A strange visitor to Ardnamurchan in 1801
This was a well justified comment as Edward Jenner (1749-1823), the English physician and scientist who was the pioneer of smallpox vaccine, had made his first practical experiment only three years before.
She went on, ‘When we arrived at the foot of Loch Shiel we could not gain a dry landing; but Highlanders are never at a loss upon such occasions; for they either wade to shore, or if a gentleman’s dress does not permit it, he jumps upon the back of a dependent, and thus rides to dry ground. A chair formed by the united arms of two men was soon constructed for my use.’
I recall a similar arrangement when landing on the Island of Muck not that many years ago!
Making her way back to Strontian, Mrs Murray tells us that she stayed with a Mr Jeffrey, factor to Sir James Miles Riddell, the owner of the Ardnamurchan Estate, as the only house of public entertainment at Strontian was too bad to sleep in. ‘This inn was constructed of wood in London where it was shipped and landed at Strontian; on its arrival it was put together, erected and called the London House [now the Strontian Hotel]. I expected great things from its name, and in fact it might be a tolerable house of reception if it were well kept.’
Her caustic remarks must have been noted for, not long afterwards, the London House was described in another guide book as ‘ affording excellent accommodation for the stranger except at fairs and other public occasions’.
Eventually getting round to the purpose of her visit, Mrs Murray recorded, ‘The lead mine in which this new earth was found is from 115 to 120 fathom deep but when I was there it could not be worked, being quite full of water. The Strontianite was found half way down the mine. I was fortunate enough to gain a large cargo and many specimens.’ of exceedingly fine spring water’, before descending into Glen Hurich to lodge with Mr and Mrs Hope.
The next day her hosts rowed her down Loch Shiel to visit the MacDonalds at Dalilea. During the journey she was told of a large monster which had been seen in the loch whose skin resembled that of an eel and it lay in waves. The length of each wave was described by a sailor’s measure, namely that of a boat but, when it floundered, it was even bigger and thrashed the waves scaring the eye witnesses to such an extent that they didn’t dare go too close so they were unable to get a better description if it.
Sounds a typical fishy tale about the one that got away.
Later, Mrs Murray noted something of much more interest, ‘At some distance we perceived a boat steering east; it contained a gentleman and his wife, who had carried an infant from the head of Loch Shiel to the foot of it, where there was a doctor inoculating with the vaccine or cow pox. I was surprised that this inoculation should have been so generally adopted as it was in 1801, in such remote regions as Ardnamurchan and Moidart.’ Between 1796 and 1802, a strange figure was to be seen wandering around the Highlands and Islands mounted on a white horse wearing a leather cap trimmed with brown fur and a tartan cloak. Her name was Mrs Murray from Kensington, London, who was collecting material for a book she called, A Companion and Useful Guide to the Beauties of Scotland.
The summer of 1801 found her in Appin and Ballachulish, where she crossed Loch Linnhe by boat to Inversanda en route to the Strontian lead mines to collect Strontianite.
It would seem that even in those days there was an interest in holiday cottages as she was accompanied by an Englishman in search of a summer residence in Sunart. By arrangement, they were met at Inversanda by an Angus Cameron who was to convey them through Glen Tarbert by horse and cart.
The road must have been very bad because after a few miles the Englishman decided he would be more comfortable walking. Mrs Murray described Ardnamurchan at that time as a large rugged peninsula formerly covered by a thick forest which had been cut down for timber and smelting.
When she arrived at Strontian she was unable to hire a horse fit enough to carry her over the shoulder of Ben Resipole to Glen Hurich where she wanted to view Loch Shiel. Whether the local horses were too emaciated or she was no Twiggy, we are not told although her contact, a Mr Hope who had something to do with the lead mine, advised her to make her will ‘ because’, he said, ‘if you intend to ride to Glen Hurich, it is ten to one but you will break your neck’.
Through time a horse was found. She and Angus Cameron, who agreed to act as her groom, rested on the summit where she drank from, ‘A well
The London House at Strontian, above, and Glen Hurich.