My recent excursion to the island of Lismore was book-ended by two encounters with the local Church of Scotland Minister. A stern chap, he only shared a brief ‘hello’ with me on our second meeting. Since I was kitted out head to toe in protective gear, bike in hand, I briefly entertained the thought that he might disapprove of people cycling on the Sabbath . Perhaps that explained the short, gruff meeting?
More likely, though, Reverend Barclay had a lot on his mind. Where did we meet? Not in church or near the manse but on the small passenger ferry that plies the short crossing from Port Appin across to the island. You see, Ministers in remote island communities have not one but many jobs; he was skipping over to the mainland to take the 10am service in Appin before returning to Lismore church for 12.30pm worship.
I was on a fairly tight schedule but had a little more time to play with than the Minister. I’d woken up in time to get the 9am ferry and enjoyed seeing the sky turn a gorgeous salmon-pink over Loch Linnhe as the sun slowly lifted its head above the horizon.
I reckoned the two ferrymen had also had trouble lifting their heads that morning. 9am came and went. No sign of any ferry, nor any other passengers for that matter. Had I misread the timetable? Did everyone else know something I didn’t? Just as I was asking the waitress in the hotel a pick-up truck raced past and two overalled workmen jumped out and walked down the jetty. Ah! The ferrymen.
Before long I had my bike loaded on to the boat (but only once they’d safely deposited the most important passenger in Port Appin that day, the Minister). I’m unsure whether 9am means “somewhere round about 9ish” in Argyll time, or whether they’d had a late night the evening before, but once they got going the two ferrymen seemed to run an efficient service. They were also great company, asking what I was planning to do on Lismore and chatting about their jobs.
I’m sure making the same 10 minute crossing back and forth half a dozen times a day might get a little tedious after a while but on a morning like this I was more than a little envious. The snow-topped mountains beamed in the cold, crisp sunshine and Ben Nevis stood proud above a thin layer of cloud, lit up by the low morning sun. There are worse views from your place of work.
Lismore is a long, low-lying and fertile island with fewer than 200 inhabitants. The name comes from the Gaelic ‘lios mòr‘ which means ‘big garden’. It has one single track road running down the spine of the island and at 19km long, meant that I could plan to cycle down to the southern end and back in a morning. And with a little luck and careful planning I would still have time for a couple of detours.
It was frosty. The fields were white, clouds of condensed air hung above cattle in the cold air and occasional patches of black ice covered the road. There was little danger of getting caught up in traffic though since on this Sunday morning in early January Lismore was very …. very … quiet. I was the only passenger for starters and the only other people I saw were farmers out feeding their animals. Quite a few houses seemed to be empty and I wondered if these were second homes; however, the Isle of Lismore website lists 12 self-catering properties for rent.
Lismore must be one of the most accessible islands in the Inner Hebrides. Sitting right in the middle of Loch Linnhe it has great views north to Ben Nevis and Beinn a Bheithir, east to Ben Cruachan and west towards Mull and the Morvern hills. I could also see the long snowy ridge of Creach Bheinn that I’d climbed the previous day. (And very confusingly, there are two Creach Bheinn’s visible from Lismore, both Corbetts, one on either side of the island).
I’m told that the Lismore Gaelic Heritage Museum is a ‘must’ if you’re visiting the island. It certainly did look worth visiting, with an attractive cafe. However, it was closed the day I there and so I could only look round from the outside. I admired the restored cottage, Taigh Iseabal Dhaibh, a late 19th Century ‘cottar’s house’. It’s a simple dwelling with two rooms, heated by a peat fire and with a stone floor. It had a thick thatched roof made of reeds made in the traditional style.
The island has a rich history. In AD562, at about the same time as Columba settled in Iona, St Moluag travelled from Ireland to establish the Christian community on Lismore. It seems he based himself on Lismore while establishing the Episcopal Sees of Lismore as well as in Ross and Aberdeen. Lismore Parish Church is located on the site of the 6th Century cathedral, and ornate carved gravestones from the Middle Ages are displayed on the roadside beside the church.
The small island also boasts the ruins of an Iron Age broch, two 13th Century castles, Bronze Age cairns and deserted townships. That’s a lot of history in such a small place! I cycled down towards the southern end of the island to view Achinduin Castle from a distance, leaning my bike up against a handy standing stone. On the return leg I detoured down a rough track just south of the church which led down towards Castle Coeffin on the western side. I didn’t have the time on this trip to walk around the ruins but it’s certainly an island full of atmosphere and many, many stories to tell.
Today, Lismore welcomes visitors for holidays, short breaks and day trips. While it seemed I pretty much had the place to myself on this short visit I can imagine there’s a bit more coming and going in the summer months. Judging by the way that the red phone box seems to double as a pop-up cake shop, complete with bunting, it seems like a pretty welcoming place.
I just had time for a warming flask of coffee propped up against the phone box before the ‘Lismore’ chugged over the water from Port Appin once more. Relaxed, my trip was over. But as the Reverend Barclay stepped off the boat he just had 30 minutes to make his way to the church for his next service. It seemed that farmers, ferrymen, Ministers and occasional cyclists were the only other people moving on Lismore that day.
Have you visited Lismore? What did you do when you were there?