During the past hundred years the Parish of Kilmeny, which lies at the north end of Islay, has undergone very many changes. The population has diminished to a considerable extent, with the young people drifting to the towns to seek different employment. The Gaelic language is spoken less and is no longer heard in our school playgrounds or our streets. The infiltration of English-speaking people has helped in the decline of the language. Yet in our district Gaelic will really never die, as the place names throughout the parish are Gaelic or have Gaelic origin.
Long before the days of St. Columba when Christianity came to our shore, our parish was inhabited. But these original inhabitants have left very few traces of their occupations. Not one cave dwelling has been found and curiously enough only two or three supposed lake dwellings or “crannogs” have been found, although very many lochs in the district are suitable for that purpose. Vitrified forts are to be found in different places. In the Annals of Ulster it is said a severe earthquake was experienced about 740 A.D.
Kilmeny, under another name, is directly referred to in the hazy narratives of the Irish Chronicles. They tell us that, being so near to Ireland it was invaded before the arrival of Columba by the mysterious Firbolg and thereafter in the fifth century it became the adopted home of Erc, son of Eachad. Erc’s son Angus occupied Islay and divided the land into divisions. The identification of these districts is conjectural but Ardbeg is reputed to be the one known as Kilmeny. At that time there were thirty houses and each house or small community was made up of a group of twenty houses.
With the arrival of Columba in Scotland, legend has it that he visited Islay and our parish has many names associated with the names of Columba’s monks. Cill Bhrianainn received its name from one of Columba’s twelve apostles and Kilmeny, the name of our parish, is said to be from Cill a Mh’Eithne, Eithne being the name of Columba’s mother.
During the eighth-century the Western Isles were invaded by the Norsemen or Vikings and the influence of the Norsemen is seen in various place names throughout the parish. Most of those ending in “bus”, “dale”, “aig”, “borgr”, or “setr” have a Norse derivation. To give but a few examples, we have Persabus, Priest’s homestead; Torrabus, most likely from the God Thor; Robots, a red homestead; Keppols, horseseat; Margadale, narrow dale; Esknish, ditch or waterfall or even a sheltered valley.
The most important part of our history is centred around Loch Finlaggan and the Lords of the Isles. The Council of the Lords of the Isles used to meet on a small island in Loch Finlaggan, which lies in the middle of our parish. This isle was known in Gaelic as Eilean na Comhairle.
In Finlaggan today the crumbling ruins of the MacDonalds’ Castle and Chapel still bear witness to the vanished glory of the Lords of the Isles. Eilean Mor in Loch Finlaggan is almost joined to the shore near the north-west corner of the loch and can be reached by foot when the water is low. The castle, now in ruins, must have been of considerable size. Nearby are the ruins of the chapel dedicated to St. Finlaggan, a contemporary of St. Columba. To the south of the chapel is a burial ground and many examples of the fine West Highland carved tombstones have been collected within its walls. According to one writer, Thomas Pennant, the wives and children of the Lords of the Isles were buried on this island, while they themselves were buried in Iona. A Scottish princess, Marjory Stewart, is reputed to have been buried here.
Fifty yards to the south of Eilean Mor lies Eilean Na Comhairle or the Council Isle, At one time it had a line of boulders in the shallower part but now a boat is required to reach it. The islet is only about ninety yards in circumference, with an area of one sixth of an acre, and it rises in the centre to about ten or twelve feet. Although the surface is covered with reed grass and wild flowers, underfoot one can feel large stones or boulders, which seem to occupy two rectangular sites and these may mark the foundations of the Council House.
When the ceremony of proclaiming the Lord of the Isles took place, the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles was present together with the chieftains of all the principal families and a Ruler of the Isles. The newly proclaimed Lord of the Isles stood on a square stone, seven or eight feet long. This stone had a footmark cut in it upon which the newly proclaimed King stood, giving symbolic expression that he should walk uprightly in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors.
He was clothed in a white habit to show his innocence and integrity, that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. Then a white rod was placed in his hand, indicating that he was to rule his people with discretion and sincerity. A sword was given to him to show that he was ready to protect and defend his people in war. The ceremony being over, mass was said and the blessing of the bishop and priests given. For a week after that the Lord of the Isles feasted them, giving liberally to the monks, poets, bards and musicians.
Tradition has it that Eilean Mhuireill, farther down Loch Finlaggan, was used as a stronghold for prisoners of the MacDonalds.
The MacDonald of the Isles Council consisted of fourteen persons including four thanes, four lords or sub thanes and four squires or freeholders. In the islet of Finlaggan, where the Council sat, there was a table made of stone. The whole table and the stone on which MacDonald sat was carried away by an Earl of Argyll.
Unfortunately we know nothing of the laws or decrees laid down in their time but we are told there was great peace and wealth, due mainly to their just administration. In matters of law all are agreed that the Council of the Isles was the supreme court. No account remains to show whether the members of the Council were appointed by the Lord of the Isles himself or his principal subjects.
A manuscript in the British Museum has been quoted for the statement “The Chiefs of the Yles chose a King and adjoined to him one counsel of the wisest.” Of the many charters granted by the Lords of the Isles, comparatively few have survived. Some charters of land were never written down. Others were burned, destroyed or lost through war or other causes during the feuds. One turned up in a Glasgow lawyer’s office about twenty-five years ago, after having been missing for about a century. Only one Gaelic charter is known to exist today.
With the final forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles about 1493, the Council ceased to exist and at the end of the seventeenth century, the houses, chapel and other buildings fell into ruins. It is sad to think that the centre of the old Gaelic principality is in danger of being forgotten in this world of hustle and bustle.
Leaving the historical side let me proceed with an account of the places in the parish. This march between the neighbouring parish of Kilarrow and Kilmeny is at Esknish. A story is told of a former tenant of the farm who heard the sound of a cart but waited in vain for it to appear. Next day the cart did arrive, carrying the body of a man who had hanged himself in Dale wood.
The parish covers a large area of the north-end of the island and has five small villages or hamlets, which are expanding more and more by the building of new houses and the making of new roads.
The countryside outwith the villages is sparsely populated, many old crofts being now in ruins. Farms are scattered over the parish and these have benefited by the use of modern machinery. Perhaps the greatest change of all in recent times has been the introduction of electricity into the homes of the people. to let them have modern equipment on a par with town dwellers. Farms, too, have benefited from power and milking is now done by electric appliances.
From Esknish we come to Emeraconart, meaning a level rigg. Here are vestiges of some butts where the great MacDonald exercised his men at archery. To the left of Emeraconart a road leads to the farms of Ballimarten, near which there is an old lead mine, and to Ballachlavin, around which are standing stones. Farther along the main road, on the left at Keppolsmore, is a burial ground and behind the farm is the vitrified fort known as Keppols Dun. This small farm once produced two sons who both became Moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
On the right of the road is Tirvagain Farm and further on Higher and Lower Kilmeny. Between the two former farms, both tenanted by brothers, are more forts, Dun Fraoich, Dun Beag and Dun Dhuaraidh. On the latter the trenches are clearly defined and ruins to be seen. Beside Lower Kilmeny farm is the Kilmeny Burial Ground, in the midst of which lies an old ruined chapel. Near this is the manse and in the plantation stands Kilmeny Church, which was built in 1825. The manse conforms to plans by Telford. At the time of the Disruption the minister, the Rev. J. Pearson, walked out and formed the Free Church.
As we move on, near the recently built Council houses is the estate overseer’s house, Gartness, which means the field by the waterfall. To the left of the main road is Kilmeny School, where many eminent men have taught in the past. One of the earliest teachers was Neil MacAlpine, who was also a divinity student. He studied in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities and wrote one of the finest Gaelic dictionaries. It is still in use today.
His successor was Hector MacLean, M.A.T., a student of Edinburgh University, who was supposed to practise witchcraft. He helped to write the West Highland Tales in collaboration with J. F. Campbell. He taught Gaelic to the occupants of Islay House, who in turn taught him French, and he also studied bones and skulls. A monument was erected to him by the Glasgow Islay Association.
Hew Morrison, later Dr. Morrison, who followed Mr MacLean, eventually became the librarian of Edinburgh Public Library. Next came John Inch and then Walter MacFadyen, F.E.I.S., the last of the male teachers. The number of pupils on the roll was fast diminishing by that time.
We come now to the village of Ballygrant, where the MacDonalds of old used to store their grain. The village has been modernised, to a large extent through the efforts of Mr Schroder, and it is a sign of the times that while at one time there were pumps to give them their water supply, only one is now left. At present only one shop serves the community, with a travelling shop going to the more remote places, while in former times there were five shops, including a butcher, a baker, a general merchant and a first class tailor.
The row of houses in which the miners working in the lead mines lived was bought by Mr Schroder and modernised to house his employees. At present more houses are being renovated for employees by the laird.
The main industries are whisky distilling and agriculture, the latter being considerably helped by the lime plant at Ballygrant where up-to-date machinery crushes and bags the limestone for distribution to farmers throughout the island. At the same quarry, metal of different grades for road construction is a secondary industry. The quarry at the present time is working to capacity, producing metal for a new airstrip at the airport.
Turning to the left at Ballygrant village the road takes one through the glen where some of the loveliest scenery of hills, peat and moorland is to be found. A short distance along this road and through private ground lies Ballygrant Loch, famous for trout fishing. Further along this private road, which takes one to Dunlossit House, lie Loch Allan and the Lily Loch, both lovely to look at.
Back to the glen road and turning left at the fork, we come to Lossit Kennels and Lossit Lodge. Lossit Kennels was at one time a distillery and remains of it are still to be found in the house. Lossit Lodge may well have housed the excise man at that time.
Higher up we come upon Lossit Farm overlooking Lossit Loch, again famous for trout fishing, especially in the spring. From this loch the new water scheme has been constructed to bring a water supply through Ballygrant and Keills to Port Askaig. In Lossit Loch are two small islets called Eilean Fraoich and Eilean Mhic Iain, one of which is supposed to contain hidden treasure.
From Lossit Farm a road leads down past Baileachdrach to the shore on the Sound of Islay, where you can look across to Jura.
Returning to the fork on the glen road we proceed to Knocklearoch, a fine modern farm tenanted by Mr S. Bell. The previous tenants farmed there for over a hundred years. Stand¬.ng stones are to be found quite near. Knocklearoch is supposed to have received its name from the hill (Cnoc) where two clerks (Cleirach in Gaelic) were hanged. The scenery around is wild and rugged. Grouse, ptarmigan and game are to be found on the peat-banks and moorland, while a golden eagle may have its eyrie on Ben Bhan.
Continuing along the main road from Ballygrant we arrive at Woodend Farm on the right, and Robolls House on the. left. Built for Mrs MacNeill of Knocklearoch, Robolls House was later occupied by the manager of the lead mines and he was followed by a Mr MacDonald, reputed to be one of the best kilt makers of his day. At present Robolls House is one of the most modern hotels on the West Coast and is known as Bally-grant Inn.
Along the main road with Loch Scanistle on the right, we turn left towards Finlaggan Farm and Loch Finlaggan. To the right is Mulreesh, where lead mines were worked for a time, but transport was difficult and expensive. Now only three houses are inhabited. Farther on lies Balulive Farm, a Norse word meaning wolf.
Back on the main road we come to Keills, once but no longer a village of weavers. At Keills is a field called the Priest’s hill, and a baptismal font is to be seen there.
Along the main road we come to Bealach Ruaidh, the old market place for Islay, Jura and Colonsay. Again we take the turning to the left for Caol-ila, with a distillery belonging to the D.C.L. group. Erected in 1846, the distillery has been much extended and improved since then and today it possesses all the newest distilling appliances. Here too there is a fine pier where vessels can load or unload at any state of the tide. The water used in the distilling is said to be the finest in Islay and comes in a crystal stream from a lovely loch called Torabus. The annual output of the distillery is about 150,000 gallons, which is sold far and wide.
We continue along the road to Bonahaven, a fairly new village which, like Coal-ila, has a distillery overlooking the Sound of Islay. Bonahaven Distillery was built in 1881 by the Islay Distillery Company. A wit wrote a song about the new distillery probably poking fun at it:
Tha Still Ur am Bunnahabbain,
Tha Still Ur a choir a Cheoil,
Suisge Fhraoich is e cho fallan.
It is now known as the Highland Malt Distillery Co., and employs a considerable number of men, some of whom have come from the towns and enjoy living far from the madding crowds.
The end of the journey is at Port Askaig, a very small but busy hamlet with a first class hotel, pier house and post office. The mail steamer calls three times a week and goes on to Colon-say.
On an island such as ours, swept by the wild Atlantic seas, the Islay lifeboat plays a vital part in rescuing boats and lives. The first lifeboat, dedicated in 1935, was known for a time as the Port Askaig lifeboat before the name was changed to the Islay lifeboat. A new one was dedicated in 1960 and over a hundred lives have been saved since it was first commissioned, a truly wonderful feat.
Entertainment is still largely made by the people themselves in the form of concerts, ceilidhs and dances.
In our district superstition is fast dying out but in the olden days it was rife, especially among fisher folks and at harvest time. One old superstition was that of having a Rowan Tree planted beside the house to ward off evil spirits.
Our district is one of the most wooded parts of Islay with all the native trees and common birds. A waxwing has been known to frequent the wood very occasionally. Geese such as the Barnacles come from the North and settle on our shore during the winter, and the coastline abounds in guillemots, puffins, razorbills and many more. Islay and our parish itself is a naturalist’s paradise. And the people are kind and hospitable, giving a warm welcome to those who come into their midst.