Ghosts on the platform at Achnasheen

13
1832

By Kenneth Roy

This is the story of Murilla, mother of a friend, of whom it could be said that she was cremated twice. But before I tell you what happened to Murilla, it needs to be recorded that Achnasheen Post Office closed a few weeks ago. After 150 years, the Achnasheen date stamp will never again appear on letters and parcels.

For this information (except the bit about Murilla), I am indebted to the Highland journalist Peter MacAulay, who thought that the end of a post office established in 1869, possibly earlier, would be of interest to the local press in that part of the world.

By Kenneth Roy

This is the story of Murilla, mother of a friend, of whom it could be said that she was cremated twice. But before I tell you what happened to Murilla, it needs to be recorded that Achnasheen Post Office closed a few weeks ago. After 150 years, the Achnasheen date stamp will never again appear on letters and parcels.

For this information (except the bit about Murilla), I am indebted to the Highland journalist Peter MacAulay, who thought that the end of a post office established in 1869, possibly earlier, would be of interest to the local press in that part of the world. The post office predated the railway (which came in 1870), and was there before the 1872 Education Act which laid the foundations for a school in every parish. The school closed years ago, but, said Peter, ‘the PO soldiered on, catering for the village’s 40 souls’. Achnasheen was also the main sorting office for a host of villages, some of them 50 miles away.

Peter sent a short item – a dozen or so paragraphs – with a photograph of the postmistress on the day she retired, to a local newspaper. The paper used nothing of it, but did reprint a press release from the Post Office announcing that a ‘hosted outreach service’ will replace the post office. This apparently means that someone from another post office will come to Achnasheen village hall for two hours once a week to sell stamps.

Having read articles of mine on the state of Scotland’s local press, Peter offered this as an example of journalistic indifference. The example is indeed an impressive one. But as soon as I opened his letter and saw the word ‘Achnasheen’, the story acquired another dimension.

Soon enough I was thinking about Murilla. But first I remembered my own visit to Achnasheen in the summer of 1987, when I was collecting material for a book. There was an old hotel on the platform of the railway station and, since I have a thing about the platforms of rural railway stations (perhaps the best description of one is to be found at the start of a novel by Elizabeth Taylor), I stayed in this hotel for a night and wrote about it.

I described it as plain and old-fashioned ‘of a kind that I had despaired of ever finding’ (anyway on these travels), praised the homely quality of the well-cooked food, the courtesy and comeliness of the young Highland woman who served it – it was still just about permissible in 1987 to call a young woman ‘pretty’ in print – the kindness of the proprietor, and the view from the dining room. From my table I looked out to the deserted platform, a signal box, and across to a backcloth of mountains.

The silence was profound.


Queen Victoria tried to patronise it, but Ian’s great-grandfather refused to allow her to change her horses on the Sabbath. So many ministers went shooting and fishing in the area that Lloyd George once held a cabinet meeting in the dining room.


I was so taken by the Achnasheen Hotel that I returned a few years later. Everything had changed; the new management had destroyed its wonderful atmosphere and it was now reduced to a scruffy, uninviting dump. Some time later I read that it had burned down. It was never rebuilt.

Ian Mackenzie, the broadcaster and writer, the friend in the first paragraph, read what I wrote about Achnasheen, although he said nothing to me at the time. Then, in 1998, in an edition of the Scottish Review devoted to the theme of ghosts, he wrote about Achnasheen himself, and had a much better story to tell, a story of which I had known nothing.

Perhaps you are wondering where it is, this remote place by the name of Achnasheen, so Ian Mackenzie will describe it:

‘Achnasheen’ (he wrote in the Scottish Review) ‘is where two ancient routes meet: the north one by Loch Maree from Gairloch, where my father was born, and the west one from Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye. The railway goes only west, but the mail buses from the north meet here.’

Ian’s great-grandfather not only ran the Achnasheen mails, now no more, but owned and ran the hotel, now no more. It was a famous hotel in its day. Queen Victoria tried to patronise it, but Ian’s great-grandfather refused to allow her to change her horses on the Sabbath. So many ministers went shooting and fishing in the area that Lloyd George once held a cabinet meeting in the dining room.

When Ian heard that the hotel had burned down, he had to go there and see for himself if even a ruin remained. It didn’t. ‘Only a Railtrack shelter standing forlornly on the platform, the wind moaning down the strath’.

Now, why did Ian have to do this? It was for the most intimate of reasons. His mother, Murilla, was born in this hotel. When she died at the age of 95, he scattered her ashes across the nearby loch. But also, unknown to anyone, he left some ashes in the hotel, ‘to complete her life cycle in peace’.

Let Ian finish the story:

Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. Now she had been twice put to the fire. Not her, you say; ash to ash. I waited in the shelter pounded by sleet for the train which would return me to the safety of the familiar fort I have built with my life against the chaos that is never far away. But can one be comfortable with one’s history? Because it is history, and the clock ticks on. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From the ashes of a burned croft my grandfather was born to look at the Sutherland hills across water from a more fruitful land. From his youth came my mother, and from her came me. They’re all ashes now.

There was a powerful sense of mortality in this piece of Ian’s, a presentiment of his own death. Tempted as I am, I will not return to Achnasheen a second time. There are too many ghosts on the platform.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review