the bold forms of Scarba and Lunga, with a medley of smaller islands in the north, arrest the gaze; to the north stretch the umber-coloured coasts of Mull, behind which the mountains appear to rise abruptly, clear-cut against the sky, with no suggestion from their insular position of land behind them, giving sublimity to the scene from their quiet majesty and apparent vastness; while the purple uplands of Lorn roll eastwards to culminate in the graceful stateliness of Cruachan.

In a small bay on the north-east of Luing there is an islet known as Sgeir Carnach. Covering its surface are large mounds of stony debris, the remains of what one might call a lake dwelling, probably another example of ancient fortification. This ancient structure is almost unique from the fact that, while like other duns it was built of dry masonry, large logs of oak were intercalated at various angles between the courses, probably to bind the loose fabric together. Only one of these logs remains, but many have been removed within the memory of living people. Dr. Christison, in his exhaustive monograph on the subject, mentions only two of this class of buildings as being known in Scotland, one at Burghead in Morayshire, the other at Forgandenny in Perth, and in the former only was timber actually found.

The old parish church of Kilchattan, fast crumbling to ruin, occupies a pleasant site amidst the cultivated fields and rolling downs of the south part of Luing. In the year 1670 John Duncanson and Alexander MacLean, two "outed" ministers, were "indulged" by the Privy Council, and allowed to preach and exercise the functions of the ministry in the parish of Kilchattan. In 1685 Duncanson, who appears to have been the last regular minister of Kilchattan, was liberated on a bond of five hundred merks from the restrictions of the Act of Council which confined the indulged ministers within the district to which they were appointed; but three days afterwards his bond was declared forfeited, and he himself "put to the horn" on a baseless charge of contempt of the King's authority. He died in prison at Campbeltown on the 29th September 1687: he is said to have been a "good man, and useful in his day." Probably the building ceased to be used as a place of public worship shortly after the date of Duncanson's incarceration, for in that year (1685) the interior of the church appears to have been used for the first time as a burial-place. The roof, however, did not fall until 1745. A considerable portion of the walls still remains, and as the west gable is entire, but the building appears to have been very plain and devoid of ornament.

In the churchyard there are few stones of interest. Two small fragments of carved slate may be seen: one of these, broken across the middle, shows the indistinct outline of a two-handed sword; the other fragment belonged to what was a fine piece of carving, the tracery being as distinct as it was when cut. The earlier members of the family of the MacLeans of Shuna are buried in Kilchattan, the date of the first interment being 1687, that is, eight years after they acquired the property. The first of the MacDougall proprietors of Lunga was buried here about one hundred years ago. A stone bearing the MacDougall coat-of-arms - first and fourth, a lion rampant; second and third, a galley, oars in action, sail furled with fire issuant from a cresset at top of mast. This family has since acquired property in Craignish, where their burying-place now is.

Another table of stone marks the last resting-place of Captain Duncan MacDougall, of the gist (Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot. He was known in his native country as "An Caiptein Mor" (The Big Captain). When a lad he joined the 2nd Breadalbane Fencible Regiment, which was raised in 1793. He volunteered, along with many others in the Regiment, for service in Ireland with the 3rd Battalion, which was stationed in that country during its period of embodiment, where it performed the difficult task of garrisoning a disaffected country with such tact and kindly firmness as to earn the respect of their Irish kinsmen and the praise of the authorities. The 2nd Battalion was reduced in 1798, and Lord Breadalbane presented each soldier with a silver medal, which bears on the obverse the figure of a Highland soldier in the uniform of the corps, and on a scroll the words: "Pro rege et patria dulce periculum." On the reverse there is the following inscription: "Presented to the Volunteers of the 2nd Battalion by their Colonel, the Earl of Breadalbane, in testimony of their gallant conduct in having volunteered their services to Ireland, and to aid in repelling a French force which had invaded the kingdom, 1798." In addition, Lord Breadalbane gave to each of the Netherlorn men who returned a means of livelihood, as a croft, or house and garden. Some of the better educated became schoolmasters, others grieves in the slate quarries. Many of the descendants of these soldiers are still in the district, and in one case the croft then granted remains in the family.

The Captain Mor received a commission as Ensign in the Cheshire Fencibles in 1797, becoming Ensign in the 82nd (Cornwall) Regiment in 1801, and in the 61st in 1803. In 1809 he was in Portugal with the 1st Battalion. He fought at Talavera, Busaco, Fuentes d'Onor; was present at the siege of Cuidad Rodrigo, at the battles of Salamanca, Nivelle, Nive, Orthez, and Toulouse, and numerous sieges and minor conflicts. He was promoted lieutenant in 1803 and captain in 1811. He left the army shortly after the Peace, returning to his native parish, where he rented a farm, on which he died in 1845.

Close to Kilchattan is the old mansion-house of Ardlarach, built in 1787 by Patrick MacDougall, who held a large tack of land in the island. Patrick MacDougall had two sons - Coll and Colin; both served as lieutenants in the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders. They took part in the campaign of Coruna, but Coll, who had turned ill during the advance into Spain, was sent into Portugal to recruit his health, so that he did not return home with his regiment. The officers and men of the 91st who were thus left behind were afterwards formed into a company and placed, with details of other regiments, in what was called the 1st Battalion of Detachments; and although this company, numbering about one hundred men, served in the campaign of Talavera the regiment - the main body of which did not return to the Peninsula until 1812 -does not carry the honour of Talavera on its colours. Shortly before the fight began the Captain Mor and Lieutenant MacDougall arranged to meet after the battle, but poor Coll was killed on the evening of the 27th July while engaged with his battalion in repulsing the fierce attack which Marshal Victor had launched against the hill forming the key of the British position. At this particular period of the battle the fighting was of the most desperate character, and out of a total of 93, the Company of the 91st lost 10 killed, 31 wounded, and 20 taken prisoners or missing; a total of 61 of all ranks!

It is said that on that evening his mother, sitting in her room in Ardlarach House, heard the door of her apartment open and close; turning round and seeing nothing, she called her maid, and being satisfied that no one had entered the room, she exclaimed: "I am sorely afraid, Margaret, that something has happened to poor Coll. Coll is no longer alive."

Alexander Campbell, better known by his patronymic, Alasdair MacIain bhain (Alexander, son of fair John), is buried in the north-west corner of the old churchyard. His grave is adorned with numerous memorial slabs, carved by himself some years before his death. One of these stones, inserted on the outside of the boundary wall, bears lengthy testimony to his adherence to the Covenant. Another, the headstone, has the following inscription:-


" It is a marvelous headstone in the eyes of builders, the Lord's doing, also marvelous to most that I digged my grave before I died, as Jacob and Joseph of Arimathea. Israel would not bury evil men with good. Josiah King said, move not the man of God's bones, it's a bed of rest to the righteous, and no rest for the wicked but a prison, and I protest that none go in my grave after me if not have the ernest of spirit to be a child of God, as I am of election sure, of the same principle of pure Presbyterian religion, the covenanted cause of Christ and Church government: adhering to the Confession of Faith, Second Reformation, purity and power of Covenants, and a noble Cloud of Witnesses. Testimonies that Jesus Christ is the head king and governor of the Church, and not mortal man as the king now is.


"Here lies the corp of Alex. Campbell, who lived in Achadanadure and died on 4th November 1829, aged 78 years. As from the dust I came and to dust return and the spirit to God who gave it. The earth is the Lord's and not pope's earth, nor popish prelacy nor popish Erastianism either, this burial-place I testify that the earth is the Lord's. Also I testify against that heinous sin of doctors and men for lifting the deads out of their graves before the Resurrection. Some men's sins go before to judgement and some after.

"O God, haste the time that popish monuments be destroyed, Haste the time that the Covenants be renued. Away, strange Gods and garments."

On the flat stone covering the grave may be read:--

"I protest that none be buried after me in this grave, which I have dug for myself as Jacob did. Having adhered till death to the whole work of the Second Reformation in Scotland between year 1638 and 1649, and died in full assurance of the heavenly inheritance


His age and date of death were, of course, inserted afterwards. Campbell, in his day, had a reputation far beyond the bounds of his native island. He was the leader of a secession from the Established Presbyterian Church of the parish which took place in 1787. The occasion was the presentation of a minister to the living, and the seceders seized the opportunity to protest against the intrusion of an "Erastian," and to form a congregation of their own. The history of the "Covenanters of Lorn," as they were called, closely imitates in its process of development and decay that of the more celebrated body, whose title they adopted.

The Cameronians, Covenanters, or Remonstrants, as they were styled at different periods, were men whose zeal and honesty of purpose cannot be questioned. Their dream was of a covenanted kingdom: a theocracy, the prototype of which was the Kingdom of Israel. "They took their creed from the New Testament, but their associations and their religious revellings were all in the Old; they coldly adopted the one as a formal test, but their souls yearned after the older dispensation as a practical embodiment of their own proud, fierce, and exclusive tempers." Their ruling principle was that they alone professed the true religion, and that all not of their communion were doomed to perdition. They took their rise in the movement which in Charles I.'s reign embraced the whole of the Lowlands and part of the Highlands of Scotland, when noble and peasant elbowed each other in their haste to sign the National Covenant. They were the extreme party of that movement: the Remonstrants at Dunbar. And extreme they remained. When the revulsion caused by the cavalier treatment of Scottish notions of independence during the Commonwealth found expression in the exorbitant licence of the Restoration, their influence and numbers rapidly dwindled. Persecution, notwithstanding the fact that they themselves were fighting for freedom, made them the most intolerant of sects. They became more and more exclusive; whatever position was taken up there were always some who went a step further, and denounced, excommunicated, and doomed the people they left behind. Papacy and prelacy they abhorred, but their keenest resentment was against those of their own body who preached religious toleration. We find in their literature endless protests against the backsliding of members, groaning and sorrow for the ever-increasing body of deserters; and amidst tribulations, fierce joy and, exultation that they were the privileged leaven preserved through the dark days, which in good time would leaven the whole and carry the banner of Christ and the Covenant to the ends of the earth. To their intense anger, their claims were not considered by King William's Scottish Government; but their kindly treatment by the king and the lack of the stimulus of persecution gradually softened their rancour, and as a body they soon ceased to exist.

Their history left a deep impression upon the minds of the people; and the dread of Popery, the abhorrence of Prelacy and antagonism to Erastianism had, until the great Disruption of 1843, periodical expression in local schisms. Such a secession was that organised by Alexander Campbell. In The Dying Testimony of Alexander Campbell, a work of forty-five closely- printed pages, he tells the story of his life, and of the religious movement in which he was the ruling spirit until his extreme views and narrow intolerance left him the solitary and embittered exponent. In speaking of his childhood, he says: " In time past I was a cross boy, yet after all it was observed of me that I was not given up to play as other children, for it was observed of me also that when other children would be breaking the Lord's Day in playing, I would be musing, of praising as it were of religion way, and they would in a mocking way say to me, put on the preaching eyes now." He then proceeds to show how he came to see the evils of Scottish Church government; how he came to quarrel with his minister and the parish congregation; how dissensions in the dissenting body arose; and how in his latter days he was alone in his beliefs,'(for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and I, even I only, am left." Exulting in this isolation from sympathy, he pours out denunciations and "protests" against everything which did not meet with his approval, and against all--that is, all mankind--who did not agree with his dogmatic opinions. The following extracts from this curious book exemplify what has been said.

"The present Established Church of Scotland is of Popish Erastian principles; and though some of the patronised ministers preach more sound doctrine than others of them, yet they are of the same corrupt principle, and they have a false foundation".

"Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. So I came out from among the Popish Erastianism of the Church of Scotland."

"Since our bearing testimony of protestation against the Erastian Church of Scotland, I was the more and more brought by degrees to the light of the law and the testimony by God's word and spirit, I saw it to be a duty to protest against the Established Church of Scotland, that its principles were false. That as all tolerated sects are false in the principles they hold, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, and although they differed in head from the Erastian Church of Scotland, yet they were joined to it in tail, So therefore I thought I would put in my testimony against hearing any of the tolerated sects, as well as against the Church of Scotland, in case any of us should be ensnared."

"Tho' we are not to hear any minister of the present day, because they are erroneous, and their principles are false and popish, still we have private meetings together as becomes the people of God."

Strife in the little community was brought about by a disagreement upon the momentous question of whether the parish fasts should be held or not; many were agreed that they should, but Alexander held that they should fast independently of "all sectaries," and accordingly "protested."

But when the members agreed that it was expedient in certain cases to submit differences to legal arbitration, he with- drew entirely from their communion, and spent the remainder of his days fulminating protests and testimonies against his whilom associates in particular and the world in general.

These anathematisings are minutely recorded in his curious pamphlet; they show our poor reformer to have been a vain, imperfectly educated man, woefully deficient in the saving grace of charity. Thus he leaves his "dying testimony against those who tolerate all heretical sects, also against the Church of England for using their prayer-book, their worship being idolatrous, also against the Popish Erastian patronising ministers of the Church of Scotland. This is a day of gloominess and thick darkness."

"I, as a dying man, leave my testimony from first to last against the Reformed Presbytery; they are false hypocrites, in principles of adherence to the modern party, who accept of indulgencies inasmuch as that they are allowed to apply to unjust judges." The Reformed Presbytery was the church which he had joined after secession.

"I, as a dying man, leave my testimony against King George the Third for tolerating all denominations in the three kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland"; "against the letter learned men that are not taught in the college of Sina and Zion, but in the college of Babylon"; "against them that lift the dead"; against "play actors and pictures"; against "men and women being conformed to the world, and women having habits and vails, headsails as umbrellas "; against "dancing schools, as it is the works of the flesh"; against "women that wear Babylonish garments, that are rigged out with stretched-out necks, tinkling as they go"; against "the low country, as they are not kind to strangers"; against "gentlemen"; against "ships that keep their course in spite of weather, that presumptuous sin" - he refers to steamboats; against "fanners" - these win corn in an artificial way and not by the Biblical method of utilising the through draft between opposite doors of the barn; against "men and women to be conformed to the world in having dresses, parasols, vain headsails, as vain children have plaiding on the top of sticks to the wind, that women should become bairns. So that men have whiskers like ruffian soldiers, as wild as Ishmael, not like Christians as Jacob, smooth." Then follows a final blast of denunciation: - "I, as a dying man, leave my testimony against Quakers, Tabernacle folk, Haldians, Independents, Anabaptists, Antiburghers, Burghers, Chappels of Ease, Relief, Roman Catholics, Socenians, Prelacy, Armenians, Deists, Atheists, Universalists, New Jerusalemites, Unitarians, Methodists, Bareans, Glassites, and all sectarians."

Thus lived and died Alexander Campbell, of whom it has been said by an eminent divine of the Church of Scotland (Dr Phin), alluding to the credulity of the people: "What Luther was to the Reformation, that was he to the Free Secession in a wide district of the Highlands." A friendly critic, a leader of the Reformed Presbyterians (Dr Somerville), said: "Sandy is an honest man, but full of spiritual pride."

While the minister of Kilbrandon, against whose presentation he and his followers protested, writes in the Old Statistical Account: "There are no sectaries in the perish, except a few, who call, themselves Covenanters whose charity is not very extensive. Charity with them is confined to the household of faith, - the members of which they are at no loss to distinguish, and evidently find them to be few.

One other grave may be mentioned, that of Diorbhail Nic a Bhriuthainn (usually translated Dorothy Brown). She was born in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Being a Royalist, she "employed her muse in bitterest satire against the Campbells; indeed there must have been great pungency in her songs, for long after her death one Colin Campbell, a native of Luing, being at a funeral in the same burying-ground where she was laid, trampled on her grave, imprecating curses on her memory. Duncan MacLachlan, of Kilbride, himself a poet, and of whom the translator of Ossian makes honourable mention as a preserver of Gaelic poetry, being present, pulled him off the grave, sent for a gallon of whisky, and had it drunk to her memory on the spot."

The ancient parochial division of Kilchattan, now joined to Kilbrandon to form a united perish, was entirely insular, and, in addition to Luing, included Torsa, Shuna, and a number of smaller uninhabited islands.

Torsa is a pleasant fertile single farm of about 250 acres. It provides excellent pasturage for cattle, and, unlike the neighbouring islands, almost its entire surface is capable of cultivation. At one time it was the abode of a crofting population of eleven families. The land was let on the old system of "run-rig," and after the lapse of one hundred years the narrow plough ridges, about six feet broad, are quite visible, giving a ribbed appearance to the long slopes of green pasture.

This system of agriculture, by which the ridges of cultivated land belonged alternately to different tenants, and which obtained at one time or other in the country generally, was supposed to be necessary, in an age of war and rapine, to unite the people in the defence of their common property; and so also the houses were clustered together, the little village with the "infield" and "outfield" lands forming the "baile," or township. Each township had its tradesmen, generally a weaver and shoemaker; while an officer or "bailie" was elected to settle disputes connected with land or stock, for we may be sure that the system, while adapted for the purpose of mutual defence, was productive of constant bickering and strife within the community. After the pacification of the Highlands, "'run-rig" gradually disappeared, along with the necessity for its maintenance. It was a bad system, as no one would care to improve land which next year would become the property of his neighbour.

At the north end of Torsa, built upon a steep ridge of trap rock, are the ruins of a medieval Highland fortress: it is called Caisteal nan Con (the Dogs' Castle). It is supposed to have been a hunting-seat of the Lords of the Isles; but more than likely the name is derived from a sobriquet often applied by their enemies to the powerful Clan MacLean-Clann Illeathain nan Con; and although Pennant, MacCulloch and others state that the castle belonged to the MacDonalds, tradition clearly relates that it was built by the MacLeans, who, during the sixteenth century at least, held the lands of Luing, Shuna, and Torsa in feu from the Earl of Argyll. The castle displays the remains of two square towers, with a circular work at one corner. The walls are neatly fitted into the crevices of the rock upon which the castle stands, so that they form one continuous scarp, making an attack by escalade impossible.

The island of Shuna lies midway betwixt Luing and Craignish. About three miles long and less than two broad, it presents a surface of less fertility and verdure than the neighbouring isles, but beautifully variegated with copses of natural wood. Numerous rivulets course down its brown sides, the position of each being indicated by meandering lines of birch and hazel which thickly clothe the depressions; while here and there on the less fertile areas of soil, clumps of the same species of tree dot the landscape. The whole, arranged with Nature's careless freedom and grace, presents the appearance of ornamental policies--only, as has been said, "man never did anything half so well."

The island, once the property of the Lords of Lorn, was granted along with other lands in 1321 by King Robert the Bruce to Dugald Campbell, Knight of Lochow, as a reward for faithful services. In 1679 Lord Neil Campbell of Ardmaddie, a son of the eighth Earl of Argyll, granted a charter of the lands to a family of the name of MacLean, probably cadets of Duart, who owned the island until about 1815. It was then sold to Mr James Yates, a Glasgow merchant, who, in 1829, gifted Shuna to the Corporation of Glasgow - whose property it now is - the revenue to be applied for the benefit of certain institutions and the poor of the city.

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