Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A weight of history at Ardnish

We spent a pleasant evening in the Glenuig Inn but unfortunately Douglas became quite ill during the early evening and felt unable to join us on the water. The morning was cold, grey and gusty - a contrast to the previous day and undoubtedly Douglas' decision not to come out was the correct one in the circumstances.

We'd planned to launch straight from the hotel as the tide would be near HW at a little after breakfast time.  It's a very short carry from the car park to the water at this state of the tide; a lot longer at low water!

Given the conditions and a forecast increase in the wid from the south west during the afternoon Allan and I planned to paddle across the mouth of Loch Ailort and explore a little of Loch nan Uamh before returning the same way.  As the tide would be ebbing against a strengthening southwesterly wind as we made our return, our plan was to use first the steep southern shore of Loch nan Uamh and then the islands in Loch Ailort to provide some shelter from the wind against tide conditions we expected to encounter.

After heading east out of Glenuig Bay we headed for the most prominent of the islands of Loch Ailort, Eilean nan Gobhar (Goat Island).  This island has two partially vitrified iron-age hillforts, although the remains are quite difficult to make out.

We headed along the west cost of Eilean nan Gobhar and Eilean a' Chaolais (Island of the channel) to reach the rocky western shore of the Ardnish peninsula which separates Loch Ailort from Loch nan Uamh.  The weather was a strange mix of brightness and low mist and cloud, it seemed a change of airmass was happening overhead.

Ardnish has several abandoned townships, the most westerly is at Port an-t Sluichd (Port of the hollow, or channel).  Often the swell here makes landing difficult as the narrow bay which gives the place its name faces west and directly into the prevailing wind and sea.  Although there was some clapotis around the steeper parts of the Ardnish coast it was easy enough to land on this occasion, and it's well worth doing so.

Paddling in to the shore there is a cleared  landing place; not immediately obvious........

...but the rocks have been cleared from one part of the shore to create a "noust" and the rocks made into a low pier; it must have been quite a labour to achieve and maintain.

Above the shore are the remains of several houses, just the low drystone walls still standing.  There are few documented records of the people who lived at Sloch, but from archaeological evidence it seems that these blackhouses represented the last phase of permanent dwelling.  Given that there are Iron Age hillforts on a couple of nearby islands and headlands it seems possible that Ardnish was at least visited by people during this period.

The next phase of population here were almost certainly Norse settlers - indeed the name "Ardnish" is a fusion of the Gaelic "aird" (point or headland) and the Norse "ness" (also meaning point or headland).  This repeated noun style crops up elsewhere on the western seaboard, for example at Ardtornish on Mull.  There is evidence of a viking boat noust at Peanmeanach further to the east of Sloch - the noust at Sloch is believed to be of a later period.

The records are very sparse until about 1720, though there are fragmentary records of rents being paid in the 15th century.  In the social and economic upheaval which followed the failed 1745 rebellion, sheep were moved onto productive land and tenants were forcibly "cleared" to more marginal areas including Ardnish.  There is firm evidence that the population of the peninsula rose rapidly between 1750 and 1820 and this is likely to be the time which the blackhouses here were built and occupied.

A blackhouse is, or was, typically stone walled with a low roof of thatch or heather which was held down with stones suspended on ropes across the structure.  One or two-roomed, there was no chimney, the smoke escaping through the thatch.  In winter a family would often share the building with their cattle, the cattle being placed in the lower room.  The corners of the walls were often rounded to better resist the wind, there's a good example of this at Peanmeanach.

Life would have been brutally hard with a period of comparative comfort for six months followed by six months of virtual starvation.  Kelp gathering, shellfish and fishing would supplement subsistence farming but the land here, as elsewhere on the marginal coasts, couldn't support the increased population and from the mid 1700's until well into the 20th century mass emigrations took place.  Some of these were forced but others emigrated voluntarily, hoping for a life free from poverty, starvation and the constant threat of destitution.

In 1841 the census recorded 20 people living in three houses at Sloch, the family names were MacEachan, MacDougald and MacGillivray, but by 1891 the township was abandoned.  A very well researched history of Ardnish and its townships can be found here

To the east of the houses at the base of a cliff Allan found a cave, quite dry when we visited but it would probably get very wet in heavy rain.  Loch nan Uamh (pronounced "ooh-a") is "loch of the caves" and there are many around its shoreline.  One of them at least would have been a temporary shelter to Charles Edward Stuart who landed from a French frigate in fine style on 25 July 1745; by April 1746 he was taken off from the same loch as a fugitive by another French warship after the failed rebellion which would change the country permanently.

All this weight of history seemed reflected in the meteorological immediacy; a heavy mist had settled a couple of hundred feet above sea level, sealing off the high ground above Sloch with a grey lid.  On each occasion I've visited Port an t-Sluichd there's been an atmosphere of that's difficult to describe, perhaps one of sadness and loss.  Strangely, Peanmeanch which has much of the same history and was abandoned at about the same time has none of the same atmosphere.

We left Sloch for the six kilometre crossing to the Borrodale Islands across Loch nan Uamh, hoping for brighter skies.....


  1. I am sorry I missed this trip Ian but I am still not well! It is great to read about it now . You highlight how useful the National Censuses are in understanding the history of a place. I used them to research my own crofting ancestors who lived in SW Arran. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Douglas - looking forward to seeing you on the water again soon! The Census documents are really fascinating records of the fortunes of a place....

      Kind regards

  2. Ian, you need to be writing a book of Scottish coastal experienced from the kayak cockpit. Great stuff! Duncan.

    1. Thanks Duncan, for me one of the best bits of blogging is to research the history and nature of places visited - never time wasted! :o)

      Warm wishes to you both