Arichonan: where memories lie hidden

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Abandoned townships, silent remnants of communities that were once vibrant with life, are scattered throughout the Highlands. They can be quite hard to find, so when I saw a guided tour advertised by Kilmartin Museum, I put my name down for it.

The tour was to Arichonan, a settlement which sits high on a hillside in Knapdale. We parked in a forestry car park and followed our guide, Julia, on a path that ascended steadily, meandering across open moor and through mature woodland.

A hearty and determined little group had turned out on a morning of torrential rain, which blurred our vision as we stopped to gaze south towards Caol Scotnish, a spur of Loch Sween. Eventually, we emerged into a clearing where the ruined stone walls of houses were visible, rising from a carpet of grass and bracken. For a fraction of a second, despite myself, I looked for signs of life.

The oldest records of a settlement at Arichonan are from the 1600s but its history may go back many centuries further. The name means ‘Conan’s shieling’ referring to the tradition of taking cattle up onto higher ground in the summer months. The surviving buildings date mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, and may have been built upon older stone structures that included clay and wattle, though the roofs would have been made of turf or heather.

For several hundred years, the inhabitants of Knapdale would have kept cattle and grown crops. The general opinion is that, between the 16th and 19th centuries, the population expanded so that these farms often became settlements occupied by several tenants and their families, together with labourers and servants. If Arichonan had started life as a summer settlement, it must, by this stage, have become occupied all year round.

A burgeoning population squeezed into increasingly cramped dwellings was particularly vulnerable to disaster such as crop failure caused by potato blight; the late 18th century also saw a drop in cattle prices, pushing the farmers further towards starvation. At the same time, there was a movement towards agricultural ‘improvement’ in the Highlands as a whole. Under this new method of estate management, sheep farming took precedence over small-scale tenants, and settlements such as Arichonan were considered unnecessary.

The time of the Highland Clearances is still a sad and sensitive episode in our history. Not all landlords evicted their tenants forcibly; every settlement and every glen has a different story to tell. Individual stories, in many cases, still lie hidden. The fact remains that thousands of families left their homeland to begin new lives overseas – many in Canada and Australia.

At Arichonan, on April 4, 1848, the tenants received formal notice that their leases would be terminated on May 27, which was Whit Sunday. By that date, they were expected to ‘flit and remove themselves’ along with all their belongings, such as they had.

But when estate officials, backed up by the local constabulary, called to enforce the order, they were met with violence. The tenants had armed themselves with sticks and stones, and their numbers were swelled by people from neighbouring settlements who no doubt feared the same fate. More than 100 people, women as well as men, had turned out to fight. Some were arrested, and a few served short sentences in Inveraray jail. It was a valiant act of defiance, but it could not stop the momentum of change.

Niel or Neil MacMillan was one of the tenants of Arichonan, and his name can still be seen carved on a cottage wall. The MacMillans have a long history in this part of Knapdale – Castle Sween and the beautiful carved cross in Kilmory Knap Chapel bear witness to their former power. Other families included MacLeans, MacDougalls, MacLellans, MacLachlans, Campbells … it is impossible to know where they all went and how they fared after they left Arichonan.

Surprisingly, three years after the riot, the 1851 census shows that 26 people were still living at Arichonan, but only one of them was a farmer.  Niel MacMillan is listed as living with his sons, Angus and Peter, at nearby Kilmory Oib, but just over 20 years later this settlement also stood empty.

The Forestry Commission Scotland says: ‘It is unknown exactly when and how Kilmory was abandoned but the buildings are shown as unroofed by 1873 when the first edition Ordnance Survey map was published.’

At Arichonan, some of the buildings were converted into a shepherd’s house and sheep pens. Others present something of a puzzle to historians in terms of their evolution and occupation. This is not a place that wants to give up its secrets.

We stood under a dripping ash tree to eat our lunch, and reflected quietly on the lives that have been lived here, memories sensed but not spoken. From the south, the rain was clearing rapidly, leaving behind a forest of sparkling droplets and a comforting smell of wet earth. As we paused for a last look around, the houses of Arichonan were flooded with sunshine.

Take a look at Kilmartin Museum’s website for future trips and events: www.kilmartin.org