Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part I.—Records and Traditions of Gairloch
Chapter I. —Early History

THE blessedness attributed to the nation without a history cannot be assigned to the parish of Gairloch. Although her ancient history has never been written, it is to be feared her inhabitants were far from wholly blessed in the far off days of yore. The earlier annals of Gairloch are indeed veiled in mists, almost as impenetrable as those that often shroud her mountains. Amid the gloom there are faint glimpses to be had of the wild natives of the district, of fierce warriors from other lands, and of saintly Christian pioneers ; but complete pictures of the doings of those old times can be found only in the galleries of the imagination. The same everlasting hills still tower over the same straths, glens, and lochs; but the actors are changed, the play has another plot, with incidents of a very different kind. In a region so innocent of letters, so inaccessible to the scholar, it is easy to account for the total absence of ancient records. The narratives of the seannachies, or bards, handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation, might have been expected to fill in the blank, yet it is only in the stories of some few salient adventures that these traditions have been preserved beyond the past four centuries.

Even imagination fails to carry us further back than the Picts or Celts or Gaels, who are supposed to have been the aborigines of all the British Isles. They were a wild warlike race,—wild from their rough struggling state of existence, warlike in their constant attitude of self-defence. Some have supposed that there were giants among them in those days, and that these were the originals of the colossal heroes of the Fingalian legends. The name of the Giant's Point (Ru Nohar) on Loch Maree, and the discoveries in the neighbourhood of what are alleged to be enormous graves, give some colour to the supposition. There are slight traces of Fingalian legends still current in the parish. Thus the hollow near the Gairloch Established Church, in which the Free Church communion services are held, is said to have been scooped out by Fingal for a bed where his white cow might calve. It is still called Leabaidh na Ba Baine, or the bed of the white cow. Then the large stones in Loch Maree, in a line between the base of the Fox Point and the nearest part of the opposite shore, are said to have been placed there by Fingal for stepping-stones, to keep his feet dry when going this way to court Malvina, who lived in the direction of Torridon. Only an enormous giant could have stepped from stone to stone; they are to this day called the sweetheart's stepping-stones-Again, there is a mound in a depression near the summit of Beinn Tarsuinn, called Suidheachan Fhinn, or Fingal's seat, where they say-he used to sit and spy when hunting on the mountains. These fragments are all we are told of FingaPs doings in Gairloch.

Though we know nothing of their history, we can infer much regarding the condition of the original Pictish inhabitants of Gairloch. That they were numerous, we may judge from the several remains of Pictish brochs or round houses to be seen in the parish. These are doubtless but samples of numbers of others, still buried beneath moss and heather, or long since obliterated by agricultural operations. Each broch was the abode of several families, huddled together beneath its roof of skins. Most of the primitive weapons or implements to be enumerated in the chapter on the antiquities of Gairloch belonged to the Pictish natives of the parish. Our eyes may see, our hands may grasp, the very implements these Gairloch men formed and used possibly before the Christian era; and as we look upon them we may readily conceive how straitened were their owners' circumstances. Amongst the antiquities some alleged Druidical remains will be mentioned. Whether these were really Druidical or no, it is certain that the religion of this district before Christianity took root was that of the Druids. The sacrifices of bulls on Isle Maree, practised, as we shall see, so lately as 1678, were unquestionably relics of the rites celebrated by the Druidical priests, though they themselves had vanished a thousand years before.

When Agricola invaded Scotland in a.d. 81, the tribe of Picts who inhabited Ross-shire was called the Cantae. A punster might be excused for remarking (and that truly), that in Gairloch at least the race is still "canty," i.e. knowing. It is not probable that the Romans ever reached this part of Ross-shire; the nearest evidence of their invasion is some trace of their roads in Strathspey, a hundred miles from Gairloch. It is very likely that Gairloch men helped their fellow Celts in the battles with the Romans. Tacitus relates how the Highlanders at that period made sacrifices before going to battle, and fought with broadsword and targe. The country was then almost destitute of agriculture, being mostly vast forests and morasses, teeming with wolves and other wild beasts ; the possessions of the people were herds of cattle.

When the Romans abandoned Britain, about a.d. 446, the Picts were under the sway of a king called Drust, the son of Erp, who is said to have lived a hundred years, and to have fought a hundred battles. The Pictish monarchy continued until a.d. 843, when Kenneth II. took Camelon, the capital of the Picts; on this the kings of Scotland, and subsequently of Great Britain, became at least the nominal rulers of the Highlands.

The introduction of Christianity brought a refining and civilising element to the rough people of the North, but it was many centuries before its influence became general. St Columba began his mission in a.d. 563, and the ecclesiastical establishment at Iona was the EARLY HISTORY.
result. Local tradition says the little chapel at Sand of Udrigil, in Gairloch parish, was built by St Columba, or one of his immediate followers. But it was St Maelrubha who was the apostle of Gairloch and of the adjoining parish of Applecross; he founded the church of Applecross a.d. 673, and died there on 21st April a.d. 722. He appears to have made his Gairloch home on Isle Maree, a site that suggests the necessity, at least at first, of the Christian missionary having recourse to the protection afforded by an insular position. The new teaching soon displaced the Paganism of the Druids, though, in accordance with the policy of the early Christian church, the sacrifices of bulls were permitted, as we have seen, for a thousand years afterwards. The first church of Gairloch was dedicated to St Maelrubha; it was probably not erected until many years after his death. Tradition says that his cell on Isle Maree was occupied for some generations by the successors of this holy man ; one of them is mentioned in the legend of the island given in the next chapter.

During the rule of the Pictish kings the Norwegian Vikings made continual raids upon the Highlands, at first as independent pirates, but later on as vassals of Harold Harfager, the first king of all Norway. About the end of the ninth century the Norwegians became so powerful as to be able to establish a separate and independent kingdom in Orkney and the Western Isles. Parts of Ross-shire were frequently ravaged, and often held, by them. In Gairloch they have left a number of footprints in the names of places. Thus the Islands Longa and Foura exhibit the Norwegian suffix a, meaning an island. The Vikings used to retire during the winter months to small islands off the coast, where they laid up their vessels. The names of these two Gairloch islands, according to the Rev. Isaac Taylor, bear curious evidence to their having been the winter quarters of Vikings. The tragic legend of Isle Maree, given in the next chapter, is an episode in the career of one of these piratical princes. A large Gairloch island is named Thorisdale, after the Norse god Thor. Among other Norwegian names in Gairloch is " Sgeir," i.e. a detached rock; it occurs in Sgeir Bhoora, Sgeir an Fharaig, &c. So also the suffix dale or dal is Norwegian ; it occurs in Thorisdale, Talladale, Slatadale, Erradale, Inverasdale, &c. Naast is believed to be a Norwegian name. Other Norse names are given in the Glossary.

It has been supposed that the Danes did not invade the west coast, but an examination of Gairloch names shews that they were most likely here. Some of the Vikings were Danes. Mr Taylor say-* that the termination aig signifies a small bay, and is Danish; it occurs in a number of Gairloch names (see the Glossary). The Danes were driven out of Scotland in 1040.

There can be no doubt that both Norwegians and Danes intermarried with the people of Gairloch, and thus the native Pictish breed became a mixed race. One can almost identify Norwegian and Danish types of face in Gairloch to this day.

The dominion of the Norwegian monarchs over the Hebrides and some parts of the mainland was broken by the defeat of Haco the aged king of Norway, at the battle of Largs, on 3d October 1263. His successor Magnus, in 1266, ceded the whole of the Scottish territory held by Norway (except Orkney and Shetland) to the king of Scotland. An Icelandic saga states that Ross-shire was part of the dominion of the earls of Orkney under Norway, whilst another authority regards it as part of Scotland. In all probability the wild Highlanders of Ross had never entirely submitted to either king. Though the king of Norway at this time abandoned all claim to, Ross-shire, yet some tribes of Norwegian descent long afterwards held Gairloch; they were the MacBeaths and M'Leods, of whom more shortly.

The earls of Ross followed the Norwegians in the rule of the Northern Highlands. They were of the ancient Celtic family of the O'Beolans, and had been the Pictish maormors of Ross before the title of earl (comes) took the place of the older Pictish designation. Gairloch, as a part of North Argyle, was included by name in the Sheriffdom of Skye, erected in 1292 by King John Balliol. This is believed to be the first mention of Gairloch in existing records. King Robert Bruce confirmed the possession of Gairloch to the earls of Ross between 1306 and 1329. In 1366 Earl William granted "to Paul M'Tyre and to his heirs by Mary of Grahame, with remainder to the lawful heirs of Paul, the lands of Gerloch within the parts of Argyle, for yearly payment of a penny of silver in name of blench ferme in lieu of every other service except the forinse service of the king when required." In 1372 King Robert II. confirmed the grant. Paul M'Tyre is stated to have been a cousin of Earl William ; we hear no more of him.

Earl William left only a daughter, who married Walter Leslie. They had a son, Alexander, who became Earl of Ross, and also a daughter, who married Donald, Lord of the Isles. Earl Alexander married a daughter of the Regent, Robert Duke of Albany. Their only child Euphemia died young in 1406, after she had resigned her title to the son of the regent. Donald, Lord of the Isles, by virtue of his marriage with the daughter of Walter Leslie, laid claim to the earldom of Ross, in opposition to the regent's son. After a prolonged strife the earldom of Ross was forfeited, and annexed to the crown in 1476. During the unsettled period which began with Donald's ambitious claim, Gairloch seems to have been in a state of anarchy. Not only the MacBeaths and M'Leods struggled for its possession, but the Macdonalds, as clansmen of the Lord of the Isles, appear to have overrun the district.

Meanwhile the Mackenzies of Kintail had grown to be a great power in Ross-shire, and being of the same original stock as the O'Beolan earls of Ross, they had a better right to Gairloch than the other claimants, all of whom in turn gave way to the victorious Mackenzies.

The legends and narratives which follow are placed as nearly as may be in chronological order. They all belong to the period of the Mackenzies, except that of the tragedy of Isle Maree, which forms our next chapter; it occurred long before.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus