Self-guided Walks

From a reprt on a study by Dr. Issie Macphail

These are short routes which can be done pleasantly in a day on foot or by bike, with a picnic.

 

1. The Stories of Strathmore

2. Rob Donn’s Banishment: Fresgill

3. Rob Donn’s Delight: Glengolly

1. The Stories of Strath More
Until the late eighteenth century Strathmore was far more heavily populated than today, when only one family lives in the strath, one in the keeper’s house at the mouth of the strath and one other at Goberneisgeach. Historically Strathmore provides the nerve centre of travel and communications across north west Sutherland.  The many hill routes which criss cross the glens, bealachs and straths in the north link and intersect in Strathmore.  It is not surprising therefore that what we might call the ‘originary’ stories of Mackay Country are all based in Strath More.  The story of how the Beaton medical family came by their powers involves a young cowherd called Farquar Beaton (Fearachair the Leech) sent into Glen Golly to find six serpents in the roots of a hazel tree.  The best preserved broch in the area, Dun Dornighail is found there.  The famed Corrienessan is at the head of this strath, on the route westwards.  Rob Donn was born there and his best known song is in praise of Glen Golly, at the back of Strath More.  Important pipe tunes and poems are associated with this strath and the routes through it.  Today the road is metalled but little used.  The passing place signs are the original wee metal ones with rusted but still stripey stalks.  It is an enthralling place and perfect for a bike ride as a way of exploring.  It is a good idea to park carefully in one of the larger passing places at the mouth of the strath and to spend the day exploring on bike. 
Old cast iron deer target for setting sites at Alltnacaillach.
The view from Alltnacaiilach, starring Ben Hope (Ben of The Bay).
The return journey below Piper’s Cliff with the clouds rolling in.

2. Rob Donn’s Banishment: Freisgill

 

The illiterate bard, Rob Donn, born in the farm called Alltnacaillich

in Strathmore in 1715. Rob moved to Muiseal, just up the river a little, when

he started work as a boy for Iain Mac Eachainn. Mac Eachainn became

aware of his artistic gift for poetry and song composition and supported him in

this. Once he married Rob lived across the river from Muiseal at Bad-na h-

Achlaise. His songs are remembered and sung right into the present day.

His best known song, something of a Sutherland anthem these days, is

Gleann a Gollaidh – or Glengolly, in English. Glengolly

Local legend has it that Rob Donn was banished out to Freisgill by the Chief of Mackay because the Chief was weary of Rob Donn’s fondness for getting a good beast.  The account from 1829 calls the place Allt-coire-Fraisgil.[1]  Hew Morrision talks of ‘Friskin’s Cave’.[2]  ‘Gill’ is Norse for small steep glen or gulley and Fresigill is translated as Noisy Gully.  The theory was that away from Strath More and Durness itself, out on Whiten Head, he would have no deer to poach.  Whiten Head is characterised as bleak and windswept – a traumatic contrast to the shelter, trees, company and civility of life in the straths.  It is a good story and has much truth.  It is certain that a lively, clever and convivial character such as Rob Donn’ would find the social isolation of Freisgill a difficult banishment in comparison to the close social contact of life in Strath More or Durness.  In his time at Freisgill, according to the Roy Military map, there were 7 buildings and hence about circa 20 - 35 inhabitants.  The route in would not have been the one used by estate workers today which runs off one of the loops of old road on the Moine road.  The routes in Rob Donn’s day would have been either via Inverhope at the moth of the River Hope or over the hill from Melness.  In living memory children from Freisgill went to school in Melness.  They boarded there Monday to Friday.  The last family to live at Freisgill did so during World War II.  The keepers tell me that there was also a house out on Whiten head itself, north east of Freisgill.  It is commonly referred to as ‘MacGregor’s’.  There may also have been people there in Rob Donn’s day.  The Roy map does not help us with that because it does not always record just one or two houses, only the larger townships.  For Rob Donn the route to company and conviviality from Freisgill would have been over to the Melness townships or back into Strath More and the townships there.  Freisgill for him was indeed out of the normal run of social contact which centred around Tongue and Balnakeil where Donald, 4th Lord Reay lived.  Rob Donn was in demand at social gatherings of the elite and the common folk in Mackay Country and beyond.  He was an elder of the Kirk and expected to attend presbytery meetings in Tongue.  The local ministers and other elders took an interest and a great pride in his work.  It is said that it was in the enforced isolation at Freisgill that he wrote the song Gleanna Gollaidh.  The chorus expresses deep longing for ‘the fine trees’ of the tree lined Glen Golly.  The verses praise Glen Golly.  In comparison Friesgill is open, bleak and treeless. 

 

Kenneth Douglas’s book about Rob Donn’s poems and life includes a memoir at the start which draws on the memories of Rob Donn’s daughters, cousins, friends and neighbours.[3]  Writing in 1829, Douglas opens with an account of how Rob Donn’s mother was musical and was known for her recitations of Ossian’s poems.  In this memoir it is stated that Rob Donn was granted the tenure of land at Freisgill and ‘employed to shoot such number of deer from time to time, as Lord Reay’s family might wish to have supplied’.[4]  However in due course when a neighbouring deer forest (not named) sought to build up its numbers Rob Donn was accused of being rather free about the numbers of deer he took from the hill.  In discussing this matter the author states that to the Highlander taking a deer cannot be forbidden – ‘Is ionraic a’ mhèirle na fèidh’ which he translates as ‘Righteous theft is the (killing of) deer’.  On several occasions the law was brought to bear upon Rob Donn in an attempt to stop him taking so many deer.  During his time at Freisgill he was therefore summoned to appear before the Sherriff-Substitute and the Public Prosecutor, ‘when the issue must have been banishment to the Colonies, in terms of statue’.[5]  In spite of the potential severity of the penalties, on the way to court with his accomplice in the hunt and his wife Janet, when they came upon a herd of hinds Rob shot two on sight.  His wife Janet and his neighbour were in great alarm but the story goes that Rob jested about the matter.  Douglas suggests that on account of his poetic gift and fine repartee, a talent much admired in Reay Country to this day, Rob Donn enjoyed a great deal of protection by the landowners and others amongst the ruling classes.  He was little deterred by this incident and was again in the same trouble in no time at all.  Douglas opines that it was shortly after these traumas that Donald, Lord Reay appointed Rob as ‘Bo-man’ or head Herdsman at Baile na Cille (Balnakeil).  This was an important and responsible position which involved the whole household in significant responsibilities for the cattle, their feed and their milk.  The Bo-man would also have several herders to manage as well.  Apart from his few years in the army around 1756 Rob and his family lived at Baile na Cille for the rest of his days.  Here Rob Donn was in the midst of a busy and populous community with other inspiring minds such as Rev Murdoch Macdonald and his family and all the social events associated with the Chief of Mackay’s household.  In this time and in this place in that end of the Durness parish music, debate, learning and repartee were rich and intellectually nourishing. 

 

As for Freisgill, it in fact has its own beauty which is very different from the inland charms of Gleanna Gollaidh.  The cave at Freisgill was so esteemed by the early nineteenth century that in 1814 it was visited by Walter Scott – yet to be made ‘Sir’ at that time.  He had managed to secure a place on a seasonal run being made by the Commissioners of The Northern Lighthouse Board in the company of one of the Stevensons of lighthouse building fame.  They left Leith on 28th July 1814 and made first for Shetland before taking a route via the Orkneys, the north coast of Mackay Country and then onwards to Skye, Mull and Oban.  Walter Scott was making this trip as research for his new (extended!) poem ‘Lord of the Isles’.  His correspondence shows how anxious he was to get this work finished and to secure a good publishing deal, in the midst of debt and difficulty.  In a letter in September he provides a brief description of Smoo Cave without mentioning the name of it and in several letters he mentions Cape Wrath.  Whiten Head too is an intriguing and impressive coastline.  The modern route to Freisgill is about 4 miles.  I am still exploring what might have been the two common and logical routes (to Melness and to Inverhope) in Rob Donn’s day but I know their general path. 

[1] Kenneth Douglas, Orain Le Rob Donn: Songs and Poems in the Gaelic Language by Robert Mackay, the Celebrated Bard of Lord Reay’s Country, Sutherlandshire with a Memoir of the Author, and Observations on His Character and Poetry (Inverness: Published by subscription: Kenneth Douglas, Inverness; R. Douglas, Tain; OLiver and Boyd, Edinburgh; R. Griffin and Co Glasgow; and LOngman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, London., 1829), p. xix.

[2] Hew Morrison, Tourist Guide to Sutherland and Caithness: With Historical, Antiquarian and Angling Notes, 2003 edition Spot On Printing, Dornoch. (Brechin: William Rae, Wick; John Menzies & Co, Edinburgh; Simpkin, Marshal & Co, London; Black & Johnson, Brechin., 1883), p. 109.

[3] Kenneth Douglas, Orain Le Rob Donn: Songs and Poems in the Gaelic Language by Robert Mackay, the Celebrated Bard of Lord Reay’s Country, Sutherlandshire with a Memoir of the Author, and Observations on His Character and Poetry (Inverness: Published by subscription: Kenneth Douglas, Inverness; R. Douglas, Tain; OLiver and Boyd, Edinburgh; R. Griffin and Co Glasgow; and Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, London., 1829).

[4] Douglas, p. xviii.

[5] Douglas, p. xx.

3. Rob Donn’s Delight: Glengolly

This of course is the wee glen about which Rob Donn reminisces so powerfully in his song of the same name, Gleanna Gollaidh.  The Scottish Parliament’s placename database translates this as - Glen Golly (Sutherland), Gleanna Gollaidh. "The glen of the blind river", maybe referring to an overgrown river. This valley is known as Gleanna Gollaidh nan craobh, "Glen Golly of the trees". I am not entirely convinced by that translation and have consulted Ruariadh MacIllithean about this since has significant expertise in the translation of placenames.  I await his reply.

 

The glen itself provides sheltered summer grazings and must have been a great place for cattle when the cattle economy ruled the day.  Nowadays the estate is periodically burning the big old heather roots that are breaking through the ungrazed sward in Bucktooth Meadow.  Deer don’t keep back that kind of growth the way cattle do.  The glen is still wooded to this day and some of the trees are of a great age.  I found the remnants of old buildings on the south edge of the glen.  They may well be the site of an old arigh.  The deer hung out of sight but their imprint was everywhere and I heard one coughing and starting in the night.  The route through the glen takes you out onto Loch Dionard and then Gualin, Loch Bervie or Durness.  If you take the other fork in the road west, via Bealach Horn (The Hellish Pass) you come down onto Lon on Loch Stack.  From Strathmore Glengolly is a pleasant and exciting daytime walk.  It is a great place for a picnic as long as the midges stay away.  Strathmore and the glens and straths at its headwater are rather fierce for midges.  Below are the words of the song with a very rough and ready translation on which I hope to improve. 

The west end of Glengolly and the road out of the glen heading west.
Arrival in Glengolly from Gobernuisgeach.  Bucktooth Meadow in the distance

Gleanna-Gollaidh, Gleanna-Gollaidh,


Gleanna-Gollaidh nan craobh;


Cò a chì e nach mol e,


Gleanna-Gollaidh nan craobh!

 

Ri faicinn crioch àrdain


'Ga mo bhreugadh gu taobh,


'S ann a smuainich mi fanadh


An Gleann-Gollaidh nan craobh.

 

Chan àill leam bhur n-airgead;


'S ri bhur n-airm cha bhi mi;


Cha diùlt mi bhur drama,


Ach ri tuilleadh cha bhi.

 

Ged a gheibhinn gu m'ailghios


Ceann-t-Sàile Mhic Aoidh,


'S mór a b'annsa leam fanadh


An Gleann-Gollaidh nan craobh.

 

Fonn diasach 's mór a b'fhiach e,


Gu fiadhach 's gu ni;


Aite siobhalt' ri doinionn,


Is nach criothnaich a' ghaoth.

Glen Golly, Glen Golly,
Glen Golly of the trees
Who could see it and not praise it, Glen Golly of the trees

 

The view of the frontier heights

Is enticing me yonder
And I thought I would stay
In Glen Golly of the trees.

 

I don’t desire your money

And I’ll never join your army

I won’t refuse your dram

But I’ll do no more than that

 

Though I might get my desire

To be in Mackay’s Kintail

More I fancy staying

In Glen Golly of the trees.

 

Bountiful land - much of its value

Is in stalking and cattle

A agreeable place in times of storm

A place the winds will not make shudder

Remains of very old buildings at the foot of the slope on the southern side of Bucktooth Meadow. 
Our camp in Glengolly in the Bucktooth Meadow