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Communications - Past and Present

Prior to 1807 there were no roads in Sutherland and no bridges except Brora Bridge. From the Meikle Ferry to the Ord a horse track ran along the sea-shore, and by similar tracks Strathnaver and Assynt communicated with the ferries at Portinlick and Bonar, but no wheeled vehicles were in use in any part of the county. The access to Sutherland from the south of Scotland was mainly by sea. On the mainland the county was reached by the Meikle Ferry (Gaelic Port a' Choltair), Bonar Ferry (Gaelic Am Bhannath) and Portinlick (Gaelic Port na-Lice). At these ferries the droves of cattle for Falkirk trysts and other southern markets swam the Kyle in their southern journey. It was currently believed among the people in these old days that if an ox readily took to the water and crossed the ferry without turning back it would be sure to fetch a good price at the market.

The Sutherland portion of the road from Inverness to Thurso (which traverses the east coast from Bonar by Evelix, and the Mound to the Ord) was completed in 1812-13, when the Kyle was spanned by the Bonar bridge. Within twenty years from that date upwards of 400 miles of roads were constructed throughout the county. Roads were formed from Bonar by Lairg to Scourie and Durness, as well as to Tongue and Strathnaver. The road to Lochinver by Oykell Bridge and Inchnadamph brought Assynt into touch with the east of Scotland while that from Helmsdale by Forsinard to Melvich, as well as the north coast road from Melvich by Bettyhill and Tongue to Durness, connected the Reay country with easter Sutherland and Caithness. Useful roads were also made about the same time from Bonar by Loch Buidhe to the Mound, from Lairg to Rogart and from Rogart by Sciberscross to Brora. Scourie was connected with Assynt by the road to Kylescu Ferry, which was continued so as to join the Lochinver road at Skiag Bridge. Though these roads were adequate for the traffic in the county at the time they were constructed, they had not sufficient depth or strength of crust to bear heavy traffic. They were, however, a great boon to the people of the county. In 1819 a mail-coach began to run from Tain to Thurso with a daily service of mails, and from that time regular daily intercourse with the south of Scotland gradually extended to the remoter parts of the county.

The advent of motor traffic towards the end of last century soon put a great strain upon the Sutherland roads. Between 1900 and 1915 the outlay upon these roads increased fourfold and now amounts to about £12,000 per annum, or one-eighth of the whole rental of Sutherland. Since the creation of the national Road Board in 1910, advances have been received by the county from the Board for strengthening and draining the roads and for improving the crust so as to bear the greatly-increased traffic. It cannot, however, be said that the road problem in Sutherland has yet been solved. The upkeep of fully 500 miles of roads with much extraneous traffic is too great a burden to impose upon the local resources, even with such help as is now given from central funds.

The Sutherland Railway from Ardgay to Helmsdale was constructed by the third Duke of Sutherland in 1870, and was extended in 1872 (as the Sutherland and Caithness Railway) by Kildonan and Forsinard into Caithness. These railways were afterwards absorbed into the system of the Highland Railway Company. The small gauge railway from Dornoch to the Mound was constructed in 1896 and, though worked by the Highland Railway Company, has continued its career as a separate concern. While the eastern part of the county thus acquired improved access to the south of Scotland, the northern and western portions continued for many years to depend upon horse traction of mails and passenger until the introduction of motor power early in the present century. There is now a motor service from Lairg station to Lochinver, to Scourie, and to Tongue, while the villages on the north coast are in regular motor communication with Thurso.

Administrative Divisions

With two exceptions - Tongue and Eddrachillis, disjoined from Durness in 1726 - the parishes of Sutherland, which are the oldest administrative units, date from the second quarter of the thirteenth century. Until the beginning of the sixteenth century the territorial administration was exclusively ecclesiastical. The judicial authority of the barons was limited to their own lands, and the limits of the jurisdiction of the sheriff courts established at Dornoch in 1503 remained undefined. The right of "regalaty, sheriffship, and crownerie" of the new shire of Sutherland was made over in 1631 to the Earl of Sutherland, in whose family it remained until the abolition of heritable jurisdictions in 1747. The new shire was represented in the Scots Parliament in 1639 by Robert Murray of Spinningdale, whose brother, Walter Murray of Pitgrudie, sat for the burgh of Dornoch in the same year.

After the outbreak of the Civil War the authorities in 1643 found it necessary to constitute Commissioners in each shire for providing supplies for the Scots army. These Commissioners of Supply soon proved useful county authorities for general purposes and continued to fulfil a variety of public duties until the introduction of representative government in 1889. Since that date county administration (including the control of roads, public health, licensing, and police) is under the charge of a popularly elected County Council and various County Committees. For road and public health administration, Sutherland, like several of the smaller counties, forms a single district.

The Court of Lieutenancy of the Lord-Lieutenant was established on its modern basis by the provisions of the Militia Act of 1802. The military powers of the Lord-Lieutenant were transferred to the crown in 1871 but restored in 1907 when the territorial forces were reorganized. The Sutherland Territorial Association administers in peace time the local squadron of the Lovat Scouts Yeomanry and the Fifth Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Boards for the administration of poor relief were constituted in each of the thirteen parishes in the county by the Poor Law Act of 1845. After a useful career of half a century these parochial boards were, in 1894, replaced by elective parish councils. The county combination poorhouse at Bonar bridge, provided in 1870, was never a popular institution, as the people prefer the freedom of cottage life. The introduction of old age pensions in 1908 was followed by a fall in the number of persons in need of parochial relief.

Prior to 1872 there were parish schools and one or more Free Church schools in every parish. After the constitution of School Boards under the Education Act improved schools were created throughout the county and there are now fifty-six efficient public schools in Sutherland, while Higher Grade Schools have been provided at Dornoch, Golspie, Brora, Helmsdale, Lairg, and Durine. The Golspie Technical School, under private management, is a residential institution endowed with a number of bursaries. The county Education Authority provides bursaries for higher education leading to the universities and to central institutions. There is an advisory committee in connection with the work of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture.

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