Wil­lie Shand takes a step back in time along the Lea­cainn Trail

Wil­lie Shand takes a walk back in time along the Lea­cainn Trail.

The People's Friend - - Contents -

EIGHT miles south of In­ver­aray, where the Lochgilp­head road drops to re­visit the shores of Loch Fyne, you’ll find the vil­lage of Fur­nace.

An odd name, you may think, to give a vil­lage in such a pic­turesque set­ting, but not when you dis­cover that the wee stone build­ing just be­low the Lea­cainn Wa­ter was once an iron­s­melt­ing fur­nace and that this was one of the ear­li­est in­dus­tri­alised vil­lages in the High­lands.

The fur­nace was es­tab­lished here in 1755, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the lo­cal iron-stone, tim­ber and ready ac­cess to sea trans­porta­tion.

The fur­nace didn’t last long, though, com­ing to an end in 1813 thanks to the ad­vance of the coal-fired steam en­gine.

There’s a lot of wa­ter in the Lea­cainn this morn­ing as it rushes be­low the road bridge and on into the loch. Be­fore the fur­nace ar­rived, it was this river that gave name to the vil­lage. Back then, it was known as In­ver­lea­cainn – mean­ing the mouth of the River Lea­cainn.

The main road largely by­passes Fur­nace, and with the lure of the west coast tak­ing grip, one might well be tempted to push on with­out stop­ping.

To­day, how­ever, Fur­nace is as far as I’m go­ing – or at any rate, as far as I’m go­ing in the car, as, with the boots on my feet, I’m off to fol­low the Lea­cainn cir­cu­lar trail and pay a visit to the his­toric farm­ing town­ship of Auchindrain.

This is a well-marked trail with lots to see along the way. I’m glad that I put the boots on, though. Yes­ter­day’s rain has left the track ex­tremely wet in places. In fact, af­ter about quar­ter of a mile, I’ve com­pletely given up try­ing to avoid the muddy bits.

From the war memo­rial op­po­site Fur­nace School, we start down to­wards the bridge over the burn to climb the road pass­ing the front of Bridge Cot­tage, its gar­den full of daf­fodils.

It doesn’t take long be­fore we’ve gained enough height to en­joy a bird’s-eye view west along Loch Fyne.

Be­sides seals, dol­phin and ot­ters, down by the loch side, you might even spot bask­ing sharks.

Up on the wooded hill­side, it wasn’t sharks you might have en­coun­tered in days of old, but wolves. A short de­tour leads us to a large boul­der within the for­est.

This is the Wolf Stone or Clach a’ Mhadaidh where, ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, the last wolf in mid-ar­gyll was killed. It was killed by an old woman with a spin­dle.

Un­for­tu­nately, the wolf got its own back on her as she was found ly­ing be­side it, hav­ing died from the shock.

Be­yond a stretch of dense wood­land the track takes to the more open hill­side, drop­ping steeply at one point to look over an im­pres­sive wa­ter­fall as it plunges down a deep ravine. In a few miles the track brings us to the gate into Auchindrain.

There’s lots to see for all ages as you wan­der around the twenty or so houses, sta­bles and byres that made up the Auchindrain town­ship. It’s a rare op­por­tu­nity to step back in time.

The young­sters might have dif­fi­culty imag­in­ing a life with­out broad­band, mo­bile phones, tele­vi­sion or cars, but for the older vis­i­tors, it may bring back a few nos­tal­gic mem­o­ries.

The sweet aroma of peat reek cer­tainly takes me back to the days I would cut and dry peat for our own home fire.

And the big cop­per jeely pan hang­ing from a nail in the rafters – wasn’t it great get­ting to lick the pot with a slice of bread af­ter Mum had all her jam jars filled?

Auchindrain town­ship cov­ers an area of some 22 acres and is owned and op­er­ated by the Auchindrain Trust, an in­de­pen­dent Scottish char­ity.

How the com­mu­nity lived was in a way that is now vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent. It was an old way of life quite com­mon in Scot­land for many hun­dreds of years prior to the 18th cen­tury High­land Clear­ances.

As many as 4,000 of th­ese town­ships ex­isted. Most are now lost and for­got­ten but thank­fully, due to the fore­sight of the Duke of Ar­gyll, Auchindrain has sur­vived pretty much in­tact.

Many gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­i­lies would have grown up in th­ese cot­tages and worked this land. In a mul­ti­ple ten­ancy com­mu­nity, ev­ery­one mucked in and helped each other.

There were the ten­ants who paid the rent for their piece of land and who made the de­ci­sions; the cot­ters – who were land­less but in re­turn for ser­vices such as weav­ing, stonewalling or fish­ing, would be given a small, fairly ba­sic, cot­ter’s house to live in; then ser­vants, who helped out on the farm and on the do­mes­tic front.

Noth­ing was wasted and ev­ery piece of the land – good or poor – was put to use.

It was a fair sys­tem, too, with ev­ery few years the strips of land, or rigs, be­ing re­al­lo­cated by draw­ing lots. That way ev­ery­one had an equal chance of winning the more fer­tile patches.

You’ll no­tice that some of the houses are con­sid­er­ably smaller than oth­ers. Bell a’ Phuill’s thatched house is tiny. It has only one room with a fire­place, a box bed and one out­side door.

There’s a good roar­ing fire in its hearth and, the room be­ing so small, it’s nice and cosy in­side. Bell’s Sun­day name was Is­abella Mc­cal­lum, but like ev­ery­one in the town­ship, she had her by-name.

Bell a’ Phuill trans­lates as Bell who lives by the muddy place – pos­si­bly stem­ming from the fact she lived be­side the spot where the cat­tle used to ford the burn.

Cat­tle were the main prod­uct of the town­ship and each year some would join the great herds be­ing driven on the hoof to the low­land mar­kets.

The track that pleas­antly wends its way be­tween the houses would have been on the main route be­tween In­ver­aray and Camp­bel­town.

Can you imag­ine how it might cope with to­day’s vol­ume of traf­fic?

Some of the houses have two rooms – a but ’n’ ben – and a num­ber are tra­di­tional long houses, each with its own lit­tle stack­yard and kai­l­yard for grow­ing veg­eta­bles.

Most of the houses were “mod­ernised” in the early 1800s. Later, cor­ru­gated tin roofs grad­u­ally be­gan to re­place the thatch. Keek­ing out the door of Martin’s Barn is the Auchindrain trac­tor. The Grey Fergie was a 1960s re­place­ment to the old farm horses.

New ideas to make farm­ing more prof­itable and more ef­fi­cient in the late 1700s sounded the death knell for com­mu­ni­ties like Auchindrain.

Sheep were more prof­itable and soon re­placed cat­tle and, in­deed, peo­ple. An old tra­di­tional way of life had ended.

Cross­ing the main A83, I climb through the fields to meet a mi­nor, sin­gle track road. About a mile along this road, at Bren­choille, is an old pack­horse bridge over the Lea­cainn Wa­ter.

Many a cat­tle beast bound for mar­ket and many a horse laden with char­coal head­ing for Fur­nace would have crossed this now al­most hid­den wee bridge.

Still fol­low­ing the way mark­ers, we leave the road at the far side of the bridge to drop down into ma­ture beech and oak wood­land be­side the dra­matic Miller’s Falls.

This mag­nif­i­cent wa­ter­fall would at one time have pow­ered the wheel of the lo­cal mill. The mill has long since dis­ap­peared in all but name.

A lit­tle be­low the falls are the re­mains of an even ear­lier corn-dry­ing kiln. The moss-cov­ered mound would be eas­ily over­looked were it not for the sign point­ing to it.

Fur­ther down, when we find our­selves back at river level, keep an eye open for a small double-arch bridge and then for a much big­ger one.

Bren­choille Bridge has been span­ning the Lea­cainn Wa­ter for more than two cen­turies, and al­though nowhere near as grand as Mylne’s fine bridge over the River Aray at In­ver­aray, his may well have pro­vided the builder of this bridge with some in­spi­ra­tion.

Not a lot re­mains of the next bridge we pass – only the but­tresses of the sin­gle-arch, so-called Ro­man Bridge. It’s a fairly an­cient struc­ture but maybe not as old as its name sug­gests. The Ro­mans never ac­tu­ally oc­cu­pied this neck of the woods.

Close to the Ro­man Bridge is an­other legacy of Fur­nace’s in­dus­trial past – an old sluice gate that would have con­trolled wa­ter lead­ing into what was a mill lade.

The prod­uct from the mill that this lade fed wasn’t flour or meal, but gun­pow­der.

For safety rea­sons the Pow­der­mill was set within thick wood­land.

Nonethe­less its lo­ca­tion, even in the late 19th cen­tury, raised a few con­cerns on the health and safety front, not least for the fact a huge stor­age mag­a­zine stood just a stone’s throw from the lo­cal school!

Not sur­pris­ingly, af­ter the con­tents of one of th­ese stores ac­ci­den­tally ex­ploded killing the Pow­der­mill man­ager in a hail of fly­ing rocks, this spelled the end of that lit­tle en­ter­prise.

As we leave the woods to de­scend into Fur­nace what a “fine” view we have again along Loch Fyne.

Look­ing out over the scene to­day, it all seems so far re­moved from th­ese early in­dus­trial times. n

Bell a’ Phuill’s hum­ble house.

Fur­nace War Memo­rial.

The old iron fur­nace that gave name to Fur­nace.

The Miller’s Falls spill be­low pack­horse bridge.

Bren­choille double-arch bridge.

A far cry from to­day’s agri­cul­tural ma­chines.

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