DO you have those days when there’s a song buzzing round in your head and you just can’t get rid of it? At first you hum it in an abstract sort of fashion. Then you catch yourself whistling a few bars as you’re pulling your boots on. And by the time you’re marching along the spine of a mountain ridge, you’re belting out lyrics – and you’re a hostage. It’s in your head; it’s in your heart; it’s in every step . . .
I’m sipping an early-morning brew in the least romantic place in the Highlands – the car park of the White Corries ski centre – before climbing Meall a Bhuiridh and Creise. It’s completely empty except for me, my car, and a low-loader revving its engine. The mist is down almost to the lowest pylons. A thin drizzle falls in a melancholy sort of way. And I’ve got this song in my head:
The wind is fair, the day is fine
And swiftly, swiftly runs the time
Because yesterday I crossed the Corran ferry to Morvern, searching for a place I first heard of several decades ago. It was enshrined in a song title on an LP cover. And the song has captivated me ever since.
The boat is floating on the tide
That wafts me off from Fiunary.
Fiunary. Have you any idea, even the remotest inkling, how long it took me to discover the whereabouts of Fiunary in the days before Multimap and Google? It took for ever – simply because, short of examining every grid on every Ordnance Survey map of the Scottish coastline, the place is unlocatable. There is nothing at Fiunary except a farm and a manse. In fact, I can’t remember how I did finally stumble across it.
Farewell to Fiunary has been recorded by a number of artists, but my version comes courtesy of the McCalmans on an LP recorded in 1968 and imaginatively called McCalmans’ Folk. It is a poignant song about departure – possibly migration – written by a Reverend Norman MacLeod.
Right. I’m not going to mention the song again because I’m getting bogged down in detail. I had intended to flesh out the background with some biographical notes on the reverend, but an ecclesiastical mine field lies in that direction. Google his name and you discover that every second minister to enter the church in Scotland between 1750 and 1890 is called the Reverend Norman MacLeod. That’s a slight exaggeration. But, believe me, only slight.
So today I’m off into the mist with a song in my head. Blast, mentioned it again. My original plan had been to skirt around Meall a Bhuiridh and ascend Creise via its very steep and rocky north-east ridge, then return over the higher peak. But with clouds threatening to devour the mountains completely, I opt for the easier route: straight up Meall a Bhuiridh through the chairlifts and ski tows to its north-east ridge and thence to its summit. Then across a narrow col to Creise, returning the same way.
And that’s what I do. It’s as simple as that. And the mist doesn’t break, or lift, or get blown away, and I reach the summit of Meall a Bhuiridh without seeing much of note except a couple of ptarmigans and the ground beneath my boots. I traverse the narrow connecting ridge to Creise, aware that I am crossing something pretty spectacular, because the ground falls steeply on both sides. Only when I reach the summit of the second Munro do the clouds part sufficiently to allow views of the magnificent mountain scenery.
So, while I’m having a brew behind the cairn, let me tell you about yesterday. My big problem – or one of them – is that I don’t plan things properly. Mice and men are usually pretty good at this, but I possess an innate inability to prepare a strategy.
I wake up to a rainy dawn and decide to drive to the isolated Morvern peninsula instead of getting wet on the hill. I’ve always wanted to visit Lochaline, a tiny port famous for its silica sand mine – in fact, the only underground silica sand mine in Britain. The mine was set up in 1940 to supply raw materials for the production of high-quality optical glass. During the 1980s I worked for a quarrying company called Tilcon, which also owned the Lochaline operation. So it’s always been my intention to visit the mine and have a poke around. And, of course, a couple of miles further along the coast from Lochaline, and about as remote as it’s possible to get in this country, lies Fiunary.
So I arrive in Lochaline without a map of the area, because I do not possess one, and discover that the silica sand mine closed down three years ago with the loss of eleven jobs. The Mull ferry is just departing, like the Reverend Norman MacLeod’s boat only with Caledonian MacBrayne painted on its side in corporate colours, leaving the harbour deserted and an air of restful abandonment about the place.
Then I drive to Fiunary. Actually, I drive through it without realising and double back when the road runs out. There’s nothing there. It’s just trees, shoreline, a heron and a couple of cormorants. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting to find, but an old woman spinning wool outside a blackhouse and a couple of lads smoking pipes and gutting herring would have been nice. And perhaps the sound of an accordion playing Mairi’s Wedding, just to get my foot tapping. But there you go.
I get the impression that whoever lived in and around Fiunary during Reverend MacLeod’s day departed and never returned. Farewell to Fiunary was written during the latter years of the Highland Clearances. Before the clearances, Morvern’s population was nearly eight times greater than it is today. Perhaps, though, he was merely lamenting his own departure.
But that was yesterday, and beyond the sea. As I sit supping tea in the lea of Creise’s summit cairn, the wind shreds the mist to reveal the slopes of Meall a Bhuiridh – and over to my left, the ramparts of Stob Dearg on Buachaille Etive Mor. The view disappears as quickly as it was revealed, like a window closing and the curtains being drawn. Then the mist parts yet again, and all around are rocky mountains and empty glens.
On the return trip, crossing the col to the summit of Meall a Bhuiridh, a fell runner passes me – the only person I see on the mountain all day. We chat for a while before he trots on – and I follow in his footsteps at a more leisurely pace, and whistling Farewell to . . .
Bloody hell. It’s no good. I’m going to have to play it.
FAREWELL TO FIUNARY – I can’t do the MacCalmans’ version because I don’t possess the technology and I need a new needle (so does the record player – ha ha). But the Tannahill Weavers are a worthy substitute:
NOTES AND LINKS
- The lyrics to Farewell to Fiunary.
- The lyrics to Farewell to Fiunary in Gaelic. Now that’s what I call service.
- Will the real Reverend Norman MacLeod step forward?
- Extensive notes on the Lochaline silica sand mine.
- And finally, the eagle-eyed may have noticed Fiunary spelled in a variety of ways. Who’s to say which one is correct? Certainly not me. I’ve stuck with the Ordnance Survey version.