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STRATHNAVER

At present, by Strathnaver is meant the strath along the river Naver from Lochnaver to the sea, but at an earlier period it was the name of an extensive tract of country in the north western quarter of the province of Caithness. In the tract De situ Albani (1165) it is stated, upon the authority of Andrew, Bishop of Caithness, that this province was the seventh in Scotland and was divided in the midst by the range of the Ord mountains. [Septima enim pars et Cathanesia citra montem et ultra montem, quia mons Mound dividit Cathauesiam. - Chronicles of the Picts and Scots]

That is to say the range which runs from Helmsdale to Cape Wrath divided the province in two. In the Brevis descriptio Regni Scotii (1292), Caithness is described as 24 leagues in length by 40 in breadth. [Deinde est terra de Cateneys longitudmem XXIIII. leucarum et latitudinem XL. - Chronicles of the Picts and Scots]

On an examination of the map it will be seen that the distance between John O'Groat's in the north and Creich in the south, its length, is to the distance between John O'Groat's and Cape Wrath, its breadth, as 24 is to 40. When Bishop Gilbert divided the diocese of the province into its fourteen parishes about 1225, it consisted practically of what are now known as the counties of Caithness and Sutherland, with the exception of the parish of Assint which pertained to the province of Ross [Origines Parochiales Scotia]. In course of time the name Caithness came to be applied to that part now called the county of Caithness; the parishes of Kildonan, Loth, Golspie, Rogart, Lairg, Creich, and Dornoch were embraced in the geographical unit Suderland, the south-land; and Edderachilis, Durness, Kintail of Tongue, and Farr, the old dolum Cathanensi, formed the unit Strathnaver, while Assint formed part of Ross.

[Strathnaver is the Nabarus of Ptolmey's map. Farr, Farrar, and Farr, the two latter in Inverness-shire, come from the same root, which is probably Pictish. Assint derives its name from St. Assin, a Columban, who had dedications in Skye, Easter-Ross, etc. Edderachilis means between the two kyles. Durness, which appears under the forms Diurness, Deerness, etc., is a Norse word. Tongue is Norse, a tongue. Kintail is a Gaelic compound, ceann sail, head of the salt water.]

In the contract between King Charles I and John, Earl of Sutherland, for the resignation of the regality of Sutherland, dated 18th Jul 1631, the eastern boundary of Strathnaver at the north sea is described as being "the strip called Fae-Halladale which divides Strathnaver from Caithness". [Dates and Documents] This Fae runs along Drumholstein overlooking the valley of Halladale, and is to this day the march between Caithness and Strathnaver, or what is now sometimes called the land of MacKay. Cordiner, in his letters of 1776, states that he entered Strathnaver shortly after leaving Sandside, on his way to Bighouse at the foot of the Halladale valley. It is thus made clear that the eastern boundary of Strathnaver is Drumholstein. The western boundary is the march between Assint and Edderachilis. Hector Boece, whose History of Scotland was published in 1526, describes the western boundary thus: - "merchant with Ross lyis Stranavern, the outmaist boundis of Scotland: of quhilk the se cost lyis north-north-west, and crukis in agane sometime fornens Almani [Minch] seis". Hollinshead's Chronicles, dated about 1572, state, "next unto the said Ros lieth Stranawrae, as the uttermost region of Scotland, the coasts whereof abutting for a while upon the Deucalidon sea" [Minch]. Various old maps also show Strathnaver marching on the west coast with Assint, the northmost part of Ross at an early period.

In the Charter of Regality by James VI to the Earl of Sutherland, 29th Apr 1601, the lands of Eriboll and Strathmore in Durness, and also the lands of Edderachilis, are described as "lying in Strathnaver".[Dates and Documents] In the Disposition by Donald, Lord Reay, to Hugh MacKay of Scoury. the 27 Jun 1634, of the lands of Kylestrome, Douartmoir, Douartbeg, Geiskill, Badcall, Skouriemoir, Skouricbcg, Tarbat, etc., these places are described as "the said lands of Edderachilis all lyand within the parochin of Ardierness in Strathnaver" [Reay Papers]. In the agreement of 1638 between John, bishop of Caithness, and Lord Reay for the erection of the parish of Kintail, Durness is described as a part of the "countrie of Strathnaver". In various documents Appendix No 39 among the Reay Papers lands in Edderachilis and Durness are said to lie in Strathnaver, and nothing to the contrary is ever met with in any of these papers. Sir Robert Gordon, however, repeatedly and persistently says, without giving any authority whatever, that Edderachilis and Durness were not parts of Strathnaver, and that Strathnaver was practically limited to the parish of Farr. Sir Robert had an evident motive in so saying: he sought to lessen the importance of the territorial designation "MacKay of Strathnaver". It is ever so with Sir Robert; but the facts given by us, and to which we could add considerably by quotations from documents among the papers of the Reay family, are all against him.

The boastful supercilious tone of the Earldom of Sutherland is unfortunately adopted in Dates and Documents, etc., of Sutherland (1852), by Mr. James Loch, commissioner to the Duke of Sutherland. In the latter book the charter of regality given by King James to the Earl of Sutherland in 1601, in which the lands of Strathnaver were included, is printed off with great eclat; although it is well known since the Sutherland peerage case that this charter of regality was granted by the king, on the representation that the Sutherland family is lineally descended from Margaret, daughter of King Robert Bruce. As the only son of this marriage died without issue, the 1601 charter of regality to Sutherland, which involved superiority over MacKay, was obtained upon a false statement. Mr. Loch, who knew this well, might have fluttered the said charter with a little less air of triumph. In the same book Mr. Loch, after noticing the charter of King James IV to Iye Roy MacKay of 4th Nov. 1499, proceeds, "after this date the family of MacKay are generally styled of Strathnaver, having been previously styled in Strathnaver". This emphatic statement is not only uncalled for, but is at the same time notoriously untrue. The said Iye MacKay had a Precept Appendix No 6 from the said king, dated 18th Jul 1496, in which he is designed "Odo McKy de Straithnauer". Eighty years earlier still, Angus Du MacKay, in the charter of 1415 by Donald Lord of the Isles, is styled "de Strathnawir". And again in 1427, when Angus appeared before the king at Inverness, he is called Angus Duf or Makgye of Straithnavern [Bowar]. This system of glorifying one family at the expense of another is not only unfair, but is sure to provoke reprisals. The Book of Sutherland (3 Vols., 1892), by Sir William Fraser, is written in an excellent spirit as might be expected from this well-known author; and he has often to contradict the partisan statements, as well as to condemn the tone of Sir Robert Gordon, whom Mr. Loch unhappily aspired to emulate.

In 1539 the king granted in heritage to Donald MacKay the lands of Strathnaver, together with Dirlet, Cattack, and Broinach all in Caithness, Kilcalumkill of Strabrora, Kinald, and Golspie in Sutherland; when all these lands were erected into the free barony of Farr [Origines Parochiales Scotia II, 710]. From that date till the family was dignified, the chiefs of MacKay were sometimes designated of Farr, and sometimes of Strathnaver.

Durness, says Sir Robert Gordon, "is not a portion of Strathnaver, neither hath MacKay as yet the heritable right thereof Duirness is the bishop of Catheyness his propertie, and was given of late in feu by the bishops of that diocie to the Erles of Sutherland." Sir Robert takes several liberties with truth in this quotation, but we shall only refer to one of them meantime. Durness was not the property of the bishop of Caithness, but the church owned fifteen davochs of land in the said parish, viz., Gauldwall, Keoldale, Cranega, Borley, Slanis, Alshermor, Alsherbeg, Sandwood, Carrowgarve, and Carnnmannach [Reay Papers and Orig. Par, Scot. II, 703]. This is but a mere fraction of the extensive parish of Durness, and any claim which the Earl of Sutherland may have acquired to this portion, he obtained from his brother-in-law, Robert Stewart, Bishop of Caithness, afterwards Earl of Lennox, whose sister Eleanor became the second wife of Sutherland. To legalise this marriage a dispensation from the Pope had to be obtained, as Lady Eleanor had a bastard son some time previously. The Sutherland family often found Papal dispensations handy, while on the other hand the MacKays neglected to make use of what would have often saved them from a deal of trouble. Of this marriage Sir William Fraser says, "the church lands of Caithness were at this time somewhat a bone of contention among the neighbouring landowners, and probably this fact had some influence in the promotion of the marriage" [Sutherland Book I, 108].

The earliest holder of land in Strathnaver of whom we have documentary evidence was Lady Joanna de Strathnaver, who bestowed the lands of Langdale, Rossal, the Tofts of Dovyr, Achness, Clibrig, Ardovyr, Corynafearn, and four other davochs of land in Strathnaver, on the church of Moray. [Cart. Mor. No 126, 263]. This lady was dead before 1269. She married Freskin de Moravia, and bore him a daughter who married Reginald Chein. The said daughter eventually brought these lands to her husband Chein. These lands are frequently designated in the earlier documents among the Reay Papers as Kerrow na Shein, Chein's quarter. Dr. Skene surmised that Lady Joanna was a daughter of Earl John, son of Harold Madadson of Caithness, and that she was a hostage of the king who gave her in marriage to Freskin de Moray. Sir William Fraser shows that this could not be: Matilda was the name of the hostage daughter of the Earl of Caithness. Who Joanna was we cannot say; but there is no doubt that the de Morays tried to get a grip of lands in these quarters by this marriage, and it is clear that for some generations the said lands were a bone of contention between the Moray of Duffus and MacKay families.

On the north coast of Strathnaver there are three islands in close proximity. Isle Colme lies on the west side of Naver bay, and had once an extensive Columban ecclesiastical establishment. Close by, and further west, lies Rona isle, which also had an ecclesiastical institution dedicated to St. Rona, as its name implies. Still further west, and lying athwart the bay of Tongue, is Ellan nan Gall, island of the strangers. It was from these islands that the Columbans endeavoured to christianise Strathnaver in early times, and these institutions lying close by the Naver bay indicate not only the comparative importance of the place, but may also serve to show how one strath came to give its name to a whole territory. But why two ecclesiastical institutions so close to one another as those on the islands Colme and Rona ? They were rival institutions. Dr. Maclauchlan in his Early Scottish Church and Dr. Skene in his Celtic Scotland show that about 720 A.D. a schism took place in the church of Iona, one party cleaving to the old way, and the other party, headed by St. Ronan, diverging Romewards. The division in course of time became so pronounced that rival establishments were set up in close proximity to the older ones by the followers of St. Ronan. Thus, close by the mouth of the Naver, the Columbans held forth on one island and the Romish Ronans held forth on the other.

On the east bank of the Naver, and about half a mile from the sea, stood once the strongly fortified Tor an Tigh vor, the Bighouse heap. About half a mile further up, and on the opposite side, there was once the flourishing Balmargait, Margaret's town. Just below this town the river forms into the deep sheltered lagoon, Pol na Marraich mor, the Lagoon of the great Seamen, where the boats of the Norsemen were wont to lie in safety. On a rock, Ca an Duin, above the town may be seen the ruins of a round-tower; and in the year 1900, after a severe storm which blew away the sand, the present writer was able to trace at least four similar round-towers placed in various positions around, and presumably for the defence of the said town. The ruins of Balmargait and the institutions on the islands in the neighbourhood already referred to, clearly indicate that there was once upon a time more life along the valley of the Naver than there is now.

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