Monday, 15 April 2013

The Barra Drovers and Bay McNeill

The walk from Portuairk to Bay McNeill (the bay is marked with an arrow on the map here) is one of the most pleasant on West Ardnamurchan even when, as we did, our route made detours up three of the hills that overlook the bay, from one of which we took this photo.

The bay is a place we've often visited, but a higher tide than usual forced us to make a detour into the area which, in the above photograph, is lost in shadow below the low hill at left.  As so often happens in such circumstances, we came across a stone-walled structure we had never seen before.

The stone wall is L-shaped, and built against a low cliff.  The wall itself is substantial, and constructed in the traditional way with courses of big stones on the outside infilled with smaller.  The cliff, just above the level of the top of the wall, has a convenient ledge into which cross-pieces of timber would have fitted to form the rafters of a roof.  So this is no temporary structure, nor does it look like a shelter for animals.

The chance discovery of this structure happened to coincide with the loan of a copy of MEM Donaldson's Further Wanderings - Mainly in Argyll.  On page 262 of the book, she writes, referring to the bay, "Here, in the old days, the MacNeills of Barra landed their cattle from their island home opposite, but far across the stormy sea - the first and most hazardous stage of the amazing journey to the great Tryst of Falkirk in Stirling, one of the most famous of the old cattle fairs."

There is, therefore, some chance that it was the MacNeills who built this shelter.  Perhaps it was used by the sailors who were returning in the ships after offloading the cattle and their drovers.  Perhaps the drovers used it, after the ships had left.  Perhaps it's neither of these, and a reader can offer some clue as to the history of this structure.

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