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