Walking on Mull: Kilvickeon, landscape of the dead and the dispossessed

Before we set out on our final walk on the island of Mull I had noted the passage in Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places in which he comes to a realisation that, when you are in a landscape that might be termed ‘wild’, ‘the human and the wild cannot be partitioned’.  This walk was to prove the truth of that observation in spades.

Leaving our B&B on the shore of Loch Scridain in the village of Pennyghael, for the first time during our visit we had a clear view of Ben More across the loch: during the previous three days, it had been obscured by mist, low cloud or rain.

Just before Bunessan we took the back road from the A849 signed for Scoor. The tarmac road soon ends, and we decided to continue along the very rough and potholed track on foot, even though a parking area is located a mile or so further on.  We were heading for the bay at Kilvickeon, and an abandoned church and graveyard that lies just off the track before the beach. The morning was warm and sunny morning, though later there was to be a sudden change as cloud thickened and rain drove in from the west.

The track skirted the shore of loch Assapol, before cresting a rise from where the ruins of the church and graveyard could be seen. We took the path across the grass and entered the graveyard.  It’s an atmospheric setting with the loch below, and nothing but the sound of the wind stirring the long grass.

Kilvickeon translates from the Gaelic as Church of the son of Eoghan – Eoghan being a nephew of Saint Columba.  The church was erected in the 13th century,  and once served as the parish church for the whole of the Ross of Mull (this south-western corner of Mull). By 1795 the fabric of the church was falling apart, although it was still being used.  Its fate was sealed when a new church was built in Bunessan in 1804. Heritors (landlords) were often reluctant to repair churches on their land and that was the case here. When the new church was built in Bunessan, stones from Kilvickeon church were used in the construction.

Studying the gravestones it was clear that the church must still be used occasionally today since some of the headstones record quite recent burials, presumably of local people or of exiles whose families were from these parts.

Some of the grave stones bear the emblems and names of local families, including those of Macnevin, McNeil, McGillivray, Macdonald, Mackinnen, and MacLean. The burials date mainly from medieval to post-reformation, but there are a couple stones erected in the 21st century. A variety of occupations are recorded on the stones: cattle dealers, cartwright, and sailors. In a corner by the outer wall are two grave stones to merchant sailors who died during the 2nd World War.

Look in any direction from the graveyard and there is no sign of human habitation – only a broad sweep of moorland,  loch and woodland.  Yet, according to a local history of the area, in 1791 the church incumbent, Dugald Campbell, had 3,002 people living in his parish. He noted that none were ‘Jews, negroes, gypsies, foreigners or persons born in England, Ireland or the Colonies’, and was confident that his flock were ‘sober and industrious’.

‘The dead rest from their journey from one wilderness to another’ wrote Norman MacCaig, in his poem, ‘Neglected Churchyard, Luskentyre’, and learning only a little of the history of these parishes emphasises the truth of his sentiment.

The Duke of Argyll was the near-feudal landowner in the Ross of Mull. By 1730 the Duke had given the Ross of Mull in tack to ‘Donald Campbell, brother of Scammadale’. A tacksman resembled a feudal baron, leasing out the land and enforcing regulations on behalf of the landowner. A report on the Mull estates in 1737, noted that the tacksmen required rent in kind from the peasants as well as labour, and ‘ground them down’ and, after a visit to Mull a little later in the same century, Sir John Sinclair described what had to be provided:

Tilling, dunging, sowing, harrowing, providing peats, thatching, straw ropes or heath ropes, securing his corn in the barnyard, weeding the land, mowing, … manuring, making and ingathering the hay, the spontaneous produce of the meadow and marshy ground, cutting down, harvesting, threshing out, manufacturing and carrying to market or seaport, a part of the produce of the farm.

They paid in kind, straw bags, ropes made of hair for drawing the plough, reeds, tethers for cattle, straw for thatching. They also paid ‘vicarage’ in the smaller tythes, lamb, wool, a certain number of fowls and eggs, veal, kid, butter and cheese and on the sea coast the tythe of their fish and carrying of sea weed for manure. Sometimes lint was spun for the lady of the house and some woollen yarn was exacted.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the potato was introduced to provide a more productive source of nutrition on the  parish lands.  Potatoes became the new staple, largely replacing bear (a primitive barley) and oats, the grains of earlier times.

Towards the end of the century, the gathering and burning of seaweed to produce alkaline ash became a major source of cash income – in 1801, 600 tons were made on the Mull, some of it certainly in this part of the Ross. It was hard, labour-intensive work and, for a short while, very profitable to landlords, who encouraged cottars, landless tenants, to settle in the area to carry out this work.  At the same time, the settlements were ‘modernised’ by turning the old ‘runrig’ system, in which the villagers worked the land collectively, into more profitable individual crofts.

Kelp manufacture collapsed as the Napoleonic wars ended and cheap alternative sources of alkali flooded in from Spain. Meanwhile, potatoes brought disaster as potato blight struck in 1845.  The potato blight continued well into the 1850s, bringing famine and death to the families of Kilvickeon and neighbouring parishes.  But worse was to follow.

Increasingly, landlords like the Duke of Argyll  had begun to regard the villagers as unnecessary, redundant, an impediment to making the land yield a profit. Four years before the potato blight struck, the 7th Duke of Argyll had already taken the fateful decision to turn the township lands over to sheep farming, which required very few workers.

On the Ross, in 1847, the new and soon much hated factor of the 8th Duke of Argyll, John Campbell had begun to implement more forcefully the policy initiated by the 7th Duke. Their approach to tackling the famine consisted of driving the villagers off the land, either abandoning them to poor relief or encouraging them to emigrate.  The mechanism for this was brutal: instead of accepting rent arrears, the factor was instructed to evict or to forcibly remove cattle in payment.

Conditions on the Ross of Mull during the famine years (1846-56) were dreadful. By the 1880s the larger part of the Ross had been turned over to sheep farming, and the population of this southern part of the Ross of Mull had been displaced by emigration, either to Canada or Australia, to other parts of Britain, or to the unforgiving, infertile land of  the Ardnamurchan peninsula to the north of the Ross. Whole communities, including the township of Kilvickeon, were obliterated.

In his poem ‘A Man in Assynt’, Norman MacCaig wondered where they had gone, the people who once lived here, and pondered the meaning of a Highland landscape like that at Kilvickeon:

Who owns this landscape?-
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Who possesses this landscape?
the man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?
False questions, for
this landscape is masterless
and intractable in any terms
that are human.

[...]

Or has it come to this,
that this dying landscape belongs
to the dead, the crofters and fighters
and fishermen whose larochs
sink into the bracken
by Loch Assynt and Loch Crocach? -
to men trampled under the hoofs of sheep
and driven by deer to
the ends of the earth

We returned to the track and walked over grass down to the beach.  It was late summer, yet there were still many wild flowers along the way, many of them flowers of wet and marshy places.  Most prolific were the violet-blue flowers of Devil’s Bit Scabious, a plant that acquired its strange name from its value in treating scabies and other afflictions of the skin (scabies derives from the Latin word for scratch). According to folk tales the plant’s panacea properties so angered the devil that he bit off the short black root, giving the species its name.

Along the way we found dandelion-like Hawksbit, Knapweed, Purple Loosestrife – and signs that, in season, the Yellow Flag iris grew here in profusion. There were patches of purple Heather and stands of the feathery yellow flowers of Ragwort which seems especially widespread this year – a consequence of the cooler, wet summer perhaps?

Kilvickeon bay came into view – another has a stunning Hebridean beach, a curve of white sand with the tidal island of Garbh Eilean in the centre, linked at low tide by a spit of sand (known as a tombolo).  The silver sand is derived from from mica schist, the dominant rock in the area.

I climbed to the highest point on the island, from where there was a clear view of the Paps of Jura bathed in sunlight, with wisps of cloud blowing like pennants from their twin peaks.  The neighbouring island of Colonsay was also clearly visible.

Rapidly, though, the weather was changing as cloud thickened from the west.  We sensed that the depression forecast was advancing upon us rapidly, so we took one last look at Kilvickeon’s white sands before turning to leave.

From Kilvickeon a path leads to the ruined village of Shiaba, a crofting township that had been owned by the Duke of Argyll. Home to around 130 people, in 1847 the Duke cleared the land to make way for the more profitable activity of sheep farming.  We had intended to walk the couple of miles over the moors to Shiaba, but by the time we had retraced our steps to Kilvickeon church, the rain was driving in relentlessly, and we had to abandon the idea.

Shiaba: the remains of the school

This walk had illustrated the truth that Robert Macfarlane comes to realise during the expeditions that he describes in The Wild Places.  He had set out on his journeys with a vision of wildness as being confined to places like this –  inhuman, northern, remote.  But the vision had crumbled from contact with the ground itself:

No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland, and no such myth of purity can hold. Thousands of years of human living and dying have destroyed the possibility of the pristine wild.

Every islet and mountain-top, every secret valley or woodland, has been visited, dwelled in, worked, or marked at some point in the past five millennia. The human and the wild cannot be partitioned. Since the Celtic Christians, culture has endured in wild places and the wild has endured in culture. Landmarks and dwellings – shelter- stones, petroglyphs, cairns, stone walls, bothies, shielings, villages, townships – are to be found within wild places. Journeys have taken place into the wild, or across it. And it has been the subject of stories, songs, legends and poems …

Macfarlane recalls something the writer Fraser Harrison had said:

Our perception of land is no more stable than our perception of landscape. At first sight it seems  that land is the solid sand over which the mirage of landscape plays,yet it turns out that land too has its own evanescence . . . ‘Place’ is a restlessly changeable phenomenon.

In the far north of Scotland, Macfarlane observes that place and landscape are ‘a restless mingling of history and presence’, with different meanings for those who settle or pass through:

The wildness of [a place] were regarded so differently by a forester felling trees, by the captain of a fishing-boat plying the hard waters of the Firth, by an Iron Age settler, by a Christian monk, by parents who had lost their daughter, or by a dispossessed people, trekking northwards into alien country. Or, of course, by a traveller passing through for a few days.

Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘A Man in Assynt’ observes both the timeless sense of the Highland landscape, as well as the successive waves of human settlers who have left their imprint on the land.  He notes, too, the new settlers who come from the cities – ‘people tired of a new civilisation’ come ‘to taste what’s left of an old one‘, who ‘exchange the tyranny of the clock for the natural rhythm of the day’, and who now outnumber the locals (something we noticed here, too).

…And the mind
behind the eye, within the passion,
remembers with certainty that the tide will return

and thinks, with hope, that that other ebb,
that sad withdrawal of people, may, too,
reverse itself and flood
the bays and the sheltered glens
with new generations replenishing the land
with its richest of riches and coming, at last,
into their own again.

I’ll finish with another passage from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – one that takes a different view to that conclusion of MacCaig’s pre-global warming poem:

There was something in this long sight, this sense of the human presence as being something temporary, which I recognised. During my journeys, I had seen so many human structures from so many epochs sinking back into the land: the roofless houses of the west ofIreland, the rubble of the Clearance townships mossed over in Scottish glens, and the slate spoil-heaps of Blaenau, where I had spent a day inside a mountain, moving through the abandoned mine-tunnels. I had heard about others: the drowned village ofDunwich on the Suffolk coast, reclaimed by the rising sea, over which Roger had once swum. The thousands of deserted medieval villages of England, painstakingly found and mapped by the historian and archaeologist Maurice Beresford in the 1940s and 1950s, many of them abandoned in the years after the Great Plague.

The little Isle of Soay, off Skye, where Gavin Maxwell had established a basking-shark fishery in the 1940s, and where the grass now grew through the eyeholes of shark vertebrae that were scattered in the bone yard, and where rust and damp were slowly breaking down the flensing equipment and the hauling pulleys. North of me here in Essex, I knew,were the so-called ‘plotland’ woods of Laindon and Thundersley: young woods that had sprung up on land that had been built on in the late nineteenth century, and then again during the great slump in land prices of the inter-war years. Street after street of bungalows, many of them self-built, had rotted back into the ground, and the trees had returned – native oak, ash and hornbeam – and with them had come the creatures.

Abandoned places such as these provide us not only with images of the past but also with visions of the future. As the climate warms, and as human populations begin to fall, increasing numbers ofsettlements will be abandoned. Inland drought and rising sea-levels on the coasts will force exoduses. And wildness will return to these forsaken places. Vegetable and faunal life will reclaim them: the opportunist pioneer species first – dog-rose, elder, fireweed, crows . . . Just such a reclamation has occurred in the so-called ‘zone of alienation': the region of north Ukraine that was placed off-limits after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In Pripiat, the town in which the Chernobyl workers were accommodated, silver birch now throng the empty streets and courtyards. Flower meadows of exceptional botanical diversity have grown up through the paving stones. Forests of pine and willow have populated the city’s outskirts, through which run wolfpacks of up to 200 animals. Moose, deer, lynx and boar pad through the city’s suburbs. Black storks nest in its chimneys, bats in the empty houses, and kestrels in the unused window boxes. The cooling ponds of the Chernobyl plant itself are now filled with catfish up to six feet long.

I had spoken once to a climate-change scientist about the subject of abandonment. The study of her science had changed her perception of time, she said, and of the relevance of human beings within history. Though we are now among the dominant species, she said, our age will pass, and our material legacy – unthinkable though it now is to imagine it vanished – will be absorbed by the land, becoming all but imperceptible.

I sense this, too.

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3 thoughts on “Walking on Mull: Kilvickeon, landscape of the dead and the dispossessed

  1. Hello; I love your photos and your words about your visit to Mull. I went there 10 years ago, and have visited many Scottish islands. I don’t know MacFarland (approriate name, yes?) but am inspired to go to the library and get hold of ‘The Wild Places’. It sounds a fascinating read from your excerpts. I’m an artist with particular interest in the land, and the way our ancestors made marks and patterns on it. Particularly interested in archaeology; of which Mull, and the Scottish islands, has much to find! Thank you for posting. Best wishes Jan (Wakefield, England)

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