Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Salisbury's Dam

Wherever you find an overtly English name in the Gaelic-Norse cultural milieu of the West Highlands and Islands, there's usually an interesting story behind it.

Extract from the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map via Streetmap.co.uk
Sounding as if it would be more at home on the Zambezi, Salisbury's Dam is in fact to be found on the headwaters of the Kilmory River on the island of Rum - or rather that's where its remains are because the dam burst very shortly after it had been completed. This is the story.

Picture copyright RCAHMS
The island of Rum has a fascinating history. It's the site of the earliest yet recorded human settlement in Scotland - a nomadic Mesolithic hunter gatherers' camp dating to around 7,000BC. In medieval times, the island belong to the Clan Macdonald of Clanranald and was purchased from them by the Macleans of Coll, the price being a galley - tradition has it that its timbers were found to be rotten and that Clanranald regretted the deal and had to be held prisoner by Coll before he gave up possession of Rum. But despite the boisterous clan history, the Macleans had little compunction in clearing (or "assisting to emigrate" depending who you listen to) almost the entire population - around 400 people - in the late 1820s in order that the island could be let as a sheep farm. So thorough was this clearance that the farmer actually had to import some families who had been cleared from Skye to act as his labour force. The farm did not prosper, however, and the tenant went bankrupt in 1839. In poor financial shape themselves (in common with a number of clan chiefs at the time), the Macleans sold Rum in 1845 to the Marquis of Salisbury.

"Part of the Isle of Rum" by William Daniell, c.1815. Daniell tended to exaggerate his pictures vertically.
Although he continued to farm the island, Salisbury's main reason for buying Rum was to run it as a sporting estate. This was part of a common cycle - in the 1790s, Hebridean islands became valuable for their kelp (seaweed). When the bottom fell out of that market in 1820s, sheep farming was the thing. When that became less profitable not long after, sporting estates became all the rage following the trend set by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at their newly acquired Balmoral. The fact that there weren't any deer on Rum to stalk did not deter Salisbury in the least - they could be imported from his English estates. But it was his plans for developing the salmon and sea-trout fishing which were the most audacious.

There are three main rivers on Rum with catchment areas as shown on the following map:-

From Bartholomew's Half Inch scale Sheet 14 "Arisaig and Rum" (1931) 
The Kilmory River (catchment outlined by dark red dots) flows north to meet the sea near the north-most point of the island; the Kinloch River (yellow dots) flows east to drain in to Loch Scresort; and the Abhainn Rhangail (turquoise dots) has its source in a loch near the centre of the island called Long Loch (also marked on early maps by its original name of Loch Sgathaig) and flows to the south west coast at Harris. 

These were all really little more than large streams so the plan was to increase the flow in the Kinloch River by diverting the headwaters of the Kilmory River and Abhainn Rhangail into it. This would add the area outlined by pink dots to the Kinloch catchment and create - so Salisbury hoped - a decent salmon river running past the lodge at Kinloch (this was before Kinloch Castle was built and the lodge at the time no longer exists).

The best account of these works is in "Rum: A Landscape Without Figures" by John Love. He had access to the Salisbury archives and still found it hard to piece together the exact chronology but the first operation, in 1849, seems to have been the building of a dam at the south end of the Long Loch (aka Loch Sgathaig) to raise its level and send its overflow northwards into the Kilmory River instead of south into the Abhainn Rhangail. This dam still exists and can been seen on Google Earth.

At first, there seems to have been a more modest scheme not including the Kinloch River and involving another dam at the north end of the Long Loch and an artificial cut to the Kilmory River. This dam collapsed about two months after it was completed. It seems to have been rebuilt in 1850 and to have stood for a while although there is no trace of it now - I suspect it was removed during a later phase of the works.

The Long Loch (Loch Sgathaig) standing on the dam at its south end - photo credit John Craig
In 1852, the work to divert the headwaters of the Kilmory River (already augmented by the overflow from the Long Loch) into the Kinloch River began. This involved the creation of a new loch by the construction of a dam across the Kilmory about half a mile north of the Long Loch. From this new loch, an artificial channel about 600-700 yards long would take its overflow east to the headwaters of the Kinloch River. This dam is the one the remains of which are marked on the OS 1:25,000 map as "Salisbury's Dam" and photographed above. It famously collapsed just after it was completed in August 1854, sending a torrent of water down Kilmory Glen.

Kilmory River - photo credit Richard Webb
Many accounts give the impression that hydro-engineering on Rum stopped there, the whole thing an expensive fiasco, but this is not so. The idea of a dam across the Kilmory River was abandoned but the following year, 1855, a new channel about half a mile long to run from the Long Loch to the Kinloch River was begun. It seems, however, that Lord Salisbury finally tired of the expense and halted this work shortly before it was completed.

Whether his lordship ever caught a salmon in the Kilmory or Kinloch Rivers is not recorded but he died in 1868 and his son (three times Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902) sold Rum in 1870. The purchaser was Farquhar Campbell of Aros on Mull (an estate which, by coincidence, had also once belonged to the Macleans of Coll). He let the island to grazing and sporting tenants, one of the latter of which, a Lancashire industrialist who had made a fortune in the manufacture of spinning and weaving machinery called John Bullough, bought it in 1888. He was succeeded as owner by his son Sir George in 1891.

The Bulloughs' main interest in Rum was as a sporting estate. Their biggest legacy was the construction of the magnificent Kinloch Castle in 1897 but they also picked up where Salisbury had left off in the importation of deer to improve the island's stock and hydro-engineering to improve the fishing. Not only did they finish off the artificial channel to lead the waters of the Long Loch into the Kinloch River which Lord Salisbury had baulked at completing in 1855, the Bulloughs also commissioned an entirely new cut to the west of the Long Loch (aka Loch Sgathaig) to divert the principal tributary of the Kilmory River into the loch and thereby indirectly into the Kinloch River. Thus was Salisbury's scheme finally completed, albeit without his eponymous dam and about 50 years late. It's all visible on Google Earth as seen below (click to enlarge)

A to B is the cut to lead the overflow from the Long Loch north into the Kilmory River. From Salisbury's Dam to D via C was the cut to lead the headwaters of the Kilmory River into the Kinloch River. B to C was Salisbury's "Plan B" to take the overflow from the Long Loch to the Kinloch River after his dam failed. E to F is the Bulloughs' cut to divert the main tributary of the Kilmory River into a burn running into the Long Loch and thus indirectly into the Kinloch River.

This system all still exists although in places the works have been breached to allow water to flow back into its natural course down the Kilmory River to alleviate flooding in Kinloch Glen. This is what the lower reaches of the Kinloch River look like today in a spate:-

Kinloch River in spate - photo credit Anne Burgess
I've never fished it but I'd guess the fishing on the Kinloch is what estate agents call "challenging" which means it's theoretically possible to catch a migratory fish but, in practice, very unlikely.

Just looking over the Bartholomew's half inch map (pictured above) again, I note also "Schooner Point" next to "Wreck Bay" which sound like they too have an interesting story attached to them. But perhaps most intriguingly of all there's "Ashworth's Model Loch". I suspect I shall be revisiting the place names of Rum in future posts.


  1. Very interesting, Neil. I've wondered how small dams like this one fared after the introduction of the Reservoirs Act given the strict restrictions it imposes and additional cost to ensure they are safe. (spot the river engineer!).

    I've emailed you a link to the research i've been doing on the Railways proposed on Lewis and Harris, but just in case here's a link:
    It has a small amount of info on the Pentland Road which I thought you'd be interested in.

    Happy blogging!


  2. I believe that is more or less correct, although I'm uncertain about which steps came first.

    E is a small dam with a cut leading under malcoms bridge towards long loch (you can see the spoil that came out of the trench, its part of the path you walk on now and acts as an embankment)

    There's also a cut for the overflow from salisbury's dam to C

    The cut under the bridge at point C is actually been created as a stepped salmon ladder, cut into the stone (its fascinating to think they did all this with no mechanical power!)