The Camerons gazed down from the ridge for a last look at the place that had been their home, with no option but to `face the land of strangers'

The remains of any abandoned village are a melancholy sight, but few can be more haunting than those of Inniemore, the hamlet in Argyll brought to light last year by the clear-felling of the forest that had grown over it. The name Inniemore means "the flat place beneath the cliff", and the ruins stand on a gentle, north-facing slope, backed by a ferocious mountain face that curves round like an immense amphitheatre, banded by horizontal bars of bare rock, and rent by vertical fissures.

What makes Inniemore so poignant is that we know exactly when and why its people fled. Early in the 1820s Miss Christina Stewart, a middle-aged spinster living in Edinburgh, was advised to buy 10,000 acres of the Morvern Peninsula, and to clear the land for sheep. One day in 1824, her agents came to tear the roofs off the little stone houses and cast the inhabitants into the world.

A moving first-hand account of the eviction survives in the words of Mary Cameron, who described how her husband, James, carried his aged mother over the Hill of the Cairns in a creel (a basket), how she herself walked with a bairn at her breast and a toddler at her heel, and how the family gazed down from the ridge for a last look at the place that had been their home, with no option but "to face the land of strangers".

Never has the brutality of the Clearances been etched in sharper relief. Miss Stewart never visited her new lands. The sheep soon failed. The eviction proved pointless. Later in the 19th century an enlightened landowner nearby, Octavius Smith, developed his Ardtornish estate as a deer-forest and tried to rebuild some of the lost communities, but Inniemore was never reoccupied.

Then, after the First World War, the site was bought by the Forestry Commission, which in those days was so single-minded that its employees were ordered to use every square yard of ground, regardless of what stood on it. Thus they planted Sitka and Norway spruce not merely round the ruins of the houses, but in the middle of the structures, too.

In recent times the commission had by no means forgotten that the bones of a village lay buried beneath the trees. But it was the advocacy of Iain Thornber, a local historian, that persuaded the foresters to take exceptional precautions when harvesting the timber. The felling was done with such skill that hardly a single stone of the old buildings was knocked down. Ironically, the spruce had preserved the ruins by protecting the soft basalt from rain and frost.

So far about half the village has been uncovered, and the aim is to free the rest as soon as possible. A survey by a local archaeologist has revealed 22 houses. There are also several conical kilns for drying corn, two kail yards - enclosures about 25 yards square, bounded by stone walls, in which kail (cabbage) was grown - and a winnowing barn perched upon a knoll.

Any visitor with imagination must feel his or her skin crawl at the idea of life in such a place. Some of the houses are barely 12 feet square. Their turf roofs were pitched so that smoke from the fire collected under them, kippering not only the fish and meat hung there to cure, but the human inhabitants as well.

The people had plenty of fish from nearby lochs and burns; they kept chickens, plus a few cows for milk and goats for meat; and in the good, deep soil (which later produced exceptional trees) they grew oats and potatoes. They also earnt money from making the birch hoops that bound the barrels to store herring on the coast.

Yet their dwellings were primitive in the extreme. The windows were mere openings in the walls, which in winter they blocked with sods of turf, to keep out the wind and rain. To reach the nearest settlement of any size, they had to walk for five hours over the ridge that towered at their backs, and they carried their dead out over that formidable hill to the graveyard at Lochaline, by the sea.

The history of Inniemore amounts to a succession of clearances. The original inhabitants cleared birch and scrub off the site to grow crops. They themselves were cleared for the sheep. The sheep were cleared for trees, and now the trees are being cleared in favour of people - for the intention is that the whole village should be retained as a monument to the fickleness of human behaviour. Who can be sure that in the years to come some unforeseeable catastrophe will not again clear the people, and return Inniemore to nature?

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