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Walks - With Gordon
Early History Of Strathnaver
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.
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 today’s 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.
MESOLITHIC PERIOD. (7000 -
NEOLITHIC PERIOD. (4000 -
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 artifacts.
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 Achnavanich, Naver and Camster.
(2000 -500 B.C.)
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. Artifacts 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
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. -1 100 A.D.)
MEDIEVAL PERIOD (1100 A.D.
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.
THE RIVER NAVER
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’. 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 east 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 east 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 1/4 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 Invernessshire 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.
1NVERNAVER IRON AGE BROCH,
SETTLEMENT and BURIAL SITES
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!
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!!
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.
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.
IRON AGE BROCH
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.
NEOLITHIC CHAMBERED CAIRN
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 burn. These appear of cruder construction - possibly earlier in age.
NOTE - Several perfect examples of corbelling survive today in the chambered cairns at Loch Calder.
It is known that from 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. these workings were happening. Most people favour the late Medieval or Modern 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 - 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.
IRON AGE BROCH
AND CLEARANCE CAIRNS
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 1981.
IRON AGE 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, wailed-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.
ELSA GRETCHEN DANCKWERTS
Below the child’s grave, by about 50 yards, we find a small monument to
Letter from David Midwood to
Caithness Field Club re Graves at Syre-Strathnaver.
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.
IRON AGE BROCH
Bronze Age, and may have a cist under it.
NEOLITHIC CHAMBERED CAIRN and CAIRNS
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!!!
THE COUNTRY CODE