top of page

Mackay Country

From a paper by Dr. Olivia Lelong


Mackay Country, Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh, has always been within The Medieval province of Strathnaver, comprising present-day northern Sutherland, was a focus for settlement from the early Medieval period through the centuries of Viking activity and Norse colonisation, into the Medieval period. Our understanding of the changing nature of that settlement from A.D. 500-1500 is poor over much of Scotland, and this area is particularly understudied. Documentary and placename evidence for Medieval settlement is strong throughout the province. Exploratory work in the valley of Strathnaver and around Durness has also shown the potential for good archaeological evidence.

One of the most pressing questions relating to the archaeology of Highland Scotland is how the nature and pattern of settlement altered through the- Medieval period, the degrees of continuity or otherwise of settlement location and character from the early Medieval period to the post-Medieval, and the processes that influenced both continuity and change.

The far north of mainland Scotland is particularly understudied in this respect. Here, the introduction of Christianity from the seventh century AD on no doubt brought cultural changes and may have influenced the landscape’s structure to some extent. The arrival of the Norse, first as viking raiders and later as settlers from the ninth century, is likely to have significantly affected the language and culture of the native Pictish population. In the Medieval period, the feudal system penetrated the northern Highlands as they came under the control of the Crown, although the process was slower in the northern and western Highlands than further south. This may have re- configured the settlement pattern and the social and physical landscape most fundamentally. Archaeological evidence for Medieval moral settlement m the Highlands of Scotland is notoriously elusive. Where MoLRS (Medieval or Later Rural Settlement) remains have been excavated, they have generally .been found to date to the century or two preceding the early nineteenth-century Clearances (for example, Fairhurst 1968; Fairhurst & Petrie 1964; Lelong & Wood 2000; Atkinson et al forthcoming), although documentary evidence does suggest that many of these settlements originated m the Medieval period. The evidence identified so far for Medieval settlement in the Province of Strathnaver does seem to indicate continuity of occupation on particular sites from the Early Medieval or Norse periods onward The area comprises the Medieval Province of Strathnaver. It corresponds approximately to present-day northem Sutherland and extends from Cape Wrath eastward to the boundary with Caithness and southward as far as Eddrachillis, mirroring the Province’s extent at certain times m the past (Mackay 1906). The name “Naver,’ which first appears on Ptolemy’s map ofc AD 140 as ‘Nabarus’, is of pre- Celtic origins (from an Indo-European root meaning ‘moist, cloud, water, mis; Nicolaisen 1976, 188-9; Watson 1926, 47; Waugh 2000) but it endured through the Norse period, in spite ofthe settlement by Norse speakers of the valley through which the River Naver flows. That the valley’s name came to apply to the whole of the later Province suggests its importance m the region in the late Norse/Medieval period. It clearly was also a focus of high-status settlement in the later Iron Age, as the number of brochs lining the strath attests, while the distribution of early Medieval chapel sites points to a thriving Pictish population in the centuries before Norse settlement. Place name and archaeological evidence indicates the locations of early Medieval chapel sites and possible monastic sites m several concentrations in the Province. Near Durness, for example, the place name Ach’ na h’Anaite, associated with a field to the south-east of Keoldale on the Kyle of Durness, indicates the presence of an early ecclesiastical foundation m the vicinity. The annelid element of the place name attests to an association with a church, perhaps a mother church that provided or oversaw pastoral care by subordinate churches. The place name as a whole means ‘Field of the Church’ and may denote agricultural land that brought the church revenues or was designated for its use (Clancy 1995, 95, 102). It need not mean the site of the church itself, but it does point to the presence of a nearby church that was already considered old by the ninth or tenth century AD (MacDonald 1973).


The place name Balnakeil to the north also indicates a township or farm associated with an early church or chapel (cille). A church or monastery may have been founded there as early as the late seventh century. Balnakeil is traditionally associated with St. Maelmbha, who founded the church and monastery at Applecross and is thought to have carried out nússionary work along the northen seaboard (OPS 1855, 702; Scott 1909, 272). A number of Maelrubha dedications are known in northen Sutherland, including in the valley of Strathnaver (where some antiquarian sources say he met his death in AD 722; eg., Knight 1933, 215) and at Lairg. The present church was built in 1619 (Findlater 1845, 102), but there was certainly an earlier church on the site, first appearing in the documentary record in the early thirteenth century. St. Maelrubha is also associated with a putative chapel at Bealach Mhor, between Durness and Eriboll, said to have been used occasionally by the inhabitants of Eriboll (OPS 1855, 702-3). Its position is now very remote, but it may have been on an early inland route way between the Kyle of Durness and Loch Eriboll. In the valley of Strathnaver a number of pre-Reformation church or chapel sites are known, for example at Langdale, Skaill, Rivigil, Grumbeg, Farr and Klibreck. Several of these have indications of early medieval origins (Lelong 2002, 210-19). In the churchyard at Farr on the coast stands a late eighth- or ninth-century cross slab. The chapel site at Skaill, dedicated to St. Maelrubha, is represented by a low mound with an upright stone incised with an equal-armed, round-headed cross thought to date to the seventh or eighth century AD (Henderson 1987; Allen & Anderson 1903, 55). At the site of the chapel at Grumbeg, wo simple, cross-incised stones formed part of the burial enclosure until recently (Macdonald & Laing 1970, 134), and the site of a holy well dedicated to St. Martin is recorded nearby (Mackay 1914, 34). At Klibreck, the site of a probable chapel is marked by two upright stones, one of them incised with a cross (Henderson 1987). The chapel site at Rivigill is a steep-sided mound known as Cnoc an t-Sagairt, or ‘Hillock of the Pries (Horsburgh 1867, 274), its upper periphery enclosed by an oval bank that suggests early origins. Several ofthese chapel sites correspond approximately to the locations of post- Medieval townships, which documentary evidence (see below) shows were peopled from at least the thirteenth century.

Viking/Norse activity in the Province is attested by abundant place names, both habitative and topographical (Waugh 2000; Fraser 1979). These include the place names of Langdale, Skaill, Syre, Rosal, Torrisdale and Klibreck in the valley of Strathnaver; Talmine, Tongue, Kirkiboll, Skinnet, Melness and Boarscaig around the Kyle of Tongue; Durness, Sangomore, Sangobeg, Eriboll, Keoldale, Croispol and Borralie around the Kyle of Durness and, further west, Cape Wrath itself. Many more are scattered along the coast, suggesting extensive Norse colonisation and/or linguistic influence in the area. However, relatively few archaeological remains of certain Norse date have so far been discovered. Almost all of the known archaeological evidence for Viking/Norse activity in the Province has been found in the vicinity of Dumess. A single, ninth- or tenth-century burial of a young male was found in the dunes at Balnakeil Bay (Low, Batey & Gourlay 2000), and another possible burial is known from Keoldale, less than a kilometre to the south of Loch Borralie (Batey 1993). A ninth-century midden excavated in a small cave off Smoo Inlet is thought to have been left by Norse sailors using the inlet for shelter (Pollard forthcoming). At Sangobeg, the remains of a Late Norse settlement were excavated and found to overlie a pre-Christian burial (Brady & Lelong forthcoming).


The term ‘Strathnaver’ first appears m documentary sources in the thirteenth century, during the period of the earldom of Caithness, the Scottish earldom held by the Norse earls of Orkney. The Scottish bishopric of Caithness, founded in the twelfth century, mirrored the extent of the Caithness earldom. Although by the time Strathnaver appears in documentary sources it no longer formed part of this earldom, it is likely that it once did because the Province continued to form part of the bishopric. At this time the northem mainland of Scotland (the former Pictish province of Cat) was sub- divided into three: Ness, the north-east comer (present Caithness); Sutherland or Sudrland, the lands to the south of Ness as far as the River Oykell; and the area stretching west from Ness as far as Durness, which became known as the Province of Strathnaver (Crawford 2000, 1-2). The Orkney nga Saga relates that Earl Thorfinn (d. c 1065) was given Caithness and Sutherland by his grandfather, Malcolm II, and this would have included the later Province of Strathnaver. Although Strathnaver is not mentioned by name in the Norse sagas, Crawford (2000, 2) suggests that it equates to the district referred to in the sagas as the ‘Dales’ of Caithness, an argument previously put forward by Skene (1837, 361). The character of the Province, with its long river valleys and kyles opening onto the Pentland Firth, would be in keeping with this descriptive name. Crawfbrd also argues that the valley of Strathnaver was part of an important inland routeway m the late Norse to Medieval period, from Ross to the Pentland Firth via Lairg, with place names in the Strath possibly referring to the transport requirements of earldom retinues traversing the route.

The name ‘Strathnaver’ first appears in a surviving charter of 1269, which grants lands in Strathnaver to Mary de Moravia and Reginald de Cheyne. The document refers to an earlier charter, in which Mary’s mother, nobilis mulier domina Johanna (‘the noblewoman lady Johanna’ (Moray Reg no 126)), had given the lands to the Church of Moray. The documents make clear that tenemento de Strathnavyr was a holding in its own right, presumably defined in a charter that has not survived; it is not described as being in the lordship of either Caithness or Sutherland at that time. Crawford (2000, 3) suggests that when the earldom of Caithness and the newly- created earldom of Sutherland were granted out with feudal charters in the 1230s, Alexander II granted the tenemento of Strathnaver to Lady Johanna (also see Crawford 1985, 32-3). At this time it appears that Strathnaver consisted only of the parish of Farr, as the lands to the west were held by the Church, but by the sixteenth century the Province stretched at least as far as the Kyle of Durness. This period in the Province’s history was a pivotal one that saw control pass from the old Norse earls to the Scottish Crown, as a significant break in the earldom’s line of inheritance coincided with the Crown’s asserting its authority m the north via feudal grants of land to its vassals. Crawford (2000) provides an extremely useful account of the mechanisms for and nature of this transition. As part of it, Johanna was not only granted the tenemento of Strathnaver but also half of the earldom of Caithness; she was married to a member of the de Moravia family, to whom Alexander II had recently granted the newly-created earldom of Sutherland. The grants and the marriage ensured that the main royalist family in the north of Scotland controlled most of its lands. The identity and pedigree of Lady Johanna have exercised historians; some argue that she was a descendant of the earls of Orkney and Caithness (Skene 1880), while others suggest she was a daughter of the prominent Celto-Norse

Moddan family (Gray 1922, 111-12). In any case, her inheritance of Strathnaver and marriage to Freskyn de Moravia brought it firmly within the Crown’s feudal control. Lady Johanna and her husband’s acquisition of Strathnaver as feudal overlords must have had implications for the tenants farming their estates, in terms of new tenurial arrangements and tenant-landlord relationships, with the landlords now based m Moray across difficult terrain, rather than in Orkney within easy reach by sea (Crawford 2000, 8). Johanna’s gift to the Church in the lost pre-1269 charter consisted of a bloc of lands in the upper strath and around Loch Naver for the perpetual service of two chaplains, presumably m the Cathedral at Elgin. When the Church returned the gift to her daughter in 1269, it was on the condition that a yearly payment continue to be made for the chaplains’ maintenance (Moray Reg no. 263). This extant charter mentions a number of farms by name, clearly indicating that these were settlements with tenants whose surplus produce would have been due to their overlords. As discussed in more detail below, the evidence of other charters and of maps throughout the Medieval and post-Medieval periods shows that these settlements continued  , to the early nineteenth century, when many of the townships were cleared for sheep walks. The valley contains 36 names that are Norse in origin and are attached to settlements. Thirteen of these appear in surviving charters from the late thirteenth century, including the 1269 charter, and throughout the Medieval period, and 23 of them are shown as settlements on the late sixteenth- to early nineteenth-century maps. In all, a suite of about 15 Norse settlement names appears consistently in Medieval charters and on late Medieval to post-Medieval maps. Six of these townships may have even earlier Pictish origins, pre-dating Norse settlement, as indicated by the likely early Medieval chapel sites (Lelong 2002, 240-51; Lelong 2003). Strathnaver appears to have been important to the military requirements of the Norse earls and subsequently as a strategical centre for later territorial lordships that were based on inland rather than maritime routes (Crawfbrd 2000, 10). Elsewhere m the Province, the Medieval evidence is less densely clustered, although it should be pointed out that little detailed research has so far been conducted (see Lelong 2002 for a full review). While Strathnaver – by the late thirteenth century corresponding to the parish of Farr – was held by Lady Johanna and her descendants until the early fifteenth century, the parishes of Tongue and Durness to the west consisted mainly of Church lands, owned by the Bishop of Caithness from the bishopric’s establishment m the twelfth century (Crawford 2000, 1-2). Balnakei¾s first appearance m the documentary record is between 1223 and 1245, when Gilbert, Bishop of Caithness, assigned it the task of supplying light and incense for the cathedral church at Dornoch (Carter 1886, 25). The Bishop of Caithness had his summer residence at Balnakeil through the Medieval period and also is thought to have owned Castle Varrich on the Kyle of Tongue (Bangor-Jones 2000, 37), said to have been used as a stopover while he was in transit to Balnakeil. He used the limestone-based grasslands surrounding Durness as summer grazing for his flocks.


A description of the Reay estate by a valuator, dated 1797, stated that Durness is a dry pretty spot; the soil sandy, well peopled for its extent. It lies upon a bed of limestone which is here found in the greatest abundance. It is considered the best grass and pasture ground in the north of Scotland, and it was of old the bishop of Caithness’ shieling or pasture farm (quoted in MackKay 1906, 36). The bishop’s house is presumably the ‘Castle of Durinas’ referred to by Sir Robert Gordon in 1630 as having stood on the site. It was allegedly demolished in 1725 for the constmction of Balnakeil House, although the existing structure may have Medieval elements. At that time, the presence of a massive wall, demolished for the new building, was noted; it was thought to be the remains of an old monastery (Macfarlane 1906). The church appears to have retained ownership of a significant proportion of Durness parish until the Reformation. By the fifteenth century, the Mackay family held extensive lands in feu across the Province, although the mechanisms for the consolidation of their power remain obscure (Crawford 2000, 9). After the Reformation, church lands in Durness passed to the earls of Sutherland, and the Mackays were confirmed as their feudal vassals (Bangor-Jones 2000, 37). In 1628, Donald Mackay became the first Lord Reay over the Province of Strathnaver, which at the time stretched from Strath Hallidale to Kylesku on the west coast. After he fell into financial difficulties, large parts of the estate were sold, passing directly or eventually to the Dukes of Sutherland (Bangor- Jones 1987, 23). By the late eighteenth century, repeated harvest failures coupled with rising populations in the townships were putting financial pressure on Highland landowners such as the Sutherland estate, who increasingly sought to make their lands profitable. Like other landowners, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland evicted the occupants of the townships on their lands to create sheep walks, particularly in the valley of Strathnaver – an estimated 15,000 people between 1807 and 1821. They were moved to newly created crofting settlements on the coast, where they were expected to take up fishing or work in the then-burgeoning kelp industry. Neither industry succeeded on a large scale in the long term, and the remains of depopulated townships in the straths and ruined crofts nor disused, estate-built fishing harbours along the coast attest to this more recent phase in the Province’s history

bottom of page