Welcome to Ballachulish
Ballachulish lies on the shores of Loch Leven a little to the northwest of Glencoe. The village consists of three main settlements. North and south Ballachulish lie on opposite shores of a narrow stretch of water (spanned by a bridge) near the mouth of the loch. These two settlements developed in tandem around the slipways of a ferry service, in operation since at least the early 18th century. The largest settlement lies about a mile down the road to Glencoe. Although there was a settlement here from around the 1500s, at that time called Laroch, it became significant as a result of the opening of the Ballachulish Slate Quarry (to the east of the village) in 1693. After this time Laroch took the name of the quarry and, rather confusingly, became known as Ballachulish too. Ballachulish, and the area which surrounds it, is famed for natural beauty and for the notorious events which mark its history.
Castle Stalker nr. Ballachulish
Scotland was made inhabitable when the retreat of the ice fields at the end of the last ice age made the environment more hospitable. The first humans came as hunter gatherers sometime before 7000 BC, although because of the nature of their nomadic lifestyle they left little behind as testament. Within the following four thousand years stone circles, round houses, burial cairns and forts began to spring up. In South Ballachulish (close to Ballachulish House) the remains of a Bronze Age burial chamber, complete with cist, testifies to the area’s prehistoric settlement.
In the dark ages Ballachulish was incorporated into a number of early tribal societies before finally becoming part of Dalriata in the 5th century. It was the kings of Dalriata who would eventually go on to unite Scotland into one kingdom. Some believe an early fort of the Dalriata kings may have been on the site of Castle Stalker, a couple of miles south of Ballachulish on a little islet on Loch Laich, near Port Appin. As part of the administrative district of Appin, Ballachulish was to be governed from here, directly or indirectly, for centuries. While today’s castle is nowhere near as old, built after 1446 by John Stewart Lord of Lorn, it is not too difficult to imagine that earlier peoples might have recognised the advantage of using the natural defences afforded by the beautifully set island. Certainly there was an earlier fort here, built by the Macdougalls around 1320. In 1468 the Battle of Stalc was fought here, in which the army of Dugald, Lord of Lorn, virtually annihilated an army of MacFarlanes led by Alan MacCoul. The castle was also used as a garrison by government troops during the Jacobite rebellions.
Possibly the most significant historical site in Ballachulish itself is Ballachulish House. Now a hotel, it was built in 1640 as a country estate, although as the building was destroyed during the Jacobite rebellions the current house dates from around 1745. In 1692 it was occupied by Sir Robert Campbell of Glenlyon when he received orders signed by the king to put all of the MacDonalds of Glencoe under seventy years of age ‘to the sword’. This order prompted one of the most notorious massacres in Scottish History (See article, Glencoe).
The Mamores, Loch Leven at Ballachulish
The house is also associated with the murder of the king’s factor, Colin Campbell, in 1752; an event known as the Appin Murder. Colin Campbell is perhaps better known as ‘The Red Fox’, so called because of his red hair, a common feature of the Campbell clan of which he was a prominent member. In May, 1752 he was leading a small detachment of government soldiers into Ballachulish, supposedly to collect taxes although it has also been suggested that he may have had the duty of purging the area of its Stuart Jacobite sympathisers, when he was killed by a musket shot. The site of the murder is about a mile seaward from Ballachulsih, where a signpost from the road will lead you inland and uphill to a cairn marking the spot. The assassin fled, carrying the weapon into Ballachulish where it was discovered in the yew tree behind Ballachulish House. Today ‘The Black Gun of Misfortune’ is exhibited in the West Highland Museum in nearby Fort William.
In the aftermath of the murder the authorities carried out a witch hunt in the area. Needing someone to take the rap they dragged the unwitting James Stewart to Inveraray where he was tried by a Campbell judge and jury. Predictably they found him guilty as charged. On the 8th of November, about six months after the murder, James Stewart was taken to Ballachulish where he was hung on a small knoll just at the southern end of today’s bridge, near Ballachulish House. A commemorative plaque marks the spot. His body was left to rot for several months, as a means of discouraging the locals, so that it was little more than a skeleton that the authorities finally allowed to be buried. The Appin Murder formed the basis for Robert Louis Stephenson’s famous novel, ‘Kidnapped’.
Bronze Age burial cairns, medieval forts, Jacobean country houses and commemorative plaques are just some of the reminders of Ballachulish’s past. The marks on the land east of Ballachulish tell of hundreds of years of slate quarrying and fifty years in which nature has done much to reclaim the site. An exhibition in the village tells the fascinating story of the men who once worked there. Despite the ferry being supplanted by the bridge linking north and south Ballachulish, the old slipways still remain. Ballachulish too has a railway station house without a railway line, now used as a GP’s practice after the line was closed in 1966. All of these reminders add to the character of the village and help us better understand the men and women that have for centuries called this beautiful place home.