The bay of the walled enclosure
WE HAVE all seen them: small nondescript buildings crumbling away by the side of the road, which you wouldn’t give a second glance among the timber and glass ‘palaces’ that pass for houses these days.
But don’t dismiss them altogether as many of them have an interesting history. One of the best examples in Morvern is on the south shores of Loch Sunart between Achleek and Liddesdale on Laudale Estate.
Camus na h-Airbhe ( pronounced camus na hay riv) is a very old Gaelic place name meaning the bay of the walled enclosure. The enclosure was built to corral sheep, cattle and goats before they were taken away by boat. In it there is a cottage probably dating to the beginning of the 1800s.
Originally the gable walls would have been round and covered with thatch. It would have had a low fireplace in the middle of the floor with a hole above through which the smoke escaped. Wooden shutters, instead of glazed windows, kept out the worst of the wind and rain. Peat and turf, brought from the hill above, and occasionally the odd piece of driftwood washed ashore in the bay, provided the only fuel as trees were scarce and kept for making boats, ploughs, carts and other agricultural tools.
In 1841, there were 59 people living in 10 houses around Camus na h-Airbhe. Most of the adult males were crofters and fisherman occupied in tilling the land, raising sheep, cattle and goats, and catching and curing fish or working in the lead mines across the hill in Glen Dubh or at Strontian.
Loch Sunart was once famous for the quantity and quality of its herring. A visitor to the area in 1845 recorded seeing 500 boats simultaneously herring fishing in the loch. Many of them would have been open skiffs no more than 16 feet in length and must have been an imposing sight when all hoisted their brown sails.
Although life was hard in those days, the inhabitants of Camus na h-Airbhe fared better than many of their contemporaries. Living close to the open sea loch, they had an unlimited source of nutritious shellfish, herring, sea- trout and salmon and, more importantly, the opportunity to sail beyond the confines of Loch Sunart to trade and barter.
Paul Graham, who lived in Camus na h-Airbhe with his aged parents, became so successful in the mercantile trade that he was soon able to build them a large new house across the bay at Achleek. He was also the owner and master of a 58-ton sailing ship called the Jessie of London which carried mutton, wool, hides, beef, timber, barrels of herring, and lead from the Strontian mines to Glasgow, Ireland and even as far south as Liverpool. The remains of the old stone quay where the Jessie of London was loaded can still be seen in the bay below the house. Paul Graham’s legitimate back-haul cargo consisted of salt, tobacco, Archangel tar and machinery for the lead mines.
His illegitimate freight was grain for making whisky.
Paul’s son, Angus, was a well-known distiller in the area. As the making of whisky for private use was, and still is, illegal, it had to be done by stealth although the local laird was inclined to turn a blind eye because when all else failed it was only by the profits from their stills that his tenants and crofters managed to pay their rent.
The real danger came from the excisemen who were based in Tobermory with a fast cutter ready to follow up the first offending report. To avoid this disturbance, Angus made his whisky in a hollow in the hills above Camus na h-Airbhe, close to the burn of that name which runs past the cottage and into the sea.
When the equipment was not in use, it was kept out of sight in a recess known as ‘the hole of the black pot’. Angus Graham’s whisky was no fine malt. His great-grandson, John (1884-1966) who sampled it as a boy, described it to me as ‘like fire in your throat and Hell let loose in your belly’.
Many tales used to be told around the local firesides of how the Grahams escaped the law and of little barrels of whisky being left behind the walled enclosure in the night. Once, to avoid being caught, Angus walked across Loch Sunart on the ice but would not risk the return journey.
During the winter of 1888 the Jessie of London broke her moorings and was wrecked on the shore near Strontian. Paul and Angus died and their traditional lifestyle was replaced by large-scale sheep farming. Angus’s sons took up shepherding and the walled enclosure was used for clipping and treating sheep with butter and Archangel tar in a messy process called smearing.
The house became a wool shed but, in the 1980s, when the sheep were taken off the surrounding estate, it was converted into an office and store for a salmon farm. It was restored in 2011 and is now an attractive holiday letting cottage.
The house at Camus na h- Airbhe.