The shame­ful state of our grave­yards

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

I WAS pass­ing through North Bal­lachul­ish re­cently and was dis­ap­pointed to find the lit­tle High­land Coun­cil grave­yard at Creag Mhor in such a poor state of re­pair. The grass and weeds were knee high and a sec­tion of the sur­round­ing wall had been knocked down and re­placed with a cheap wooden rail­ing.

Al­though small, the site has many in­ter­est­ing head­stones, in­clud­ing that of the well-re­spected parish min­is­ter, the Rev Alexan­der Ste­wart (1829-1901) or ‘Nether Lochaber’, as he was known all over the High­lands. For more than 40 years his reg­u­lar ar­ti­cles and let­ters graced the pages of this and other news­pa­pers and pe­ri­od­i­cals, re­sult­ing in two books, Nether Lochaber (1883) and Twixt Ben Ne­vis and Glen­coe (1885).

Nether Lochaber was so pop­u­lar and revered that the largest num­ber of peo­ple pos­si­bly ever to as­sem­ble by Loch Leven, gath­ered on Jan­uary 22, 1901, to at­tend his fu­neral. Ac­cord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary ac­count, it was a day of low cloud and mist pass­ing across a back­drop of snow- clad moun­tains.

Pipers of the Bal­lachul­ish Vol­un­teer Com­pany, the Argyll and Suther­land High­landers, pre­ceded the pro­ces­sion from the manse at Onich, play­ing MacCrim­mon’s Lament, Lochaber no More and The Land o’ the Leal. Then came Lochiel, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the clans, learned so­ci­eties, the Pres­byter of Aber­tarff and the Ste­wart So­ci­ety.

More telling, al­most ev­ery man and boy in the lo­cal­ity fol­lowed, and women and girls stood along the mile-long route, or watched from the hill­side above the church­yard.

Nether Lochaber’s great­est qual­ity was his abil­ity to write in an un­af­fected, grace­ful and un­pa­tro­n­is­ing style. He talked about ar­chae­ol­ogy, nat­u­ral his­tory, the habits of birds, beasts and fishes, and could com­mu­ni­cate to his read­ers the won­ders of sci­ence in an easy and pleas­ant man­ner.

He once wrote an amus­ing let­ter about a ha­bit­ual tearer-up of books, Jack the Rip­per, his pet jack­daw, who was ex­cused the com­plete de­struc­tion of a Book of Com­mon Prayer in an Epis­co­palian home in Onich be­cause ‘he had been brought up a Pres­by­te­rian’.

Two-and-a-half years af­ter Nether Lochaber’s fu­neral, a huge crowd gath­ered on July 18, 1903, at Onich, to pay homage to the beloved pas­tor and man of let­ters. A pub­lic sub­scrip­tion or­gan­ised by the Ste­wart So­ci­ety, pro­vided a memo­rial in the form of a 20-feet high Celtic cross which was un­veiled by Ste­wart of Ach­na­cone.

Ste­wart of Ard­vor­lich gave the ad­dress to the mem­ory of a great clans­man, ven­er­a­ble di­vine, a learned doc­tor, a great Celtic scholar, a lover of na­ture and a true High­lander well versed in the lore of his coun­try. Later the cross was re­moved for safety from quar­ry­ing op­er­a­tions in 1955 to the new vil­lage ceme­tery at In­nis a’ Bhior­linn.

The day I vis­ited the Creag Mhor ceme­tery, I could hardly read the in­scrip­tion on the min­is­ter’s head­stone be­cause the grass had not been cut. Shame on the High­land Coun­cil, the Ste­wart So­ci­ety and the vil­lage of North Bal­lachul­ish.

If there is one con­so­la­tion, High­land Coun­cil of­fi­cial­dom has not yet laid its heavy hand on Creag Mhor’s head­stones by top­pling them as it has done re­cently with some of those at Stron­tian and Ard­gour.

A few years ago a head­stone some­where in High­land re­gion fell over. The knee-jerk re­ac­tion by the coun­cil was to let down oth­ers that they con­sid­ered a hazard. For­tu­nately, there was such a hue and cry the prac­tice ceased. Of course no- one wants to see some­one be­ing in­jured by a fall­ing stone but you can­not pro­tect the pub­lic from them­selves. Grave­yards are not play­grounds.

If you take the ar­gu­ment to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, the coun­cil might as well put a no­tice on ev­ery road bridge telling the pub­lic not to leap over the para­pet be­cause the water be­low is cold and in­ju­ri­ous to health.

One of the two ca­su­al­ties in the Stron­tian Parish Church ceme­tery com­mem­o­rates two only sons aged 19 and 20 who died at the Somme and Ar­ras in 1916 and 1917. One is buried in Stron­tian which, in­ci­den­tally, lost more men per head of pop­u­la­tion than any other vil­lage in Scot­land, and the other in the Great War ceme­tery at Delville Wood, France. Their memo­rial stone was con­sid­ered ‘less than safe’. How much less than safe were these two young Gor­don High­landers who climbed out of their trenches and ran to­wards the German ma­chine-guns for King and Coun­try?

At a time when the 100th an­niver­sary of the Great War is be­ing re­mem­bered across the world, it is surely a sad re­flec­tion on today’s val­ues when those in lo­cal govern­ment and oth­ers in the High­lands choose to for­get the sac­ri­fice their com­mu­nity made.

Stron­tian is be­ing lauded for build­ing its own pri­mary school. It would be a grace­ful act on the part of the many lo­cal builders and con­trac­tors who will be in­volved if just one of them would vol­un­teer his skills and ce­ment bucket and re­in­state both stones.

Etched on the Stron­tian war memo­rial on its knoll above Loch Su­nart, is the le­gend: ‘These were ours in the days of their boy hood and their names have be­come our her­itage.’ In­deed.

One of Stron­tian’s top­pled head­stones and, left, the Rev Alexan­der Ste­wart.

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