ASSYNT, or ASSINT, is a very extensive district in the county of Sutherland. The name is a contraction of agus-int, literally ‘in and out;’ and is supposed to have been originally applied to it as descriptive of its extraordinarily rugged surface and broken outline. Its area is estimated at 100,000 acres; and its circumference at 90 miles.
The main line of road through this district enters the parish, from the south, at Aultnacealgeich burn, 10 miles from the bridge of Oykell, at the upper end of Loch Boarlan. A little beyond this, a road branches-off to the west towards Crockan, whence there is a road to Ullapool, on Loch Broom, 16 miles distant. Pursuing the main line, we arrive at Ledbeg, whence a detour may be made by the south side of Suilbhein to Inverkirkaig, provided the traveller dare encounter a very rugged journey, presenting only one habitable shieling in its whole course, namely Brackloch at the western end of Loch Caum, a very fine fresh-water loch. There is another, and a more dangerous route in winter, between the Suilbhein and its mountain-brother Cannishb or Canisp. After leaving Ledbeg we enter the glen of Assynt. This glen is very narrow, and has various windings, so that one is quite near the lake before being aware of it. Immediately before arriving at it, a very singular ridge of rock bounds the glen and the road on the right. This ridge rises to a perpendicular height of 300 feet: it is of blue limestone, and its mural surface has been worn away in many places in such a manner as to present the appearance of the windows, tracery, and fret-work of an ancient cathedral. Alpine plants and creeping-shrubs ornament with their graceful drapery every crevice and opening of these lofty rocks, and altogether create a scene of most picturesque though fantastic beauty. At length on turning round the edge of this ridge, the traveller finds himself at the village of Inch-na-damph, or Innesindamff, and the head of Loch Assynt. This lake is about 16¾ miles in length, and 1 mile in greatest breadth. It receives the waters of many mountain-streams, and empties itself into Loch Inver. On the shores of Loch Assynt, near Inch-na-damph, there are quarries of white marble, which were at one time wrought by an Englishman; but since his death they seem to be entirely neglected and given up. If one may judge from the blocks lying about, the marble seems to be pure and capable of receiving a high polish; but, from whatever cause, it is now only used for building dry stone-dykes and highland-cottages. “At Leadbeg,’ says Dr. Macculloch, “I found the cottages built of bright white marble: the walls forming a strange contrast with the smoke and dirt inside, the black thatch, the dubs, the midden, and the peat-stacks. This marble has not succeeded in attaining a higher dignity.” We may mention having seen marble cottages at other places besides Ledbeg, presenting the same strange contrast which the doctor here points out. Loch Assynt lies in a very pleasing green valley, though it does not – except at its head and beyond the village of Inch-na-damph – afford much of the picturesque or the romantic. The mountain of Cunaig, or Cuniack, on the north side of the lake, and Bein-mhor or Ben-more, with the other mountains which terminate the glen to the east, present scenes of much grandeur and magnificence.
The ancient castle of Ardvraick, and the ruined house of the Earls of Seaforth, with the village and churchyard at the head of the lake, give an interest to Loch Assynt not often to be felt among the inland waters of these northern regions. Pursuing our route along the northern side of the loch, we pass the ruins of Ardvraick castle, situated on a rocky peninsula which projects a considerable way into the lake. This castle was long the residence of the Macleods, and in particular that of Donald Bane More; it was built in the year 1597, or 1591, and must have been a place of strength in ancient times. When the estate came into the Seaforth family, they erected a new mansion near the shore of the lake. this mansion is also now in ruins. “It was built,” says the first Statistical reporter, “in a modern manner, of an elegant figure, and great accommodation. It had fourteen bedchambers, with the conveniency of chimneys or fire-places.” The osprey (Pandion haliætus) frequents Assynt; and a pair have long built on the ruins of Ardvraick castle.
Adjoining to the present parish-church, and within the burying-ground, near the village of Inch-na-damph, are the remains of an ancient popish chapel, said to be the oldest place of worship existing in this district. The occasion of its erection is alleged to have been as follows. One Æneas or Angus Macleod, an early laird of Assynt, had gone to Rome, and had had the honour of an interview with the Pope from whom he received various favours; on account of which he vowed that on his return he would build and endow a chapel. This he did, and extended his endowment in its favour to the fifth part of his then yearly rental. At one time this chapel consisted of two stories; the ground one being used for worship, and having an arched or vaulted roof. Above was a cell or chamber, which tradition reports was a place set apart for private devotion. This upper cell, however, was removed several years ago; and the lower repaired for a burial vault, for which purpose it is still used. It is the property of Macleod of Geanies, the lineal descendant of the ancient lairds of Assynt.
On reaching the northern end of Loch Assynt, one branch of the road turns westward to Loch Inver, following the northern bank of the river Inver; while another branch runs north to Unapool on the Kylecuigh, beyond which there is a ferry to Grinan, in Eddrachyllis, whence it proceeds along the coast to Scourie bay.
In the southern part of Assynt are several detached mountains of singular form. Dr. Macculloch has written of them so correctly, and described them so graphically, that although at some length, we must furnish the reader with his remarks. In talking of sandstone mountains, in his Geological work, he says: “The independence of many of these hills forms one of the most remarkable parts of the character of this rock. In many places, they rise suddenly from a hilly land of moderate elevation composed of gneiss; attaining at once to an height above it of 1,000 or 2,000 feet.” The learned doctor, describing Sul-bhein, or Suilvhen, of which a cut is subjoined to the present article, says: “It loses no part of its strangely incongruous character on a near approach. It remains as lofty, as independent, and as much like a sugar-loaf, (really not metaphorically,) when at its foot as when far off at sea. In one respect it gains, or rather the spectator does, by a more intimate acquaintance. It might have been covered with grass to the imagination; but the eye sees and the hand feels that it is rock above, below, and round about. The narrow front, that which possesses the conical outline, has the appearance of a precipice, although not rigidly so; since it consists of a series of rocky cliffs piled in terraced succession above each other; the grassy surfaces of which being invisible from beneath, the whole seems one rude and broken cliff, rising suddenly and abruptly from the irregular table-land below to the height of a thousand feet. The effect of a mountain thus seen, is always striking; because, towering aloft into the sky, it fills the eye and the imagination. Here, it is doubly impressive from the wide and open range around, in the midst of which this gigantic mass stands alone and unrivalled, – a solitary and enormous beacon, rising to the clouds from the far-extended ocean-like waste of rocks and rudeness.”