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2004 Back To The Future

Funded by Community Economic Development, Scottish Communities Action Research Fund and  Heritage Lotteries

How did the project come about?


It was recognised that the communities of Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh – or Mackay Country in English – formed a natural and effective unit.  This area, roughly covering the modern civil parishes of Eddrachilles, Durness, Tongue and Farr in the Country of Sutherland, have also at times been known as the Province of Strathnaver and The Reay Country.  No matter the term used – and all are still in current use by local people – it was felt that, on balance, Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh was the phrase which best conjured up the strength, dignity and diversity of the people and landscapes therein.  In the first years of the 21st century, representatives of those northern communities took steps to build on that past in order to secure a better future for everyone who lives in Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh, and for generations to come.
The Mackay Country Project was the result. A start was made by creating a marketing project and a research project.  Through the marketing work, marker stones have been erected at all the Dùthaich MhicAoidh gateways.  The aim is to build the Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh regional identity for visitors and for local folk too.  A big video project has been carried out.  This has involved taking video footage of key landscapes and events across Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh.

The question we were asking was


“How much information, where is this information and can we coherently assemble this information into a local archive that can be accessed by any interested parties. Can we use this information to plan a coherent and coordinated approach to further research that would be relevant and valuable to the group, the community and any other academic institution that may wish to further research the fields of study uncovered. Furthermore is this research information relevant to our other development plans for the Mackay Country”


This scheme was community-led research to develop knowledge about the community and improve skills and community aptitude. As the research was being conducted it provided evidence on community engagement as the knowledge and skills at the local level was uncovered and the local experience, awareness and experience was realised.


This was a new area of work that we investigated and we endeavoured to produce indications of the resourcefulness the area has supplied to others but been under represented in the area of origin.

This was a community-based research and action orientated inquiry. We did not ourselves plan academic research but consider the investigations and studies previously reported on should be available for local development where appropriate.


We were initiating a Community research not just about needs assessment or evaluation but an “appreciative inquiry” that looks at the positives and the assets of the community and has the potential to enhance our community identity and develop a more positive image, both within the communities and externally, and build on what’s already there. Community research is also not just about communities of place; communities of interest can too easily be overlooked in the regeneration agenda. This co-ordinated gathering of information will highlight areas of interest.

The project was in two stages


Stage 1


  •  Setting the research agenda: this is what drives the research and where the research questions are generated. It is probably the most important stage to ensure participation. Identifying what is known and from what sources. Making local contacts
  • Choice of research methods: this should be an informed choice. Many novice researchers only know about surveys. We need to identify where the documents are.


Stage 2


  • Contacting individuals & agencies outside the locality
  • Data collection
  • Data analysis
  • Presentation/action on findings.
  • The Project plan as submitted to the funding partners
  • Report
  • Study Trip
  • Press Articles
  • May 2004
  • Nov 2004
  • March 2005

About the Project


Forward from the project report At Home in Mackay Country – A history and profile of the communities of north west Sutherland Edited by Dr. Isobel MacPhail


‘‘I think that what’s most needed in a place like this is to create a stronger feeling of worth in the place among the people and somehow engender in them the feeling that their own history, their own landscape, their own things that they do are every bit as valuable as anybody else’s and that by leaving here and going to … Edinburgh or somewhere like that you’re not necessarily transferring to a better kind of life. You may well be going downhill rather than uphill.’’1


At the outset we aimed to create an alternative kind of ‘Area Profile’. A standard Area Profile summarises the key social, economic and environmental aspects of the local area and compares these local aspects with patterns and trends at the county, regional and national level. The purpose of this is to see in what ways local circumstances, strengths and challenges differ from or mirror regional and national concerns. With this information it is then possible to develop projects and activities which fit local circumstances and to explain using statistics, when applying for funding, why and in what ways local circumstances merit local solutions. By providing information in this form you make it easy for policy makers and public agencies to understand quickly your local circumstances because you have translated your local knowledge into a form or language which is familiar to planners and policy-makers. You also make it easy to track changes in those local circumstances by referring back to the Area Profile as the years go by. This puts your community in a good position to then make representations on behalf of the community if circumstances do not change for the better – or to take action on behalf of the community to change things for the better.

In the course of this work we have assembled the material necessary for a standard Area Profile. Some graphs and statistics are found in later chapters but we have tried to go beyond this. We have tried to weave these vital statistics and relevant descriptions into accounts of the area, past and present, which are much broader and more meaningful for local communities. They are more meaningful because they consider how past forces – human, cultural, geological and environmental – have shaped the place we know today. By going back, we can make our way into the future and take a hand in shaping that future in the light of what local people hold dear.

This book provides an account of some of the topics which have been explored in the course of the past year. The variety of this selection may seem somewhat eccentric, but this is not an attempt to give a definitive account. Each contribution merely serves to give a small insight and a brief excursion into the vibrant miscellany which is Mackay Country past and present. This selection does not begin to do justice to the range of research interests in Mackay Country – it is only a brief flavour of that diversity. This volume is made up of contributions from a range of local people.2


Much of what you find here was also included in the events and exhibitions held right across the area during April and May 2005.
We hope you enjoy this account and that it leaves you hungry for more.

‘People will say things like, it will all be the same in a hundred years. Well it will be unless people change it and there are things that could be done if people would work together and people would take an interest.’3

The Mackay Country Team – May 2005


‘I think that what’s most needed in a place like this is to create a stronger feeling of worth in the place among the people…’

1 Back to the Future Oral History Recording 2004.


2 Sections contributed by particular individuals are titled as such. All other text was researched and written by Issie MacPhail based on desk research, fieldwork and oral history recordings, or comprises extracts from her Ph.D thesis.


3 Back to the Future Oral History Recording 2004


Visit the Project Site

‘They all have special qualities and share a commitment to the area and a drive and passion for the subject.  In the months to come they needed all of that determination and drive.  Over the past year this group have combined their talents and energies to great effect.  In a very short time they have had to learn to use a daunting range of equipment – laptops, scanners, digital cameras, mini disc recorders and microphones.  Since mini disc recorders are designed with sharp-eyed and nimble-fingered teenagers in mind, this was far from easy.’


This work and the Back to the Future research project were carried out with the full support of the following community organisations:


  • North Sutherland Community Forum
  • Scourie Community Council
  • Kinlochbervie Community Council
  • Durness Community Council
  • Tongue Community Council
  • Norcelt
  • Comunn Eachdraidh Sgeiradh
  • Bettyhill, Strathnaver and Altnaharra Community Council
  • Strathnaver Museum
  • Strathy and Armadale Community Council
  • Strathy and Armadale Local Studies Group
  • Alltbeag, Armadale Trust
  • Melvich Community Council


Significant and enthusiastic support was also offered by the late Charlie Mackay on behalf of the Clan Mackay Society. Back to the Future was seeking to create an account of Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh people and places, past and present. 


The work complements and supports local-level archives and seeks to highlight where local people and visitors can access historical materials locally.

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