N E W S F E E D S >>>
2003 Bulletin IndexBulletins Index

Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Early History of Strathnaver
by Gordon Wilson

The history of human settlement of the north of Scotland begins very recently in comparison with the long, slow development of mankind in the rest of the world. There is a map at the end of this article to help locate the artefacts described.

Throughout the Ice Age - glaciers advanced and retreated across Scotland - the climate slowly changed from Glacial - to Tundra - to Temperate - and back again. In each Temperate period woodlands spread in from the Continent. But, over this long time, the north of Scotland remained uninhabited by animals or humans. By about 10,000 years ago (8,000 B.C.), the ice finally melted, leaving the land which would be quite familiar as todays Straths, Lochs and Mountains.

The early hunters of the Mesolithic Age, with stone axes and wooden spears, lacked the ability to move into the Temperate Latitudes. But Neolithic Man (the early farmers), with the development of improved stone working techniques over the years, developed a whole new range of weapons and tools capable of advancing their standard of life.

The immediate result of so much ice melting was that the sea level rose by approximately 200 feet, thus covering much of the coastline. At the same time, the land, free from the great weight of ice, also began to rise. For the next few thousands of years, the sea levels fluctuated. Today the levels are at low - and the "old" high level beaches (raised beaches) can be seen in many places round the Scottish coasts. Good examples locally can be seen at Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie.

This was the time the first humans found their way north.
It took many hundreds of years for vegetation and fauna to colonise the land uncovered by the ice melting - the first animals to penetrate the north had to be capable of surviving Arctic conditions. Remains that have been found in caves include Cave Bear, Arctic Fox, Northern Vole and Arctic Lemming.
Vegetation developed, with scrub trees being replaced by Willow, Birch and Pine. Later, a thick covering of trees reached much higher than today's treeline.

By this time a wide range of mammals, birds and insects would also have colonised the North.
Evidence of early settlements in Strathnaver remain scattered, in varying densities, across the now mostly deserted hills and moorland. The Chambered Cairns - Standing Stones - Stone Circles - Brochs - Hut Circles -Souterrains - all indicate intermittent to almost continuous occupation from the Neolithic Period to the present day.

With such an amazing time scale covered, I would like to start with a brief review of the ages involved.

Sites In Strathnaver

Mesolithic Period. (7000 - 4000 B.C.)
This is the time the first nomadic hunters moved northwards into Caithness - mostly travelling round the coasts. No remains of their living quarters have been found - possibly they lived in skin tents or wooden lean-to's. Also their weapons of crude stone or wood have long since disappeared. However some traces of their life style can be found in middens of refuse on some sandy beaches or in caves.

Neolithic Period. (4000 - 2000 B.C.)
This age produced the first farmer/settlers - keeping cattle, sheep and goats and harvesting crude forms of grain. By this time improved working of stone and bone implements contributed to a better class of life style. Some simple pottery of this period has been found but, again, no traces of their houses remain. They are more possibly known for the Chambered Cairns - large stone structures - where they buried their most distinguished dead.

Chambered Cairns were probably in use for a period of 2000 years. A wide variety of styles still exist - some circular - some elongated - some with long or short horns. As building skills developed over the years, the chambers tended to become larger and more complex, some introducing corbelling. These cairns continued to be used over many years, much like family vaults. Most have been looted over the ages. However a few have survived intact. Excavations normally reveal human and animal bones - sometimes burnt -pottery pieces and other Neolithic artefacts.
This is the age of great Stone Circles - Stone Rows - and various Standing and Recumbent Stones - many thought to be used in elaborate ceremonies in which some astronomical events may have played a part.
NOTE: Caithness has Stone Rows at Mid Clyth, Dirlot, Yarrows and Garrywhin, and Stone Circles at Achnavanish, Naver and Camster.

Bronze Age. (2000-500 B.C.)
At this time new settlers rushed north from the east and south. These people brought knowledge of metal working - bronze for better tools and also gold, silver and copper. These settlers were the first to build more permanent homes - the circular walls of which are preserved as the Hut Circles we find today.

By comparison with the massive Chambered Cairns of the Neolithic Period, the Bronze Age burials were modest affairs - buried individually in flagstone coffins (called Cists) and then covered with stones - but not always. Bodies were buried with knees up to the chin, making the cists quite small. Artefacts found in such cists included pottery. Yet another characteristic of the Bronze Age were the early carvings on some stones - sometimes cut into the stones of the cist. These are known as Cup Marks or Ring and Cup Marks - thought possibly to have some religious symbolism.

Iron Age. (500 B.C. - 500 A.D.)
Settlers moved westward from Asia into Britain, subsequently colonising Scotland around 500 B.C. With them came the Celts and, more importantly, the knowledge of iron workings, thus producing better utensils, implements and weapons - again improving their standard of living. It is supposed that these Celtic tribes eventually settled with the locals and became known as the Picts.

These Iron Age peoples developed a whole range of Look-out Towers or fortified structures -Hill Forts - Brochs - Duns. Their commonest dwellings would appear to be the Round Huts (i.e. today's Hut Circles). At this time, Souterrains - long underground tunnels - appear, usually running outwards from these Hut Circles. Some think they were used as cold storage larders; others think they may have a religious connection.

Early Christian Period. (500 A.D. - 1100 A.D.)
English and Irish missionaries were brought to Scotland - St. Ninian, St. Molvag, St. Columba and St. Maelrubba. Monasteries were created from 398 A.D. to 671 A.D. North of Bettyhill was the Chapel of Eilean Neave (now completely disappeared) built by followers of St Columba.

Medieval Period. (1100 A.D. - 1600 A.D.)
The clan system developed in the Highlands and for 500 years clan chiefs held the land for the king but in practice they behaved as independent despots - giving rise to a time of clan wars as power struggles to control larger areas developed.

Highland Clearances.
From 1700 onwards the ties of kinship and mutual trust between chiefs and people dissipated. The chiefs regarded themselves as landed gentry and tended to associate with the high life of Edinburgh and London but realising that the high life could not be supported by the revenues from their estates. Thus came the sheep walks between 1800 -1860 when large scale evictions occurred all over the Highlands.

Strathnaver had two. 1814 and 1819. Patrick Sellars, a professional lawyer who had been Procurator Fiscal, decided to make a fortune for himself in helping the landlords clear the land. His harshness and his burnings to clear the southern straths led to his becoming the most hated man in the Highlands. It was rumoured (and widely believed) that his body became riddled with lice as a result of the many curses put upon him.

William Young was responsible for the northern Strathnaver clearances - where no trace of burning has been found at Rossal, Dunvidon or Borgie. There the people left voluntarily.

Strathnaver Clearances.
The people were allocated small plots of land around the coast - sites at Bettyhill, Strathy, Balligill. These strip agricultural sites are still clearly seen around the coast today. Fishing supplemented their struggle for existence.

The River Naver.
Named by Ptolemy in 140 A.D. as "Nabaros" possibly meaning a cloud or wet cloud - could come from the rising mist from the river in certain atmospheric conditions.

Borve Castle
Promontory castle in an arch of magnificent coastal scenery - only a few fragments of the structure exist today, but the scenery is spectacular - sheer drops both to the right and left. The only access is a narrow passage defended by a double ditch and rampart. Close by this ditch, the castle well can be found.

In Medieval times Borve Castle was a major stronghold of the Clan Mackay who had invaded Sutherland. As early as 1370, the Earl of Sutherland described them as the 'Ancient Enemies'1. Hostilities between the two clans ranged from minor raiding and looting to finally a major war involving thousands of men. The battle of Druim-na-Coub was fought directly below the spectacular peaks of Ben Loyal.

Borve Castle was destroyed by Sutherland's army in 1555, after a series of Mackay raids while the Earl of Sutherland was in France helping Royalty. The Queen Regent (mother of Mary, Queen of Scots) ordered the Duke of Sutherland to destroy the outlaw as he had ignored a summons to appear before her.

Castle Borve had always withstood all previous attacks, but, for the first time, modern progress was to defeat them. The brave and able commander, Rory Mor Mackay, was dismayed by the appearance of a large cannon, pulled all the way overland from Edinburgh on the cast coast. Sited on a higher elevation on a nearby cliff, a long bombardment reduced the castle to a ruin. Forced to surrender, Rory Mor Mackay was hanged on the spot and the castle was destroyed beyond further use.

To the cast of Borve Castle and Bettyhill, lie early Neolithic cairns. Proceed 200 yards from the cattle grid on leaving Bettyhill (towards Thurso), to reach some sheep pens on the left. Parking here, one can walk up the hill to the north for % mile to where there is a substantial round cairn probably a burial cairn, but from the earlier ages. Proceed to the top of the crest where there are another 2 round burial cairns, also of the earlier period. One has been vandalised to some extent but the other is quite substantial and in reasonable condition.

Before we reach the Clearance Village, just off to the left of the road, lie 2 Neolithic Long Cairns. The left hand one is very ruinous and has unfortunately been used as a farmer's dump. The other one is quite elaborate with an entrance passage and several chambered areas which are quite clear and can be walked between. Again its tail leans out of line by 10% -possibly again by later additions.

Between the 2 Long Cairns is a very striking and most unusual circle of Standing Stones. I know of no other example in the north. The Chambered Cairn at Achnavanish has a horseshoe part circle near-by. The Clava Cairns in Invemessshire have several Stone Circles with Cairns. Aberdeenshire has Stone Circles, often with Recumbent Stones in the ring - looking rather like altars. No one knows the purpose of these.

Invernaver Iron Age Broch, Settlement And Burial Sites.
The broch is situated on a spectacular site, high on the outcrop ridge overlooking the whole estuary and right up the strath. The inside wall is well preserved to a height of 5 feet. Because of infilling and blown sand, this is probably 9 or 10 feet above the original floor. The entrance passage is well kept to the north-west. Beyond is a ditch and rampart, cleverly using the natural rock outcrop- The view from the broch unfolds below an Iron Age settlement and burial site with several hut circles and cairns immediately obvious (also Bronze Age burial cysts in small cairns). There are 4 hut circles close together below the broch - the best preserved shows a complete circle of foundation stones. These originally would be several feet high. Central fireplaces still show. The internal diameter is approximately 40 feet. One circle hut would appear to have had a double wall to the north -this could be a later addition.

Also to be found are large lines of stone rows - short stretches of drystone walling - it is a puzzle as to the purpose of these!

Coillen A Borgie.
This broch is completely ruined but the general form is still clear. A small chamber can be seen in the north wall and the lower foundation stones are still intact- The loss of most of the stones is most likely due to later settlements.
Despite speculation, most of the strath brochs are not in sight of each other. Communication was not possible unless by the use of watch fires, which is unlikely!!

Achanlochy Clearance Village.
(This is well signposted, with easy parking in an old quarry.)
This was a village of 7 families. There could have been up to 60-80 people working a small arable area on a communal system. The main crops were oats, here (a primitive form of barley) and potatoes. Livestock included chickens, sheep, goats and cattle - cattle being the most important item to the economy. Fish were probably farmed in the adjacent lochan.

At first sight, the houses in the village appear to have been placed at random. However, because wheeled vehicles were not then in use, there was no need for streets. Houses were simply built on any well drained site, usually up the slope rather than on the valley floor.

Here are 2 of the finest corn kilns - still in excellent condition - and a main long house and outhouse.

Corn Kilns
These kilns were used to dry grain after each harvest - it is the same system as the modem drying silo. The grain was held in a stone basin and warm air was fed through it from below. Early lime kilns were worked on the same basis.

Above the village is the quarry, but a lot is left to your imagination as to what is scree and what is quarried stone.

Achanlochy people were evicted in the third and major clearance of Strathnaver in 1819.
Point of interest - looking westward lies a prominent white house. This is the farmhouse of Achaboorin, built for the first sheepmaster who took over after the clearances.

The village is best visited in the Spring, before the bracken begins to grow.

Further North
We come upon other clearance houses and hut circles and a great number of clearance cairns. These clearance cairns range over the full length of the strath many on the higher slopes. These small heaps of stones may date as far back as the Bronze Age, making it obvious that this area was well cultivated from that time until today. Traces also exist of a dam on the upper ridge of the hill. Two stones in the burn show traces of early milling - showing that communal milling started in the strath.

Drochaide Iron Age Broch.
A perfect skyline broch, halfway up the hill on an ideal outcrop. Once inside, it is preserved rather well. The broch is 28 feet in diameter, and the wall measures 16 feet thick on the west side - where a slightly curved entrance is clearly seen. Outside the entrance are fallen lintel stones - one, a triangular stone 4 feet by 3 feet. These stones were characteristic features of brochs of a certain age.

With some surprise, you will realise that the walls stand to 10 feet above the floor - infill, on the original floor, of fallen stones and other debris is 5-6 feet deep. It is estimated that this broch has a containment of 4,000 tons of rock.

Unusually, for a hill broch, this one had an artificial moat - a drainage burn was diverted to supply the water. A dam and moat works are still clearly seen. However this is now thought to be water for an early fish farm.

Hut Circles
Below the broch is a simple oval structure about 15x13 yards - a massive earth bank over stones - 6 feet thick by 4 feet high in places. This circle is a remnant of a substantial stone built structure. There are possibly another 2 hut circles adjacent.

Skelpick Neolithic Chambered Cairn
This chambered cairn lies just across the Skelpick Burn, past the bridge. It is a more impressive cairn than Coillenaborgie.

70 plus yards long - it also has 2 horned tails now sinking into the peat. The chambers are open - have to be with a birch tree growing out of the main chamber (this has now been removed). You will immediately be struck by the size of these chambers - one 12x11 feet and another 9x8 feet.

Closer examination shows that the chambers are extremely well built. Both drystone dyking and the vertical slabs are clearly obvious. It was excavated in 1867. The northern chamber survived and was left intact - the entrance carefully sealed by horizontally laid flagstone -seems it is possibly the original sealing stone from Neolithic time rather than later.

The first chamber leads into an over-lain lintel supported by overlaid flagstones - a system known as corbelling . This dates the chamber as a later development. This corbelled roof has survived to today.
This is another cairn whose "tail" takes a swing off the straight line - suggesting later extensions to the length - caused by the line of the hill.

Two other long cairns, completely ruinous, are apparent on this side of the bum. These appear of cruder construction - possibly earlier in age.

NOTE Several perfect examples of corbelling survive today in the chambered cairns at Loch Calder.

Iron Age Workings
(There are many sites in Strath Halladale and Strathnaver.)
It is known that from 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. these workings were happening. Most people favour the late Medieval or Modem Age. However, from Timothy Pont's map, early iron workings existed in south Strathnaver. The key depended on the availability of timber suitable for charcoal.
From the south end of the Skelpick Cairn, walk directly to the burn, where erosion has uncovered an early Iron Working. In the stream, at this point, slicks can still be found.

Long Cairn Above The Skelpick Cairn.
A substantial long cairn lies on the upper plateau above the Skelpick Cairn. It is much more primitive - pillaged - but quite substantial - no corbelling - much like the Kildonan cairns though obviously of an earlier age.

A new bridge across the burn directly down from the white house, allows easy access to the Skelpick Cairn, the Iron Workings and the upper Long Cairn.

Skelpick Village Summer Camp
The livestock were driven up to higher grazing by the women and girls. For the summer months, they tended the stock. They also milked the cows and goats and cheese was produced. Any live game was killed and smoked in preparation for winter. The men and boys went to the fishing and looked to the maintenance of the settlement.

Clearance Cairns.
Named after an ancient Celtic goddess, this was probably a holy place in pre-Christian times, with the tradition surviving into the Christian era. The loch was famous all over the Highlands for its healing powers. For hundreds of years, until the first World War, sick and disabled people came to immerse themselves in the waters.
An early Strathnaver woman, who had the second sight and great healing powers, possessed a sacred stone. She was persecuted by the incoming Gordons (much hated by the locals). The chief pursued this woman with the intention of possessing either herself or the stone - or both! On fleeing to the loch, she threw the stone into the middle crying, "Mo-naire, Mo-nairc," meaning "My shame. My shame," and thus escaped the Gordon's attentions. From that time, the loch has been attributed with great healing powers.

Hut Circles Again And Clearance Cairns.
Above Loch Mo Naire, some 300-400 feet, are several more hut circles and , over a substantial area, 14 to 18 clearance cairns - all in deep heather. Again, above Skelpick Cairn, is another area of clearance cairns, also in deep heather - 4 dozen or more. There appears to be no planned growth area. So what was this land like some time in the past? However it does show proof of continued existence of people and cultivation.

In this area is a hut circle complete with 3-4 feet high walls. The entrance of portal stones is still in place, making it one of the best conditioned to be found. Internally it has, set back from the door, a smaller circle of foundation stones. We do not know the purpose of these! Just beyond, is a large cone shaped mound, 30-40 feet high, with a circle of stones all round the base and, 5-6 feet from the cone top, another circle of stones. Its purpose is also unknown. However some think it may be a burial mound.

Dunvidon Neolithic Chambered Cairn
These are just remains - the stall standing stones stand upright on a small hillock. The covering stones were robbed to build the nearby broch. The 5 stall slabs and 2 partition slabs
are probably in their original positions. On the north-west largest stone are 9 shallow cup marks. These are characteristic of the Bronze Age and may well indicate that the cairn was in use beyond Neolithic times.

Dunvidon Iron Age Broch
This is completely ruined but still impressively sited on a rise towards the river. The double rampart system is just recognisable. The entrance doorway is marked by a large fallen lintel slab. Traces of the original wall can be identified at various points.

Dunvidon - The Clearance Village.
Between the cairn and the broch is one of the best preserved clearance villages in Strathnaver. Sited here lie 5 long houses and a few smaller buildings. Here we also find a rare feature in a pre-clearance house - a fireplace in the gable, with a large lintel stone and chimney. This must be one of the first away from the central communal fire. A well preserved corn kiln is sited, along with a well, to the south of the village. The flat arable river lands show traces of the original lazy beds i.e. the individual cultivated land strips.
Hut Circles And Clearance Cairns.

From Dunvidon to the mouth of the river, these occur at regular intervals down the strath. With the exception of the lower areas, these are again in deep heather. Hut circles also seem to exist all the way up the strath.

This was a pre-clearance village of 13 families, with 46 acres of arable land and 34 acres of
rough pasture, now situated in the middle of Syre forest.

The site has been well preserved by the Forestry Commission, with information boards and wooden walkways. A few Iron Age hut circles can be found at the forest edge.

Follow the marked trail to the various remains of long houses, barns, out-houses and a souterrain.
Follow the forest entrance, see Patrick Sellar's house - the red roofed building with white
walls sited above Syre Church.

See also the monument to Donald Macleod at Red Brae, opened by the late Ian Grimble in

Langwell Iron Age Broch.
Adjacent to the river, up the Langwell Burn is another well sited broch on high ground. The double walls are easily seen and the base circle of stones is still intact. Some excavation was done in the summer of 1993. A long house, built of salvaged stones, lies at the foot of the broch.
Across the Langwell Burn to the south, we find a private grave at a high spot on the ridge. Opposite the broch, it is a substantial, walled-off area, bordered by yew and holly trees. There are 2 massive grave stones - on horizontal and one upright. It is a child's grave.

24 - 1 - 1891

Below the child's grave, by about 50 yards, we find a small monumnet to:


There is a letter from David Midwood to Caithness Field Club re Graves at Strathnaver

Thank you for your letter Societies like yours are so important and I respect your interest and endeavours to collate local history. So much local historical knowledge dies with each generation. I was lucky enough to have had most of my Spring and Autumn holidays at Syre and could never hear enough of the local history; all those truly great men and women who were so proud of their heritage are now dead and buried.
You ask about the two graves behind Syre Lodge:
The nearer, was a German Shepard dog belonging to my Grandfather's factor, Mr Lloyd. I have an old photograph showing Lloyd with his dog and the keepers, at Syre, taken in the early thirties, but I have just looked everywhere and can't find it I'm afraid.  It was reproduced in "Am Bratch" (sp?) last year from a copy held by Mrs Anderson from Dalharrold. The dog had been through the first war with Lloyd and the grave site being as it was, in the middle of a plantation, was a very apt quiet final resting place. The plaque on the stone must be as moving as any.

The walled graveyard containing the grave of Elsa Dankwerts is, as you will have seen, on a very dramatic site.  The inscription on the grave stone tells the story of a tragedy.  She died, aged eleven of leukemia in 1911 (from memory).  Her family were the last tenants of Syre before the Duke of Sutherland sold to my Grandfather.  They themselves built on a large extension to the lodge and a good deal of the china still in the lodge was theirs.  The family did contact my Mother, before she died in about 1974, asking if they could be given possession of the grave yard.  I never understood why my mother refused them.  The Dankwerts were Dutch, but all the records of their time at Syre must have been removed when they left. If you were interested more would be discovered at Dunrobin I would think.

Good luck with your quest and I would be happy to help you in anyway possible in the future.

Yours sincerely

David Midwood

A full circle of base stones, plus a circle bank, are quite clear. 1 wonder whether it is actually a hut circle with added fortification on the bank - a later development.

Carnachy Iron Age Broch.
Another well sited broch of substantial size, which is still in reasonable condition. Part of the outside wall and double walls were excavated in 1995.

Preclearance Village
Further up the hill, on the other side of the Carnachy Burn, the village is probably of a very early date. It consists of one long house with a store and corn kiln at one end, 4 other small houses and a stone and earth walled area for the growth of crops. Some excavation was done in the summer of 1993.

Just below the village is a small cairn of regular sized stones. It is of uncertain age, possibly Bronze Age, and may have a cist under it.

Early Settlement
Just above the river plateau, is a substantial area of hut circles - old stone and earth walls -cairns - clearance cairns. The area at the roadside has been fenced off, possibly for protection. Some circles may be Bronze Age but the main settlement is Iron Age, with as many as 20 hut circles.

Carnachy North Broch
This broch is very ruinous. The double wall was excavated in 1993. The boundary wall of stones and earth runs from the river to the broch and beyond, up the hill. It appears to be very old. But what is its purpose?? Below is a cairn - possibly a Bronze Age burial mound.

Achargary Neolithic Chambered Cairn And Cairns.
Very ruinous - now only large earth mounds with some protruding stones. There is a long stone and earth boundary wall with long houses at both ends. There is also a possible dried-up fish farm pond between another 2 large cairns covered in gorse and whin.

In closing, I would suggest that it is amazing that, in the few miles explored, we have covered from Mesolithic peoples - 8000 B.C. - to the present day, covering countless ages - but showing that this land has been inhabited for all this considerable time.

P.S. Much more remains to be discovered!!

Bulletins Index