The Green Isle

September 1st, 2014

Eilean Fhionain
by Lilian E. Bland

Saint Finnan’s, or as the Highlanders call it, “The Green Isle” is a small island in Loch Shiel which has been the burial ground for centuries of the Clanranald chieftains and their clans. Very little is known of the life of St Finnan except that he came as a missionary from Iona and landed first in Ardnamurchan and then for many years lived on the island which still bears his name, and that pilgrims came from afar to worship in comparative safety on the island, for the Highland chieftains of these days were no respectors of priests or religion, and burnt and pillaged where they so willed.

The island after the saint had departed was chosen as a place of rest for the dead. There are still the ruins of a chapel built many centuries ago by one of the Clanranald MacDonalds to atone for having burnt St Finnan’s church at Invergarry and for having having murdered some priests. This chieftain built several chapels but before they were completed, his mood of repentance forsook him so that many of the buildings consist of four walls and were roofless.

The bell  [1]   belonging to the chapel now rests on the stone altar, where it has been exposed for 300 years, unprotected save for the reverence of the people. It has a wonderfully sweet mellow tone and only twice has it been stolen. Once long ago by a party of English soldiers who, however, were overtaken by the natives and severely handled; Once in later times it was removed by a family in the neighbourhood, but they experienced such ill luck and misfortune that they soon returned it to its resting place on the altar slab.

There are several curious tombstones and ancient crosses scattered over the island and lying beside the modern graves are the broken poles bound with black cloth on which the coffin has been carried, often for many miles over rough and stony tracks from some distant part of the country. The coffins are carried by relays of four men and on the hills, the places where they stop and rest are marked by cairns of stones. Often one sees a number of these cairns at the head of a pass. When a funeral is coming word is sent on before them through the country and a boat is ready to ferry them over to St Finnan’s which is not far from the mainland.

Amongst the other islands it stands out, a vivid patch of green, while beyond Ben Resipol rises from the shore of the loch 2774 feet (845 m), a mountain of bold sweeping outline, and ever changing moods. Sometimes each corrie and rock will stand out clearly, defined by deep purple shadows, at other times he looms an exquisite pale violet, seen through the golden haze of sunset. In the early morning he prepares to wrap a cloak of pearl grey mist around his shoulders. He is beautiful.

Loch Shiel itself is one of the prettiest lakes of the Highlands. Dotted with small islands, it is long and narrow in shape, with hills sloping down to the water’s edge on either side. Wild and rugged in outline, the bare rocks where they break through turf and heather resemble the ribs of some buried giant, while the shores of the lake and the more sheltered gullies are wooded with bent and twisted silverbirch and rowan trees, sheets of bracken shimmer silver in the sunlight, while here and there a patch autumn-tinted glows a golden red. Beneath the trees, tumbled masses of rock, overgrown with a velvet carpety moss, form beautiful natural ferneries, ferns of many varieties growing in profusion.

It was over these hills that Prince Charlie marched with the MacDonald clans to unfurl his banner at the head of the loch on the 19th August 1745, in the presence of a thousand members of the MacDonalds and Camerons.

Now there is a railway at Glenfinnan  [2]  and a comfortable hotel, the resort of anglers, who can get salmon fishing in the loch, and once a day the steamer comes down the lake from Acharacle, and takes passengers and provisions back again. Occasionally she stops and picks up a belated fisherman, or is hailed by some of the cotters who have rowed out to get lunch.

The country is very wild and beautiful and so far, quite a bit off the beaten track of the ‘despoiling’ tourist.

Lilian E.Bland

(there is no date on the manuscript but the article is most likely to have been written between the opening of Glenfinnan railway station in 1901 and her move to Canada in 1912)





“St Finnan’s bell rings of old, half-remembered things; and there is a tradition firmly established in Moidart and Morar that a curse will assuredly fall on anyone removing it, and that this curse will be transmitted through generations of the descendants of the person so doing.”

‘The Peat-Fire Flame’ by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1937)



Glenfinnan railway station opened 1st April 1901. The original signal box has been restored, as has the booking office. There is a museum in the station building while a fully restored railway ‘dining car’ serves a selection of food. A railway ‘sleeping car’ with a well equipped kitchen and accommodation for up to ten people is also available




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