The Coast Line: Coastal Gains and Losses

On the west the coast scenery possesses striking grandeur. From Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath the bold and lofty cliffs rising from the water's edge form the haunts and breeding places of great numbers of gulls, cormorants, guillemots, razor-bills, and other sea birds. The numerous islands between Loch Inchard and Stoer, of which the largest are Oldany and Handa, give scenic variety and serve to shelter the coast. Lochinver, Badcall Bay, Loch Laxford, and Loch Inchard provide harbourage for large steamers while smaller craft use Loch Kirkaig and the bays of Stoer, Culkein, Clashnessie, Nedd, Scourie and Kinlochbervie. The largest inlet is Loch A' Chairn Bhain separating Assvnt from Eddrachillis. This loch narrows at Kylesku to less than 400 yards, then expands into two branches, Lochs Glendhu and Glencoul, each penetrating some 10 miles into the land.

The north coast, besides the larger Kyles, possesses smaller inlets still frequented by fishing craft, such as Sango Bay and Rispond Bay, between the Kyles of Durness and Eriboll, and the bays of Torrisdale, Farr, Swordly, Kirtomy, Armadale, Strathy, and Bighouse, between the Kyle of Tongue and Drumhollistan. Loch Eriboll, a deep water loch along its whole extent, forms a useful harbour of refuge for shipping. Though islands are less numerous on the north than on the west, there are a few off the Kyles of Eriboll and Tongue. On Eilan Hoan at the mouth of Loch Eriboll and on Corrie-Eilan towards the south end of that inlet are situated old burial grounds. Like those on Oldany and Handa, those date back to a time when the wolves infesting Reay Forest and the Assynt Mountains prowled in winter about the churchyards. Naomh Eilan (the Isle of Saints) lies off Torrisdale Bay. One of the natural wonders of the north coast is the cave of Smoo at Durness.

The only indentation of the south-east coast line is the shallow estuary of Loch Fleet. No bold rocky headlands, or stacks, occur on the sandy south-cast coast. Dornoch Point and the headland of Ardnacalc are simply projecting banks of sand, while the banks known as the "gizzen brigs" block the entrance to Dornoch Firth.

The rugged western and northern coasts have been little affected since the glacial period by upheaval or subsidence. Oldany, Handa, and the other western islands are the summits of gigantic elevations rising from the archaean rock bed which was submerged in some remote geological epoch. The south-east coast is mainly composed of Old Red Sandstone and later rocks worn to sand by denudation. Raised beaches run along this coast from Helmsdale to Bonar bridge, indicating upheaval of the land in or since the glacial period. The extensive tidal banks in the outer Firth of Dornoch and in Spinningdale Bay were formed partly by upheaval followed by extensive denudation and partly by accumulation of silt. Sandbanks in the Kyles of Tongue and Durness have been fanned in the same way. Oolite and other newer rocks along the seaboard of Clyne have also been wasted into shelving beaches of sand. The older rock formations provide numerous good natural harbours on the west and north coasts, while on the sandy Moray Firth coast harbour accommodation has been a standing difficulty. Embo, the chief fishing village in the county in point of population, has but paltry fishing returns mainly owing to the want of a decent harbour.

When the Mound was constructed in 1811-12, a considerable stretch of haugh land was recovered from the sea. Soon afterwards the Lonemore of Dornoch was drained and the lochs and bogs of Crakaig in Loth were reclaimed so as to form one of the best farms in the county.

The lights at Cape Wrath and Stoerhead serve for the navigation of the Minch. Cape Wrath light is an alternating white and red light visible for 27 miles. The light on Stoerhead, which is a white light visible for sixty seconds and eclipsed for thirty seconds alternately, has a range of 20 miles. The main light on the east coast is at Tarbetness in Ross, but there are minor lights at the piers of Embo and Golspie (lighted when boats are at sea); at the north side of Little Ferry (visible for 3 miles); and at the north pier of Helmsdale.


One of the most striking features in the climate of Sutherland is the contrast between the mild humidity of the western basin, with its balmy Atlantic breezes and the cold northerly and north-easterly winds experienced in the northern and eastern districts, particularly during the spring months. This humidity arises from the fact that the vapour-laden Atlantic winds become cooled on striking the western hills and the vapour condenses into rain. Westerly winds prevail in winter and spring, producing an average annual rainfall in the north-west districts of 60 inches, while in the northern district it is 36 inches and in the southeast only 31 inches. In the west rain falls on an average upon two hundred days in the year. On the other hand Dornoch and the south-cast of the county is reckoned to be within the dry belt of eastern Scotland. Owing to the prolonged spring winds the mean annual temperature in this district is only about 45 deg F.

The summer in Sutherland is short, and early autumn frosts often prove harmful to crops, especially in those narrow glens where the high mountains exclude sunshine for a great part of the day. Mr James Loch states that early autumn frosts caused havoc to potato and corn crops in the old days before rotation. On the high lands of the interior winter is frequently severe. Snow lies long not only on the hills but even on the lower ridges, so that the Crask has ever been a terror to travellers in the winter season.

People: Race, Language, and Population

The story of the early races in Sutherland - from primeval days to the corning of the Scots - is practically the same as in Caithness.

The Scots, who had settled in Argyll and the Isles, gradually spread northwards and eastwards into the country beyond the Oykell. Though Gaelic was introduced into Argyll within the Roman period, probably it did not extend into Sutherland until the seventh century, when the Columban missionaries settled among the northern Picts. By the Columban missionaries Gaelic was employed in religious services and a knowledge of the language was communicated to the native Picts, whose ancestral tongue gradually became extinct. Gaelic supplanted Pictish much in the same way as English is now supplanting Gaelic. At the arrival of the Norse in the ninth century Gaelic was the language of the people. A large proportion of the place names then in use were Gaelic, though a few Pictish names of places (such as Pitgrudy and Pitfour) still survive in the county. In the thirteenth century Bishop Gilbert translated the Psalms into Gaelic for the use of the people. In 1544 at the Baillie Court at Dunrobin letters of charge were read to the tenants of the earldom enjoining them to pay terce to the dowager-countess. The letters were first read in English and then explained to the people in Gaelic by interpreters.

A century ago Gaelic was still the language in general use in the county though English was the official language. The first inflow of a goodly number of English-speaking people took place after 1809, and by 1871 more than one-fifth of the people spoke English only. The introduction of board schools and the construction of the Sutherland Railway after 1872 caused a rapid spread of English. In 1911 out of a total population of 20,179 there were 11,651 persons acquainted with Gaelic and English, and 188 acquainted with Gaelic only.

Fully one-fifth of the present population of the county is extraneous. In 1911 there were 4201 persons enumerated whose birthplace was outwith the county, compared with 3957 in the year 1901. The extraneous population is increasing while the indigenous is steadily decreasing, at an even greater rate than the increase of the other class.

There have been within the historic period several migrations into Sutherland from other parts of Scotland. The Norse, who settled in the tenth and eleventh centuries, occupied the best arable land on the east coast and along the Oykell, while they also possessed a few settlements all the north and west coasts. Centuries later the Gunns, a tribe of Norse extraction, migrated from Caithness into Kildonan. In the reign of David I the Mackays, after the rebellion of Malcolm Macheth, migrated from Moray and settled in Strathnaver and Reay. A later migration from Moray took place at the end of the twelfth century, when the Murrays were brought over by Hugo, son of Freskyn de Moravia. The Murrays, the native Sutherlands and the Mackays remained the leading families in the county until the early part of the sixteenth century, when the Gordons came over from Strathbogie in the train of Adam Gordon, son of Lord Huntly, who on his marriage in 1509 to the Countess of Sutherland assumed the title of Earl of Sutherland. Between 1815 and 1830 came an inflow of shepherds and border farmers from the south of Scotland as a result of the introduction of pastoral farming into the county. A century ago the population of Sutherland consisted almost entirely of those whose ancestors had occupied lands in it for many generations, while to-day the indigenous inhabitants form little more than half of the population.

Sutherland is the most thinly peopled county in the British Isles, having only ten persons to the square mile, while Inverness-shire, the next most sparsely peopled county, contains twenty-one to the square mile. While Sutherland is fifth in size among Scottish counties in population it is twenty-eighth.