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Assynt Throughout History

Assynt Through the Ages
Early Hunters
Despite its rugged and barren appearance, Assynt has been settled for many thousands of years. From about 5000 BC, Assynt was largely covered by woodland and was probably home to small groups of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, although no direct evidence of their presence ha s yet been found. They probably concentrated on the coast but no doubt ventured inland to hunt and fish.

The Beginnings of Farming The first farmers appeared in the North around 4000 BC when the herding of livestock brought more permanent settlement at a time when the climate was warmer and drier than it is now. Between 30 and 40 Chambered Cairns built by these Neolithic people survive in Assynt – one of the largest concentrations anywhere in the country. The cairns cann all be found in the areas of more productive ground in the zone of Cambrian limestone and associated rocks running from Achmore in the north to Knockan in the south west and to beyond Loch Borralan in the southeast. The Creag nan Uamh ‘Bone Caves’ at Stronchrubie were also used as a burial place during this period. See Loch Borralan Chambered Cairn

Bronze, Bathing and Round Houses
By about 2,400BC Assynt’s people are likely to have adopted cereal production alongside livestock farming and their settlements are indicated by small clusters of Round Houses and associated enclosures, some of which can still be found in secluded places away from later agricultural development. There are also a few small burial cairns from this period and a number of burnt mounds which were probably used as sweat lodges and/or bathing sites. See Stronchrubie Burnt Mound. A bronze axe was found near Ledbeg in the late 18th century but its current whereabouts are unknown. From about 1500BC the climate declined, becoming colder and wetter with peat expansion. Settlement contracted and some areas were probably abandoned.

Monumental Homes
Perhaps because of the stress put upon communities and families as the climate worsened there seems to have a growing tendency to build more massive round houses and in the Iron Age from about 500BC this resulted in a remarkable concentration of monumental houses on promontories and both natural and man made islands, each associated with a substantial area of good land. Assynt has about 10 such structures, most of them on the coast and close to a good landing beach. On top pf the split rock at Clachtoll are the remains of a wall made of stones fused together under intense heat, a process known as vitrification and close by is Assynt’s largest and most imposing iron Age site, Clachtoll Broch. There are also a number of Crannogs (large round houses on artificial islands) on inland lochs suggesting that the coastal distribution of so many Iron Age sites may give a misleading impression of overall settlement in Assynt at this time.

Viking names and Christian Crosses
Nothing much is known about Assynt in the Dark Ages. The structures of the Iron Age probably continued in use and several place names tell us that the Norse speakers made a significant impact in the area, not only along the coast (Unapool and Ullapool), but also inland (Traligill and Calda) and a pin of walrus ivory of Viking or early Medieval date was found in the ‘Bone Caves’. Fragments of a very large Christian Cross which may date to the 9th century can be seen in the Old Parish Church at Inchnadamph and a triangular boulder with two small incised crosses now lies in the burial ground close to the bridge in Lochinver. The Bronze Age Burnt Mound at Stronchrubie produced some finds from this early medieval period suggesting a period of re-use and results are keenly awaited from a recent excavation at the moated site close to the Old Church which may have originated in this period. Pics of Inch Cross, Lochinver Cross and Moat under excavation

Cattle Raids and Control of Assynt
Legend suggests that Assynt was granted to a family called MacNichol by an un-named Thane of Sutherland after they had chased cattle raiders out of Assynt and regained the Thane’s herds, but control soon passed to the MacLeod’s of Lewis. In 1343 this was formalised when David II granted Torquil MacLeod a charter of the lands of Assynt in return for the service of a 20-oared Hebridean galley. This was one of several land grants made by the Scottish king to West Highland chieftains in an attempt to exert his rights in the Highlands and secure their allegiance during the Wars of Independence with England. The MacLeods seem to have two strongholds on Loch Assynt: on an island near the southern shore known as Eilean Assynt, and on the peninsula at Ardvreck where the later castle was built. The moated site next to the church may also have been used by them at this time. Towards the end of the 15th century the first Ardvreck Castle was built and was subsequently extended a century later. It was the site of many violent acts during the inter-family feuding of the MacLeods. By the early 17th century the MacKenzies had ousted the MacLeods from Lewis and raided Assynt in an attempt to gain control of the parish, but it was not until the restoration of Charles II that they were actually able to get their way. During the Civil War the wife of Neil MacLeod of Assynt captured the Royalist commander, the Marquis of Montrose and imprisoned him in Ardvreck Castle from where he was taken to Edinburgh for execution. In the years following the Restoration the Mackenzies took advantage of the changed political climate to blacken Neil’s name and acquire Assynt

Extravagance and Downfall
The MacKenzie’s of Assynt soon proved incapable of holding on to the estate they had spent more than a century trying to get their hands on. Deserting the old castle they built Calda House as an extravagant classical mansion in 1726 and sought to live there in what they thought of as an appropriate style, but bankruptcy and internal family politics soon led to the destruction of the house by fire in 1737 in order that it should never be lived in by the Sutherland family who had been carefully preparing the ground for a takeover. Despite all efforts of the MacKenzies, Assynt was bought by the Sutherland family in 1757.

Sheep and Clearances
The huge Sutherland estates initially held back from creating sheep farms, but the reluctance of the people to enlist in the landlord’s regiment led to a change of policy and the first Clearances in Assynt took place in 1812 when Assynt was reorganised into five large sheep farms. Resentment and anger led in 1813 to a riot over the appointment of a church minister thought to be favourable to the clearances. However the policy continued and between 1812 and 1821 over 160 families were evicted, most of whom were moved into the already crowded coastal townships. Throughout Assynt there are extensive remains of pre –clearance settlements. See Glenleraig Longhouse

Crofting and Community Ownership
After the clearances the surviving settlements were re-organised into crofts. Instead of a cluster of houses in the centre of communally worked fields each family was allocated its own plot of land (croft) on which to build houses and outbuildings. The land was not enough to provide a living for the family who had top undertake other occupations like fishing and specialist crafts, but many sought to emigrate to a better life across the oceans. From the mid-nineteenth century, the population of Assynt continued to fall as young people went south to the cities or abroad in search of greater opportunities. Since the First World War, Assynt has experienced change on a scale greater than ever before. However in recent years Assynt has become renowned for several community buy-outs the first of which was the much publicised purchase by the Assynt Crofters purchase of the North Assynt Estate.
Inchnadamph Bone Caves
Loch Borralan Chambered Cairn
Cnoc an Each Roundhouse
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