Mackay Country's History
Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh
As with any historical territory, the extent and boundaries of Mackay Country have changed over the years. At times it has included all of what we now know as the County of Sutherland bar the parish of Assynt and the east coast lands from Dornoch to Helmsdale. In old formal maps and documents the term normally used is ‘Strathnaverne’ or ‘Province of Strathnaver’. The term Dùthaich ‘Ic Aoidh is a more colloquial or everyday description of these lands which were home to Clan Mackay. The map shows the extent of Mackay Country in the early seventeenth century when it was known as ‘Strathnaverne’. It also shows just how small Sutherland was in the 17th century. Compare this with the modern ‘County’ and the civil parishes which make up modern Mackay Country. This information is from a ‘Blaeu’ map, printed in the Netherlands by Joan Blaeu in 1654.
Mapping Mackay Country
The first maps were made by Timothy Pont in the 17th century while he was minister at Dunnet in Caithness. After Timothy Pont’s death Robert Gordon made neater versions which were used as the basis for the Blaeu atlas. His maps which still included some of Pont’s notes and observations.
On the map of Eddrachilles (Edera Cheules) – it says alongside the River Laxford (Avon Luz-foord) ‘Salmond in plenty, and also people found’. In the area north of Sandwood (Sandwat), Gordon has written Pont’s comment ‘Extream wilderness’ and in smaller writing on the edge of this wilderness it states:
‘Verie great plenty of wolfes doo haunt in this desert places.’
On the subject of ‘Strath Navern’ Pont states:
‘This cowntrey conteyneth in lenth 50 myles encluding in Etir-a Chewles [Eddrachilles] as part of it, the breadth of it is 22 myles.’
‘Thir Province is devyded as followeth. First Etyr-a-Chewles seperat westward from Assn, nixt to that east therof is Durenish. More to the east followeth West-Moan then Kuntail, wherein is the lord therof dwelling called Tung. Eastward from it is that part which is cald Strath-naver therby understanding a parcel of the cowntrey not the whol. The last is Hallowdail marching with Catnes.’
Etyr-a-Chewles is Eddrachilles. Durenish is of course Durness. Kintail is the old name for Kyle of Tongue. Tung is Tongue. Hallowdail is modern Halladale and Catnes is Caithness. What were these places like back in the 1600s? Pont says:
‘Thir country is exceedingly well stored with fishes both from the sea and its own rivers, as also of deer, roe and dyvers kinds of wilde beasts, specially heir never lack wolves, more than ar expedient. It is weel stored with wood also, transporting whereof, manie are served of victual and cornis from Catnes, wherin grow abound ance of cornis but indigent of wood.’
So: plenty of fish, wild beasts and trees; Caithness has a lot more corn than the Province of Strathnaver but lacks trees which it imports from Mackay Country.
In 1654 the First Edition of Blaeu’s Atlas novus was finally published. The Atlas was in Latin and Volume V focused on Scotland. As Chris Fleet of the National Library of Scotland notes in his ‘The history behind the publication of the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland’:
‘The publication of Volume V of Blaeu’s Atlas novus was the result of over 70 years of cartographic, chorographic and editorial activity, by a dispersed network of people in Scotland and the Low Countries. Through their combined efforts, dogged by war, poverty, copyright restrictions and only intermittent official support, ‘Scotland became one of the best mapped countries in the world’ (Stone 1989) and the Atlas remains to this day a uniquely significant landmark publication.’ What had the Atlas novus to say about Mackay Country? All that it has to say is written in Latin. Many place names and mountain names are not therefore given in the text because they cannot be translated into Latin.
Of Eddrachilles, it is noted that the name means ‘between two straits’ or kyles. The area is described as:
‘..completely rough with pathless woods and mountains, admitting of cultivation in only a few places; the sea and all the neighbouring parts have fish, the gulfs are rich in herring, the mountains most suited to hunting and fouling, at the small Loch Stack is a wooded area, where all the stags are found with forked tails.’
There are observations too on how the hunting was organised in some corners:
‘On the Isthmus at the promontory Faraid Head, when herds of deer are driven there and trapped by an encircling crowd of men and by the sea, and dogs are let loose among them, there is pleasant and productive hunting.’
Although there is precious little cultivable land, when compared to Sutherland (as it was then) with its good east coast soils, it is noted that the ground is well suited to pastoralism and there are therefore herds of horses, cattle and goats and ‘there is no scarcity of fish, meat or milk products’.[8
Who and What Was There Before the Mackays?
The First Settlers
The Mesolithic period is from 7000BC to 4000BC. These people were nomadic. They used simple bone and stone tools and lived as hunter-gatherers. As a result of the long legacy of the Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago, the Mesolithic people were the first humans who definitely lived this far north. The Mesolithic period covers 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. Traces of these people have been found in Sutherland and Caithness.
The Neolithic period covers 4000BC to 2000BC. These people were farmers and lived in permanent settlements. As well as stone implements, they had pottery. The Neolithic people lived in this area over 4,000 years ago. The evidence of their presence is plentiful. Strathnaver exhibits many signs of this – for instance, the chambered cairns at Achanlochy and Skelpick. These cairns were used as collective burial chambers.
The Bronze Age
The Bronze Age was from 2000BC to 500BC. Burial was in individual stone kists. Bronze was used and tools and weapons had been improved. So too had the pottery. The settlements were in groups of round houses – today the remains are seen as hut circles. A stone circle which dates from the Bronze Age can be found at Dalharrold near the top of Strathnaver. A Bronze Age artefact, ‘The Chealamy Beaker’, which is over 4,000 years old, can be seen in Strathnaver Museum. Bronze Age burials differed from Neolithic burials as they sometimes contained grave-goods. An earthenware beaker was found alongside skeletal remains in the burial kist.
The Iron Age
The Iron Age was from 500BC to 500AD. This is when the first Celts arrived. They were later known as Picts. At the end of the Iron Age, the Gaelic-speaking Scots arrived to settle on the south-west mainland.
Strathnaver would have been punctuated by ‘Brochs’ in the Iron Age – 100BC to 100AD. These were tower-shaped stone structures. They were impressive defensive buildings sited in strategic positions the length of the Strath. The ruins can be seen today. At this time, the Romans were in control of a large part of Europe. They recorded that the inhabitants of Scotland were a Celtic people known as the Caledonians, described as a war-like race, whose mode of social organisation was tribal and who would fight amongst themselves. It is thought, despite their internal factions, a huge army was raised to face the Roman Legionnaires. Despite victory for the Romans, they did not try to invade Scotland again. The proud creators of the Brochs in Strathnaver could well have been roused to join forces in this battle.
The Picts have been described as sociable people who enjoyed music and storytelling and lived from their land. Craftspeople and artists would have been integral in their community. These creative qualities were to remain as the centuries moved on.
The Columban Church
The area became home to Celtic Missionaries from Ireland. Their influence and presence is confirmed by the existence of place-names directly linked to this time. Eilean Neave, near Skerray, can be interpreted as Island of the Saints and Coomb Island is thought to mean the island of St. Columba. Near to Strathtongue is Loch Cormaic. This is named after a cleric of the Christian faith, much like the Red Priest in Strathnaver. These people or people like them brought Christianity to the north at around 600AD.
The Viking Period was from 800 AD to 1200 AD. The Vikings came from lands to the north and west of Scotland. An aggressive campaign was conducted by these Norsemen, invading lands, pillaging and killing in order to expand their territories. Although evidence of the presence of these people on the north coast is scarce it is believed that they would have lived here for hundreds of years. Archaeological discoveries at Durness and throughout Caithness provide physical evidence and the influence of the Nordic language, particularly on place-names, is strong.
 Pont Map 11 The draught of Edera Cheules, lying betwixt Strath-Navern and Assin, gathered out of Mr Timothee Pont his papers who travailed and descryved the same. By R Gordon 1636.
 Pont 1 – 129v – 130 Transcription of text. National Library of Scotland website – Timothy Pont’s Maps. Text largely derived from Stone, J C 1898 The Pont Manuscript Maps of Scotland Map Collector Ltd.
 as above
 as above
 Fleet, C The history behind the publication of the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, National Library website
 From Eddrachilles: A New Description – Camden.