Lochaber No More

 In honour of Andrew Wiseman and his efforts to maintain the legacy of Calum. I MacLean

agus do mhuinntir Alba Nuaidh a chumas beò cainnt Loch Abair fhathast.


My sources of information were not to be guidebooks, travellers’ accounts or the prejudiced writings of formal historians.  They had to be living sources breathing the air and treading the soil…

They are, of course, the people who know most about Lochaber.

– Calum I. MacLean


             From the roof of Scotland, Loch Abar stretches out at peace; twinkling lights and patches of forestry, tiny scudding vehicles and miles-long naturally wrought slots filled with fresh rain. From the perch of the Cailleach Bheur[1], only the seeming intrusion of technology has changed this scene, the character of the people and the language upon their lips indiscernible.  From the heights of Beinn Nìbheis[2], all appears well.

Gleann Nìbheis, air cùl na beinne  Scots Pines in the Glen behind the Ben.  


             On one of my many sojourns through Lochaber – admittedly most often on my way elsewhere – I stepped into a café near the home of the man most closely associated with this area for any Gael who remembers the 20th century. The voice of Iain Domhnallach[3] the Lochaber Bard echoes reassuringly in my ears as I travel, safely revered as uniquely representative of the area’s Gaelic heritage.

             I finished my sandwich, slurped the last of my tea, and went to settle up with the pleasant lady who had served me; grey-haired, blue-eyed, handsome-featured and of a vintage that would secure her in knowledge of the Bard, whose passing in the 1960s was not so very long ago.  As I completed the transaction for my victuals, I enquired of the poet, asking about how well he might yet be loved in the area – not expecting devotional fireworks, but hardly anticipating the dearth of any kind of recognition whatsoever that such an individual had ever walked the Lochaber Braes.

          “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you mean” she said, most courteously, but with a look of blank resignation on a face that had the genetic imprint of her Gaelic ancestors upon it yet.

          “He’s very famous” said I, trying not to expose my plaintive desperation.  I looked at the lady behind her: “No?”  She shook her head.  John the Bard was dead to these ladies, if he had ever been alive. I was unexpectedly wounded by this and with a wan smile and a grasp of
my change, I made out into the faint Highland sun.

          From the peak of Ben Nevis, John the Bard lives.  In fact, every hero who ever set foot in Lochaber, or anywhere else in the Highlands, still lives.  The glow of the west in the dusk is as Gaelic from the roof of Scotland as it ever was and the fires of Highland homes secrete their jolly smoke from chimneys long cold as if the Clearances had never taken place.  In the mind of the Gael from the throne of the Cailleach Bheur, his people are everywhere still to be found.  There is a welcome, an assuaging of the cultural loneliness which pervades the reality of ground level, in every township now ruined and overgrown, a warm hug from a compatriot to dry the tears of grief for our shattered matrix, our mouldering character and our shrunken husk of a language, spoken now by hobbyists and modernists, but most often expunged from use amongst the descendants of its original speakers.

          Lochaber: the Outdoor Capital of the UK –as if the area is nothing but a playground for mountaineers and hikers, kayakers and cyclists.  The very sight of this phrase on signs at the side of the road has my hackles up as I pass.  Lochaber has been commoditised, captioned and branded, like “Argyle’s Secret Coast” or the “North Coast 500”.  I cannot imagine what John the Bard would make of it, but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t be much.


John MacDonald is a sturdy man, somewhat under medium height, but very alert and active.  His little grey eyes seemed to pierce right through me as I approached him. I greeted him in Gaelic.  On hearing his own language, he immediately shed his reserve and smiled.

He was John the Bard.

(c) School of Scottish Studies


              If even the memory of this man is gone, then Lochaber can be no more, I thought.  The cultural amnesia of the people here represents the final stage of colonisation.  Once the population have lost their sense of belonging, the land around them is defenceless in the face of being apportioned off and rebranded for commercial purpose.  People and place linked by language and culture provide a resilience now missing.

I regret that lamentably little of the fine traditions of Lochaber are being passed on to the younger generations.  Men like John MacDonald of Highbridge… could stand anywhere on the highway between Fort William and Roy Bridge and name every valley, every stream, every copse and every peak in an absolute sea of mountains as far as the human eye could reach.  Their knowledge did not however, stop at mere names.  They knew the why and the wherefore of them all.

          What the Statutes of Iona had begun in 1609; what the last Jacobite Uprising had brought into very brutal and ignominious relief – all the sharper at the point of the redcoat bayonet – the television had completed with passive yet all-pervading power.  The Butcher could not get a spy into every Highland Home in 1746; his 30,000 merks were as useless before the monetarily ignorant Gael.  But the television is a stroke of unparalled colonial genius, allowing the voracious consumerist mindset of the less palatable among the ranks of the Anglo-American free reign to wreak havoc in the Highlands as elsewhere like some hypnotising, pontificating mechanical owl perched on the wall or side cabinet, feeding not on the innards of rodents, but on the minds of children.

          The television is an incredibly useful piece of technology.  There would be few who could deny it.  What a fantastic thing to be able to witness language and culture from the other side of the world with just the flick of a switch.  That it is rarely used for such endeavour, we can only attest as we walk into the living rooms of people who should know better than to leave it on from dawn until dusk.

          A friend once pointed out to me that in Uist, the TV set was often referred to by the elders as am bogsa-puinnsein “the poison box” and how right these venerable folk were.  I was taken on a delightful tour by a friend to the homes of some people in North Uist in 2009 from whom I received hospitality which if for some unlikely reason I ever wished to shake from my memory, I most certainly could not.  The factor that has lasted just as long however, is the memory of the TV that never ceased to deliver its opinion evening long, despite the valiant struggle of the gathered Gaels to make themselves heard, remote control in hand.

          After a valiant struggle of my own against the mighty measures of lovingly-poured whisky into my less than voluminous glass, I sickened of sipping from the constantly-topped brim and let my terrible hunger be known.  Embarrassed as I was to put upon these people, I was led bodily into the kitchen and seated at a table and chair, while all manner of comestibles were laid out before me.  The té-an-taigh[4] bustled behind me, punctuating every bite with enquiry as to my satisfaction, which safe to say with mounthful of butter, cheese and oatcakes in situ, was complete.  Not content with this, it was time for the scones and jam to emerge, with more tea, and my hostess barely a day over 40 years of age.  She morphed seemlessly into her grandmothers, and touched me lightly on the shoulder now and again as whispers of sin u, ma-thà[5] and an dian sin an gnothach, a ghràidh?[6] were heard close to my ear.  Inside this lovely lady, who I have not had the pleasure of seeing since, lived the beating heart of her Gaelic ancestors; Highland Hospitality had not yet met its end in the talons of the Omnipotent Owl next door.  Another 30 years of a TV in every human home however, coupled with the miniature TVs now in every human hand, and we shall see its end within the lifetimes of our children, independence of culture lost in the same manner as independence of mind and nation.

          I was thankfully about to be spun on my heel as I searched for memory of John the Bard in the hope that all was not lost.  I decided that in attempting to get under the skin of Lochaber, I would have to find an orifice somewhere.  That somewhere was the graveyard at Cill mo Naomhaig[7] near Drochaid an Aonachainn[8].

In one of the headstones, there is a hole made by a bullet.  Away back in the days of the ‘bodysnatchers’, John MacDonald’s father was one night watching the Kilmonivaig graves.  He was armed with a muzzle-loader.  Towards morning he was tired and drowsed off to sleep.  Suddenly he awoke and saw what he thought was the figure of a bodysnatcher.  He shot.  The figure did not move.  The bullet, however, went clean through his victim – the headstone.

          I entered the graveyard on a beautiful March morning, the smell of spring strong in the air and a gentle cascade of sunlight descending through less than heavy cloud.  It took a matter of only a minute to find the headstone through which the bullet had crashed.  I hadn’t found John yet, but I had found my orifice, the handiwork of his father.  The wound was sizeable, clearly having entered at the back of the stone and blown a wider exit hole out of the front.  It felt good to handle it, to know that true Lochaber hands had done the same, and that strong West Highland Gaelic had been heard repeatedly in the stone’s presence.  As my friend who had come along that day lifted a picture or two of me at the little monolith and as we rose to depart, I was called by the only other person we encountered while visiting.

“The bullet however, went clean through its victim”


           “Is there anything I can help you with?” asked the kindly man on the other side of the original entrance to the walled graveyard, the gate’s feet now thick with earth and moss and unable to shuffle open its iron bulk.

          “Well what I’m doing is writing a book about what’s happened in the Highlands since Calum MacLean visited here in the 50s” I informed him.

          “Kenny MacIntosh is the man you want to speak to,” said he, and off we were sent back down the brae into Spean Bridge.

          Not only is Coinneach Mac an Tòisich only too well aware of exactly who the Bard is, he also boasts among his fine collection of books on Scottish and Gaelic matters a first edition copy of “The Highlands” by Calum I. MacLean.  When I returned alone the next day, Coinneach was more than pleased to spend the afternoon ferrying me around all manner of sites that had been mentioned by Calum is his book and filling me in on exactly what had changed since he left.  A better guide to the history of Lochaber in the verging on post-Gaelic age a person would be hard-pressed to find.  Coinneach was born around the time Calum visited, meaning that his life spanned the exact period since.  When I described what I thought must be the right gravestone, Coinneach confirmed that I had indeed located the correct one and that when he was a child, the school teacher would regularly point it out to the class as they passed.

My own beloved first edition copy of “The Highlands”

Glen Roy must be one of the most beautiful glens in the Highlands.  In a few years, it will be derelict and dead.  The ageing population there at present will have gone because among other things, they have no water supply and no electric light in their houses.

          Coinneach insisted much to my great pleasure in delivering me some way up this admittedly most stunning of glens.  We reached a high viewpoint and paused to take in the scene.  As my generous host informed me that Upper Glen Roy had once supported many occupied houses, he pointed out areas of former cultivation on what seemed like mightily steep hillsides.  “There’s a lot of bracken, but that’s good ground you know” said Coinneach, whose perfect passive understanding of Scottish Gaelic was tempered only by timidity in speaking it.  His arm swept along the braes on either side of the River Roy, scotching the modern perception that such natural beauty comes at an unavoidable price – the absence of human habitation.  Coinneach, like the tradition bearers before him, knows the names of townships, of cottages, of caves, of hills, and of those who frequented them.  He may not be a fluent Gaelic speaker himself, but he is a fluent exponent of the Lochaber way.

          “Further up the glen” he said, “there is a shooting lodge, with staff and what have you, but no community.”  I ventured that what Calum predicted about Glen Roy being derelict and dead had indeed come to pass. “Well funnily enough, they did get electrticity,” Coinneach continued, “and they got water too!  But it’s a different way of life up here now.  The old crofting communities have been broken up and the old people did die out.  There are very few young ones either though and it’s gone that they don’t want small crofts, they want everything to be big units and big farms.  That’s the way it’s gone; it kills community.”

“Glen Roy must be one of the most beautiful glens in the Highlands”

               When I arrived at Coinneach’s house before we made off out for the day, I was greeted from the garden, having tried unsuccessfully to locate him in the house.  A smile emanated from a neat grey beard behind the cover of a hedge and I hung up my speculative mobile phone realising that Coinneach was not ten yards away!  As we shook hands under the proud saltire on a pole sporting the European stars, we noticed an imposing figure descending slowly into the driveway.

It was in Glen Roy that I found the only Gaelic speakers under forty years of age…

With Glen Roy, a language, a culture, a civilisation passes into oblivion.

          This civilisation was not altogether dead and it had arrived in the figure of Raghall Caimbeal, “Ronnie the Crofter” (now deceased) as he was locally known.  The fact that this appellation had followed him was not lost on me, the inference being that he was perhaps the only crofter left of the old guard.  I had long tried to get a hold of Raghall, ringing him, calling at his croft, and had failed utterly to make it happen.  Stories of his fierce, uncompromising nature preceded him, and I had resigned myself to the rendezvous never taking place.  Upon reaching the croft, I had been greeted by a pair of ferocious Border Collies, caged at the roadside, but clearly itching for the chance to take my throat out.  I have plenty experience of working sheepdogs and know fine not to expect affection, but the wildness of this pair was off the charts, giving me a taste, I felt, of the warrior nature people had associated with Raghall.  As with so many other moments on this journey however, my faith in the ancestral purpose that has driven me along during the last 15 years was rewarded, and Raghall came to me.

          We passed through the gate at the side of Coinneach’s house and he and Raghall chatted for a brief minute before I was introduced.  Raghall and I shook hands for a long time, he with my wrist and I with his, gripped, looking one another squarely in the blue of our eyes and speaking contentedly in the tongue of our forebears.

          Bha mi ’feuchainn ri greim fhaodainn oiribh I said with an eyebrow raised.  Tha mi ’creidsinn gu robh answered Raghall in what I realised was typically taciturn fashion after the most friendly welcome to a fellow Gael.  He knew I’d been trying to get a hold of him, knew just fine who I was, but had not been in the mood to be questioned.  In fact, it was not his forebears that had a hold of Raghall’s attention at that particular moment at all, but bears of a decidedly different sort.

          “I’m about to be set upon” he stated, with a dramatic glint in his eye. “Bears and wolves will be running round my croft very shortly, you know.”  Coinneach grinned and looked between our two faces, clearly not taking the matter altogether seriously.  “I’ll be thrown out and the wild animals will take over” finished Raghall.  And with that he wandered off up the sloping drive and across the tarmac to a waiting car on the other side of the road without a backward glance.  Just as Calum had felt when meeting John the Bard I felt myself having finally met Raghall – a real character!

          What the old crofter was referring to was the buying up of a dozen Highland estates by Danish billionnaire Anders Polson for the purposes of rewilding.  As Coinneach and I drove up through Glen Roy, I ventured that from an ecological perspective, and for the future survival of anything verging on a healthy ecosystem in which humans could live in a sustainable fashion, soil regeneration and species diversity were going to have to be ensured.  It quickly became clear however that the problem Raghall might have was not so much with the process, but with what could potentially amount to a lack of consultation; another foreign power inserting itself into the Highlands in the wake of British colonialism.

          I wondered whether the indomitable Raghall would have been part of this coterie of younger Gaels that Calum encountered in 1950s Glen Roy.

          “Yes, yes, I imagine he would have been.” confirmed Coinneach.  “There was quite a big squad of them in fact, quite a lot of people under forty then.”  Coinneach went on to list a number of nicknames referring to local families. “That would be your younger generation of Gaelic speakers.”

Àdhamh ‘s Coinneach ann an Gleann Ruadh


               While at the far end of Glen Roy, I was reminded of an encounter with a Greek author some years previously, a most eccentric woman to be sure, but someone with a number of interesting theories
on the relationship between Ancient Hellenic myths and the Scottish Highlands.
  During an email conversation, we had suddenly got into a most rapid exchange which resulted from her sharing both a rough hand-drawn map of what she referred to as “Hyperboria” and a theory that Hercules had visited the far north.  Clearly this map was of Scotland and as I looked at the placing of what were termed the “Paralliloi”, I knew upon pouring over an Ordnance Survey map of Lochaber that these could only be Glen Roy’s Parallel Roads, the result of a lowering shoreline during the Younger Dryas. Could there be a case made for Hercules and Cù-Chulainn being one and the same?  It certainly begs further investigation.

          From my discussions with Coinneach, it seemed as if the communities in Glen Roy had receded ever further out of the upper part of the river course since Calum’s time, sliding inexorably towards the mouth of the glen.  Coinneach suggested I have a look at Roy’s Military Map which places the townships of the locale exactly where they were.  My host has been all the way up to investigate them himself and confirmed the map’s accuracy.  There had also been 30 Highlander-occupied houses in Bohuntine not so long ago, where many of Coinneach’s people hailed from, but now the demographic had been turned on its head.  Instead of people from the Scottish Lowlands or England being the exception, the vast majority of homes were now occupied by what Coinneach judiciously termed “our friends from the South”.  It appeared as if the colonisation of the Scottish Highlands had surged ahead here at just the same pace as anywhere else in the decades since WWII, and especially since the advent of “right to buy” which Coinneach rightly considered a dreadful thing.

A photoshoot with a classic car takes place in Glen Roy

          Turning back to discussion of the Bard, I wondered whether he was often a feature of conversation among the older people of the area.  Coinneach confirmed that he was.  “Everyone knew where the Bard’s house was and in fact his nephew was still in the house when I was young, so it was still in the family. People often talked about his papers, wondering what had happened to them.  My mother used to get quite excited talking about the Bard’s stuff”

          “So there was a sense in which in your own younger days then, there was a natural amount of celebrity surrounding him,” I ventured, “in that old school Gaelic way?”

          “Oh yes.  They used to talk about the Bard’s stories, there would be people discussing those.”

          “And was there anybody who was able to sing a chorus from any of his songs or anything like that?”

          “No, I certainly don’t remember that, no.  That’s not to say there wasn’t though!  I think he used to sit and sing them himself.  He may have been the only person that sung some of them!  But he wrote them down which was a good thing.”


Cille Choiril

          We had gone looking for John’s grave, but after a drive through Braighean Loch Abair[9], hadn’t found it in Cille Choiril churchyard, a most gorgeous environment in which many of the Catholic Gaels of
the area had found their rest.
  A little chapel still sees use in the summer time and has been greatly boosted, Coinneach informed me, by the charitable input of Nova Scotian descendants of the local stock, remedial work on subsidence having prevented the descent of the church into the glen via the long steep bank.  Upon a mound roughly east of the chapel grows a yew tree, and a most sturdy, healthy-looking exponent of the species he is too, indicative of the fact that this cemetery – like most others – had been used since ancient times before being requisitioned by the new monotheistic system arriving from the east.

          A wander up this bank was in order after we had examined the wrongly-placed stone to commemorate Iain Lom, bard to the MacDonalds of Keppoch and documentor of the stunning victory by Alasdair mac Colla chiotaich and Montrose over the Covenanting forces under the Campbells of Argyle at Inbhir Lòchaidh[10] in 1645.  The finely-carved monolith had been put up close to where Domhall mac Fhionnlaigh had been interred, also mentioned in Calum’s book, while it is thought that the remains of Iain Lom are most likely halfway up the bank towards the yew.

Crois-cuimhne dlùth ri uaigh Dhomhaill mhic Fhionnlaigh


The actual spot where his remains lie is not known now.

The last tradition bearer who knew for certain is long dead.

          Coinneach pointed out that in the early 18th century, there wouldn’t be the same marking of graves as there is now and that you’d be lucky if you got a lump of stone with a rough cross on it.  Perhaps given Iain Lom’s lack of popularity in the district, he was lucky to have made it into the soil at all.  We headed out of the graveyard and back into the car in search of the poet’s house, the foundations of which are hidden in amongst the ubiquitous forestry which has completely blanketed the area from a mile east of the chapel over to Badenoch.  My host reckoned that Iain Lom had been shoved out of the road due to his notoriety, his legacy amongst the people remarkably different to that of John the Bard.

          “He’s never been remembered kindly by anybody actually!” laughed Coinneach.  “He was anything but a popular man.”

          “You have to wonder” I mused, “whether in fact Alasdair MacColla was really of a mood to hang him from the nearest tree if his news turned out not to be sound, or whether Iain was just cheeky to him!”

          “Well this is it” agreed Coinneach, “I think he was cheeky to everyone!  Funnily enough, if we’d gone right up Glen Roy, I could have shown you that tree.  It’s only the stump that’s still there, a good bit further up, just this side of the lodge, but it’s actually quite visible.  And people used to say ‘och no, that’s just a recent tree; it couldn’t possibly have been there 350 or more years ago’ but an expert forester actually had a look at it – I think it’s a Scots Pine – and said ‘no, that’s actually quite reasonable, that it could have been there that amount of time’.  And that’s where Iain Lom was to be hung if he was telling lies!”

          Coinneach explained to me that the well opposite the house, facing the Laggan Dam was where the poet drew his water.

          “They’re supposed to have sent somebody to kill him latterly; but the story went that the guy, when he came and he saw him – I think he was just a wee wizened old man – couldn’t be bothered with the idea of killing him.  He thought ‘time will take care of that one’!  He had a lot of enemies, Iain Lom.”

Far an robh taigh Iain Luim


              As with most people that are of Glen Roy, Coinneach and Raghall are related, second cousins, and share an ancestor in Eoghann Ruadh Mac an Tòisich who was out with the Prince.

          “Eoghann Ruadh was a Mackintosh,” explained Coinneach, “and he was from Bohuntine and he was a farmer and a sargeant in the Prince’s army and he’s supposed to have joined the Rising at Glenfinnan and gone all the way down to Derby and back and was actually wounded at the Battle of Falkirk.  He had a musket ball in the shoulder – they just left it there.  And he went on to fight at Culloden and had both his legs broken with grapeshot.  He was with the MacDonalds of Keppoch and he was fortunate enough that I think his people lifted him onto a pony – because there was horses careering about – so they lifted him onto a pony and whether he managed to steer the pony home from Culloden Moor all the way back to Bohuntine, the story is that he died of his wounds eventually when he got home and he’s actually supposed to be buried under the flagstone of the door at Cille Choiril church!”

          “Well that’s not bad going as a Highlander if you’ve a story like that to tell about an ancestor!” I exclaimed.

          “Aye, well the Redcoats had a field day round about here; really terrible depridations were visited on this area, dreadful stuff, but a few managed to escape now and again and make a nuisance of themselves!”

          I was very keen to find out if the Forty-Five had left a legacy in the area in terms of the sentiment of the people, whether there was anything left of what Calum most certainly found in the 1950s; that there was still only one Prince.

          “Oh very much so!  Very much so.” Coinneach was emphatic on this point.  “They were rabid Jacobites… still.  Oh god aye!  My own father used to do the Jacobite toast.  They would take the glass and
pass it over the water, and then it was: ‘the king over the water and the
little gentleman in the black velvet coat’ – which was the mole.
  And it was a mole that killed King Billy,
because his horse tripped over a molehill. 
Yup!  So that was the toast.”

          “So they would be saying slàinte Mhór instead of slàinte mhath?”

          “Exactly.  Slàinte Mhór.  Yup, yup!  To Mórag.  Oh they were quite bitter Jacobites, yes.  Even what I remember of them.  Oh god aye!  250 years later and they had no regret at all about joining the Rising. They had all kinds of thoughts and theories as to why it went wrong.  They tested the Hanoverians.  Yes.  And their successors!  There was more to Jacobitism than just the succession.  It was actually quite a progressive kind of a movement.  All the really ‘go-ahead’ people were Jacobites.  The Hanoverians were a pretty dour, unnattractive lot; I think they were just money-grabbing; ‘corrupt’ I think would be the word.  It’s why they were so unpopular.”

          It was quite remarkable to hear Coinneach talk about fervent Jacobitism in the Scottish Highlands as if it were yesterday.  It was perfectly plausible that there had been an unbroken tradition of anti Hanoverian and therefore anti-establishment feeling right through to my own time, which given my birth in 1979, seemed almost incredible.  Despite being a republican and considering monarchy an anachronism, I have always felt a strong pull to the Jacobite cause because of the people who were involved in it, my people, the Gaels.  Although my Sutherlands and MacKays were most likely on the wrong side of the conflict, there would no doubt have been just as much pro-Jacobite feeling amongst the common people in the glens of my ancestors as there was anywhere else.

Kenny with his copy of Calum I. MacLean’s “The Highlands”

          Even if Gaelic had been on the wane for decades by the time Coinneach came into this world, it was clear that much of what was held important in the old fabric of Lochaber society still heldsway, and not that long ago.  I did wonder however, whether the following prediction had come to pass:

There is hardly one child in any
school in Lochaber today
who will be able to read, write
or even speak Gaelic upon reaching school-leaving age.

          “When you were at school, do you remember anyone coming in still in those days who wasn’t able to speak English?” I asked Coinneach.

          “No,” he said, “there wasn’t anyone who could speak Gaelic at all in fact, nevermind not being able to speak English.  Not in the 60s.  Even if they had Gaelic, they wouldn’t be speaking it.”

          “And was it ever spoken of round here that people had suffered at the hands of teachers because of the language?”

          “Oh yes!” Coinneach snapped back swiftly. “In my parents’ time, they were thrashed for talking Gaelic.  They were belted.  The 1930s.  It was definitely discouraged.  They were made to feel inferior.”

          Institutional child abuse, which within Scottish schools extended well past the speaking of Gaelic to the speaking of  Scots and all manner of other things that were seen as not being befitting of polite British society.

          As a child, I would venture the two miles along the coast on my bicycle from Rubha Bàn to Camus nam Muclach[11] to watch Kyles Athletic.  They were the local team and it was natural to root for them.  I played the occasionl game of shinty myself, although never competitively and I can’t say I was ever particularly great at it, but it was most certainly a big part of life in the Kyles of Bute area.

Shinty is still the most popular game in Lochaber.  Three senior shinty teams, Fort William, Kilmallie and Brae Lochaber, represent the district in competitions open to the Highlands….

In districts where there is a long tradition of shinty playing, every effort is made to carry on out of a sense of loyalty to a game regarded as distinctly Highland and national.

          This was a key subject on which to get an update on the last 60 years from Coinneach, who was an avid fan.  How long had this loyalty positively affected continuance of the game?

          “My aunt’s husband John MacDonell, his mother had the Spean Bridge Hotel, and he used to run Calum around from there to see all these people; he used to do the taxi.  He’d take him down to John the Bard’s place as well.”

          “That’s quite an honourable way to pass your time”

          “Yes, he remembered Calum MacLean well.  He was a great shinty man, my uncle, and Calum was too.  He used to take him to shinty matches as well.  He said it was a pleasure but that Calum was a very intense man.  There wasn’t an awful lot of crack about him; he was really focussed on the folklore you know?”

          “You follow the shinty yourself?”

          “Yes, the season’s just starting again, but we’re stuggling actually, the game here.  People aren’t interested anymore.  It’s an awful shame.  Lochaber is our local team.  We just got relegated.  We used to have two teams here but we struggle to put one out now!”

          My worst fears had been realised.  Coinneach’s village, Spean Bridge, had been a place of justifiable boasts in terms of the Highlander’s national game.

In the years immediately before the Second World War, ten Camerons from Stronenaba played for Spean Bridge shinty club.  Physically they were much the best shinty team in the Highlands.


          Now there wasn’t even a Spean Bridge team, nevermind a recent pedigree of players and statistics.  I asked Coinneach if he played himself.

          “For fun really. The New Year game had died out by my time.  They were always fairly organised since the Camanachd Association came along.  But I’m pretty sure they used to have a free-for-all up at Roy Bridge on New Year’s Day!  That would have happened, but not in my memory.  It’s all just part and parcel of the degradation of the old ways.”

          It reminded me of what GillEasbuig Bacastair[12] had said about ColGlen Shinty Club in Cowal across the loch from where I watched Kyles Athletic.  In the days of his youth, they were capable of putting out three teams had such been required, but by the 1970s, they could barely put out one.  It seemed that shinty was just another facet of the crumbling jewel of Gaelic society, and one that has subsequently hit a very rough patch of road in Lochaber.

The Lochaber room in which Àdhamh composed this blog in March 2020

           I asked Coinneach about his thoughts on a matter that some in the Gaelic world consider controversial.  I have at times been accused of disloyalty to the Gaelic language because of it.  Despite this being as far from the truth as is possible to get, it must be admitted that this loyalty lags behind that of a different kind, the same as feeds my Jacobite sentiment, my loyalty to the Highlanders themselves.

          “I would rather speak English to a Highlander with a thorough knowledge of his local area, submerged in the history and tradition of his people but maybe not fully fluent in the language, than speak to a fluent urban learner without a clue about dualchas[13].” I said to Coinneach, gleaning as I spoke that he knew precisely where I was coming from before I had even begun.  “Does that make any sense to you?”

          “I quite understand that, yes, I quite understand.  A sense of time, a sense of place, a sense of history.  I quite agree.”

Without doubt, the transmission of knowledge [that] had proceeded orally for centuries… was about to cease because the younger generation was no longer interested in its continuance.

The culture of Hollywood has certainly influenced youth in Lochaber today.


          Coinneach went on to elaborate on the good
old poison-box itself: “TV and social media I reckon are the biggest changes in
society during my time.
  We had nothing but a black and white TV with one channel on it.  That was TV.
But the TV completely changed people’s lives.  And social media?  I can’t stand it; a lot of rubbish.  People posting pictures of their bloody
breakfast for heaven’s sakes!”


Crofting is no longer regarded as
a means of livelihood.
  Sons and daughters of crofters
now learn next to nothing about work on the land.  What is worse, they no longer
want to learn.


          “Crofting used to be a big communal thing but it’s changed completely, the farming practice.  The people have changed, the values have changed.  It’s invidualistic.  The place used to be full of nice old Highland people; they were lovely.  You just don’t see them anymore.  They’re gone. It was the pulp mill that brought a huge amount of folk in from elsewhere.  The new town at Caol was built for them and of course they spread into the villages roundabout.”


Now that Gaelic is no longer
spoken, the use of Gaelic sounds in English speech must be
avoided at all costs. There is
nothing worse than having the epithet “Heilant” hurled at one.  There has always been some subtle
insinuation that ‘Highland’ and ‘barbaric’ are synonymous.


            “Even a good strong Highland accent is a thing of the past.  Yes it was a very, very distinct thing, the way the old people spoke, even in English.  I actually got to listen to my parents in Tobar an Dualchais and I couldn’t believe how Highland they were.  It never occurred to me before, but listening to them 40 years later, goodness!  My mother’s speaking in Gaelic and my father in English, but you can hear the Gaelic in his pronunciation.  And that’s changed completely.

          It’s funny because they seem to have all gone away the Gaels and there’s people coming in, there was kind of a reversal where the Gaels became the minority in their own country.  And that’s everywhere in the Highlands now.  Mind you, if these new people weren’t there, there’d be no communities at all.  That’s the thing, what can you do?

          I would say though, the changes on the whole have been very negative.  The forestry planted an incredible amount of trees which completely altered the landscape.  All of the changes in terms of modern conveniences and travel and all of that has been wonderful, but the character of the local folk, that’s what we’ve lost, you know?  Just different families, different types of people.  I mean they were very communally-minded, they were very kind people, the Gaels, that was a great thing, the hospitality and what have you, but that’s changed.  Everyone’s just insular now, in their wee box, absolutely.  They don’t go to visit one another.  People used to go round the houses at New Year.  They used to have fantastic parties then that went on for days. There’s none of that now.  The young people go off to street parties in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness.”

Àdhamh’s little set of mini-Highland bagpipes

They used to gather on winter nights to listen to storytelling.

The people have gone, the storytelling a thing of the past.

          “There seems to be much more of a divide between the young people and the old people, it’s almost like ‘never the twain shall meet’ whereas in these days when I was growing up, young people and old people, they mixed, it was absolutely anything you went to was a mixture of ages, but that’s kind of stopped as well.  I don’t know if that’s a general thing in society or whether it’s just a Highland thing.

          There were a couple of good pipers around here, but they were much more into fiddling in this part than they were into piping.  My grandfather was a great fiddler, Jock Kennedy.  They used to have their own band.  They would get together and play.  But most of them actually would play something, or give you a song, the older people.  There was Lochaber songs, Bohuntine songs, Domhall Donn’s songs, Creag Uanach and other Lochaber songs.  Caisteal a’ Ghlinne, Maighread Òg and so forth.

          I didn’t know my father’s parents, but they were certainly Gaelic speakers.  And my grandmother came from down Garbhan, just the other side of Loch Eil there.  I knew both my mother’s parents, although they died when I was still quite young.  My mother’s mother was quite the Gaelic scholar.  My grandfather would speak nothing but Gaelic and we wouldn’t understand him, he’d be shouting at us in Gaelic!  I was never quite conversational.  But they used to try and teach us words and what have you.  There was an affection for the language but as soon as you went to school there was no Gaelic, that was it.  Your peer group was what was important.  But the old folk had plenty Gaelic.  We heard a lot of Gaelic in the house.  I can understand you perfectly well Àdhamh, but speaking is quite frustrating; I don’t have enough words.  I probably need to do more practice at it but it’s getting the opportunity.”

Any Highlander worth anything ought to say that his language and nationality must be saved at all costs.

          “I see myself as a Highlander, very much so, and a Gael.  I’m the first generation not to be a fluent speaker.  The education system is responsible for that as well as the social thing, the culture, British colonialism.  All they wanted to produce was monoglots.  Diversity was a joke.  They had a fearsome assault on the Gaelic language for most of the 20th century.  I feel I’ve been robbed.  That’s why I spend my time trying to learn Gaelic; it’s a sense of grievance that keeps you going!

          My own generation is probably the last to have even a pronounced Highland accent, nevermind the Gaelic.  It’s very, very scary.  There’s a total disconnect in the next generation.  They’re not interested.  In 20-30 years time it’ll all be gone, or else there might be one of these massive resurgences; that kind of thing can certainly happen, but maybe not very often.  It’s usually too late.”

Site of the Battle of Mulroy, 1688

          I had met in Coinneach the very salt of the Highland earth and for that I felt most grateful.  Often during our conversations that afternoon I asked him about different clans, different strands of history and different characters of Lochaber.  There weren’t two families of the same name he could not tell apart as well as explaining to me exactly where they came from and when.  There wasn’t a single name in Calum’s book he didn’t know, nor a single battle he couldn’t
name the flash point of.

          Coinneach is a true Highlander in every single way but language, and even then despite his lack of spoken confidence, he could tell me the names of caves where the Prince hid in perfect local Gaelic, the names of streams and corries, mountains and long-abandoned townships out of which his people came.  His manner was quiet, measured, pleasant; he would not speak ill of people who I assumed must have irritated him somehow, simply smiled if I mentioned a name and changed the subject.  His humour is ready but restrained, and he is kind and generous with both his spirit and time.  He has respect for animals and for nature in general, but wouldn’t hesitate to take a wild salmon from the River Roy had they not ceased to climb through Lochaber in these environmentally catastrophic days.

          Lochaber as anything approaching what it once was may be hanging by a thread, but as long as there remain men like Coinneach Mac an Tòisich, both it, and the character of the Gael are not yet no more.

[1] The Gaelic Crone of

[2] Ben Nevis

[3] John MacDonald of
Highbridge (1876-1964)

[4] lady of the house

[5] that’s you, then

[6] will that do the
trick, love?

[7] Kilmonivaig

[8] Spean Bridge

[9] The Braes of Lochaber

[10] Inverlochy, just
north of modern day Fort William

[11] Kames

[12] Archie Baxter of
Fearnoch Farm, Colintraive

[13] cultural heritage


  1. Sgrìobh mi sgeulachd gu math fada is dh’fhalbh e, chan eil fiosam càite. Co-dhiù, chuala mi gun tàinig an clach leis an toll à chladh Mucomir, is ‘s e Drochaid Aonachain a tha daoine air a bheil mise eòlach a’ cleachdadh. Gheibh sinn cothrom cabadaich uaireigin. Bha an teaghlach agam gu math càirdeil leteaghlach Iain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Dorlach

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading