We have been taking full advantage of this glorious Scottish autumn to take day trips around Argyll, so I’ll have plenty of things to write about all winter while I’m stuck inside watching the rain. A recent highlight was bagging another Hebridean island, one that was high on my bucket list. In Gaelic it’s known as Lios Mòr- Great Garden- or Lismore.
The island is only nine square miles, with just over a dozen miles of road, most of which is gently rolling tarmac. We heard that the best way to see the island was by bicycle, so we borrowed a pair from a friend and set out on a Sunday morning. We bought round trip tickets on the CalMac 11 am ferry from Oban to Achnacroish, on Lismore, a trip that takes about 50 minutes. Our plan was to take a leisurely ride of about six miles around the north part of the island to hit some sites and take a picnic, then meet the ferry at 4pm to return to Oban, as this was the latest crossing on Sundays. We underestimated our timing, though, and got a bit more adventure than we bargained for after we missed our ferry! However, misadventures aren’t always tragedies, as we shall find out.
The MV Eigg took us smoothly north out of Oban Bay, which was, as always, stunning on this gorgeous sunny day, past colourful storefronts and Dunollie Castle, in sight of the mainland past Tralee Beach and into Loch Linnhe.
The great garden certainly lives up to its name- Scotland is impossibly green everywhere but seems even more so here, with dots of primroses, marsh marigolds and violets, and lush fragrant cottage gardens overgrown with roses and rhododendrons. The whitewashed homesteads are few and far between, but the road is indeed nicely tarmacked, so even though the hills weren’t exactly as “gently rolling” as I would have liked, the bike was definitely the way to go.
Signs of civilization soon appeared in the form of a shop and post office, then the Heritage Center and Café came into view on a hill. We had heard that the scones were outstanding, so we couldn’t resist stopping in- a decision that was delicious but, in the end, I must admit, is what put us behind and ultimately made us miss the ferry. However, the scone lived up to its reputation.
Watching our time, we skipped the tour of the museum, purchased a hand drawn map of the island and left the siren call of the scones behind us, peddling north once again into the interior of the green isle.
Our first stop was Castle Coeffin, which, according to our map, required going off-road through several livestock gates over rough paths- luckily we were on mountain bikes. There was no signage once we were off road, so we continued toward the coast, but our chosen path led us to a dead end at a croft. A friendly looking fellow, who turned out to be American, was walking from there, so we asked him directions to the castle and struck up a quick conversation. He was from California and was working his way around Scotland on a kayaking adventure. He wasn’t sure where the castle was, but he said it wasn’t on the path he had come from, so we went back and chose another. The going got rough and steep so we left our bikes and continued straight down on foot toward the coast, when the ruins of a stone-walled fort, then the stunning castle came into view on a rocky promontory above the loch.
You can almost get blasé about castles in Scotland- yes, it’s true- almost. I’ve simply lost count of how many I’ve seen here. But this one really took my breath away. Ivy clad Castle Coeffin looks across to the mountains of Movern, guarding the sea passage. The first thought that popped into my head-this is the perfect setting for a horror film. And that was before I found out that it was indeed said to be haunted!
Coeffin was built in the early 13th century by the clan MacDougall on the site of a previous Viking fortress said to belong at one time to a prince named Caifen, thus, the name. Here is where the ghost story comes in. The sister of Caifen, the flaxen haired Beothail, fell in love with a Viking warrior, one of many who stopped at the busy harbour. When he was killed in battle back in Norway, Beothail died of her grief, and her ghost was said to haunt the palace- and would do so, she had vowed on her deathbed, until her remains were carried to Norway to join those of her dead lover’s. In an effort to appease the pitiful spectre, her bones were finally washed in the sacred spring down the road at St. Moulag cathedral, and returned to her homeland to rest beside her lover for eternity. Still, she continued to haunt the grounds, wailing in her grief, until someone found one wee bone left behind in her grave. It, too, was blessed and sent to Norway. At last, her spirit found rest. Coeffin is also said to have been a refuge for the Knights Templar after the infamous 14th Century papal purge of the order. Abandoned by the 1600’s, it fell into beautiful decay.
We walked to the outcropping and climbed up the grassy ruins, stopping to enjoy the breathtaking views along the way.
As we neared the top, sounds of laughter and voices floated over the crumbling stone walls. A picnic party was in full swing, with a group also appreciating the view on a grassy cropping among the stone ruins. We chatted for a bit, and it turned out one of the group was part of the extended Livingstone family that owns much of Lismore and he told us a bit about the history of St. Moluag, the patron saint of Argyll, who founded a monastery here in 592. Moluag had a crozier, or staff, made of blackthorn, known as Bachuil Mor (great staff), which, in 1544, was granted to the Livingstone family, the Barons of Bachuil, on Lismore.
According to legend it had been encased in gilt copper and studded with jewels, but today, only fragments of the metal cling to what remains of the staff. Our new acquaintance told us that the family still performs rituals associated with the staff, including a yearly ceremony that involves parading it around the cathedral and blessing it with holy water, perhaps gathered from the sacred spring.
Later, a friend told me an interesting piece of local folklore. At one time the Duke of Argyll took possession of the staff, but a curse fell upon him for taking it from the legitimate keepers, in which the title would never pass to an eldest son of a Duke while they held it. For generations, the curse held sway, with no direct line of succession, until it was returned to the Livingstones. I couldn’t find any reference to this, however, I found a mention that the Duke of Argyll had possession of the staff in a book dated to around the turn of the 20th century. And a family tree of the Dukes of Argyll shows several generations from the 1600’s where the Duke either died without issue or died in infancy, and only since the 1930’s has the title gone directly to an eldest son. Lismore definitely boasts its share of fables and ghost tales!
We made it back to our bikes and to the main road. St. Moluag’s cathedral was just around the corner.
Lismore was an important centre of Celtic Christianity- back when it was on a bustling sea highway. Born in Ireland, Moluag was a contemporary of his fellow countryman St. Columba. According to one legend, Moluag stood on a rock on the Irish coast, which miraculously detached and drifted until it hit Lismore. The Irish Annals tell that in 562 Moluag and Columba had a race to Lismore, and Moluag won, so he stayed, founding the monastery, (while Columba went on to Iona) and from there, he evangelized the Picts across Western Scotland and the Islands. The Great Garden’s history as a sacred isle goes back before Christianity, though. It is said it was sacred to the Picts and a burial place of their kings, whose capital was across the loch at present day Benderloch.
The cathedral was built in the 14th century, when it was a bishopric of Argyll, but today only the original doorways and arches survive, along with a few medieval grave slabs in the graveyard and inside the church. Stained glass windows dating to the 1920’s let in a bit of light so I walked up to the choir loft, one of the few original features.
Time was gaining on us, and we realized we had underestimated how long our trip would take, so we jumped back on our bikes and hot footed it down the road to Tirfuir Broch, located on the northeast side of the island. There is a sign at the turn off, where we went through a gate and down a rough path.
One of the best preserved Pictish brochs, or castles, in Scotland, it looms large on a hill. We left our bikes at the bottom and trekked up. The stone work dates to the Iron Age- the early centuries C.E. – and was inhabited through the Middle Ages.
The area has yielded several outstanding archaeological treasures, including an enamel brooch from Roman times, a Norse pin and rivets from the 11th century and a decorative pin from the 8th century. Nearby a Neolithic stone axe head dated to about 3500 B.C.E. was found.
The circular walled ruins reach up to about five metres in places, and the views here are stunning. From the rocky height, you can see Ben Nevis and Ben Cruachan on the mainland and the Paps of Jura.
After exploring the broch, we spread out our blanket on a small grassy spot at the top. We enjoyed the views and ate our lunch, and didn’t see another human the entire time. Aahhh, the perfect picnic spot!
We could have stayed there for a while longer, but we had already let the time slip past us so we reluctantly packed up and walked back to our bikes for the three mile or so ride back to Achnacroish, racing to meet the last ferry. Unfortunately, those “gently” rolling hills slowed us down, and we furiously peddled, only to miss our ferry by five minutes.
That was the last boat from Achnacroish! Were we stuck on Lismore until the morning ferry? As the shadows grew long, we started to sweat our situation. I remembered that there was a later ferry from Port Ramsay, on the far north tip of the island, so, in desperation, we took off. Again, those gentle hills were not our friend. We came upon a couple puttering in their garden at one of the cottages, so we stopped and asked them about the ferry. They were very hospitable and offered us tea, but we thanked them and insisted we were in hurry. They looked up the ferry information on the internet for us. The good news was that there was a five o clock ferry to Port Appin on the mainland, so if we hurried we might make it. The bad news was that Port Appin is 45 miles from Oban, where our car was parked. But, it looked as if we had no choice, at least we could possibly get lodging on the mainland for the night…or something….we were in an official pickle.
We raced to Port Ramsay- geez, are ALL the hills up on this island? We arrived with minutes to spare for the ferry. While I was using the facilities, my husband struck up a conversation with an English couple who were on electric bicycles. They had passed us a while back and we had exchanged polite banter about the hills being much easier on their “cheater” bikes. By the time I joined them, they had offered to give him a ride back to Oban, where they were lodging. We decided I would wait in Port Appin at the Pierhouse pub with the bikes and wait for him to return for me. We boarded the small ferry for the quick five minute trip.
This turned out not to be a pickle at all. I grabbed a table on the deck overlooking Loch Linnhe and settled in. Dinner service started at 6pm, so I got a drink and enjoyed the view while I waited. The beautiful evening encouraged people to the deck, and soon there was a convivial gathering. A group of tourists from Florida sat next to me, and soon we were chatting it up. I was hungry, so at straight up six I ordered a plate of scampi and chips- the best I’ve had in Scotland, yum!
After a leisurely meal, my Prince Charming arrived in his carriage. We loaded up the bikes and made the 45 minute drive back to Oban, dog-tired but thankful for the blessing of kind strangers and buzzing from our adventurous day.
We plan to go back to Lismore to explore the south half of the island- with yet more castles to see-when we have more time. We learned our lesson- leave more time than we think we’ll need to explore, especially when a ferry crossing is involved. But this was my favourite island hop yet, I give it five wellies out of five!