Last week, Neil Hooper of Fortingall Roots and the Breadalbane Heritage Society, led a walk round the ruined village of Old Lawers, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The walk proved popular with both locals and visitors and so it was a good sized group that made its way down the track to the old village.
The track through the fields was almost a time-tunnel, taking us away from the sounds of the modern world and into the atmospheric stillness of the deserted village.
One of the earliest references to Lawers was in 1160, when Malcolm IV granted the barony of Lawers to the MacMillans of Argyllshire and it appears to have been occupied up until sometime around the 1920s.
The remains of the pier still protrude from the water, and are a reminder that the Loch Tay Steamboats used to stop here on their way up and down the loch.
But for centuries before the steamboats, people and goods were ferried up and down the loch, some calling into Lawers on their way. Cattle being brought to market from the south side would be swum across the water to Lawers and there was a time that, on a Sunday morning, half the congregation of Lawers church would arrive by boat from the other side of the loch.
From the pier, following the path round the edge of the loch, we passed the remains of the Laird’s House. This house was built after an earlier castle (or fortified house) of the Lairds of Lawers was destroyed in 1645.
The old village is, of course, famous for the prophesies of a former resident, the Lady of Lawers. She is said to have been a Stewart of Appin, married to a brother of the 6th Laird, Sir James, and to have lived in the Laird’s House around the mid 17th Century – although there are no records that support this.
A number of her prophesies relate to the kirk next to the Laird’s House. When Lawers Church was being built in 1669, she had watched as the ridging stones, brought from Kenmore by boat, were left on the shore ready for installation the next day. This prompted the first of her prophecies “The ridging stones shall never be placed on the roof of the church.” She was quickly proved right, as that night a violent storm blew up and the stones were washed into the deep waters of the loch, beyond reach.
An ash tree planted close to the new church was the focus of further predictions. “The tree will grow”, said the Lady of Lawers, “and when it reaches the height of the gable the church will split asunder.” This was taken to foretell of the Great Disruption of 1843 when the congregation of Lawers left the Church of Scotland and joined the Free Church.
She made two further prophesies about the ash tree:
“When the tree reaches the ridge of the church, the House of Balloch will be without an heir.” (The tree reached the ridge in 1862, the same year the Marquis died without an heir.)
“Evil will come to him who harms the ash tree.” (Many years after the prediction, in 1895, a tenant of Milton farm cut down the tree with an axe. Shortly afterwards, he was gored to death by his own Highland bull and his neighbour, who had assisted him, went mad and had to be committed to an asylum. Even the poor horse that dragged the tree away inexplicably collapsed and died.)
Other trees now grow around, and in, the ruin of the Kirk, but the gable end still stands with the window that would have provided light by which the minister, aloft in his pulpit, read from the bible to his congregation and delivered his sermon.
The Lady of Lawers made many other prophesies about the area, both economic and social, and you can read more about them here.
Moving on, we paused at the ruins of one mill and looked down what had been a cobbled lade culvert, towards a second mill and beyond that to the Lawers Burn, which gave the village its name. Although it was flowing gently on the day of our visit, the name means the noisy burn, referring to the clatter it makes when in flood, as it races down from the mountain above.
After the mills, we crossed an old wooden bridge over that noisy burn and walked across a field to reach the old burial ground, Cladh Machuim, behind its high drystone walls.
There are a number of graves inside the enclosure and it appears to have been in use over many centuries. Amongst the gravestones (some relatively recent) are some old, incumbent, roughly-hewn slabs, one of which bears the initial M and the date 1786, and another the initials W M and the date 1531.
In a small tool shed outside the burial ground, there is an ancient font from a church.
And then it was time to leave and make our way back up the track thinking, perhaps, of the three prophesies of the Lady of Lawers that remain unfulfilled:
“A ship driven by smoke will sink in the loch with great loss of life.” (This is believed to have deterred a number of would-be passengers in the years of the Loch Tay Steamers.)
“The time will come when Ben Lawers will become so cold that it will chill and waste the land for seven miles.”
“A strange heir will come to Balloch when Clach an Tuirc (the Boar’s Stone) at Fearnan topples over.”
Will they come to fruition? Who can tell!
If you are interested in joining one of Neil Hooper’s guided walks, keep an eye on The Quair, where they are listed in advance.