Monday, February 25, 2008

St Finnan's Island to the Iron Church across Hills of Lead

I have recently walked a six mile path in the West Highlands that links the village of Polloch to Strontian, rising over the shoulder of Ben Resipol (pictured) at over 1000 feet, and linking fresh water Loch Shiel with salty Loch Sunart. Each loch cuts a dramatic 25 mile gash inland and each has a feature that once drew columns of human traffic to it.

Eilean Fhianain, the island of St Finnan, sits in a twist in such a narrow point of Loch Shiel that you almost feel you can touch the island from its banks. This island was a traditional burial ground and drew coffin paths to it from all over the once heavily populated areas of Sunart, Moidart and Ardnamurchan. The ragged high land must have taxed the coffin-bearers and resting points are still marked with huge cairns.

On an OS map of 1925, on the high pass between Polloch and Strontian, where, a few metres apart, a cairn overlooks each valley, a well is attributed to St Finnan. The well suggests this path must once have been the final journey for the people of Strontian. After the mid 18th century as they dropped steeply towards Loch Shiel, the procession would have passed the Corantee lead mines. The mines are best known for the discovery of the mineral Stronianite in 1791 which was named after the village. The chemists Crawford and Cruickshank concluded that it contained a new “earth”, subsequently Dr Thomas Hope's research set the scene for the discovery of the element strontium by Humphry Davy in 1808. The hillside is still scarred and cleaved there. Building rubble, broken cogs and implements lie on the ground in rusty testimony.

So what about traffic heading the other way? Perhaps its most remarkable use was as a religious pathway at the time of the 'Disruption' of the Scottish Church in the 1840s. At this time, the Church of Scotland was ruled over by Parliament, making the reigning monarch head of the church and the local Laird ‘Patron'. This meant that he would choose his own minister rather then the congregation doing so. In 1843 unrest about this unwelcome link between politics and spirituality came to a head and most ordinary people chose to rebel by joining a break-away movement, the ‘free church’.

Such was the spiritual hunger of the people that accompanied the physical hunger of potato famine in the area, that when the Laird, Sir James Milles Riddell refused to sell them land on which to build their own ‘free’ church, they met in huge open-air services. People would walk anything up to 20 miles to the small bay at Ardnastang just a mile west of Strontian, sometimes barefoot, in order to gather in all weathers and seasons between the low and high tide marks in services that went on for several hours. The 'Corantee' path would have been the most direct route for worshippers from Polloch.

This poverty-stricken community, having recognised that the sea could not be ‘owned’, took it a step further. They resolved their situation by raising an extraordinary amount of money to commission from a shipbuilder on the Clyde an amphibious 'Iron Church' able to accommodate up to 750 people. In July 1846 it was towed by two tugs around the Mull of Kintyre and through the Sound of Mull into Loch Sunart (pictured). People lined the shores to celebrate its arrival and flocked to it by foot and boat from Morven, Ardnamurchan and Moidart. For ten years it remained anchored just off Ardnastang and during this time the popularity of its visiting ministers was gauged from the ‘plimsoll line’ of church attendance - an inch for each hundred congregation.

There are still many parts of the story to assimilate and imagine. This is a place of careering crags, jagged skylines, and tiny communities that teeter on the edge of the Atlantic. We might think of the land as 'wild' and uninhabited. But there is a sense that human footfall, industry and belief has stamped stories on these hills. This path is an important one to keep in use. I loved walking it with this great sense of history, passion, religious observance and human ingenuity beating a rhythm under my feet.

Glen Nevis, glen of stones

Saturday in Fort William may have been one of the wettest and windiest this year, but it didn't deter twelve workshop participants from joining me to respond creatively to the experience of walking beside the swollen river in Glen Nevis. Note-taking as we went, we used observation and imagination to generate words.

We got tuned into the place with senses of touch and sound and smell by denying our sense of sight, working in pairs - one guide, one blindfolded. One person trusted their partner enough to end up lying on the river-bank, head hanging over the racing river; another knee deep in a ditch, plunging his hands underwater to feel the skin-like texture of the bottom.

We created a character to inhabit as we walked - on a journey as film-maker, stalker, cattle drover, munro-bagger. We imagined what they had on their feet and what they carried in their pockets, what filled their heads as they walked and how their state of mind shaped their perception of the landscape. This led to some very interesting pieces including one from the point of view of a dog.

We changed scale - looking closely at a rock, lichen, moss, tree bark – and imagining it is a vast plain or forest or sea. What would it be like to walk through this landscape?
Back at the Ben Nevis Inn, participants wrote up their notes into short pieces. The diversity was astonishing - historical stories; a description of music created by the combined rhythms of river and footfall; the reaction of a rock to the fierce river that is challenging and overwhelming it today, etc. Each piece of writing was unique - the individual's response to the world in that time and place expressed through their own idiosyncratic choice of words.