Lismore, a bike and four castles.

I was planning to do this the following week. Luckily there were seats on the train and accommodation available this week . Quickly booked my train ticket and bunk in a hostel. Off the next day, why wait. The plan was to take the bike and train then stay in a hostel. One less car on the busy roads, see more on the bike, miss the high season hotel prices , besides you can’t really take you car to Lismore. A place to visit that had been on my agenda since last year.

Taking early out in then changing in Glasgow to the first train to Oban to arrive in time for lunch. The route of the train runs westward along the Clyde then rises into to the hills and continues like this until it reaches the sea at Loch Etive. Taking this route you really appreciate that we live in a temperate rain Forrest or more truly the remains of one.  On arrival in Oban I immediately had lunch, a superb sandwich of local caught prawns and an indifferent coffee from the seafood stall on the pier. 

After eating, I left my bag at backpackers hostel and went to enjoy the afternoon. As Oban is busy, bustling town of tourists and little interest. So I went for a relaxing walk on the small island opposite called Kerrara. It was pleasant walk in the sunshine with views southward. The small cafe at southern end served a good cup of tea together with notable scones. I wasn’t alone in thinking that it was a good way to avoid spending time in Oban. 

First castle of the trip 


Castle Gylen, a fairly recent example of a Tower House dating from the late sixteenth  century but didn’t have much life. The Covenanters fired it 1647. Possibly built on the site of an earlier castle or fort given the location.

Back at the hostel, they gave me my room key and bunk number.One of eight in the room, hadn’t been in place like this since my teens. More sociable and interesting than many expensive hotels but the showers were basic. You had to get up early for some privacy. Slept well.Eating out in the evening wasn’t a problem. At one time you greeted everyone in the barrack, togetherness was the thing. But these guys were glued to thier mobiles.

The ferry to Lismore left at nine which meant an early start, in the rain of course. It was a hours sailing to Ardnacroish, the port for the island. Once there I hit the road on the bike. You couldn’t get lost as there is only one road which runs the length of the narrow island. Still damp with low cloud but beautifully quiet, an ancient island. Rugged and uneven but very fertile. Thoroughly enjoying cycling on the up and down roads to my hearts content. Greeting , saying hello to cattle and sheep, watching the wildlife, seeing again famliar waters and mountains. Brings joy to the heart. Eventually I found the path to Castle Coeffi, a ruin on the islands west side. I never reached it as I took a wrong turn.

First castle of the day, Castle Coeffin

Thought to be named after Gaelic-Norse prince, built on the site of an earlier fort. Other than it was part of Clan MacDougall’s defence system, little is known about this place. The site has a fish trap and is typical of a sea castle. Built on a promintary for defence and look out,with a sheltered beach with good landing for their boats and surrounded by productive farmland for food. All the qualities required for a tribe of raiders.

Next up was lunch at the island’s only cafe, the visitor centre. The soup was good, the place was busy. The only other place to eat was the bunk house’s restaurant but that was miles away. Low impact tourism appears to be the preferred option for the island, holiday houses are common. Agriculture is important as there are many good sized farms which is encouraging. 

Back on the bike heading down to the south end. Thinking I’ll have plenty of time but not appreciation that two and half miles are tough on these roads. That, the final part of the track to Achinduin Castle had to be taken on foot. I never reached it only seeing it from a distance. For such a little island it is a very large place. 

All that remains of Achinduin Castle on a rainy day.

Like the other one, there isn’t much known about it. Dating from the thirteenth century, Tradition has it that it was the Bishop’s  castle. Probably part of the MacDougall’s empire. Something dark about it.

The return ride was in good time and left me with some time in hand for the ferry and back to Oban and smoked salmon sandwich.

Ate in a different place that evening but returned to same old pub for a pint. Slept like a log.

Thursday off quickly after breakfast, in the rain. Somehow my jacket disappeared in the hostel. Still got my Leica and wallet. Took the cycle path northward out of town. This was rather a dull route which led to picturesque housing estate. Which led unusually to the final castle of the trip.

 Dunstaffinage Castle, history for the tourists. Promise this is last castle.

Dunstaffinage Castle. At  seaward end of Loch Etive.

This is all that remains of a more complex castle. Originally it must have  been similar to the two castles on Lismore all built around the mid thirteenth century by the MacDougalls. When they reached an accord with the Scottish King it became more important and enlarged. Robert the Bruce, the renown Anglo Norman adventurer captured it and it became a Royal Castle, the MacDougalls returned to be part of  Anglo Norman society. Well you have to move with times and you wouldn’t like to be poor. 

It was pleasant place to visit even in the rain. Set in parkland just off the main road with ample parking, an admission charge and gift shop. But no place to park the bike, friendly staff onhand .Very informative signs explained the history and architecture. 

It reminded me of the fort I played with as a child.

Onwards on the bike in the rain to my last destination Bonawe. My favourite type of route,  a quiet single track road, undulating and not a straight section in the whole route. The weather dried up so could enjoy the views. Ardchattan  House with it’s beautiful gardens was welcome stop. Only four miles to go until Bonawe,  a place of ill repute in the family annals. When I was young, my father booked a house there for an Easter time holiday. The weather was horrible and the house inappropriate, so we went back home. Things seemed to have moved on as one of the many summer houses has a five star rating. 

It is also famous for the quarry. A reminder that there more than tourism there, something theses days  that is ignored.

After a walk along the loch side path it was time to head back. Not wanting to miss either the train nor the good pub close to the station. By this time rain had stopped, the clouds lifted and was shining. Couldn’t get better.

Finally.This modern looking and striking bridge was built in the early 1890s by the same engineers who built the Forth Bridge. Still used to day as road bridge. It was in its time an innovative almost revolutionary design. To generate interest along the route they make a thing of the Appin Murder. An actual crime romantized in R L Stevenson’s novel Kiddnapped. It almost  the same distance in time now since the building of the bridge as the crime is to the building of the bridge. 

It was great three days.

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Watching history on the television 

A few months ago towards the end of my leave I watched an episode of series on the Vikings. It was a well produced program fronted by a well known and possibly respected Scottish presenter. He has great definite, in your face tough delivery. There was lots of dramatic cinematography,  beautiful views of the places visited to show the history. Interviews with academics, archaeologists and displays of what they had recovered. The whole drive of the story was how great the Vikings were, they very embodiment of modern values. Adventurous, democratic,outgoing, dymanic, trading , technologically advanced, unencumbered by Christianity, they had the whole tool kit. Ambitious people who knew what they wanted and where to go.  A fairly conventional view of the last wandering tribe in the post Roman world.

In the west of Scotland the Vikings are part of our cultural and historical memory. The history described in the program doesn’t seem to match our land. 

In the late seventh century neither Scotland or Norway exsisted. The concept of nation states or kingdoms was centuries away. There were no borders or defined countries. Regions were ruled by tribal leaders or chiefs who were only as good as thier last battle. Or until those under him thought they could do better. A leaders supporters  were paid in booty from those they beat. Their territory was only as large as the extent they could defend. 

Populations were much smaller than they are now, so there were vast areas  of land that were uninhabited and unruled. The land was still heavily wooded. The people living in small isolated communities along the coastal margins and fertile river valleys close to the sea. It was useful as virtually all transport and trade was seaborn. But it made them vulnerable to attack from raiders from the sea.

At some point in the late seventh century groups of people started to migrate from western Norway. Why nobody knows, likely it was population growth. There was plenty of empty space in Scotland. A place known to them through centuries of trading links. Anyway the climate was milder and they shared a similar culture. You could maintain family and cultural links easily with thier homeland too. They began by settling in the Orkney and Shetland Isles, slowly moving on to the northern mainland, then down the west coast. 

Realistically, I think they came in self supporting group that could defend themselves if need be. Settling in places that they deemed suitable for thier needs. There would be clashes between them and the locals. It would only be natural, the way of the world at the time. In time they would be accepted. Local Chiefs  would appreciate thier support, greater number would increase productivity. A connection would be established with Norway which could offset the growing power  coming from the south.

The importance of the Christian infrastructure would have been strange to them.Churches and monasteries were the only substantial settlements. The priests and monks influence over both the rulers and general population was a real challenge to thier leadership and social order. The separateness and connection with the world beyond again a wonder. The intellectual power of the monasteries could well have been a bit scary too. It is little wonder that they tried hard to eradicate them. Besides the literate monks made very saleable slaves not to mention any gold and silver. 

But they returned and the Norse were converted. Until the comming of Anglo Normans in the thirteen century  it was a peaceful place. Virtually a separate country too. Even today when you travel into the west you still notice a difference.

Here’s a couple of things for consideration. As consequence of thier attacks in England and France,the first organised cival administration appeared since the Romans appeared to deal with thier attacks.The word Viking was first used in the late eighteenth century in academic writing. Sir Walter Scot made the term Viking popular through one of his novel.
 

 

                                                                                                                                                                            

Forgotten Saints

St Colmac’ a cross, Isle of Bute, Scotland.

It is much easier to find this cross on the map than in real life. 

In February I read of this cross in an old guide book to the island. It intrigued me, even though I was a regular visitor to the area, was even born on the island. I had never seen it. 

In March while doing a cycle tour I eventually found it. Finding the field was no problem, it was next to the main road. Climbing the fence and getting over the hedge wasn’t as easy as it used to be. When I couldn’t located it, the farmer pointed me to it. He wondered why anybody would bother with it. He explained why the lambs are a bit later this year. The ewes were tupped later so the lambs would hopefully be born when the grass had started to grow.

Getting back to the cross. There are many St  Colmac, even the experts wouldn’t hazard a guess as to which one this cross commemorates. A few doubt he actually existed. But it has been there since at least the seventh century. Until the late eighteenth century there was a small chapel and graveyard by it. These were lost due to agricultural improvements. Interestingly it was known to be used for worship late into the sixteenth century.

Most likely it is a preaching cross, a focal point for worship. Periodically, a missionary would arrive in the locality and preach and tend to the local people.  He would also imagine bring news of the world beyond.

Everybody as favourite book of their own country.

Readers, or at least those people who are interested in books, know of a book that says something of their country. Mine is Neil Munro’s Tales of Para Handy.
It isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories.These are set in first two decades of the featuring a small coastal cargo boat captained by Para Handy. The boat carried coal or other bulk cargo from the river Clyde to ports in the Firth of Clyde returning with cargoes of timber or sand. Really it is not about the boat but it’s crew of four men. How they worked, got on with the each other and their little adventures. It has a gentle humour of real life. No jokes but just the normal fun of ordinary people living their lives. Like all of us do. These stories describe the world at that time. What the people were like, the area they inhabited, how they lived. No great theme or point, just stories. 

The author, Neil Munro came from the region where the stories are set. He was native Gaelic speaker who left home to work in a Glasgow newspaper which eventually he became editor of. He must have a great journalist as what he conjours up briefly is worthy of any one.

Read them