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The White Deer of Inchcailloch
In the Eighth Century AD St. Kentigerna was an Irish nun who ended her days with her followers on a little Scottish island on Loch Lomond called Inchcailloch, which means ‘Island of the old women’ in Gaelic. Although she is no longer with us, the island, which is one of the largest on the loch, still remains and is now managed by Scottish Natural Heritage in cooperation with its owners. The island is a treasure that has been inhabited for about 7000 years and on which stone tools are still occasionally unearthed. Loch Lomond is the largest, and most famous, inland loch in Britain.
One day in the middle of May, my wife and I, along with her sister and husband, joined a jolly group from the Scottish Wildlife Trust on a ramble through the island which is now completely wooded and approaches a mile in length by about half as wide. The trip had been organized by Graeme Kerr (not aka the Galloping Gourmet) from the Glasgow and district branch of the Trust and Ruth Llewelyn from the Clyde branch. Thus 10:00 am on sunny morning found twenty-one souls and a baby gathered in the parking lot at Balmaha, the largest village on the east side of the loch, for the short boat trip to Inchcailloch.
By dint of his powers of persuasion, Graeme had managed to get the round trip fare reduced from four pounds ($8) to three pounds fifty before Ruth stepped in and obtained a further reduction to three pounds ($6) per person as a group rate! A few minutes later we had all scrambled aboard the Lady Jean, which also doubled as the Royal Mail carrier for the residents on the lochs many islands. Five short minutes later we were tied up at the little jetty on the island, ready to begin our adventure.
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The Scottish Natural Heritage has done a fine job of creating three trails through the island, the Western Plateau, the Central Valley, and the Main Ridge, complete with signage which has helped minimized destruction of the natural vegetation. The first sight that struck us on heading into the wooded interior was the profusion of bluebells in full bloom- a glorious sight- with sunlight filtering through the trees and the island’s birds, like the wood warbler, robin, and chaffinch, making their music.
About a quarter of a mile into the walk, the path branched and we all headed for the burial ground on which stood the ruins of a 13th Century church, built to honor St. Kentigerna, that had been used as a parish church until 1621. The adjacent cemetery had gravestones dating from 1623 to the 1940s. This was a traditional burial ground of both the McFarlane clan, who occupied the north-west side of the loch and the McGregor clan, of Rob Roy fame, who occupied the north-east side of the loch. The island was farmed for oats and barley until 1796 when the owner mandated that oak and alder trees be planted.
On returning to the path leading to the picnic ground at Port Bawn, a little sandy inlet at the western end of the island, we suddenly spotted what we thought to be a deer and a white goat standing together deep in the woods. On the way over on the boat, someone had mentioned that a white goat had been spotted previously. One of our ramblers, however, had powerful binoculars with him and assured us that it was actually a white, probably Fallow deer, a most unusual occurrence in the Scottish deer population though an article by Michael Baxter Brown in Deer, Vol 12, No. 7, 2003 discusses the existence of such deer in medieval times. The normal deer bounded off but the white one stayed to stare at us. We watched it for several minutes before it, too, bounded off in the opposite direction with typical deer-like gait. This was the highlight of our visit but we never saw it again on the island.
The ramblers were a talkative bunch and several unusual coincidences w ere discovered. One fellow was a bassist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra who had played in a performance at the Irvine Auditorium in Philadelphia seven years before and which we had attended. Another couple’s son turned out to be a good friend of a girl from Estonia who was with our group.
The combination of camaraderie and delightful scenery coupled with pleasant weather made the time fly in. After a picnic lunch at Port Bawn, we made a quick, mildly strenuous ascent to the summit of the island, Tom na Nigheanan, a full 225 feet above loch level, where magnificent views of Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond could be observed. Following a steeper descent on the south side of the island, we made our way back to the jetty and picked up the Lady Jean which was waiting to speed us back to Balmaha, completing our tour in a little under three hour.
For the visitor who wants a unique experience, a trip to Inchcailloch can be made throughout the year from the Balmaha boatyard either by self-hired boat or by ferryman. Camping is allowed on the island with written permission and with luck you might catch a glimpse of the White Deer of Inchcailloch!
Andrew R. McGhie 05.26.06