WITH ITS northern end only a few hundred yards from the mainland at the pier of Balmaha, this is one of the most accessible of Loch Lomond's islands. Veiled in oak trees and crowned at its summit by Scots firs, it holds all the mystery of the secret, sacred place which indeed it is.
In 717AD three Christian missionaries arrived in Scotland from Ireland. They were the widowed St Kentigerna, the daughter of a King of Leinster, and her brother and her son. After much travelling the old woman settled on the island, which because of her became known as Inchcailloch. There she died, but her influence endured. It is said that a nunnery was founded, and certainly in the 12th or early 13th century a church was built and dedicated to her memory. To this church for 500 years, from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, the people of the mainland parish, now known as Buchanan and then called Inchcailioch, rowed across to their Sunday worship, and here also they buried their dead. In 1670 the church on Inchcailloch was finally abandoned in favour of one on the mainland, but the graveyard continued to be used into modern times, the last burial being in 1947. Situated on a commanding site about a quarter of a mile above the landing place Opposite Balmaha pier, the ancient foundations of the church may still be seen, and many gravestones from more recent times are still legible. Among them is one which witnesses what must be a unique record of a life on Loch Lomond's islands: "Archibald Davie born on Inchfad, 10 March 1839, died on Inchcruin, 12 June 1904 . Inchcailloch was the ancient burying place of the Clan MacGregor,. but the name most in evidence is MacFarlane. We are indebted to a "gentleman of Dumbarton" for the following account of his attendance of a funeral at
Inchcailloch towards the end of the eighteenth century:
"I was invited to attend the funeral of a friend from Drymen to Inchcailloch. The funeral party was composed principally of Highlanders, and from the first to the last they had on the journey from sixteen to twenty rounds of the real strong mountain dew, called whisky, which made them so frisky and so inattentive to the solemn business which they had on hand that they very nearly forgot to bury the body.
Among the grave stones are two very old ones to a MacGregor and to a MacFarlane, Gregor MacGregor 1623 and Duncan MacFarlane 1783. The latter bears the clan slogan Loch Sloy. Gregor McGregor was chief of his clan and an uncle of Rob Roy MacGregor. According to the Scottish Natural Heritage booklet on Inchcailloch, the table stone was recarved wrongly in the past and should read not 1623 but 1693.
The last permanent inhabitants of Inchcailloch lived there about two hundred years ago, earning their livelihood by farming. The remains of their dwellings can still be traced on the north-west side of the island, near to the shore. The lease of the farm was not renewed after 1770, so it is reasonable to assume that farming was gradually abandoned after this time. Later the land was planted with oak trees, the bark of which was used for the production of leather tanning agents, while the wood was processed to yield pyroligneous acid for use in industry. This processing was done at the Liquor Works' on the mainland at Balmaha, in a building which has now been transformed to provide a shop and the Highland Way Inn. In the , 1920s ieêhtiical progress made these distillation works redundant, and since then the oak trees have been left to grow, transforming the appearance of Inchcailloch.
Now owned by Scottish Natural Heritage who seek to safeguard the vegetation and wildlife on the island and to encourage natural regeneration, Inchcailloch has become a delight to the many visitors who follow the carefully maintained nature trail wending its circular course from the lowlands to the highlands of this miniature world. Indeed this is not an inaccurate description, as the geological fault line which separates Highland from Lowland Scotland runs longitudinally through Inchcailloch. From the summit viewpoint, surrounded by heather and sheltered by Scots pines, all the major islands of the Loch stretch in beautiful tapestry, to a background of Ben Lomond, Ben Vorlich and the Luss Hills. This is a view which should not be missed! Here, during the Second World War, a low flying Spitfire failed to dear the high trees and crashed, happily leaving the pilot with only a broken leg to worry about. This summit is called Tom na Nigheanan, meaning the hill of the young women, which may have some connection with the nunnery already mentioned.
At the southern end of Inchcailloch is the sheltered, sandy bay known as Port Bawn, probably derived from the Gaelic ban meaning white or beautiful. Here Scottish Natural Heritage has provided a wooden jetty and a picnic area, and the shallow, quickly warmed waters of the bay make an enticing place to swim. It is to Port Bawn or to the other wooden pier at the opposite end of the island that visitors must guide their boats, but if they have time to sail a little way away from its shores and view the contours of its dark green length silhouetted against the sky and the water, they can surely see why Inchcailioch was once known locally as Corpse Island'.