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Sunday, 19 January 2014

Walk of the Day - Loch Clunie

clunie 27/12/13 sea penguin
The road leading down to the church and loch.

loch clunie 27/12/13 sea penguin
Reed beds at the western edge of the loch.

clunie church 27/12/13 sea penguin
Clunie church, from the loch side

A walk round Loch Clunie to the church and Castle Hill.  It's a strange place, full of history.  When I first visited about twenty years ago I was chiefly interested in bird and wildlife watching, but I was also immediately aware of an odd atmosphere and I started doing some research.  At that time there was a sign on a stile leading from the car park to the loch stating that the site was managed by Historic Scotland, but it's long gone, and so is the stile, and I now have no idea who owns it or manages it.
I generally park just off the A923 and walk along the road that goes round the loch to the church and Castle Hill.  It's about a mile at most.  There is occasional traffic, but you get good views of the castle and island, and you often see deer, buzzards and small woodland birds, as well as a range of wildfowl on the loch.  The first building you see as one approaches is the former manse,  now a family home, and then the church,  a  rather dramatic Victorian Gothic structure which like many of similar age is on an ancient site dating back to pre-Christian times.  It has an interesting graveyard with lichen and moss-encrusted headstones dating back to the 1700s, complete with skulls, egg-timers and so forth.  'Here Lie the Dust and Bones...'  'Memento Mori', et cetera.
There is an engraving on a stone under the ivy* at the entrance gate, 'Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God', dated 1672.  There is also a small outbuilding by the church, possibly the remains of a medieval mausoleum. In summer it's full of swallows' nests**. 
As you head towards the loch you find on your right the terraced Castle Hill (see photo below), site of a hunting lodge which dates back to the time of Kenneth MacAlpine, the Scottish King who united the divided kingdom of the Picts and the Scots.  Edward I had a stronghold there.  The castle was taken down and the stones used for other buildings***, but some bits of it remain and can easily be observed if you climb the hill and walk across the flat top, towards the back.   I read somewhere that there is a hanging tree there, but I can't identify it, if indeed it still exists.  About half a mile from the loch and Castle Hill is another knoll marked on the O.S. map as 'Gallows Knowe', so perhaps there is confusion with that.
There's an overgrown path which leads down from the car park by the church to an odd wooded area with the remains of what seems to be a folly and hints of other man-made constructions.  I believe it was once a formal garden related to the castle/hunting lodge.  A few years ago there was a thriving colony of red squirrels.  I used to sit quietly under the beeches and watch them.  Once I saw a squirrel sitting in the bole of a holly tree, apparently sharpening its teeth on a piece of bone.  One of these occasions where you wish you had brought your camera.  However, like the swallows in the mausoleum, the squirrels seem to have vanished.  I've often seen roe and fallow deer there too, and buzzards nest in the trees.  And there are usually mallards in a pretty inlet of water.
I wonder if the squirrels have been scared off by some of the rowdier elements, campers who light fires in the trees and dump bags of rubbish in the water.
The loch itself is known for pike, I have read, and is popular with fishermen.  It's also a mesotrophic loch, and a SSSI.  Birds I've seen regularly on and around the loch include great crested grebes, goldeneye, wild swans, coots, and ospreys, as well as buzzards and the usual small birds such as finches, robins, wrens and tits.   In summer you usually surprise a pheasant or two, and there are lots and lots of damsel flies. Cormorants roost spookily on the trees around the already fairly spooky Clunie Castle, on the island, and remind one a bit of Noggin the Nog.  The best place to watch birds is from the top of Castle Hill - a wonderful place to spend a summer's afternoon, so long as you have the place to yourself.  All too often there are campers and fishermen, many of whom leave the place in a disgraceful state with fires, broken bottles, cans and lots of other revolting human detritus****.  On one occasion I saw a plane land on the loch, and take off again.
It's also worth wandering round the loch side to the remains of an old boathouse.  The island (which is actually a crannog) with its amazing ruined castle (or tower house) can only be reached by boat.  There are no boats on the loch now that I know of,  except those brought by fishermen.   Sadly the castle, which was the former home of a medieval (pre-Reformation) bishop of Dunkeld, burnt down in fairly recent years, and only a shell remains. Apparently there was a chapel on the island at one time, St Catherine's, and human bones were found there, so I presume there is also an old graveyard.  James Crichton, 16th century polymath and the inspiration for J.M. Barrie's 1902 play the Admirable Crichton spent his childhood there.
I visit Loch Clunie often and never fail to be aware of its many ghosts, even on the sunniest of days.  In winter, I think it is possibly one of the gloomiest places imaginable - but don't let that put you off.
castle hill loch clunie sea penguin 19/01/14
Castle Hill - site of Kenneth MacAlpine's hunting lodge, and a castle used by Edward 1st

inscription clunie church 19/01/14 sea penguin
Inscription at Clunie church gate

loch clunie 19/01/14 sea penguin
The island (or crannog) seen from the road - gable of ruined castle just visible

loch clunie sea penguin jan 2014
A very rainy Loch Clunie - the wooded island or crannog on right of photo

by loch clunie sea penguin 2014
A walk along the road by the loch


* the ivy has been cut down recently
** I haven't seen any swallows' nests in use there for two years at least
*** I now gather the stones were used to build the tower house on the island/crannog in the 1400s.
**** visitors/campers have increased dramatically during the last two summers and the resulting increase in mess and damage (to trees especially)  is at times distressing to see.  Fires are lit, broken bottles and all kinds of rubbish left. Paddleboarders and kayakers now access every corner of the loch leaving wildlife no refuge from human activity.  The loch has traditionally been a popular spot for visitors, it's easily accessible and attractive for camping, so clearly this will continue to be an issue.

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