Strathnairn - A Brief History
By William A. Forbes, Milton of Farr
The following is an interpretation of Strathnairn history - from the very earliest times to the present day. It is not intended to be a definitive record of events nor an exhaustive one. It is hoped, however, that this account will give a flavour of our rich historical heritage and that it will encourage the reader to delve further into the fascinating history of our Strath.
THE VERY EARLY TIMES
It would not have been long after the glacier melted before the first pioneer hunter gatherers set foot in Strathnairn. With the ice-cap having receded northwards, they would have found a harsh, rocky landscape with little vegetation. The vanishing glacier had left it’s permanent mark on our Strath. The corrie of Loch A’Choire near Loch Ruthven, the shattered rocks on the slopes of Brin Rock, the smoothly scraped rock face of Creag Nan Gobhair above Farr and the eskers at Dell and Mid Lairgs – those fascinating long hillocks formed by the dumping of sand and gravel by the retreating ice.
After a while, the colours would have become more varied as vegetation began to take hold on the grey granite landscape that was now free of ice. Eventually the first beginnings of the Great Caledonian Forest would become established with trees of Scots Pine, oak, birch, ash, aspen, hazel and alder. We can still see the remains of those mighty Caledonian pine trees in the deep peat high up in the Sealbhanaich (site of the Farr windfarm). Over the centuries the Great Forest was removed by cutting and burning until (by the late 19th/ early 20th Century) we had a very bare landscape – with the exception of a few clusters of native trees and the occasional small-scale plantation of Scots Pine. Today in Strathnairn we see vast acreages of coniferous woodland (predominantly of non-native species) following the wholesale planting of trees during the mid and late 20th Century. And it is under these dense, dark forests that much evidence of the human history of Strathnairn now lies hidden.
In time, those early hunter-gatherers would have begun to settle permanently in the Strath as the great forests would have provided a rich storehouse of wildlife to hunt and (in season) nuts and berries to gather from the lush woodland. The forested slopes would have been a haven for a now unfamiliar array of wildlife with bison, bears, lynx and wolves roaming amongst the trees. The rivers would have been teeming with fish, providing a feast for the well-established beaver population.
Bit-by-bit the sparse human population would be added to by further waves of settlers. They would now begin to carve out openings in the forested slopes and drier ground high above the rivers to grow small patches of crops as communities became more established. At this stage the Strath floor would have been a waterlogged, marshy flood-plain and quite unsuitable for agriculture. But life was not idyllic by any means and dangers would never be far away. With hungry bears, lynx and wolves lurking in the forest, the cattle, sheep and goats (not to mention children) belonging to our early ancestors would require constant supervision – otherwise they would become prey to the wild animals. And there was always the threat from the neighbours. We will never know how much blood was spilled as one tribe sought possession of territory, livestock and possessions from another as the population of Strathnairn began to grow. One can only imagine a society where “survival of the fittest, smartest and most ruthless” was the order of the day.
DRUIDS, PICTS AND GAELS
But who were these Pre-Christian era Strathnairners? Well they have left many traces of their presence but we know little about the people themselves. Over those distant, unknown generations the Druids of Strathnairn constructed their fascinating and quite incredible ring-cairns, chambered cairns, carved out cup-marks in stones and left hut circle remains and other signs of their society and culture. There are some remarkably well preserved chambered burial cairns, standing stones and a ring cairn at Clava. Other ring cairns can be found at Daviot, Gask, Tordarroch and Farr. In addition to it’s ring-cairn, Tordarroch, in particular, possesses a significant concentration of items of archaeological interest – hut circles, cup-marked stones, ancient grave sites, remains of a fort etc.
While these archaeological reminders leave many clues as to the activities and whereabouts of the earliest Strathnairners we are – ultimately – left with more questions than answers about the pre-Celtic peoples of Strathnairn. In time, settlers from Celtic tribes would arrive in the Highlands from other parts of Britain, mainland Europe and Ireland. With them they would bring new culture, language, craftsmanship and farming practices. Their character, determination and fighting spirit would shape Strathnairn, it’s history and it’s people for the next two millennia.
By the time St Columba arrived in the Highlands from Ireland with the Christian Gospel, in 563 AD, the people of Strathnairn had long-since merged into recognised tribal groupings forming part of the wider Pictish nation. Inverness was the stronghold of Brude, King of the Picts, and Strathnairn would have been an integral part of his Pictish kingdom.
The legacy of the Picts remains with us in the place names of Strathnairn. The Pictish language appears to have been closely related to that of the Ancient Britons, Welsh, Cornish and the Bretons of north-west France. This family of languages is referred to as “P-Celtic” – as opposed to the Gaelic languages of Ireland, Isle of Man and (eventually) Scotland that are referred to as “Q-Celtic” languages. It is also believed, however, that the Pictish language would have been heavily influenced by tribal languages that had existed in northern Scotland prior to the arrival of the Celtic tribes. It is highly probable, also, that Strathnairn would have had its own dialect of the Pictish language.
Examples of Pictish in place names of Strathnairn are seen in names such as “Aberarder” (the prefix “Aber” means “river confluence” and other examples can also be found today in Wales and Brittany), “Bunachton” (“Both Neachtain” which means “Nechtain’s stead) and “Daviot” (“Deveth” in Pictish). A characteristic of Pictish place names is typified in situations where a valley, its river and the settlement at the river mouth carry the same name. This is seen in our own area by “Strath Nairn”, “River Nairn” and the town of “Nairn” at the mouth of the river all referring to the name “Nairn”. While the Pictish language may have long since disappeared from our Strath, its permanent mark has been left on our place names.
The arrival of St. Columba from Ireland, and his cordial meeting with King Brude, ushered in a new era to the Pictish heartland of Northern and Western Scotland. With Columba and the Scots from Ireland came two major influences. Firstly, the Celtic Church which (from it’s power-base in Iona) would eventually extend it’s influence throughout the British Isles and even as far as Continental Europe. It is not clear whether any of the Celtic saints made much of a mark on Strathnairn – although it is understood that St. Finan preached at the site of the present church at Dunlichity. The second influence was the Gaelic language and culture.
It is often asked, “what happened to the Picts?” Were they militarily defeated and supplanted by the Gaelic newcomers from Ireland? We will never know the precise details of how the Pictish language and culture came to be dominated by the Gaelic language and culture. With the Christian Gospel, the Celtic Church brought a culture of learning and education and so it seems – by gradual influence – the Gaelic language eventually gained superiority over the Pictish language. In short, it would appear that the Picts/Pictish speakers became Gaelic speakers. However, it is inevitable that the indigenous Pictish culture would have lent it’s own flavour to the newly arrived Gaelic language to give us a language that is now quite distinct from the original Irish language. So, basically, the Pictish Strathnairners appear to have become Gaelic Strathnairners. There is no record of a bloodbath whereby the invading Gaels replaced the native Picts. By Dark Age standards, it seems to have been a relatively peaceful transition. Today’s native Strathnairners will be predominantly descended from those ancient Pictish people who once inhabited our Strath.
There are evidences however that the changeover from Pictland to Gaeldom was not entirely smooth as far as Strathnairn is concerned. As the modern A9 highway passes through the hills between Strathdearn and Strathnairn the boundary between the two straths is called “Stairsneach Nan Gaidheal” (which means “Threshold of the Gaidheal”). It is understood that this “threshold” marked the meeting point of Pictish Strathnairn and Gaelic-speaking Strathdearn. Strathdearn is the Gaelic for “Ireland’s Strath” (Srath H-Eireann), referring to the dominance of the Irish language in that area. How long the two cultures/languages existed side by side, we will never know. What does appear to be evident, however, is that there was there was some obvious resistance among Strathnairn people at one stage to the new Gaelic language and culture.
THE RISE OF CLAN CHATTAN
The latter centuries of the First Millennia AD are shrouded in mystery as far as Strathnairn is concerned. While the Vikings were raiding and pillaging all around our coastline it seems their influence did not leave any permanent mark on Strathnairn – although it has been maintained by some that Loch Ashie (Gaelic “Aisidh”) was named after a Danish prince following a battle with invading Danes that is understood to have been fought there. Other than that there appears to be an absence of place names of Scandinavian origin in our Strath. Their influence did affect Strathnairn indirectly however. The persistent persecution of the Celtic Church and its centres of worship by the Vikings played a major role on its decline and eventual demise. With the marriage of Margaret of Wessex (1045-1093) to King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland came Roman Catholicism to Scotland. The Roman Church was to become the prevailing faith of the people of Strathnairn from the 12th Century until the Reformation in the 16th Century.
Despite the earlier Pictish/Gaelic division that had existed between Strathnairn and Strathdearn (for an unknown length of time) there has been a strong bond of kinship and alliance between the two Straths dating back to at least the 12th Century. The lands of Strathnairn and Strathdearn were the stronghold of the ancient and mighty Clan Chattan. Although its origins are much older, Clan Chattan became a considerable power in our area following its amalgamation with Clan MacKintosh (the principal clan in Strathnairn and Strathdearn) in the year 1291. From this union grew the mighty confederacy of clans that, by the middle of the 13th Century, comprised the MacKintoshes, MacGillivrays, MacBeans, Shaws, MacPhails, MacQueens, MacPhersons, Farquharsons and some other smaller clans (17 in total). From 1291, the chieftainship of Clan Chattan was held by the Chief of Clan MacKintosh. Angus MacKintosh (1269-1345) was the first of many chiefs of both Clan MacKintosh and Clan Chattan. Within the Clan Chattan confederation, however, each clan remained autonomous. The alliance was chiefly one of mutual protection from enemy clans. The power-base of Clan MacKintosh was primarily the lands of Strathdearn, Strathnairn, Dores and Petty.
TURBULENT AND TREACHEROUS TIMES (13TH – 16TH CENTURY)
It is tempting to imagine that the people of Strathnairn – due to their location – were remote and unaffected by the major national political and military events of the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries. This, however, was not the case. As King Haakon IV of Norway sought to bring Scotland under Norwegian rule, once and for all, in 1263, the men of Strathnairn were out in force with Clan MacKintosh, as part of the army of King Alexander III, to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Largs. Our Strathnairn forebears were therefore very much part of that pivotal event in history that brought centuries of Viking oppression and harassment of Scotland to an eventual end.
The people of Strathnairn were also actively involved in the Wars of Scottish Independence. They were present at the field of Bannockburn in 1314 as they followed the Chief of Clan MacKintosh (Angus MacKintosh, mentioned above) and King Robert the Bruce into Battle at the famous victory over King Edward II of England. Much later, they also fought at the Battle of Harlaw in Aberdeen-shire in1411.
Harlaw was part of a civil war and the politics were much less straightforward than those of Bannockburn. At Bannockburn, virtually the whole of Scotland rallied to fight as one against the English invader. Harlaw, however, was a confrontation between the Gaelic kingdom of Clan Donald (the Lords of the Isles) and the established monarchy of Lowland Scotland, which was becoming increasingly anglicised, both in culture and language. The Strathnairn men of Clan MacKintosh and Clan Chattan fought with the MacDonalds and their chief was killed in the battle. Harlaw is also considered to be a major turning point in Scottish history from which the decline of the Gaelic language and culture can be traced.
In the turbulent times of the 14th through to the 17th Centuries, a peaceful alliance between neighbouring clans – the Clan Chattan confederacy – allowed a measure of stability for our Strathnairn forebears. But despite this, conflict was never far from home. To the east, the Comyns (or Cummings) were ever a threat to the peace and security of Strathnairn and her neighbours. To south, however, lay a much more persistent but equally dangerous threat – Clan Cameron of Lochaber.
The skirmishes between the MacKintoshes of Strathnairn and Strathdearn and the Comyns were many and bloody. But the scourge of the Comyns on Clan Mackintosh came to an end in spectacular fashion. The Comyns invited the MacKintoshes to a banquet at Rait Castle, near Nairn, in 1424. The main motive, on the part of the Comyns, was not one of hospitality but rather one of mass murder. However, the Comyns underestimated the guile of the Strathnairn/Strathdearn men, who turned on their hosts during an unguarded moment and slaughtered every single one of them. From then on the Comyns never again posed a threat to our Strathnairn people. It appears that our Strathnairn forebears knew a thing or two when it came to dispute resolution!
However, the troublesome followers of the Earl of Moray fared much better than the Comyns, a century later in 1530. Following a lengthy power struggle between the Earl of Moray and Clan MacKintosh, the leaders of both factions met in a barn at Tordarroch to settle the dispute in a civilised manner. However, the Earl of Moray's men acted in a most uncivilised manner by hanging all eighteen of our MacKintosh men from the rafters of the barn. Local lore, however, maintains that there were actually fifty people hung rather than eighteen. This incident gave rise to a very popular Gaelic proverb that is still in use today – “Chan ann a’h-uile latha bhitheas mod aig Mac An Toiseach” (sarcastically, “It’s not every day that MacKintosh holds a banquet”).
But the greatest threat to Strathnairn came from the Camerons of Lochaber. There were many bloody battles between the MacKintoshes and the Camerons. This feud began with the Battle of Drumlui, Lochaber, in 1337 and persisted for more than 350 years. These must have been difficult times for the people of Strathnairn. Not only was there a considerable human cost in terms of battle casualties but there was also the constant fear of cattle theft, destruction of property and threat to life from the Camerons. However, Strathnairners were not altogether ‘lilywhite’ themselves and are reputed to have known a thing or two about cattle rustling and pillaging from the people of Lochaber. But in those turbulent times of insecurity – affecting both life and property – poverty, hunger and destitution would never have been far from the people of the Strath.
Clan warfare in 14th to 17th Centuries was never straightforward and allegiances could be formed with rivals just as quickly as they could be broken. For all the bloodshed and hostility that had existed between our Clan MacKintosh/Clan Chattan people and their longstanding Cameron enemies, it is quite surprising just how quickly they became allies when facing a common foe. In 1431, our Strathnairn people fought alongside the Camerons at the Battle of Inverlochy against Clan Donald (all of whom had fought together at Harlaw 20 years earlier). Later, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Clan Cameron and Clan Chattan would join forces to fight for the cause of the Royalists and the Stuart Kings.
It is hard – from a 21st Century perspective – to fully understand the politics of those troubled times of inter-clan warfare between the 14th and 17th Centuries. Power struggles were many and varied. But for the ordinary clansman, his chief was sovereign over all aspects of his life – and loyalty to his chief came before that of any King of Scotland. There is a hill called Carn Na Croiche (Cairn of the Gallows) at Dunmaglass where the Chiefs of Clan MacGillivray hung criminals (or those considered by them to be criminals) – a small reminder for those who opposed the will of their chief! This typifies the absolute power that a clan chief of those times held over his people – often referred to as the power of “fire and sword”.
JACOBITISM IN STRATHNAIRN (17th AND 18th CENTURIES)
The Scottish Reformation of 1560 was the catalyst for the Presbyterian Church which – by the end of the 17th Century – had become the dominant religious establishment in Scotland. While the people of Strathnairn did abandon their Roman Catholic faith of the previous centuries, following the Reformation, they chose to embrace Episcopalianism rather than Presbyterianism. This remained the case until the end of the 18th Century when Presbyterianism began to take hold as the main form of worship in the Strath.
A new era had begun to dawn by the early 18th Century as the politics of Scotland and the UK changed quite significantly. With the Stuart kings now vanquished and the Act of Union of 1707 established, there were new issues now occupying the minds of Scotland and the UK. However, many of the Highland clans were still rooted in the politics of the 17th Century and for them the Stuart Kings were the rightful monarchs of Scotland and the UK. From this arose the Jacobite risings of 1715, 1719 and (most fatefully for Strathnairn) 1745.
The Stuart (or Jacobite) dynasty refused to let go their claim to the British throne but – for most of the UK – there was little appetite for supporting their cause. The Highlands, however, were still very much a “state within a state” and widespread support for the Jacobite cause remained amongst many of the clans. Strathnairn was staunchly Jacobite and all branches of Clan Chattan were united under the Leadership of MacKintosh of Borlum (Dores) as they fought their way across Britain. The 1715 Rebellion culminated in the indecisive Battle of Sherrifmuir.
There was no harsh Government retribution following the 1715 Rebellion and the clans were, in the main, able to maintain their military power. But the British Government began to take measures that would help quell any further rebellions that may arise in the future. One major example of this is the network of roads built under the direction of General Wade (we can still see, today, the remains of Wade’s Inverness to Edinburgh road as it crosses our Strath at Daviot). Some clans however – including the Shaws of Tordarroch – had had enough. They now considered the Jacobite Cause to be a lost cause and would never again raise arms for the Stuarts.
The years leading up to 1745 were a period of unusual peace and stability for the Highlands. With an absence of military action the people of Strathnairn were free to earn a living and enjoy settled lives with their families. At least that was the case until 25-year-old Charles Edward Stuart arrived on Scottish shores in September of that year.
While there was plenty affection still remaining for the Stuart cause in Strathnairn, military support for him was not immediately forthcoming. After all, the Chief of Clan MacKintosh/Clan Chattan was away in France fighting for the Government army. His wife, Lady Ann Farquharson had other ideas though. While her husband was away, she raised Clan Chattan for Prince Charles and gave the leadership to Angus MacGillivray of Dunmaglass.
After fighting and winning two major battles (Prestonpans and Falkirk), the retreat of the Jacobite army eventually led them to their final stand at Culloden Moor against the Hanoverian forces on that fateful day of Wednesday 16th April 1746 and the bitter, brutal, crushing defeat of the Jacobite army that was to change Strathnairn forever.
Many are the stories that have been passed down through Strathnairn generations regarding the events surrounding the Battle of Culloden. The overwhelming majority of our Strathnairn fighting men were there at the Battle. It is told that they assembled at Clach An Airm (‘Stone of the Swords’, a prehistoric stone in the woods at Gask – see the “Pictures and Stories” section of this web site) to sharpen their swords and dirks in readiness for the battle. And the marks can still be seen on the stone where our Strathnairn clansmen sharpened their weapons before that fateful event. For most of these men, this would be the last time they would ever see their beloved Strath again.
Despite his superb leadership right through the campaign, on the eve of Culloden, Lord George Murray was demoted from his role of military commander by Charles. The leadership of the Jacobite army was then given to another man by the name of O’Sullivan – whose poor choice of battleground and absence of military skills led to a disastrous outcome for the Jacobites. Frustrated as they waited for the command to charge – while enemy canons were causing death and mayhem to the Highlanders – Clan Chattan took the initiative by breaking rank and leading the charge of the clans from the centre of the front line. The heroism and bravery of our Strathnairn men, in the face of devastating artillery and intense musket fire, was immense. Undeterred by the onslaught against them, they charged forward and burst through the first line of Redcoats only to be faced by overwhelming fire-power from the second line of the Hanoverian army. The cost to our Strathnairn population was incalculable. The dead and wounded of Clan Chattan lay thicker on the field than that of any other clan regiment. In real terms, this was the end of Clan Chattan. The people would remain but the power and spirit of that ancient confederacy of clans was broken forever.
The Battle of Culloden is a painful subject and its effect still lives with our Strath today. For native Strathnairners, the subject of Culloden still scratches a raw nerve. The brutality of the Government troops, as exercised on the people of our Strath, was horrific and unbelievably inhuman. Shaw of Tordarroch did not even support the Rebellion but that did not stop the redcoats killing and butchering his people. Stories have been handed down of atrocities carried out at Crask and below Tordarroch house. Others fled to the hills with their families to suffer a winter of cold, hunger and danger from Redcoat patrols. These were truly terrible times for the ordinary people of Strathnairn.
In time, some semblance of normality was possible once again in the Strath but by this stage the traditional Highland dress of our Strathnairn people had become outlawed by the Government – as was the music of their bagpipes. Possibly the greatest loss to Strathnairn was the emigration to the New World of the middle class of Strath society – the tacksmen. They formed a vital link between the chiefs and the ordinary clansmen. They were the gentleman-farmers, the military captains, who lived in the grand old solid stone farmhouses of places like Gask, Bunachton Mains, Dalcrombie, Craggiemore and the like. With their departure, the structure of Strathnairn society, that had prevailed for many centuries, dissolved. The traditional clan system of Strathnairn had been in decline for around half a century but now it was truly dead.
For some, like William MacGillivray of Dunmaglass, life after Culloden was good. He left the poverty of late 18th Century Strathnairn behind to achieve enormous financial success with his North West Fur Trading company in North America. Some years later, another MacGillivray from Dunmaglass would progress from relative poverty to become the Mayor of Detroit. Many Strathnairners achieved great personal success far across the sea in places like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For those left behind, however, life became oppressive under a system of feudalistic land ownership and harsh economic circumstances. Failed crops would mean famine – and there were a number of devastating famines from the mid 18th Century to the mid 19th Century.
In 1770, Bishop Robert Forbes, author of “A Lyon in Mourning” – an important record of the sufferings of the Jacobites following Culloden – visited Strathnairn. At the Episcopalian chapel at Brin he arrived to find that a large crowd had gathered to see and hear him. However, the chapel only held 500, but nearly 800 had turned up and so preached from a tent as his congregation gathered on the open hillside. He christened about 50 people and confirmed another 330. The obvious popularity of Bishop Forbes in Strathnairn confirms the strength of Episcopalianism that still prevailed in the late 18th Century. Perhaps from this large attendance it can also be concluded that the Jacobite sympathies of Bishop Forbes were still also shared by the people of Strathnairn long after the events of the 1745 Rising?
19TH CENTURY – A TIME OF GREAT CHANGE
Despite the many trials and tribulations endured by the people of Strathnairn in the 19th Century, the population of the Parish of Daviot and Dunlichity grew to (probably) its highest ever level at 1,857 people in the year 1851. Considering the common incidence of famine, infant mortality and loss of young men in foreign wars, this figure gives some indication of population growth in the Strath. Livelihoods were mainly derived from a fragile subsistence agriculture on small plots of marginal land – much of which is now under blanket afforestation or has returned to wild heath and bog. All that remains of many township settlements that had remained for centuries is an outline of stones hidden deep amongst conifers or overgrown on the harsh, heathery hillsides.
For the main estates of Strathnairn, however, the 19th Century was a time of major land improvement. Many acres of marshy flood plain and marginal land were drained by landlords to provide some of today’s best farm-land in the Strath. On the Farr Estate, the River Fearnag was diverted in what must have been a civil engineering project of (by 19th Century standards) major proportions. This dried up an enormous area of the Strath floor to provide a considerable area of good quality cultivable land. As the century progressed, farms grew bigger and the better acres of croft land and smallholdings would often be subsumed by these larger properties as they expanded.
By the early to mid 19th Century a major sea-change in the religious culture and affiliation of the Strathnairn people had taken place. The former strong adherence to Episcopalianism had now given way to Presbyterianism and strongly held Calvinistic beliefs. A further major shift was evident in 1843 following the ‘Disruption’ which gave birth to the Free Church of Scotland.
The overwhelming majority of Strathnairners left the established Church of Scotland to join (or adhere to) the Free Church. The reason for this major split from the Established Church related to the hotly-disputed system of ‘Patronage’ which ensured that – under church law – only feudal superiors were entitled to choose a minister for the parish. The remainder of the population had no say whatsoever in who their minister should be. With this system in place, it was therefore guaranteed that no minister would preach out against injustices perpetrated by the landlords – especially at a time when forced evictions and clearances were prevalent throughout the Highlands. The immense significance of the 1843 Disruption is often lost when considering the history of the Highlands in general, and Strathnairn in particular. What took place here was a ‘cultural (and religious) revolution’ of enormous proportions. For the first time in centuries – and perhaps even in our entire history – the clan chief/landowner was no longer sovereign over the lives of the ordinary people. God alone was now sovereign over the people. From this came a new confidence and freedom that had not previously prevailed amongst the ordinary folk. The clan chief/landowner would continue to be respected and served as diligently as before but his power over the emotions and loyalties – as far as the bulk of the population were concerned – was gone forever.
In 1844, the Rev. Archibald Cook arrived at Farr and remained as minister of the Free Church there until his death in 1865. He was a Gaelic-speaking native of the Isle of Arran and the impact of his years in Strathnairn were immense. Many stories have been passed down to the present day of the huge crowds that would gather to hear his sermons. 900 people would congregate for services on the rocky hillside at Dalvourn to hear his powerful Gospel preaching. Like those who gathered to hear Bishop Forbes several decades before, there were far too many people to fit into the church building. One can only imagine the powerful sound of Gaelic psalm singing as it carried hauntingly across the open landscape of the Strath for some considerable distance. Even his mid-week chatechising sessions would attract crowds of 400 to various barns around the Strath. Despite many hardships, which present-day inhabitants of the Strath would find hard to accept, this was an era that is often looked back on by native Strathnairners as a high point in the history of Strathnairn. Archibald Cook is buried in Dunlichity churchyard and the inscription on his tombstone provides fitting testimony to one of the greatest and most charismatic men ever known to the people of Strathnairn.
Archibald Cook was also reputed to have possessed the gift of prophecy. One of his predictions was that the day would come when Strathnairn would be covered by trees and by water. It is hard to argue that the first part of his prophecy has not come true, given the enormous areas of afforestation that now covers our Strath from one end to the other. The second part, however, is fascinating. Perhaps we may yet witness some large-scale hyrdo-power schemes in Strathnairn along the lines of the flooding at the new Glendoe project? Time alone will tell.
The 1872 Education Act is a landmark in our national history. Many poorer people, whose families were hitherto unable to afford an education, would now benefit from compulsory schooling. However, there were other far-reaching aspects of the Act that would seriously affect the language, culture and identity of the people of Strathnairn and the rest of the Highlands. Prior to 1872 there had been at least two Presbyterian church-run schools in Strathnairn. In common with other similar schools throughout the Highlands, the main language of education would have been Gaelic. However, following hand-over of these schools to the Government authorities, English now became established as the only language of education. The suppression of Gaelic that followed (even where spoken in the playground) was widespread throughout the Highlands and has been renowned for its harshness and brutality. Many are the reports of children suffering severe physical punishment for daring to speak their native language while at school. Gaelic now became stigmatised as an inferior language and was persecuted with such success that the language has been in massive decline in our Strath, and beyond, since the Act of 1872 was implemented. In 1881 there were 991 Gaelic speaking people in Strathnairn. Our last native Gaelic speaker, Duncan MacBean ("Dunc Carn Ban") died in 1984.
The late 19th Century saw a rapid increase in emigration from Strathnairn. Some would simply seek employment and a new start in nearby Inverness but, for many more, the far-off lands of the New World – particularly New Zealand – would be their destiny. The structure of traditional Strathnairn society was changing and the population was now heading for long-term decline. As the 19th Century merged into the 20th, a significant number of the old established aristocratic families were now selling up their estates and leaving the Strath. The MacKintoshes of Farr and Aberarder and the MacGillivrays of Dunmaglass – whose men had led Clan Chattan into battle on many occasions – were now no longer part of Strathnairn society.
20TH CENTURY – THE TWILIGHT YEARS
The war memorial at Daviot makes for poignant reflection. As with so many parishes throughout our land, the 1914-18 War took an enormous toll on the younger generation of Strathnairners. The men who fell in action would have been the fittest, most active and most economically productive Strathnairn men of that time. Their contribution to the life of the Strath would have been immense – had they survived the horrors of Ypres, The Somme, Paschendale, Arras and so many of the other ‘killing fields’ of Europe. But there were other human costs to the people of Strathnairn as a result of ‘The Great War’ besides that awesome list of names on the granite monument at Daviot. There were those who bodies had been badly injured and those whose traumatised minds would never be the same again.
Older Strathnairners would say that World War One was a shattering blow from which Strathnairn society never recovered. An entire generation had been devastated by the War and emigration from the Strath now began to gather pace. Those left behind could see the fabric of their Strath disintegrating as the innocence and vibrancy of a previous era began to disappear. Later, the harsh years of the 1930’s would follow with great depression in the economy of the Strath. Making a living from the land was now no easy matter.
World War Two was not quite as damaging to the Strath population as World War One had been but – tragically – still more names of our young people were added to that fateful granite monument at Daviot. The aftermath of WW2, and subsequent rationing of food, did have the positive effect of boosting the agricultural industry. With the Agriculture Act of 1947 came the enormously popular prospect of ‘security of tenure’ for tenant farmers. With its enforcement in 1950 would finally come the assurance that farm tenants could no longer be removed from their farms at the whim of a landowner. However, what followed for a significant number of long-established Strathnairn farming families was something akin to the “Highland Clearances” of the previous century. On one Strathnairn estate alone, six farming families were removed from their farms before they could enjoy the protection of the new legislation. And for twenty more years, disputes would continue over ‘security of tenure’ between landlord and tenant that would invariably result in the tenant farmer being evicted from his land. The tendency was now for amalgamation of smaller farm units to create even larger estate farms on the basis that these were more efficient and more profitable than smaller farms.
Population decline was steady and continuous through the mid 20th Century. The ‘£10 passage to Australia’ was enough to convince a number of native Strathnairn families that their future prosperity would be better served in that great land ‘Down Under’. In the year 1851, the population of the parish of Daviot and Dunlichity (an area from Dunmaglass to Clava) stood at 1,857 souls. By 1961, the population of the parish was now down to 683 – almost one third of what it had been a century before.
The 1950’s and 1960’s did represent some degree of stability in the life of the Strath – even though the population continued to decline. Agriculture was in good shape, forestry employed a significant number of people (with the Forestry Commission building a number of new houses in the Strath). The estates were well managed by experienced, capable and loyal staff. This period represented a break from the hardships experienced in the decades prior to the 1950’s.
The 1970’s were reasonably healthy with regard to the average family farm and estates continued to employ a significant number of workers. However, forestry became more centralised and fewer people from Strathnairn now made their living from that industry. There were two significant events that were to prove decisive, however, with regard to the population of the Strath. The first was the huge growth of the Highland tourist industry. As estate houses became vacant, there was a greater tendency to let the empty houses as tourist accommodation rather than to workers and their families. Tourism was more profitable than farming and mechanisation had reduced the need to employ as much labour as previously. The second was the abundance of new public sector housing now becoming available, in the mid-seventies, around Inverness. A significant number of Strath families found the appeal of new housing, with modern amenities, hard to resist and left the Strath. Inverness was growing in prosperity with the arrival of oil wealth and good employment prospects at the Arderseir fabrication yard. Urbanisation was growing while rural areas – with their poor bus services, diminishing school rolls and limited access to shops – were becoming less fashionable to live in.
Late one evening in the Spring of 1978, as it was getting dark, this writer stood on the rocky slopes of Creag Nan Gobhair high above Farr. From this vantage-point, almost the entire length of Strathnairn can be viewed – looking south to Dunmaglass and to the north, Daviot. As the dusk progressed, lights from scattered houses could be seen flickering in the distance. What became alarmingly clear, however, was the sparsity of lights that could be seen glowing in the advancing darkness. It was now shockingly apparent just how few houses in Strathnairn were – with the main tourist season not yet underway – actually inhabited on a permanent basis. The lights were, quite literally, going out in Strathnairn. It may well have been the twilight of that particular day – but it was also quite obvious that Strathnairn was now reaching its own twilight. For our Strath, this was the end of a long, long era. The population of Strathnairn appeared to be in terminal decline with not much prospect of recovery for the future.
A NEW BEGINNING – 1980’S TO PRESENT
It is hard to express just how unexpected would be the changes that the 1980’s and subsequent decades would bring to Strathnairn – particularly with regard to population growth. There has been no obvious expansion in the economy of the Strath to substantiate the incredible revival of our population but there are two main reasons – and both are due to external factors. Firstly, the rapid growth of Inverness. The nearby former Burgh (now City) of Inverness has benefited greatly from the oil industry and has become increasingly popular as an administrative and commercial centre – thanks to its strategic location relative the rest of the Highlands. Improved transport links have also been a factor in its growth. With its close proximity to Inverness, Strathnairn has become a very popular residence for commuters. Secondly, the culture of urbanisation of earlier decades has now given way to a growing trend towards rural living - especially with ease of broadband connection and the increase in 'working from home'. A pleasant abode set within the peace and beauty of a Highland strath or glen – and the superior quality of life that it can offer – has become greatly sought after by many who have had enough of the confines and ‘rat-race’ of the congested urban centres of our land.
The Strathnairn of the 21st Century has not only been revived by population growth – there is now a sense of community that makes it quite unique within this part of the Highlands. Thanks to the vision, dedication and hard work of a small band of people (both natives and newcomers) some incredible achievements have been made in our Strath since the turn of the new century.
The community hall at Farr has been an asset of enormous significance to the growth of community spirit within our Strath. Alongside the hall we have one of the best sports pitches in the Highlands, with changing rooms and an excellent sports facility to match. From this focal point an impressive array of events and developments have arisen. The annual Farr Gala formerly drew a large crowd from far and wide. With Boleskine Shinty Club having relocated to Farr we now have shinty in Strathnairn after an absence of more than 60 years. And the traditional music concerts at the hall became nationally renowned for their excellence – drawing some of the biggest names in the traditional music scene.
Culturally, Strathnairn has seen some encouraging recovery in areas where we had previously suffered great loss. Our last native Gaelic speaker (Duncan MacBean – “Dunc Carn Ban” – as referred to earlier in this article) died in 1984. This would have appeared to spell the end of that ancient language of the Gael in Strathnairn. However, there has been quite an exceptional uptake of Gaelic-medium education from younger Strathnairners. There is a significant number of Strathnairn people who are completely fluent in the language. Also, the local Feis has been enormously influential in encouraging young people to learn to play traditional Highland music and sing Gaelic songs.
On a summer’s evening in Farr one can hear the haunting wail of a pibroch as one Strathnairner – a descendant of the ancient chiefs of Clan Chattan and a fluent Gaelic speaker – plays that ancient Highland instrument of war, the bagpipes. On the hillside facing the piper is a workshop where kilts are made in a variety of tartans. The Hanoverian troops may have tried their best to eradicate tartan, bagpipes and the Gaelic language of our Strathnairn people after the Battle of Culloden but one thing is for sure – all three are alive and well in 21st Century Strathnairn!
AND THE NEXT CHAPTER OF OUR HISTORY?
So what does the future hold for our Strath and its people?
Maybe some of us still possess some ancestral genes from those original hunter-gatherers who first discovered Strathnairn back in the mists of time? Perhaps we are descended from the reputedly dark-haired Pictish Strathnairners whose language is long gone but whose place-names still remain in our Strath? Or maybe our ancestors were amongst the brave and fearless warriors of Clan Chattan who led the charge at Culloden? Then again, maybe our connections are from some other location altogether and we are new (or relatively new) to Strathnairn?
What is certain, however, is that all those of us who live (or work, or are involved in community life) in Strathnairn in the 21st Century, in the Third Millenium AD, can be sure of one thing – we are all part of the next chapter of the history of this wonderful part of Planet Earth that we call “Strathnairn”.
William A. Forbes
Milton of Farr, Strathnairn