The bay of the walled en­clo­sure

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

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.

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