Scoraig history, archaeology & stories - a closer look
Written by Cathy Dagg, an archaeologist who has crofted on Scoraig for thirty years.
Scoraig is an exposed finger of land sticking out into the sea, with no sheltered straths, good arable ground or flowing rivers. It’s difficult to get to by land, sometimes impossible to get to by sea. But people have been living here for at least 2500 years.
The story of human settlement on the peninsula only begins for certain in the Bronze Age. There are four surviving hut circles on the slopes above Camas an Lochan. The two on the NW slope are close to small field boundaries but there is no evidence for cultivation near the two to the east. It may be their location is dictated by the year-round fresh water of the lochan being available to cattle.
There are old-folks stories of there having been a broch, an Iron Age defensive tower, on the headland at Annat. This was demolished, probably in the 18th-19th centuries and the stone was used to build the dwelling houses of the township. It is a good location for a broch, guarding the good land from attack by sea. Such defensive sites are strategically placed all around Loch Broom, marking territory and stating: ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re big enough’. There’s Achlochan, Dun Canna, Leckmelm, Dun Rhiroy and Dun Lagaidh and quite likely one at Ullapool under the later castle. There is no evidence for any of these forts having been attacked, so they created an uneasy peace, everyone guarding their own strictly defined territory and resources.
Brochs controlled the landscape for as long as 800 years, so it is likely that when the first Irish monks arrived, bearing this new idea called Christianity, they looked to the local warlord for protection. By this time the Pictish kingdom was spreading its control to the west coast and had come to an agreement with the Irish/Scots/Celtic newcomers, so the warlord in his broch may have been ordered to be hospitable and welcoming to the priests. They, in turn, were looking for somewhere with a settled and prosperous population to convert. Annat was not a place for hermits.
The Early Christians
Annat, on the north side of the peninsula, witnessed the arrival of Christianity in Lochbroom. It’s most likely that the Irish monks came to the site of a prosperous village and begged to come under the protection of the local warlord in his broch. There is now no visible trace of the monastic settlement at Annat. The group of buildings on the headland are all 18th century houses, abandoned when the sheep farm was established and converted into a sheep fank. The monks would have lived within a cashel, similar to that at Applecross and at Annat on the Shiants. There would have been a low, oval enclosing wall, within which was a tiny church building and several individual cells that the monks slept and prayed in. These structures could all have been robbed out to build later houses. There was a burial ground, Cladh na h-Annait, which remained in use probably until the 19th century
What’s in a name?
Originally, the name Scoraig referred only to the township which stood above the Corran. But that may not be its original name. Timothy Pont, the Caithness mapmaker who roamed the Highlands in the 1580s probably didn’t make it to the peninsula but would have asked locals for place names. He records ‘Stroneguish’ ie the Headland of the Pines’ at Scoraig, although that doesn’t appear in any later maps.
Alan Bush remembers the old folk thought the name Scorraig, or Sgorraig, might have derived from Sgorr na Creag, referring to the rocks near the salmon bothy. But scholars always add Scoraig to the list of Norse names with the suffix –vik, meaning ‘bay’. There are a number of –vik places nearby: Tournaig, Camastrolvaig, Melvaig, Diabaig etc. These places all have long-term settlements, sheltered but deep water and a smooth stretch of beach with a natural rock quay, and arable land nearby. Scoraig is considered to be a-typical in that it doesn’t have a sheltered inlet, the only shelter being the Corran, but this is still the best there is at the mouth of the loch and this, combined with the inaccessibility from the landward side, would have made Scoraig a strategically important settlement controlling the entrance to Little Loch Broom and the strath.
Apart from (possibly) Scoraig and Stattic Point, there are no other Norse place names around Little Loch Broom. Names get attached to places by the people who live there, not the people who pass by in boats, so there’s a good possibility that after they’d finished destroying monasteries and started bringing their families, Vikings did settle at Scoraig.
In the 14th century, as much as it mattered to the people who lived there, the peninsula of Scoraig formed part of the Barony of Lochbroom, which belonged to the Earls of Ross, and, together with the Barony of Coigach and Inverlael, made up the parish of Lochbroom. When the land was acquired by the Mackenzies of Kintail (based at Eilean Donan Castle) they began to divide the lands between the many Mackenzie families. These new landowners frequently got into debt and mortgaged or sold their lands to each other. So landownership was very fluid and there was no loyalty to a clan chief as there was in other parts of the Highlands.
There were four townships on Scoraig:
Scoraig itself, a pendicle, or remote part of, the more important township of Kildonan
Ruigh’Riabhach, a pendicle of Keppoch
Annat and Achmore. These two were a part of the lands of Loggie which stretched all the way along the west side of Loch Broom
They went through different successive landowners through the 17th and 18th centuries:
1672 Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat (Earl of Cromartie) sells Keppoch and Kildonan (with Scoraig and Ruigh’Riabhach) to Mackenzie of Tarvie
1727 Keppoch and Kildonan bought by James Mackenzie of Strathkanaird, later ‘of Keppoch’ who traded in black cattle
1742 Keppoch , with Ruigh’riabhach, wadset (mortgaged) to Mackenzie of Dundonnell
1748 James ‘of Keppoch’ succeeded by his son Simon ‘of Scoraig’
1765. Simon dies, Scoraig in possession of his widow Frances who marries George Mackenzie, tacksman of Scoraig
1775 Scoraig sold to Mackenzie of Dundonnell and his ownership of Ruigh’riabhach acknowledged legally
Annat and Achmore, meanwhile, remained in the possession of Mackenzie of Seaforth until 1745, when they, too, were sold to Mackenzie of Dundonnell
It’s unlikely that the people saw much of their landowners. Each township was rented from the owner by a Tacksman, who in turn collected the rents from the small tenants. The White House is supposed to have been the Scoraig Tacksman’s house.
Scoraig and the ‘45
In 1745 the most influential landowner in Wester Ross, the Earl of Cromartie, took hundreds of his able-bodied tenants to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie. About a third never came back and the people of Coigach never recovered from the blow. The other Loch Broom lairds wisely stayed at home. Cromartie himself lost his estates to the Government for years. But in the long-term this proved to be a good thing, as the government paid for new roads and bridges, the establishment of the fishing village of Ullapool and the linen factory at Inverlael.
It’s unclear to what extent the people of Scoraig were affected by the Jacobite rising. Alexander, the son of James MacKenzie of Tarvie, was a staunch Jacobite who took part in the rebellion as an officer in the Earl of Cromartie’s regiment. So it’s likely his father also had Jacobite sympathies. Alexander escaped capture but some of his men were not so lucky. They claimed they were forced to enlist, but this was a common attempt by the Jacobite prisoners in the hope of being treated leniently. No Scoraig men are among the prisoner lists, so maybe those who were ‘out’ made it home safely.
Two Mackenzies of Dundonnell
Scoraig peninsula is a part of the estate of Dundonnell
The first family of Mackenzie of Dundonnell came from Easter Ross and started acquiring land around Little Loch Broom in 1690, starting with Achatidonell, the land around the now Dundonnell House. By 1775 this was completed and the third laird began his plan of improvements, which involved removing tenants from the townships in the strath, creating large fields enclosed by drystone dykes, planting trees, introducing large-scale sheep farming etc. It’s him we have to thank for the beautiful trees and productive fields along the back road. To make way for these, between 1778 and 1816 about 70 families were re-located to the coastal townships. But, despite the low rents he was receiving from his small tenants, Dundonnell was ‘loath to chase them all away to America’. The laird of Dundonnell was an unusual man among Highland landlords then and now, being the only Heritor in Wester Ross who lived here full time.
In 1817, Annat was the only township on the peninsula to be affected by improvements. It now formed part of the sheep farm of Kildonan, leased to John MacDonald, tacksman. At this date the shepherd and the tenants probably co-existed, the tenants occupying the land nearest to Achmore while the shepherd had one of the houses of the old township cluster rebuilt
When the 5th laird died, of obesity, in 1826, the estate was in debt and the succession could not be decided so the whole estate was sold at auction in 1834. The new owner was Murdo Mackenzie of Ardross (no relation to the first Mackenzie family) who paid £22,000.
It is this Mackenzie who set out the crofts in 1836-7.
Life Before Crofting
The four peninsula townships were clusters of houses and outbuildings surrounded by cultivated rigs. Ruins of many of these pre-crofting houses can still be seen at Achmore and Annat, while the rigs are still visible at Annat and above Barham’s. Black cattle were the mainstay of the economy, but these had to be kept away from the crops, so wewre taken to shielings for the summer months. The shielings for Ruigh’riabhach were above the path out to Badrallach, by the first waterfall, and the ground to the west of Camas an Lochan was probably the shielings for Achmore and Annat. Where the Scoraig shielings were, I don’t know.
Corn was harvested after a short growing season and had a high moisture content, so had to be dried further before milling. There are the remains of two corn-drying kilns at Achmore, while there was apparently another near the pier and one built on 11 Lots. A similar kiln, tucked in beside the stream at Camas an Lochan, may have been used for malting barley for the illicit stilling of whisky for which Scoraig was notorious.
In 1835-6, the former townships were re-arranged into crofts, 7 at Scoraig, 5 at Ruigh’Riabhach, 1 at Carnoch, 3 at Annat, 6 at Achmore.
In addition, 20 lots were established on previously uncultivated ‘black, stony ground’ These were occupied by some families removed from Dundonnell, Kildonan and some from Badluachrach and Ruigh’Riabhach. For the Kildonan families, this was likely to be their second eviction, as many had been removed from Strathnasealg in 1803.
The Lots were measured and marked with fences, each enclosing 2 acres, for which the new tenants were to pay by compulsory, unpaid labouring for the laird at first for 9 days, later increased to 20 days of the year. This unpaid labour for rent was not abolished until 1880, the only positive thing about it being seen as the provision of dinner for each day’s labour.
The crofters were granted the right to cut wood to build their own houses and boats. A narrow strip of grazing ran up the hill, adequate for one milch cow but not for horses or sheep
Fishing did not come naturally to the west coasters, but, without land, some were forced by the landowner to take up the occupation. Families were settled as fishers, 5 at Scoraig, 7 at Ruigh’Riabhach, 5 at Carnoch, 3 at Annat and 6 at Achmore.
Annat was still a part of Kildonan, a principal farm on the estate
In 1870 there were 36 crofts on the whole peninsula, the average rent at Ruigh’Riabhach was £7 10s 7½d
Here’s an account of the life of the new crofters on Lots in the mid-19th century, by Nina MacIver:
They slept at first in the heather, doing without shelter until they were able to build and thatch modest dwellings on the three acre plots that were allocated to each family. Using only primitive foot ploughs and spades they brought the poor soils into cultivation, growing oats and potatoes as well as providing grazing for a cow or two. Fresh or salted fish supplemented the subsistence diet of potatoes, oatmeal and dairy produce.
As the 50 yard stretch of beach at the foot of their croft did not yield enough seaweed for their needs, they would regularly sail in open boats to the Summer Isles, some seven miles away, to collect seaweed for use as fertiliser. It was back-breaking work, using sickles to cut the weed at ebb tide, carrying it in creels to the boat, then unloading it and carrying it to their fields once they had again made the hazardous sea crossing. There was always danger from the swell on the rocky island shore, as well as from the lack of shelter if the wind blew up. Once last century a seaweed laden boat crewed by six young people was lost during a squally shower.
Every year the Laird of Dundonnell demanded ten days free labour in lieu of rent for the crofts. It had to be given on the days of his choosing, and always fell at the busy times of planting, harvest arid peat cutting. The Scoraig folk had to walk 12 miles each way and to bring their own ‘piece' (of bread). Later, 21 days of labour were demanded of every householder, with the proviso that they must send a substitute if they could not themselves attend.
The settlers survived the hard years thanks to the kindness of the Macivers. John Maciver, giving evidence to the Napier Commission into the state of crofting in 1883 recalled:
‘The land we have is rented by us, but these other tenants…get the use of it. Their own land would not pasture their stock, and when the proprietor gave the place to us he was for putting up a fence between us and them, and we would not allow him, because we knew that in the event the stock of these people would starve, all their pasture would not feed twelve head of cattle altogether’
The Macivers arrived in Scoraig as principal tenants not long before 1836. They were not simple crofters, but came from a family which was prominent in the business and public life of the Highlands, including Evander Maciver of Scourie, factor to the Duke of Sutherland and Provost Maciver of Dingwall.
William Maciver was born in 1780 so would have been about 50 when he moved to Scoraig. He was ‘notable for his prodigious memory, and was an authority on genealogical lore, being conversant with the ‘trees’ of most highland families. There was a local saying in his day – ‘You are almost as great a genealogist as William MacIver’
John MacIver, his son, was also apparently a remarkable character:
‘in the old days when doctors were scarcer than they are nowadays, his remarkable skill in diagnosing and treating cases of sickness was greatly sought after. His ‘patients’ were numerous, from a wide area, and great was their confidence in Mr MacIver’s skill. He was unselfish as he was kindly in this as in all else that he did for the help of others… For many years his establishment at Scorraig was the only one of importance serving three wide parishes, his supplies consisting of practically all requirements for the household, for the farm or croft, and for fishing, etc. At that time, jointly with his brother, Kenneth, he carried out a boat-building and coopering business, and did an extensive trade in herring curing – when the West Coast fishing was a more prosperous calling than in recent years.’ (from his obituary, 1929)
The Way In, and Out.
The only sure way in to Scoraig is the Creag a’Chadha footpath. This was a drove route for cattle long before any proper footpath was constructed. Some traces of this older route can still be followed below the path. In 1883 the crofters complained: ‘They have no communication by road, only by a dangerous rocky mountain which is a hazardous way of travelling, even in daylight’
The Congested Districts (Scotland) Act of 1897 was passed to relieve poverty by subsidising improvements in the crofting areas. This paid for the pier at Scoraig , built in 1900-1901, and also the footpath as we know it. For the next 100 years, maintaining the path in a fit state has been a constant problem.
Here’s a letter to the Congested Districts Board on the subject dated 2nd Nov 1905:
In reply to yours of the 31st about the condition of the Scoraig footpath I may say that although this footpath is at present not in the best state of repair it is much better than it was when I came into office in May 1903. At that time it was very bad.
A great deal of work has been done since then on the Scoraig end and on the branch to Achmore. These parts are at present in fair order.
From Cairn-a-Muic to the Badralloch township the path has been badly constructed over a soft bottom. The material at hand is not plentiful and is of inferior quality. This is the portion that gets very soft during long spells of wet weather and after frost. More than the ordinary annual expenditure would be required to thoroughly repair it
Chas. G. Hogg
That probably sounds very familiar to anyone who’s tried to get money for improving the path.
Here’s another from Achmore, dated 9 March 1907
On behalf of the inhabitants of Achmore I beg to apply for a grant to construct a footpath from Gorstan to the termination of the present path from Scoraig at the north west corner of Achmore township. The distance is about 1400 yds, and the path would be directly useful to eight families and a boon to many others. There are eight children of school age who could attend school at Scoraig with regularity and, in the absence of a path, some of them are unable to attend altogether at present. The construction of the whole path with culverts is beyond the powers of the few able-bodied men in the district but free labour to the extent of one-fourth of the total cost will gladly be given and guaranteed.
I trust your Board will favourably entertain our petition and I remain your obedient servant
In 1873 when primary education became compulsory, there were 61 children at the school. Obtaining a teacher was difficult, but one Archaibald MacNiven, an uncertified man, accepted a salary of £40 and his rent paid on his croft (‘MacNiven’s Croft’) He received his certificate when the school inspector next visited and got the assistance of a sewing mistress for the girls. His wife, Mrs Betsy McNiven, got the post. By 1876 he also had an assistant teacher, Miss Alexandrina MacIver.
Entries in the school log and register show how hard it was for children to attend school. Typical entries in 1904-05 were:
‘Attendance irregular this week owing to the older children being kept at home to assist with the ‘Spring Work’
‘some of the boys were helping their parents to carry home nets and fish from Loch Broom where an extensive herring fishing is being carried on’
the pupils missed school for peat stacking, potato lifting, cutting and carrying seaweed for manure, sheep shearing, harvest operations
‘Attendance very irregular this week owing to the stormy weather preventing the younger pupils from attending’
‘A few scholars, especially those from Achmore, absent today owing to the very rough and wet weather in the morning’
‘much snow has fallen and thawed, making the bad roads here nearly impassable for the younger children’
‘The Achmore children have attended the school very badly all winter’
The children had no waterproofs or Wellington boots, maybe no shoes or boots at all
‘one girl has been absent all week on account of a sore foot’
‘one boy in the infant class has been absent for three days as he has a sore foot’
But worse than this were outbreaks of diseases like influenza and diphtheria:
‘…an epidemic of diphtheria has been in this place and the same has caused the death of three of the scholars attending this school’
Meanwhile the decline in the population of the peninsula saw the school roll drop from 38 boys and 32 girls in 1874-5, to 31 in total in 1904, 17 in 1923 and only 3 in 1933. In 1956 the single, last pupil left and the school closed. However, this was only for nine years until Celia Ertz began teaching three pupils in 1965.
The history of organised religion has always shaped the history of the Highlands, but there are no records for Scoraig during the turbulent years of change from Catholicism to Protestanism at the Reformation, or the battles for supremacy between Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism in the 17th century. After the abandonment of the monastic settlement at Annat, the peninsula probably rarely saw a priest. The parish church for Lochbroom was established at Clachan, at the head of Loch Broom, too far away to attend regular services. The minister in the early 19th century travelled around his vast parish, preaching in the open air and carrying out such marriages and baptisms as had waited for him. The area east of the pier is supposedly where open-air services were carried out on Scoraig.
The scattered parishioners would make the effort to get to the parish church for the celebration of Communion, which was a great social occasion. The people of Scoraig probably walked all the way to Clachan, following the footpath over the hills from Dundonnell.
The Disruption of 1843 came about when the people refused to accept the landlord’s right to choose their minister. Many ministers walked out of the churches with their congregations and formed the Free Church. It was a time of great religious fervour and the Scoraig people attended the new church in Ullapool, walking to Alltnaharrie and crossing by the ferry. They also worshipped outdoors back at home, until John Maciver paid for the meeting house to be built. This continued to be used as a church until the last of the old crofters left. It is now a part of the school.
A Second World War Incident
On Dec 28th 1944 a Junkers 88 came down in Annat Bay. It had come from Norway to attack Loch Ewe naval base. The crew of four bailed out, but only one survived. Two versions of events were collected by Alan Bush:
Billy Macrae’s story
The pilot walked from where he parachuted on the shore near Annat west along the shore and came to Scorraig by going all round Cailleach Head. He said he had come to Tigh Scorraig and knocked on the door and held up his hands and handed his pistol to Nina MacIvor who had taken him in and they had managed to make themselves understood with their minimal school Latin.
Alick Campbell had crossed the loch (or walked out, I can’t remember which) to report his arrival and a lot of soldiers had come on motorbikes in the morning on the walk to capture him. A Naval ship came into the loch and he had been taken aboard blindfolded, which the crofters had thought comparable to killing an ant with a sledgehammer.
The crofters thought they would get the parachute but Alick Campbell told the authorities and they took it away which was thought to be a bad trip on the part of Alick Campbell.
The rubber dingy, Billy got and he told me he used to play with it in the sea. He would have been about 10 in 1944.
Alice Macgregor’s Version
Alice said that at the time their father was away at a funeral. Her mother was at home but unwell. She says they heard a plane pass at about 6ish and noticed that the engine sounded a bit unusual or unwell. Sometime later in the evening they heard shots of some kind outside the front of the house. “Perhaps the pilot was firing flares.” she said. The pilot had seen their light because they had no blackout curtains on the back of the house.
Alice said they were terribly frightened but Joey had opened the door and the man had come forward, he was very wet and they had given him dry clothes. She thought he was very young, only about their own age, around 18ish. His name was Heinz Joseph. She said that although they had been terribly frightened they were sad to see him taken prisoner in the morning as they got on very well. How they understood one another she couldn’t remember. “The news paper said that Joey and he spoke Latin to each other.” she said, but she seemed doubtful about that and said, “Oh we managed some how, we were all about the same age.”
Re-populating an empty peninsula #1
The Clan Albainn was a Scottish Nationalist group, with prominent founders such as Compton MacKenzie. After the Second World War, they developed a scheme to settle returning servicemen and mine-workers on the land, and selected Scoraig as a suitable deserted settlement. Whether they asked the Scoraig crofters how they felt about being re-settled is not recorded. The intrepid pioneer settlers set off from Glasgow. According to one version of events, they got as far as Badluarach, but either demanded they be given a boat, which didn’t happen, or lost the boat they had, but never actually made it across. However, the Glasgow Herald, which was recording the trip, published a photograph, taken outside Carnoch Beag, of one Clan Albainn settler, with the caption:
Another published photograph shows a young man preparing a meal over the stove ‘ in the kitchen of his croft’ However, none of the settlers appears to have gone as far as getting croft tenancies or actually settling here.
That just about brings Scoraig History to the point where names still familiar begin to appear.
A note about family history
A place’s history is the history of the people who lived there, but their names are mostly of interest to their descendents. If you want to find out more about former Scoraig families, I recommend getting in touch with Ullapool museum, which carries out a geneaological service and has accounts from former Scoraig families. Alan Bush has written a small book called ‘A spot of Scorraig History’ which records what he remembers of the old inhabitants, and which he will happily sell to you.