Friday, July 23, 2021

The Meikle Gruinard ferry, Strath na Sealga & the road to Achneigie

In my last post, I narrated how, in 1877, Meyrick Bankes, the owner of Letterewe Estate in Wester Ross, had tried to prevent Osgood MacKenzie, the owner of the neighbouring Kernsary Estate (and founder of Inverewe Gardens), from fishing on Dubh Loch because it would, Bankes claimed, disturb the deer on his surrounding hills. In fact this wasn't the first time Bankes had had a legal run in with one of his neighbours over the protection of the tranquility of his estate - ten years earlier he'd been in the courts with Dundonnell Estate concerning the use of vehicles on a road through his land.

The River Gruinard and An Teallach - picture credit hairypeatcutter

In 1867, the owner of Dundonnell, Hugh Munro-MacKenzie (who styled himself of Ardross and Dundonnell despite his father having sold Ardross, in Easter Ross, in the 1790s: it wasn't uncommon for Highland landlords to continue to call themselves after properties their families had long since disposed of but I'm going to refer to him hereafter simply as Dundonnell) proposed to improve the access to his fishing on the River Gruinard (pronounced "GRIN-yard") and Loch na Sealga (the Gaelic word for hunting pronounced approximately "SHYULL-uh-guh") by upgrading the road (pictured above) along the bank of the river and loch to make it passable by horse-drawn carriages as far as Achneigie in Strath na Sealga. Unfortunately, the road passed through land belonging to Bankes of Letterewe (part of his Fisherfield Deer Forest) and he was opposed to the project. Consequently, Dundonnell applied to the Court of Session for a declarator (court order declaring legal rights) that the road was a public right of way and that consequently he:-

"and all others are entitled in all time coming to free and uninterrupted use, possession, and enjoyment of the said road as a public road for foot-passengers, cattle, sheep, horses, carts, and carriages, or for one or other of these purposes"

Bartholomews Half Inch Map, 1912 via National Libraries of Scotland

The Lord Ordinary (judge of first instance in the Court of Session) ruled against Dundonnell so he appealed to the Inner House of the CofS (Scottish equivalent of the Court of Appeal). It too ruled against him and upheld Bankes' objection to the proposed roadworks. The reason was that, while there was no doubt that, in light of its history as a drove road, the road was a public right of way, there was no evidence it had ever been used as a vehicular right of way. Consequently, Dundonnell was not entitled unilaterally to make it into one in the face of opposition from the owner of the land the road ran over. 

As he didn't appeal to the House of Lords (the equivalent then of today's Supreme Court), Dundonnell's legal battle to build his new road ended there but, as is so often the case with litigation, the outcome for the parties is less interesting than the facts incidentally revealed along the way. Unfortunately, the report of this case doesn't narrate any of the evidence led at the proof (hearing at which witnesses give evidence) about the road's history as a drove road but it does repeat the interlocutor (interim court order) pronounced by the Lord Ordinary, the splendidly named Lord Jerviswoode, with his findings in fact (modern OS spellings in square brackets).

"12th November 1867. Finds in point of fact, that there has existed for forty years and upwards a road or path capable of being used, and which has in fact been used for the said period as a public road for the passage of horses with and without burdens [i.e. loads], and of cattle, sheep and the like, and by foot-passengers, which road or path leads in an easterly direction from the ferry across the river Meikle Gruinard, along the south bank of the said river and Lochnashalag [Loch na Sealga], and follows the course, or nearly the course, of the said river and loch, through the defender's [i.e. Bankes'] lands of Fisherfield and others, to the property and township of Auchnevie [Achneigie] and Lochnet [Loch an Nid]; and thereafter proceeding in two directions, the one in a south-easterly direction by Ballachnacross [Bealach na Croise], Lecky [Leckie], Strathcromble [Srath Chrombuill], and Corryvach [Coire Bhuig], to the public road leading from Lochcarron and Auchnasheen [Achnasheen], and the other in a north- easterly direction by Lochvruin [Loch a' Bhraoin] to the public road through the Deerymoor [Dirrie More] leading from Ullapool to Dingwall." 

The routes and places mentioned are marked on the map below (click to enlarge):-

Ordnance Survey One Inch Map, 1950s, via National Libraries of Scotland

The existence of these drove roads through the mountains of Wester Ross is relatively well known but two smaller nuggets of local history jumped out at me from Lord Jerviswoode's interlocutor. First, the ferry across the Meikle (Big) Gruinard River which was just upstream from where the A832 crosses the river by bridge now (here). We take them for granted nowadays but 200 years ago bridges were few and far between. Fords or ferries across rivers used to be the norm (see here) but it does seem strange that the Meikle Gruinard hadn't yet been bridged as late as 1867. (Was this another source of contention between the neighbouring estates - who should pay for the bridge?) The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6 inch map surveyed in 1875 shows every river between Braemore and Achnasheen via Gairloch to have been bridged with the exception of the Meikle Gruinard (and, oddly, the more easily fordable Allt Bad an Luig which comes down to the sea at Second Coast on the west side of Gruinard Bay). Even more extraordinary is that it still hadn't been bridged in 1886 when John Dixon wrote his Guide to Gairloch and Loch Maree. Referring to the approach to Gairloch via Braemore, he remarked (here: page 300):-

"The principal difficulty in the way is that there is no bridge over the Meikle Gruinard river, and it cannot always be forded. ... The best method of using this route as an approach to Gairloch is either to walk it, taking the ferry-boat across the Meikle Gruinard river, or else to drive to that river in a conveyance hired from Garve or from the Dundonnell Inn at the head of Loch Broom, and to have another conveyance from the river to Aultbea, Poolewe or Gairloch, as may be desired - the second conveyance to be ordered beforehand from the hotel at one of the last named places. ... When a bridge is erected over the Meikle Gruinard river this route will no doubt become popular. It reveals some grand scenery."   

I don't know when exactly the bridge was finally built but it's marked on the 2nd Edition of the OS 6 inch map (here) which was surveyed in 1904.

The ferry and the ford over the Meilkle Gruinard as shown on the 1st Edition of the Ordnance Survey 6 inch map. The road bridge is now between Creag Pholl ("Pool Rock") and Linne na Cloiche ("Stony Rapids"). Note also the name Inchina which is Gaelic for Ford Meadow.

The second point of interest in the court interlocutor was its reference to the township of Auchnevie (Achneigie) and Lochned (Loch an Nid). It's yet another reminder that these glens, today impossibly remote and frequented only by deer, stalkers and hillwalkers, were once lived in by communities before being emptied by the Clearances. You can see that clearly on the Roy Maps drawn around 1750:-

Cultivation and settlement at Shenavall ("old village") and Larachantivore ("site of the big house") in Strath na Sealga before the Clearances as seen on the Roy Maps via National Libraries of Scotland

I'm not sure if the wording "the township [singular] of Auchnevie and Lochned" implies a sort of conjoined township spread between these two locations. There's no settlement at Loch an Nid marked on the Roy Maps drawn around 1750 as there is at Achneigie - perhaps Loch an Nid was a shieling of Achneigie. Whichever, the word "township" seems to reveal an apparent anachronism in Lord Jerviswoode's interlocutor in the 1867 litigation between Letterewe and Dundonnell because the townships in Strath na Sealga, including Achneigie, had been cleared as long previously as 1803 - perhaps the evidence of some very old men who could remember back to before the Clearances had impressed itself on the judge's mind.

Shenavall Bothy on the site of a cleared township in Strath na Sealga. Behind is one of Scotland's less well known but most splendid mountains, Beinn Dearg Mhor ("Big Red Mountain"). Picture credit tobiascoyote

We know the year of the clearance of Strath na Sealga (1803) because James Hogg, the poet and novelist (True Confessions of a Justified Sinner) known as "the Ettrick Shepherd", referred to it in a letter that year to Sir Walter Scott while on a tour of north west Scotland. Hogg was the guest of Macintyre, the tenant of the 15,000 acre Letterewe sheep farm (he who's son gave evidence in the Dubh Loch case I wrote about here) of which Hogg wrote to Scott as follows:-

"The valley [i.e. Strath na Sealga] is now inhabited only by Mr. Macintyre's shepherds, but there were considerable crops of corn and potatoes left by the tenants who had removed last term. ... This estate is now the property of Mr. Davidson, and though there are some detached parts arable, and possessed by the natives, the greatest extent is now farmed by Mr. Macintyre, at the trifling rent of £200 [about £20k today]; and I am certain, if things continue at present prices, that he may have a clear return of £600 or £700 a year from it [£60-70k] ... What an excellent bargain at such a time!

The truth is, there are several low-country gentlemen getting into excellent bargains by their buying lands in that country [i.e. Wester Ross], of which Mr. Davidson and Mr. Innes [of Lochalsh] are instances; and I cannot help having a desperate ill-will at them on that score. I cannot endure to hear of a Highland chieftain [the MacKenzies of Seaforth and various of their cadet branches] selling his patrimonial property, the cause of which misfortune I always attribute to the goodness of his heart, and the liberality of his sentiments; unwilling to drive off the people who have so long looked to him as their protector, yet whose system of farming cannot furnish them with the means of paying him one-fourth, and in some situations not more than a tenth of the value of his land; ... [Their rents] must be scraped up among the poor, meagre tenants, in twos and threes of silly lambs, hens, and pounds of butter."

You can read the full letter here. It's an interesting observation on the shift from subsistence to commercial farming that the Clearances brought about and not a little ironic that the purpose of Hogg's visit was to look for a sheep farm to rent himself! Anyway, the Mr. Davidson he refers to as Macintyre's landlord of Strath na Sealga and Achneigie was the immensely wealthy Henry Davidson of Tulloch who's father, Duncan, besides inheriting Tulloch Castle and estate at Dingwall, had acquired a lot of land around Gruinard Bay from impecunious MacKenzie lairds in the 1790s from the proceeds of his various business activities. When Henry Davidson died in 1827, he left an estate worth £500,000 (about £50 million in today's money) including as well as his Scottish properties a townhouse in London, a mansion in Middlesex and eight sugar plantations spread across the West Indies. These were worked by African slaves, of course, and one wonders if the Davidsons treated them with the same indifference they treated their Wester Ross tenantry.

Strath na Sealga - the house at Achneigie is just visible on the right bank of the river just above and to the right of the gorse covered haugh. Loch na Sealga and Beinn Dearg Mhor in the distance. Picture credit - k mceachern

By the second half of the 19th century, sheep farming was of less importance and these glens had been given over to sport - the deer stalking and fishing the jealous preservation of which was the source of contention between Bankes of Letterewe and his neighbours, Osgood MacKenzie of Kernsary and Hugh Munro-MacKenzie of Dundonnell. There's only a single house at Achneigie now (it actually looks like two semi-detached cottages and there's the ruins of a building which appears to have a similar footprint 100 yards away). On the Gruinard Estate today, I'm guessing they would have been built as shepherds' cottages and perhaps later occupied by stalkers or watchers or as a modest shooting lodge. I understand that, in the 1930s, there was enough of a community of such estate workers in Strath na Sealga as to justify a side school at Achneigie - I'm still not sure you could call this a "township", though. There's a picture of Achneigie at this time here but today the strath is empty and the house derelict and boarded up.

Achneigie today with Beinn Dearg Mhor behind. Picture credit - hairypeatcutter More of his pictures of Achneigie here and here

Monday, July 12, 2021

The manses of Gairloch

The village of Gairloch in Wester Ross presents an interesting selection of manses. (For anyone not aware, manse is the Scottish equivalent of vicarage or rectory - the home of the parish minister, as we call them in Scotland.)

Gairloch Church of Scotland manse
First, there's the Church of Scotland manse pictured above. The CofS is the established church in Scotland, our equivalent of the Church of England, so, as would be expected, it has the oldest and grandest manses. A lot of CofS manses were built around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries although I don't know why that was - perhaps a fund was made available around that time to replace earlier manses. Anyway, the typical CofS manse is an elegant but unpretentious Georgian house, a bit grander than a farmhouse but a little bit less grand than the laird's house reflecting the relative social status of the Minister vis a vis the laird and the farmer. Gairloch Manse is typical - it was built in 1805 although it's classic Georgian appearance was rather spoilt, in my opinion, by an extension added to its front (left in the photo) elevation in 1823. Compare the manse with the laird of Gairloch's house (seen as it appeared in the 19th century before being extended in the early 20th here. Whether or not because he was stung by the fact that the minister lived in a house almost as posh as his, the laird extended his own house in 1904 so that it now looks like this.)  

As well as their manses, CofS ministers were endowed with a glebe, a nearby area of agricultural land which the minister farmed as a supplement to his stipend. (To cut a very involved story short, until the 1920s, CofS ministers were paid a stipend by the heritors (landowners of the parish) as a quid pro quo for the heritors getting to keep the teinds (Scottish equivalent of tithes) of their land.) Hence, manses were typically also provided with a steading (range of farm buildings) as well as the "offices" one would normally expect to find around a 19th century gentleman's home (stable blocks and coach houses and so forth: in Scotland, the word "office" used to signify such outbuildings rather than a place with desks and paperwork as nowadays.) Again, Gairloch CoS manse is typical with a U-plan court of steadings and offices behind it - you can see that on the right in the Google Streetview screengrab below and there's a photo of it from the rear here.

Gairloch manse "offices" - Google Streetview
Glebes were typically about 10 acres (4 hectares in new money) and it's always puzzled me how small they were - not much bigger than a croft - considering that the steadings of a manse were usually exactly the same size as those for a standard farm of 500 or more acres: compare with the steading of nearby Achtercairn Farm here. Anyway, once again Gairloch glebe was entirely typical: I don't know its precise extent but I think it was the area outlined in red on the map below (about 9 acres).

Ordnance Survey 25 inch map published 1904
In common with many, if not most, CofS manses, the one at Gairloch has been sold off by the Church and the minister has been downsized to a modest modern bungalow next door (see it here): it fits with today's more egalitarian society that the minister lives in a house more like that of his (or her) parishioners. Nor does today's minister have a glebe for that was also sold off by the Church in the early/mid 1980s for a social housing development called Glebe Park (go for a virtual walk round here). Wherever you find streets called Glebe something, you know what the land was originally!    

Though not actually in the village of Gairloch, no discussion of manses in Gairloch parish would be complete without mention of the Parliamentary Manse at nearby Poolewe built in 1828 and pictured below:-

Poolewe Parliamentary Manse
I wrote about the Parliamentary Churches and Manses here but, briefly, these were additional churches, with relative manses, built with money provided by Parliament (hence the name) to serve some of the bigger Highland parishes, like Gairloch, which were really too big for just one church. (And that being so, it's always puzzled me why they put the second Gairloch church at Poolewe relatively close to the original one and wouldn't it have been better to have spread them out more by having the new Parliamentary church at Aultbea or Laide?) Anyway, the Parliamentary Manses were all built to one of two standard designs, two storey or single storey. It's often said these designs (see them here) were by Thomas Telford, the engineer most famous for the Menai Suspension Bridge and Edinburgh's Dean Bridge. But although Telford was the surveyor to the Commission which supervised their construction, the Parliamentary Manses and Churches were designed by William Thomson. The manse at Poolewe was originally a single storey one which subesequently had a second storey added in the mid 19th century. There's a good example of a Parliamentary manse still in its original single storey condition at Shieldaig (Torridon) - see it here. They didn't have glebes and Poolewe manse is also now a private house.

FC Manse - Google Streetview

Back in the village of Gairloch, the next manse in point of time is the Free Church manse pictured above. Once again, Gairloch's FC manse is absolutely typical of the genre, looking far more like a plain Victorian farmhouse. (I've always wondered if that reflected a subconscious feeling that Free Church ministers were considered just a notch or two down the social scale and closer to a farmer than an Established Church (CoS) minister!) As it's not a listed building like the CoS manse, I don't know exactly when the FC manse was built - obviously it has to be post-1843 when the Free Church came into existence and I'd guess the 1850s. I don't think FC manses routinely had glebes like CofS ones but the Gairloch FC glebe might have been the field (only 3.5 acres) to the left (north) of and behind the manse which has now had houses built on it (here). And I don't know whether the manse still houses the FC minister either or whether it's been sold too.

FP Manse

Lastly in the chronology of Gairloch manses is the Free Presbyterian manse pictured above. Again, I don't know its date except that it must post-date the formation of the FP Church in 1893 (by secession from the Free Church which they thought was going soft) and I note that it's not marked on the 2nd Edition of the Ordnance Survey 25 inch map which was surveyed in 1902. I'd guess it was built around 1910. Nor do I know if it still houses the FP minister.

None of these four houses I've described seem particularly remarkable today when they pretty much blend into the surrounding "village-scape". But it would have been different when they were built and they would have towered over the blackhouses of the surrounding crofters, particularly in the case of the two older manses, the CofS and Parliamentary ones, which were built at a time when you could have counted the number of slated buildings between Kerrysdale and Poolewe on the fingers of both hands (Kerrysdale, Flowerdale & Charleston Houses, the Old and Poolewe Inns and the Old Police House - others?) It's also worth noting that these two older manses are much bigger than their respective churches! (See them here and here.)

Finally, Gairloch is also endowed with the purpose built home of another professional who ministered to the needs of the locals: a doctor's house, pictured below.

Doctor's house - Google Streetview
The surgery (where I remember once being diagnosed with a mild dose of shingles!) was also in the house. From its architectural style, I'd guess it was built in the 1920s or 30s when, along with the manses, it would still have been one of the biggest houses in the neighbourhood compared with the surrounding crofters' cottages. What's interesting about it (to me!) is that there's an almost identical doctor's house at Miavaig in Lewis (see it here) and I'm wondering if these two (and others?) were built, to uniform designs as with the Parliamentary Manses, as part of some sort of programme to accommodate doctors in remote rural areas - perhaps as part of the Highlands & Islands Medical Service set up in 1913 as a sort forerunner to the NHS? The doctor's house at Gairloch no longer functions as such but the Miavaig one does. If anyone knows of any other similar doctor's houses - or can add to or correct - any of the other information presented here, please do leave a comment.

Gairloch Church of Scotland manse

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dubh Loch: when is a loch not a loch?

I've mentioned this before but the law reports can be a great source of local history that might otherwise be lost. Another case in point is MacKenzie v Bankes in 1877 which concerned fishing rights in a loch in Wester Ross.

360 degree view by Dave Lawson here

Despite being set amongst the most dramatic scenery, Dubh Loch - the nearest in the photo above - is not well known. That's probably because it's a ten mile walk from the nearest road: in the starchy Victorian language of one of the judges in the case I'm going to talk about, it lies east of Loch Maree "in a very wild part of the hills, far from any gentleman's house". Dubh Loch is separated from its much larger neighbour to the north west, Fionn Loch, by a shallow bar or submerged ithsmus about 100 yards wide and covered with knee deep water between two spits of land. This feature is called A' Phait which is the Gaelic word for ford or stepping stones (thanks to my Gaelic consultant there - you know who you are) and it's crossed by a narrow stone causeway.

A' Phait, with Fionn Loch to the west (left), as shown on the 1875 Ordnance Survey 6 inch map. You can see more of this map on the National Libraries of Scotland website. Use the "Change transparency of overlay" slider on the left to reveal high resolution geo-referenced aerial imagery under the map. 

The causeway at A'Phait viewed from the south with Fionn Loch to the left and Dubh Loch to the right - picture credit Stuart S via Tripadvisor

Incidentally, Dubh (pronounced "Doo") Loch means literally Black Loch and Fionn (pronounced "F-yawn") Loch means literally White Loch. However, the names are more figurative: Dubh Loch is black in the sense of being more often in the shade due to its surrounding mountains whereas Fionn Loch is white in the sense of being more often in the sunlight due to its more open aspect.

Anyway, before we get to the court case which embroiled Dubh Loch in the 1870s, we need to have a quick legal lecture: here comes the science bit - concentrate! as Jen A used to say in the shampoo ads. In Scottish law, if a loch (and I'm talking about freshwater lochs here, different rules apply to sea lochs) is entirely surrounded by a single property, then the owner of that property has the exclusive right to fish in it. But if a loch is bounded by two (or more) properties, then both (or all) the proprietors are allowed to fish in it. Moreover, each is allowed to fish in all parts of the loch - they're not confined to fishing just the part of the loch opposite their particular property. Applying that rule to Fionn and Dubh Lochs in the 1870s, look at the map below (click to enlarge):-

Both lochs were entirely surrounded by Letterewe Estate belonging to Meyrick Bankes (of a rich Lancashire family you can read about here) except between points A and B which adjoined Kernsary Estate belonging to Osgood MacKenzie (he who is most famous for having founded Inverewe Gardens). 

Osgood and his guests and sporting tenants of Kernsary had been in use to fish over the whole of Fionn and Dubh Lochs for many years until October 1876 when Bankes put a stop to Kernsary fishing Dubh Loch, he being concerned, apparently, that fishers on the loch might disturb deer on his surrounding Letterewe Estate. Osgood responded to this by raising court proceedings to have it declared that he had a legal right, jointly with Letterewe, to fish in Dubh Loch. To succeed in this, Osgood required the court to find that Fionn and Dubh were all one loch. Because if it found that Dubh was a separate loch from Fionn, then, because no part of Kernsary adjoined Dubh, it would have no right to fish it and Bankes would be quite within his rights to prevent Kernsary from doing so.

Osgood MacKenzie. I couldn't find a picture of Meyrick Bankes

After a lengthy proof (hearing at which the evidence of witnesses is heard), a judge of the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled in favour of Osgood MacKenzie by deciding that Fionn and Dubh were legally all one loch. He seems to have been influenced by scepticism of the evidence of Meyrick Bankes' scientific witness, Mr Buchanan, that A'Phait was really a river, albeit a short one, between the Dubh and Fionn and thus they were in no different situation from two lochs linked by a longer river. But observing that this so-called river was almost as wide as it was long, the judge dismissed this as "really a thing of the imagination".

Meyrick Bankes appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Session (Scottish equivalent of the Court of Appeal) where the matter was reconsidered by three senior judges headed by the Lord Justice Clerk. Taking a less scientific and more common sense approach, they decided that Fionn and Dubh were two separate lochs. Two of the judges were influenced by the simple fact of them having different names: in the words of the Lord Justice Clerk "these two sheets of water are as separate in their nature as they are in their names". The third judge was a bit doubtful about that - he observed that bits of the Mediterranean having different different names (Adriatic, Aegean etc.) didn't make it any less one sea - but he didn't feel strongly enough about it formally to dissent from his brethren.

Having lost the second set, so to speak, Osgood appealed to what was then the highest court in the land, the House of Lords (nowadays the Supreme Court). Though not without misgivings on the part of two of them, four law lords ruled that Dubh and Fionn were separate lochs. They were influenced by the consideration that what gives rise to the rule that a proprietor adjoining a loch is entitled to fish over all of it and not just the part opposite his property - that it's not easy in practice to identify where such imaginary dividing lines lie when you're out in a boat - simply didn't apply to Fionn and Dubh Lochs. It was perfectly obvious where the dividing line between them lay at A'Phait, even before the causeway had been built, where the evidence of the witnesses was that the water was not deep enough for a boat with a fisherman and a ghillie to pass over it.

Thus did Osgood MacKenzie ultimately lose his marathon legal battle to get to fish on Dubh Loch. Legal fees must have been cheaper in these days because for the cost of a court case pursued all the way to the Supreme Court today, you could just about buy Letterewe Estate! Anyway, the legal outcome is less interesting than some of the nuggets of local history revealed by the evidence of the witnesses led in the case. Unfortunately, not all of the evidence is transcribed in the law report, only so much as the judges thought particularly relevant (which is great for lawyers but rubbish for historians!), but here's some of it. First, John MacKenzie, one of Osgood MacKenzie's witnesses, who built the causeway in 1828:-

"I put the stones there by orders of Duncan MacRae, tenant of Inveran, which was part of Kernsary. MacRae was also tenant of Carnmore [the land on the north east side of Fionn and Dubh Lochs] and Strathnashellag [a glen parallel with the lochs to the north east], on the north side of the loch. He told me to make a causeway or stepping-stones across the Phait. I got £5 for doing so. I used no lime or clay in making the causeway. I made it just of loose stones, not dressed in any way. Macrae ordered the causeway to be made to get sheep across the Phait from his one farm to his other farm. I cannot say very well what was the height of the causeway above the ground; I believe it was between 2 and 3 feet. The breadth, I believe, was between 6 and 7 feet."

Looking down on the east end of Fionn Loch and Dubh Loch from the top of Beinn Airigh Charr. Picture credit Tim Allott
Also of interest was the evidence of William MacIntyre, born in 1796:-

My father was managing partner in the firm of Messrs Birtwhistle, who had the farm of Letterewe and some other farms in that neighbourhood. He was so at the time I was born, and continued to be so until his death in 1827. I was born at Letterewe. I lived there till I was twenty years of age, when I went into the navy as a midshipman. I remained in the navy till 1822. I then returned to Letterewe, where I spent two years. I next went to Liverpool, where I was for thirty-three years. I came back to Poolewe in 1860, and have been living there ever since. The first time I visited the Fionn Loch was in 1813. There were some smugglers then on an island in the loch, and they had a boat and took me across with them. I first saw the Phait in 1816. There was no artificial causeway across it in these days, so far as I observed. A medical student was along with me, and when we came to the Phait he carried me across the water. ... My father had a coble [flat bottomed boat] at the Phait at one time. I recollect that from the circumstance that one day a cattle-dealer named Peter Morrison was crossing the Phait in the boat. I don’t know how it happened, but the boat drifted out with him, and he got so much alarmed that he was shouting out to us how his property was to be disposed of. ... My father at one time kept a shepherd who kept a pair of stilts to go through the water."

A final interesting snippet came from Murdoch MacLean, born in 1788:-

"I have seen a boat on the Fionn Loch a good bit from the Phait. The man who lived in Kernsary owned it. It was kept to bring wood from the islands."  

This evidence paints a fascinating picture of this remote corner of Wester Ross in the first half of the 19th century: vast sheep farms covering the whole hinterland between Loch Maree and An Teallach, some tenanted by locals, we may assume from a name like MacRae, but others tenanted by Englishmen, we may equally assume from a name like Birtwistle, in partnership with Scots. Note the reference to the witness MacIntyre's father having been the "managing partner" at Letterewe Farm - does this infer that Birtwistle was a sleeping partner, an investor in the booming wool and mutton business? Had he ever even been to Wester Ross? A cattle dealer venturing out of his comfort zone and giving himself a big fright by getting quite literally out of his depth in these wild places. Social mobility in the form of MacIntyre joining the Navy then living in Liverpool for 30 years before retiring to Poolewe. Friendly smugglers living on islands and shepherds on stilts! And all this in a landscape so barren that the only wood to be had is also on an island in Fionn Loch, the only place where the tree saplings are safe from being eaten by deer and sheep. (There's still a tree covered island in Fionn - picture here).

National Libraries of Scotland - click the link and use the "Change transparency" slider on the left to reveal the underlying aerial imagery

I've heard it said there were no Clearances in Wester Ross. But the Roy Map pictured above, drawn 1747-55, shows settlement and cultivation in Strath na Sealga and these people would have to have left, probably at the end of the 18th century, to make way for the sheep farmers. How much of a difference is there really between a "Clearance" in the sense of people being forced out by sheriff officers and having their homes burnt behind them as in Sutherland and those who simply saw the writing on the wall that said they couldn't afford the sorts of rents being offered for their farms by people bankrolled by the Birtwistles of this world and quietly, and without fuss, moved away from the land their ancestors might have occupied for generations?      

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Loch Maree road

I'm a bit OCD about knowing the dates of things. This isn't a new tendency, either, for I recently discovered a clutch of letters I received in response to enquiries I'd written in 1984 (before Mr Google was even a twinkle in his parents' eye) to various bodies seeking information about the dates of certain projects in Wester Ross. 

There's one from the Hydro Board about hydro-electric schemes and another from Howard Doris on the chronology of oil platform construction at Kishorn. There's also a letter from Highland Regional Council about the dates of certain road improvements. Unfortunately, they couldn't supply any dates for some phases of the Loch Maree and North Applecross roads before 1975 (when HRC came into existence in succession to Ross & Cromarty County Council) but they helpfully suggested I contact Mr Hector MacLeod, of Strath, Gairloch, retired roads supervisor, who would have "intimate detailed knowledge of roadworks from the early 1930s". And there's a reply from Mr MacLeod, in his beautiful handwriting, with the requested details.

Nor is this information entirely useless. A year or two ago, I was contacted by someone who'd seen one of my photos on Flickr of the road along Loch Maree (the A832) which had a caption alluding to its phased reconstruction in the 1970s. He wanted to know if I could supply the date of the works on a certain section of the road because he was a geologist and it was important to him to know for exactly how long a specimen of rock in his possession which had been blasted out by the roadworks had been oxidising (or something like that!) in the sunlight. And as it happened, I was able to the answer his question from the information so kindly supplied by Hector MacLeod 35 years ago! So, and in the interests of the advancement of science, it's perhaps time to lay out the whole of this arcane knowledge for the benefit of posterity. 

Look at the map below (click to enlarge). From A to B (Kinlochewe to about a mile west of Bridge of Grudie), the road was rebuilt (i.e. upgraded from single to double track) between summer 1966 and August 1972 by Ross & Cromarty County Council's direct labour. I think I'm right in saying (but anyone with local knowledge can correct me) that the work started at Kinlochewe (point A) and went northwards. I also recall this stretch being known locally as "MacIlhinny's Highway", I assume in memory of an Irish member of the labour force but, again, local knowledge can correct me.

From B to C, the road was built between January 1973 and October 1974 by R J McLeod (Glasgow), contractors.

From D (Lochmaree Hotel) to E (about 200 yards before Victoria Falls), the road was built between November 1974 and April 1976 by K Stewart (Strathpeffer), contractors.

From C to D (Lochmaree Hotel), the road was built between October 1978 and July 1980, also by Stewarts. Note, I'm not sure if the road directly in front of the hotel was part of the D-E project in 1974-76 or part of the C-D project in 1978-80: I think the latter but, as usual happy to be corrected.

The stretch from E (Victoria Falls) west to F (the top of Slattadale) postdates my enquiries in the 1980s but was carried out in the early 90s (anyone know the exact year?) also by Stewarts.

For the rest of this post, we'll do a photographic tour of the old Loch Maree road from my own photos and postcard collection starting at Kinlochewe and going west towards Gairloch. Click the images to enlarge and under some of the old pictures, you can click a link through to the equivalent view today on Google Streetview. First, though, a bit of history. 

The road from Kinlochewe to Slattadale was first built in the late 1840s as part of a scheme to provide employment to local people left destitute by the potato famine of the mid 1840s. Half of the cost (£2,527:8s:6d) was provided by the Edinburgh Destitution Board (from charitable donations raised in southern Scotland and abroad) and the other half by Gairloch Estate as the local landowner. (More about that here. Other roads in Wester Ross were built on this basis around the same time, including those from Kerrysdale Bridge to Badachro on south side of Loch Gairloch (B8056) and from Dundonnell to Braemore (A832), the latter still being known as the Destitution Road today.) 

Prior to the 1840s, there had been no road capable of taking wheeled traffic along the side of Loch Maree and the usual mode of transport was by boat along the loch from a pier at a point about half a mile from its head called Rubha an Fhamhair - think I've spelt that right! It's Gaelic for Giant's Point and is anglicised by the Ordnance Survey to Rhu Noa. Even after the road had been built, travel along the loch by steamer was still possible until 1911 when it was finally eclipsed by road travel with the advent of the internal combustion engine (further blog post about the Loch Maree Steamer to come soon). Anyway, here's the old road going past Rhu Noa with the remains of the steamer pier still visible:-

The A832 at Rhu Noa. Same view today here
From Rhu Noa to where the road turns away from the loch to Bridge of Grudie, the old single track road ran on a different alignment from the current road built in the late 60s/early 70s. It was lower and closer to the shore and for long stretches was carried on retaining walls built out into the loch. These are still there although now in badly deteriorating condition. But they're beautiful works of art and I don't know why they're not protected as listed buildings or something and maintained to create an alternative cycle path/walkway along the lochside. These walls were one of the first things I made a beeline for to photograph when I got my first camera in 1984:-


Below is the same stretch of road as the last photo when it was still in use. Note the same pine tree! The current road is at about the level of the top of the bank on the right in these views.



That last photo suggests that this stretch of the old road winding along the shore carried out on retaining walls was called "The Pass" - I didn't know that. Totally unsuitable for 20th century tourist traffic so you can see how this was an early candidate for upgrading in the 1960s when most of the rest of the A832 to Gairloch west from Garve remained single track for many more years after. Below is a photo of similar retaining walls still in use today beside Loch Shieldaig on the road from Kerrysdale Bridge along the south side of Loch Gairloch. These were built at the same time (late 1840s) as the ones on the Loch Maree road:-
Back beside Loch Maree, further north, at Bridge of Grudie, a new road bridge over the River Grudie was built when the road was reconstructed around 1970 but the old bridge was left standing beside it. I always used to be puzzled by the old bridge in that, on its east (Kinlochewe) side, it seemed to be hard up against a rock face involving the road in a very sharp right turn immediately you'd crossed the bridge. I guess that was due to the exigencies of the only available bit of solid rock to foot the bridge on. You can see this here and on the 1902 Ordnance Survey Six Inch Map:-
Picture credit: National Library of Scotland
Below are the two bridges with the old one in the foreground:-

Below is looking back (east towards Kinlochewe) from Bridge of Grudie across Loch Maree to Slioch.
And here's a similar view taken in the 1960s when the road was still single track:-
Picture credit: Tim Hayman
And here's the approach to the old bridge viewed from the west (towards Kinlochewe):-
Same view today here
A few hundred yards after Bridge of Grudie continuing west in the direction of Gairloch, the new road diverges (here) from the route of the old road to follow a line closer to the loch. The old road remains clearly traceable for about two miles and can be walked along.
The old and new roads west of Bridge of Grudie. The passing places on the old road are still clearly visible.
Here's a selection of views between Bridge of Grudie and the Lochmaree Hotel ordered roughly south to north. In the first one, I didn't know they had the big passing place signs with PASSING PLACE written on them as early as when this card was posted in 1970:-

Same view today here
Next are two pictures I took on the old road looking south in 1984. Note the old telegraph poles - you don't see them anymore:-
In the picture below, which is at point C on the map above, the new road now describes a straighter line nearer the loch bypassing the curve:-
Same position on the new road here
And the next picture is just about a couple of hundred yards further on in the direction of the Lochmaree Hotel. I remember a particularly nasty tourist traffic snarl up at exactly this spot in the mid-70s before this stretch was improved involving irate caravaners shouting at each other and one gentleman even trying to rock my parents' trailer with boat thereon sideways off the road leading to some choice language from my father. [EDIT 21/2/21 - see the Addendum at the end of this post for a link to footage of this stretch of the old road.] The new road is now on a line further away from the viewpoint:-
Same position on the new road here

Next, just a mile or so further on, here's the Lochmaree Hotel when the old single track road used to run right past its front door. The new road is realigned about a hundred yards to the left:-

Equivalent view on the new road here

Here's a little stretch of the old road just before the hotel looking back east in the direction of Kinlochewe I photographed in 1984:-

Next, a couple of shots of the old road between the hotel and Victoria Falls:-

Approximately the same position today here

Next are two shots I took in 1984 of where the new road then ended just before Victoria Falls until it was continued on up Slattadale in the early 90s:-


Next is Garbhaig (pronounced GARA-vaig, I believe) Bridge beside the Victoria Falls in 1984 when it was still on the main road. I think the bridge still stands but is now bypassed since the road up Slattadale was improved in the early 90s.

And next, a couple of hundred yards past the bridge looking back towards it in 1984:-

Same view today here

Next, a view further up Slattadale going towards Gairloch about a mile west of Garbhaig Bridge in the 1980s when the road was still single track. This is looking east back down the hill in the direction of Kinlochewe:-

Same view today here
Compare with the postcard view below from approximately the same position before the trees had been planted. Most of these trees have since been felled and the views over Loch Maree have been opened up again.

And finally, looking up Slattadale (west towards Gairloch) near the top of the hill in the 1980s when the road was still single track:-
Same view today here

Well, I hope you enjoyed that retrospective drive along Loch Maree. I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to look through every single photo of it I've got in my archive (and weed out some of the many duplicates!) If anyone can add anything or make any corrections, please leave a comment.

Addendum 21/2/21

I'm grateful to Alex Gray for drawing my attention to this film in the National Library of Scotland's Moving Image Archive. It's amateur footage in December 1939 of a Bofors anti-aircraft gunnery unit going from the east along the A832 to the naval base at Loch Ewe. At 17.14 is exactly the stretch of the old road along Loch Maree between the Hotel and Bridge of Grudie I referred to where I remember a snarl up of tourist traffic in the mid 1970s (inevitably rather grainy still from the film below):-

Here are the various places seen in the film so far as I could identify them:-

Going west:-

03.44 - Loch Garve

04.10 - approaching Grudie Bridge 

04.35 - Achnasheen

05.05 - Loch a' Chroisg (note the old style passing place signs)

05.25 - top of Glen Docherty

06.17 - Loch Maree

06.37 - Loch a' Chroisg again

06.51 - Rhu Noa, Loch Maree

07.32 - where the truck is off the road is between Inverewe and Tournaig - about here  

09.37-15.37 - Loch Ewe between Tournaig and Aultbea

Going back east:-

15.48 - Loch Maree at Tollie

16.00 - Loch Tollie

16.10 - coming down the hill into Gairloch

16.24 - approaching Kerry Bridge

16.26 - Glen Kerry

16.49 - going down Slattadale

from here to 18.15 - going along Loch Maree

18.17 - top of Glen Docherty??