|Heritage Centre–The Broch—Clachan
1. THE HERITAGE CENTRE TO THE MILL
From the Heritage Centre take the road opposite, signposted to Balnagowan. This is Killandrist, a place rich in ecclesiastical history, the name meaning St Andrew’s Chapel. Although the chapel is long gone, it was thought to be there some 1400 years ago. The large white Killandrist House is on your left and then the shell of Samuel MacColl’s school (Sgoil Shomhairle), a parish school that served the middle of the island in the 19th century, where one of Lismore’s most celebrated sons, Alexander Carmichael, was educated. As indeed were many others, less celebrated perhaps but only because history’s celebrating is random and never neutral. How many ‘mute inglorious Liosaich’ held slates here.
Further on you pass two barns and a house, the latter occupied until relatively recently. A large uprooted tree lies between them: Lismore’s outdoor art. Shortly a drive goes off to the right to a bungalow on the hill.
As you start to descend to the gate to the Mill, Loch Balnagown comes into view on your left, and, through the gate, concrete steps lead to a boating shed belonging to the Fells, who have been absentee landlords of a sizable chunk of the north of Lismore since 1866. It happened because Sir John Campbell of Airds needed cash, so sold what was called his Lismore lands to the Haig whisky magnates, and the Reverend Alexander Fell, son of Janet Haig, inherited.
The road starts to climb gently as you come to the end of the Loch with its abundant reed beds. It flattens out when you come to the end of the fence on your left. Continue as far as a large ash tree with the Mill farmhouse ahead.
There’s a road off to your right but you turn left just after the tree and head diagonally across a field to a bridge that crosses the mill race.
Once across, immediately turn right (ignore the gap ahead) in front of a fence and follow it round and, when you see a tree ahead, veer right up a sheep path to see great views of the Firth of Lorn from the top.
2. THE MILL TO THE BROCH AND BALURE
Ahead is a wall with a sturdy wooden stile at the end. Cross here and continue north following sheep paths along the cliff looking down on the raised beach. There is a broken down fence on our right. Soon the broch comes into view and you join a track down to a flattish field crisscrossed with sheep tracks.
The remains of runrigs are sometimes visible in the sun, remnants of the times in the 1800s when fertile Lismore was one of the granaries of the West Highlands, with every scrap of land sown to bere barley or oats. Around 1830 the population peaked at 1,500, and eighty years later, with sheep grazing everywhere, there were 400 and falling.
Leave the cliff and head up the middle towards a wall between Balnagown and Tirfuir with a sturdy iron Explore Appin and Lismore stile on its left hand side.
Once over aim for the left of the hill ahead and follow it round as it rises a little and becomes a rutted quad bike track. This track runs parallel to a fence on your left.
You are soon approaching a gate to a ruined settlement, almost in the shadow of the broch, where a minimum of three, maybe four, houses and a walled garden remain. These people were cleared, not for personal gain, but by typhus. Their suffering is hard to imagine; pre-penicillin days offered no hope. The entrance to the abandoned houses is very wet, even on dry days, and the place sad.
Leave the houses the way you came, there is only one entrance, and go right diagonally across a field to a gate. Once through keep the fence on your left and keep climbing past the sign saying to Achnacroish and then the information boards. The Broch is ahead, the raised beach and the Firth of Lorn beneath you and, on a good day, you can see north to Ben Nevis, east to Ben Cruachan and south to the Paps of Jura.
This Broch is thought to have been inhabited during the Roman occupation, as shown by the discovery of an enamel brooch in the foundation layer, and at least to the Middle ages. A decorative pin from the 8th century and a Norse pin and rivets, from the 11th or 12th century were also found.
In his book, Sgeul no Dhà às an Lios: A Tale or Two from Lismore, Donald Black says, ‘The broch at Tirfuir is evidence of the presence of the Picts on Lismore, and there are possibly two others, though ruined.’ One is on the Miller’s Port walk above Loch Fiart. This Broch is reasonably well preserved, with 15-feet-high walls and a visible internal passage, now barred to prevent sheep entering, which lies between ten-foot-thick walls. It is most important that visitors remember the age and the delicacy of this monument and treat it with care. Finding a plastic bottle in the inner broch tucked neatly under a stone was not a good moment. From the iron to the plastic age.
As part of the Lismore Landscape Project, Dr Ewan Campbell and colleagues from the Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow, excavated areas of the interior and surrounds of Tirfuir Broch in 2004-5. Read about this on the Comann Eachdraidh website and see what they unearthed. There is also lots of information about Scottish brochs on the Historic UK website.
3. BALURE TO CLACHAN
Return the way you came or zigzag down making for the barn and the ruined house and garden across the flat field. Turn on to a rutted track which veers round to the left and towards the gate where you turn right onto the Balure road.
Go through the next gate, with an explore Appin and Lismore badge, turn left and follow the track up. There’s a fence on your left. Don’t go through the gate ahead but turn right and follow the fence on you left round. When the fence turns sharp left you continue to follow it, but when it turns left again you turn right and go towards a gap between two hillocks. This is a track.
Continue on it round to the left towards an electric pole up on the right. Stay on a tractor track which curves round while you keep the electric line on your left. Clamber down to another flat bit and go ahead, then climb down again and follow the path round a horseshoe bend with views down to Loch Balnagown.
Very soon you come to a wall and to your right is a small iron gate with an explore Appin and Lismore badge. Continue ahead staying to the right of the next power pole climbing up to quite near it. Ahead is a fence and to the left is a tall white pole with a stile.
Cross here and head up towards the next power pole. Continue ahead to the next pole where you veer to the right towards the gate to the main road in the wall ahead. Bachuil House is across the road.
Turn left towards the church with the medieval grave slabs and, in the opposite field, the Sanctuary Stone (Clach na h-Eala/idh), said to be a refuge for fugitives fleeing from the Hill of Justice some miles away. If they reached the stone and circled it they were given sanctuary. It is a granite erratic which had mythic status in pre Christian times. The Hebridean Folklorist Otta Swire wrote: “anyone who claimed such sanctuary had his case considered by ‘the Elders.’ If they considered his plea justified, they ‘came out and walked sun-wise round the Swan Stone.’ If they did not approve of his right to sanctuary, they walked round it anti-clockwise and the man was then given over, not to his enemies, but ‘to Authority’ to be tried.”
The old manse, now a private house, is then on your right, and the smithy opposite. Known locally as The Smiddy, this was a working site in the 1800s and until shire horses were no longer in need of the blacksmith’s services. These days the farrier comes from Oban for the non-working Lismore horses.
The last notable buildings on the left are the fire station with a new ambulance, and the telephone exchange. The new signage at the museum is soon visible at quite a distance, mainly because of the bright Heritage Centre colours.
Enjoy your walk and remember to leave all gates as you find them.