Assynt, pp.68-71.

[Gazetteer of Scotland Contents]

   ASSYNT, or ASSINT, a very extensive district and parish in the county of Sutherland, including the quoad sacra parish of Stoer. 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. On the north it is bounded by that arm of the sea called the Minch, and by Loch Assynt, the Kylecuigh or Kyle Skou, “across which a stone may be slung,” and its extremities Loch Dow and Loch Coul. From the eastern end of Loch Coul, an imaginary line, drawn in a south-east direction across the summits of the mountains to Glashben, completes the boundary betwixt Assynt and Eddrachillis parish. The boundary line then turns south-west, for a distance of about 10 miles, dividing Assynt from Creech parish, and from Ross-shire; it then assumes a north-west direction, and passes by Loch Vattie, and Loch Faun or Loch Fane, to Inverkirkaig, where it meets the sea, dividing Assynt, in this direction, from the shire of Cromarty. The Kirkaig flows out of Loch Fane, and forms a fine cascade at a point in its course about 2 miles from the sea. The general course of the coast-line, from the mouth of the Kirkaig to Ru-Stoer, – a distance of 20 miles, – is from south-south-east to north-north-west, and presents “islands, bays, and headlands, without end, but not a feature to distinguish one from another, nor a cliff nor a promontory to tempt a moment’s stay;” all is dreary, desolate, and mountainous. Loch Inver is a fishing-station, and presents a pretty good harbour. The Inver flows into its head from Loch Assynt. The point of Stoer, or the Ru-Stoer, is a remarkable detached mass of sandstone, rising to the height of about 200 feet. A little to the south of the Ru is Soay island, measuring about 4 furlongs in length, by 3 in breadth. It is flat, and covered with heather and coarse grass. About a mile to the south of Soay, is the islet of Klett. – The principal island belonging to Assynt is that of Oldney or Oldernay, at the mouth of Loch Assynt, which is divided from the mainland by a channel in some parts not exceeding 20 yards in width. It is about a mile in length, by 2 furlongs in breadth; and was inhabited, in 1836, by twelve families. 

   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, an arm of the sea of which mention has already been made. On the shores of Loch Assynt, near the village of 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, however, on the north side of the lake, and Bein-mhor or Benmore, 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 bed-chambers, 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 the farm of Clachtoll are the remains of an ancient Druidical temple. At Ledbeg a pruning-hook was found under the moss several years since, the use of which puzzled the natives of the place not a little. But a late Earl of Bristol, then Bishop of Derry, happening to pass a few days here, pronounced it to be a pruning-hook used by the Druids, with which they yearly cut the sacred misletoe from the oak. This relic of ancient superstition was presented by Mrs. McKenzie of Ardloch to his lordship. – 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 Eddrachillis, 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. They are often separated by miles. In other cases, they are grouped, but still distinct at their base. Where insulated, they have a very striking effect, of which examples occur in Sul-bhein, and Coul-bheg. Similarly powerful effects result from the suddenness of their rise, – the summit, with the whole declivity, being visible from the base.” Farther on, in the same work, he says, “It might be expected that the pinnacled summits and detached hills had resulted from the waste of the erect varieties, but in Coul-bheg, Coul-more, Sul-bhein, &c., they are produced by the wearing down of strata nearly horizontal; the harder portions, in the former case, remaining like pillars of masonry or artificial cairns. The west side of Sutherland and Ross consists of a basis of gneiss, forming an irregular and hilly surface, varying, in extreme cases, from 100 to 1,500 feet in height, but often presenting a considerable extent of table-land. On this base, are placed various mountains, either far detached, or collected in groupes; and all rising to an average altitude of about 3,000 feet above the sea. The stratification of these is horizontal or slightly-inclined. It follows that the whole of this country has been once covered with a body of sandstone, equal in thickness – in certain points at least – to the present remaining portions.” 

   In his letters on the Highlands [Vol. ii. p. 345.] again, he thus describes Suilbhein, “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. Combining in some positions, with the distant and elegant forms of Canasp, Coul-bheg, and Ben-More, it also offers more variety than could be expected; while even the general landscape is varied by the multiplicity of rocks and small lakes with which the whole country is interspersed. The total altitude from the sea line is probably about 2,500 feet; the table-land whence this and most other of the mountains of this coast rise, appearing to have an extreme elevation of 1,500. To almost all but the shepherds, Sul-bhein is inaccessible: one of our sailors, well-used to climbing, reached the summit with difficulty, and had much more in descending. Sheep scramble about it in search of the grass that grows in the intervals of the rocks: but so perilous is this trade to them, that this mountain with its pasture – which, notwithstanding its rocky aspect, is considerable – is a negative possession; causing a deduction of fifteen or twenty pounds a-year from the value of the farm to which it belongs, instead of adding to its rent.” Notwithstanding the difficulty of climbing Suilbhein which the Doctor here mentions, we were told, when in the country, by a highland gentleman residing near Loch-Inver, that a young lady from Glasgow had ascended with him the year previous. We must confess, however, that we should have had some hesitation in making even the attempt. – At page 354 of the same work, the Doctor gives the following description of Coul-bheg: “The whole of this coast, from Coycraig in Assynt, as far as Ben-More at Loch-Broom, presents a most singular mountain outline; but Coul-bheg is even more remarkable than Sul-bhein, while its form is more elegant and versatile. In every view, it is as graceful and majestic as it is singular; and, like the other mountains of this extraordinary shore, it has every advantage that can rise from independence of position; rising a huge and solitary cone, from the high land beneath, and lifting its dark precipice in unattended majesty to the clouds. The ascent from the shore to the base of the rocky cone is long and tedious, over a land of lakes and rocks; but beyond that there is no access. All around is barrenness and desertion; except where some lake, glittering bright in the sunshine, gives life, – a still life, – to the scene: and the eye ranges far and wide over the land, seeing nothing but the white quartz summits of Canasp, Coycraig, and Ben-More, – the long streams of stones that descend from their sides, – and the brown waste of heath around, interspersed with grey protruding rocks that would elsewhere be hills, and with numerous lakes that seem but pools amid the spacious desert.” In spite, however, of the many difficulties which must attend a close examination of this land of mountains and floods, the traveller who chooses to under-go the fatigue, and to encounter the difficulties of attempting to penetrate its recesses, will find much to please, and still more to astonish him amidst its gigantic and awful mountains and lonely valleys. To those 

“who love the pathless solitude  

Where, in wild grandeur, Nature dwells alone 

On the bleak mountain, and the unsculptured stone, 

‘Mid torrents, and dark range of forests wide,” 

the solemn and sublime scenery of Assynt will afford moments of exquisite pleasure. One oft feels in wandering through its superb solitudes as if the next step would conduct him into the ideal and supernatural. To the geologist, nothing further need be said, to incite him to investigate this district most minutely, than a reference to the quotations from Dr. Macculloch already given. 

   The population of Assynt, in 1801, was 2,395; in 1831, 3,161, of whom 1,401 were resident in the quoad sacra district of Stoer. Above two-thirds of the population are resident on the sea-shore. In the district around Loch Inver there was, in 1831, a population of about 659; in the Kyleside district 456; in each of the two hamlets of Knockan and Elphine, 250; and at Unapool 8 or 9 families. The number of houses, in 1831, was 573; of families, 575. Assessed property, in 1815, £3,859. Real rental, in 1795, £1,000. 

   This parish is in the presbytery of Dornoch, and synod of Sutherland and Caithness. Patron, the Duke of Sutherland. The parish-church was built about 1770, and repaired in 1816; sittings 240. There are no dissenting places of worship. Stipend £158 6s. 7d., with manse, and a glebe of the value of £27 10s. There is a preaching-station at Loch Inver, and another at Kyleside, which are supplied by the parish-minister. – The quoad sacra parish of Stoer is about 11 miles in length by 10 in breadth. It was divided from Assynt by authority of the General Assembly, in 1834. A church was built here by the Parliamentary commissioners in 1828. The minister’s stipend is £120, which is paid by the Exchequer. A catechist is employed for the whole civil parish, besides three teachers, by the Society for propagating Christian knowledge. There are burial-grounds at the kirktown, at Gedavolich at the west end of Loch Nedd, at Ardvare, Oldney island, Stoer, and Loch Inver. 

   The district of Assynt is said to have been in early times a forest belonging to the ancient thanes of Sutherland, the ancestors of the present Duchess of Sutherland. In the reign of David II., Torquil Macleod, chief of the Macleods of Lewis, had a royal grant of Assynt. In 1506, on the forfeiture of Macleod of Lewis, Y Mackay of Strathnaver received a life-rent grant of Assynt. About the year 1660, both the property and superiority of Assynt passed from the Macleods to the Earl of Seaforth. He made it over to one of his younger sons, whose heirs held it for three or four generations. It was afterwards purchased by Lady Strathnaver, who presented it to her grandson, the late William Earl of Sutherland; and it is now the property of his daughter, the present Duchess of Sutherland. It was in this district that the great Marquis of Montrose was taken prisoner, and delivered up to the Covenanters. After his defeat, and the ruin of all his hopes, at Carbisdale, ” Montrose, accompanied by the earl of Kinnoul, who had lately succeeded to the title on the death of his brother, and six or seven companions, having dismounted from his horse and thrown away his cloak and sword, and having, by the advice of his friends, to avoid detection, exchanged his clothes for the more homely attire of a common highlander, wandered all night and the two following days among bleak and solitary regions, without knowing where to proceed, and ready to perish under the accumulated distresses of hunger, fatigue, and anxiety of mind. The Earl of Kinnoul, unable, from exhaustion, to follow Montrose any farther, was left among the mountains, where it is supposed he perished. When upon the point of starvation, Montrose was fortunate to light upon a small cottage, where he obtained a supply of milk and bread, on receiving which he continued his lonely and dangerous course among the mountains of Sutherland, at the risk or being seized every hour, and dragged as a felon before the very man whom, only a few days before, he had threatened with his vengeance. In the meantime, active search was made after Montrose. As it was conjectured that he might attempt to reach Caithness, where his natural brother, Henry Graham, still remained with some troops in possession of the castle of Dunbeath, and as it appeared probable, from the direction Montrose was supposed to have taken, that he meant to go through Assynt, Captain Andrew Munro sent instructions to Neil Macleod, the laird of Assynt, his brother-in-law, to apprehend every stranger that might enter his bounds, in the hope of catching Montrose, for whose apprehension a splendid reward was offered. In consequence of these instructions, Macleod sent out various parties in quest of Montrose, but they could not fall in with him. ‘At last (says Bishop Wishart) the laird of Assynt being abroad in arms with some of his tenants in search of him, lighted on him in a place where he had continued three or four days without meat or drink, and only one man in his company.’ The bishop then states, that ‘Assynt had formerly been one of Montrose’s own followers; who immediately knowing him, and believing to find friendship at his hands, willingly discovered himself; but Assynt not daring to conceal him, and being greedy of the reward which was promised to the person who should apprehend him by the council of the estates, immediately seized and disarmed him.’ This account differs a little from that of the author of the continuation of Sir Robert Gordon’s history, who says, that it was one of Macleod’s parties that apprehended Montrose, but is altogether silent to Assynt’s having been a follower of Montrose, but both writers inform us that Montrose offered Macleod a large sum of money for his liberty, which he refused to grant. Macleod kept Montrose and his companion, Major Sinclair, an Orkney gentleman, prisoners in the castle of Ardvraick, his principal residence. By order of Leslie, Montrose was thence removed to Skibo castle, where he was kept two nights, thereafter to the castle of Braan, and thence again to Edinburgh. [Browne’s ‘History of the Highlands,’ vol. ii. pp. 35, 36.] It has been attempted to clear the laird of Assynt from any participation in the death of this unfortunate nobleman. We do not intend to enter into the discussion, but have only to add that it is still the current tradition of the country, and superstition has connected the alleged treachery with the ruin of Macleod and his family. The loss of his property did follow the seizure and execution of Montrose; and, in the eyes of the simple inhabitants of this district, the former was the just punishment, of Heaven for his connexion with the enemies of a favourite hero.