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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Introduction


Rathad mor a Ceann-loch-iu,
Rathad ur a Ghearloch;
Gabhaidh sinn an rathad mor
Olc na math le each e.—Gaelic Song,

The high road to Kenlochewe,
The new road to Gairloch;
Storm or sunshine, take with me
The high road to Gairloch.—
—Free rendering.

GAIRLOCH is a typical Highland parish on the west coast of Ross-shire. Its length, from Loch Rosque to Rudha Reidh, is thirty miles, and its width is fifteen miles, so that it is one of the most extensive parishes in Great Britain.

The name "Gairloch" is composed of two Gaelic words, gearr and lock. Gearr means "short"; and the sea-loch which gives its name to the parish is appropriately called short, as compared with Loch Broom, Loch Ewe, and other more deeply indented arms of the sea. The native spelling and pronunciation of the name prove the derivation beyond all question.

There is a curious muddle in the old and new Statistical Accounts about the origin of the name Gairloch. In the former (Appendix C) it is said to have been taken from "a very small loch near the church and the house of Flowerdale, and so close by the shore that the sea at high tides covers it." In the New Statistical Account (Appendix E) "a hollow spot of ground" is spoken of as "the Gairloch," and the writer states that the natives allege that the parish takes its name from it. The explanation is supplied by the story of Hector Roy and the three M'Leods given in Part I., chap. ix. The place referred to as " a very small loch" and "a hollow spot of ground," is now represented by a well, still called "the Gairloch" from the reason given in that story, but it did not originate the name of the parish.

The name Gairloch is used in four different senses both in the following pages and among the inhabitants. It means,—

1. The sea-loch or bay of Gairloch.
2. The whole parish.
3. The place at the head of the sea-loch where the hotel, &c, stand, more properly called Achdistall.
4. The original estate of the Mackenzie lairds of Gairloch.

These various meanings are a little confusing, but the context generally makes clear what is intended.

Considerations of health, followed by growing appreciation of the charms of Gairloch, have caused me to make my Highland home in this out-of-the-world parish. Its romantic scenery and health-giving climate are its most obvious attractions; but add to these its wonderful legends and traditions, the eventful history of its dominant family, the story of its old ironworks, the interesting peculiarities of its Highland inhabitants, the distinction conferred upon it by the visit of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, the great geological controversy about its rocks, the sport its waters afford to the angler, the varied subjects it displays to the artist, and the pregnant fields of research it yields to the scientist, and you have a list of allurements it would be difficult to beat elsewhere. Though its boundary line extends to within five miles of the railway, Gairloch still preserves many of the characteristics of old days, and these not only possess a peculiar fascination for most people, but are also well fitted to arouse and nourish a spirit of investigation.

The famous Loch Maree (with the small but romantic islet known as Isle Maree) is surrounded by the finest scenery in the parish. Their attractions bring annually some three thousand visitors to Gairloch. One might have fancied that such an influx of people would have led to the accumulation of a large and increasing stock of knowledge of this Highland parish, but as a rule the visitors are here to-day and gone to-morrow, and take no thorough interest in the country or its inhabitants.

Some years ago I happened to travel by the railway from Inverness to Achnasheen in the company of a pleasant party, comprising a gentleman and three ladies, who were making a tour in the Highlands. They boasted that, though their time had been limited to a very few days, they would have seen the greater part of the Highlands before they returned home. On the day I fell in with them their object was to see Loch Maree. To accomplish this they had arranged by telegraph for a carriage and pair to await the arrival of the train at Achnasheen. The day proved wet and misty, and I saw them leave the railway station in a close carriage. I followed soon after on the mail-car. A short delay took place at Kenlochewe whilst the horses were changed. There I found my fellow-travellers enjoying their lunch in the hotel. They told me that although the day was too wet for them to drive down to the shore of the loch, and too misty to admit of its being fully seen from a distance, yet they were quite able to say that they had seen Loch Maree, for at one point they had put their heads out of the windows of their carriage during a brief cessation of the rain and had distinctly seen the water of the loch! They were returning to Achnasheen as soon as they had swallowed their lunch, to catch the train back to Inverness the same afternoon.

These tourists, who thus professed to have "seen Loch Maree," were a fair type of too many of those who rush through Gairloch, as if their sole object were to cover the most ground in the shortest possible time, and who thus fail to obtain any true perception of the belongings of the country, even of the scenery.

There are first-rate hotels within the parish, and lodgings may frequently be hired, or a furnished house taken. The hotels offer the inducement of lower terms to those whose visits exceed the usually brief period.

Impressions of scenery are fixed by repetition; insight into nature is deepened by observation; and knowledge of a country is vastly more valuable if it include some acquaintance with the population, their characters, condition, and means of livelihood. Too many visitors overlook their opportunities in these directions.

Some remarks are necessary with regard to the traditions of Gair-loch, contained mostly in Part I. In recent times there has been a tendency to discredit all such traditions, and to treat them as symbolic or didactic legends, or as localisations (with extra colouring) of myths common to the heroic period of every country. The principal features of one or two of the Gairloch traditions are certainly to be found in stories of other parts of the Highlands, and occasionally, but rarely, a resemblance may even be traced to the plot of some ancient European myth. On the other hand, it is to be noted that the Highland bards, down to the present time, have regularly transmitted their stories in precisely the same language from one trained memory to another, so that even the very words put into the mouths of the dramatis persona have been insisted upon in every transmission. Another point to be noticed is, that except in two instances the Gairloch traditions do not date further back than four centuries. In the older legends referred to, visible evidences, such as the tombstones in Isle Maree and the cave at Ardlair, may perhaps be considered confirmatory. For my own part, I am disposed to accept all the traditions as generally worthy of credence. Much interest in the locality is gained by doing this, and certainly nothing is lost!

A difficulty the visitor to Gairloch always experiences is due to the Gaelic names. The Glossary should help to overcome this obstacle. Not only does it include the meanings of the Gaelic words, but it attempts to indicate their pronunciations. I am bound to warn the reader that the pronunciations stated are only approximate. There are sounds in the Gaelic language which cannot be expressed by English tongues or to English ears by any combinations of letters. Yet most of the pronunciations stated are sufficiently near the truth to answer ordinary purposes. I recommend the reader to refer to the Glossary at the occurrence of each Gaelic name in the book, and those names and their import will soon become familiar. The Gaelic sound of ch is about the same as that of the German ch; it does not occur in the English language, but unless you can master it there is no use in your trying to speak even the two leading names in this parish,—viz., Gairloch, and Loch Maree. Whatever you do, pray avoid pronouncing loch as if it were lock. This is the most egregious error made by many southerners in trying to speak the commonest Highland names.

In communicating to the public the information about Gairloch contained in the following pages, I claim the right to offer a word or two of counsel and entreaty.

I would submit that it is unfair, as well as discourteous, to interfere with the rights of those who take deer forests or rent sheep farms. Rambles on upland moors and mountain ascents are almost certain to injure the sport or privileges of others. I am aware there is a strong feeling that every one ought to have access to mountains. Whether this be legalised by Parliament or not, I would appeal to the visitor here to refrain from the illiberality and discourtesy of spoiling other people's hardly-earned and well-paid-for privileges. There is plenty of room for all. Why should unpleasant feelings be stirred up, and tourists as a class be blamed for. the intolerance of a few ? All the mountains and hills of Gairloch are haunts of the red deer or feeding-grounds of sheep, and no ascents ought to be undertaken unless by due arrangement, which cannot be expected in the deer-stalking season, and which, when obtainable, should be made with the head-keeper of the ground.

There are some drawbacks to mountain ascents that may help the visitor more willingly to forego them. How often the view from a summit is entirely blotted out by clouds or mist, or marred by the distance being lost in haze! How often the fine morning that induced the expedition is followed by a stormy afternoon! To these must be added the frequent injury to health caused by the unusual strain on the systems of persons unaccustomed to mountaineering, and the possible risk of being lost in mist. It is hoped that tourists will be content with the shorter climbs recommended in Part IV. Artists tell us that landscapes seen from lower elevations are more thoroughly picturesque than the bird's-eye views from mountain tops.

Again, I entreat botanists and others looking for wild flowers and plants to abstain from rooting up the rare or beautiful things they may find, and from trespassing in places where their presence is obviously not required. The mania for removing every fragment of an uncommon plant has grown much of late years,—witness the extermination of the edelweiss from some of its best known habitats on the Swiss Alps. Who does not remember places whence our own rare holly-fern has within the past few years been eradicated ? A few years ago that comparatively scarce fern the sea-spleenwort (asplenium marinum) was abundant within three hundred yards of the Gairloch Hotel; now it is unknown there. A gentleman fond of botany planted some uncommon ferns not natives of Ross-shire in a wood in Gairloch parish; they were soon discovered by tourists staying at a neighbouring hotel, who ruthlessly removed the whole. Instances of this kind have brought the British tourist into disrepute in many parts of the world.

It is in the spirit of these remarks that I beg to introduce the reader to the charms of Gairloch and Loch Maree.


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