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Shiaba

The ruined township of Shiaba lies about 3 km east of Scoor House on the south coast of the Ross of Mull. It is situated on high ground, and has wonderful views along the coast to Beinn an Aoininigh (Gorrie’s Leap) and the Carsaig Cliffs and out to sea towards Colonsay, Scarba and Jura.  It is a fine example of a township with its runrig (fertile strips of land) farm system, ruined mills, drying kilns and houses, and has been given scheduled Ancient Monument status as an example of the evolution of the runrig system to the later crofting economy.

A visit to Shiaba, allowing time to eplore it, is the best part of a day’s outing, so remember to take lunch! Leave the A849 and turn onto the Scoor Road a short distance west of Bunessan School.  Follow the road along the east side of Loch Assapol.  Just past the entrance to the Water Treatment Works the tarmac ends and the road becomes a stony track. Continue to follow the track along the side of the loch until you reach the Visitors Car Park south-east of the remains of Kilvickeon Chapel, which is also worth taking the time to visit.  Walk from the Car Park to Scoor House and, keeping the buildings at Scoor on your right, go through the field gate to the left of the last house, and follow the track up past a sheep fank (sheep fold) on your left.  Continue following the track through another field gate and into the next field.  A little further on the track fades and is difficult to follow, but, is just possible to discern by the lay of the land.  Follow this faint trail for about half of a kilometre in a north-easterly direction until you find a stony path.  Going south east, this track takes you directly to Shiaba.  Walls and platforms, possibly of very early dwellings and other structures, lie on both sides of the track, but the first substantial ruin is the two-roomed schoolhouse, which is sited some distance outside the main township.  Weather and chores permitting, the children were given a rudimentary schooling here.

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Shiaba site map Courtesy of John Clare

Shiaba site map
Courtesy of John Clare

The settlement consists of about twelve roofless buildings and other enclosures.  The buildings are of typical local construction, i.e. dry-stone houses with rounded corners, where families lived at the front and the animals bedded down in the back during winter.

Beyond the Schoolhouse, across the burn, lies a group of ruined buildings, including the Schoolmaster’s House, with its enclosed garden and outbuildings, and Shiaba Cottage.  The cottage is well preserved, because it was the last building in the township to be occupied.  Its walls are largely intact and, internally, there are fireplaces at either end, one containing the remains of a cast iron range, and indications of the positions of the central partition walls.

The clear outline of a grain-drying kiln can be seen to the north of Shiaba Cottage.  Its flue is still intact.

The remains of another group of dwellings, byres, stack yards and other structures lie to the east.

North of the settlement the land was planted with conifers in the 1970’s, so that the remains of a further series of dwellings and other buildings are lost amongst the trees.

A burn, Alllt Cnoc na Fannaige (Stream of the Hill of the Lazybed), flows south from the former township and what appear to be the remains of the platforms of two horizontal water mills (click mills) and their associated lades are sited on its banks.

South of the township two further ruined dwellings can be seen at the bay of Traigh Ban.  These are assumed to be fishermen’s cottages.  Further south again are the ruins of a chapel and other structures.  The chapel stands in a small enclosure and appears to have very early origins – the external altar is still well preserved, two large standing stones (one with a hole) mark the entrance to the single cell structure, and there is a small niche in the external wall face to the left of the doorway.

The township is sited on land that was considered to be the most fertile on the Ross and is near a field-system laid out in regular plots or crofts, which indicates the establishment of a crofting settlement, superseding the old runrig system.  The change from runrig to crofts occurred in about 1804.  Shiaba is considered significant because it is a physical testament to life not only on the Island of Mull, but in Scotland in general in the 1800’s.

This was a prosperous township, which benefited from good land and boasted sheep, cows and even a few horses.  It had a schoolmaster and the Gaelic poet, Mary MacLucas, who wrote Child in a Manger amongst many other songs and poems, lived there.  Prior to 1847 Shiaba was home to some 130 people and their forefathers, but, in 1845 the Duke of Argyll issued the villagers with an eviction notice.  He cleared the land in 1847 to facilitate the more profitable activity of sheep farming.  Many of the people were moved away to avoid the worst effects of starvation following the 1846 potato famine.  The Duke moved some to other areas of Mull, such as Ardtun, where they attempted to make a living on less fertile land, but many were encouraged to go overseas to America, Canada and Australia.  By 1861 (census) only 18 people remained, living in four houses, and by 1871 (census) only a shepherd remained.  Shepherds continued to occupy Shiaba Cottage tending the sheep and looking after 92 acres of land until the late 1930s.  Morag McKinlay was only five years old in 1932 when her family moved to the shepherd’s cottage, but they were forced to move to Ardanalish in 1937 when a storm blew the roof off.  From then on the township remained deserted and given over entirely to sheep.

Grid Reference NM 437 192