The village of Tongue one of the principal villages of the North Coast sits on the northern coast, on the Kyle of Tongue, 31 miles (50 km) north of Lairg.
Tongue became something other than an island community relying on the sea for its communications in 1828, when Thomas Telford completed the road south to Lairg. In 1836 a road to Thurso followed, complete with a daily coach, and during the rest of the 1800s efforts to complete the road west to Durness continued, though as late as 1894 anyone making that journey relied on ferries to cross the Kyle of Tongue, the River Hope, and Loch Eriboll.
It is probably a historical accident that led to this significant settlement being called “Tongue” rather than “Kirkiboll”, a name coming from the Old Norse for “Church Farm” and now applied to the uphill areas of the village. The name Tongue also has Old Norse origins, but more obvious ones. It comes from “tunga” or tongue of land projecting into the loch. But although the Norse probably lived here between the 900s and 1200s, nothing certain has been found of their settlement.
The Lochs, Estuaries, Rivers and Hill Lochans are always popular for Fishing. The choice is wide and the rewards of a hill loch with deer, grouse and merlin for company can be truly satisfying. Boats and outboards are for hire for lochs and can be booked with the permits, which are available from the local hotels and the post office. Brown Trout fishing on many lochs, including Lochs Craggie and Loyal, also Salmon and Sea Trout fishing on the Kyle of Tongue.
“The mountains of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal loom to the south, beyond which stretches away the Flow Country.”
The village has gabled church, built 1680. Church Services at St. Andrew’s Church is one of the most historic Churches in the North. It is often referred to as “The Church of the Mackays”. Others speak of it as “The Little White Church”. The church has been build on the site of two former churches in 1724 and is the burial place of the Reay Family, chiefs of the Clan Mackay. Visitors will find an information leaflet giving a potted history of the Church.
Perhaps Tongue’s most significant moment in history came in early 1746 when the ship Hazard, en route for Inverness, fled into the Kyle of Tongue to evade the HMS Sheerness, a Royal Navy frigate. It was carrying over £13,000 in gold coins to fund Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion, and its’ crew took the gold ashore in an effort to carry it overland to its destination. The Mackays were supporters of the government and their forces caught up with the crew of the Hazard next morning at Lochan Haken, near the southern end of the Kyle of Tongue. The gold was thrown into the loch by the crew before they were captured, though most of it was later recovered by the government. What adds significance to the story is that when word of this reached Bonnie Prince Charlie he sent 1500 of his men north in an effort to regain the gold, and they were defeated en route. Some believe that had these men still been available a short time later at the Battle of Culloden the outcome might have been different. It is more likely that Culloden was so one-sided the lost troops would have made little difference.
Having always been in Mackay country, Tongue became the seat of the clan in 1554 when their castle at Borve was destroyed by the Gordons of Sutherland. Although the clan home was destroyed, a new mansion was built in 1678 and Tongue House became the new seat of the Mackays. This House of Tongue the former home of the Lords Reay, Chiefs of the Clan Mackay, is on the coast of their ancient province of Strathnaver. It was burnt in 1656 by the Cromwelliian English invader’, but rebuilt by the Master of Reay in 1678, and added to in the eighteenth century. But in 1829 it had to be sold by the 7th Lord Reay, together with the vast Mackay estate (the whole north-western corner of Britain) for debt to the Sutherland family. The Mackay’s were undoubtedly responsible for the tower house built at the House of Tongue, a little north of today’s village and overlooking the Kyle of Tongue. This dates back to the 1500s and was built by the Mackays as Lords of Reay to support their domination of much of northwest Sutherland. It was attacked and largely destroyed during the Civil War in the 1660s, and the House of Tongue that exists today was built by the Mackays in 1678 and 1750 on a more modern pattern nearby, leaving the ruins of the original tower house to be cleared away in 1830.
The area surrounding Tongue has many historical places of interest. As well as Tongue House and Castle Borve, there are the ruins of 14th Century Castle Varrich. Caisteal Bharraich (anglicised to Castle Varrich) stands on the inlet overlooking the Kyle of Tongue. It is a MacKay stronghold dating from the 14th century and is believed to have been built on the foundations of an old Norse fort. It had two floors plus an attic; the lower floor may have been a byre or stables. The ground floor was entered through the surviving door in the north wall, it was vaulted but has now fallen. There was no stair between this and the first floor suggesting it may have been used for cattle or as stables. The main first floor entrance was on the south side and would have been reached by a ladder or movable stair. There was a window in the east wall and a fireplace in the west but both have now collapsed beyond recognition. Recesses in the internal north and south walls were part of a type of roof more commonly seen in west highland cottages. There may have been a parapet but no trace of it survives. A signposted footpath leads from the centre of Tongue, there are a couple of awkward deer fence stiles to negotiate, which become even more awkward when carrying a German shepherd, as well as a steep climb to the tower.
It is believed that Bishops of Caithness used it when moving between Scrabster and Balnakiel House near Durness. Caisteal Bharraich is the oldest stone building in the north of Scotland and is built on the oldest rock in the United Kingdom – Lewisian Gneiss. It is a 14th century clan stronghold that offers fine views after a invigorating one mile walk from the footpath beside the Bank in Tongue. Castle Varrich is reputed to have been the stronghold of a Norse warrior of the 11th Century a small tower spectacularly located on the summit of a bluff dominating the Kyle of Tongue just to the west of the village. The origins of the castle are unclear, but some believe it could be the “Beruvik” mentioned in the Norse Orkneyinga Saga. Others believe it was built as recently as the 1500s, by either the Bishops of Caithness or by the Mackay family.
West of Tongue, a walk for a superb view of Druim na Coub, two miles south and site of the battle between the Clan Mackay and the invading forces of the Earl of Sutherland and various Bronze Age burial sites, Iron Age brochs and early Christian stones.
The area surrounding the village is ideal for walking and climbing, Tongue itself is an attractive village with some imposing stone buildings. Among these are large hotels like the Tongue and Ben Loyal, as well as the Royal Bank of Scotland. Views from the village are dominated by the bulk of Ben Loyal to the south and by Caisteal Bharraigh and the truly beautiful Kyle of Tongue to the west.
Tongue Hotel, the dukes former lodge and a former Victorian hunting lodge sit proudly at the northern end of a remote wilderness of distinctive and outlandish natural beauty, guarding the Kyle of Tongue and its eventual transition into the Atlantic, whose waves lap, sometimes crash into the northerly coastline. Tongue is one of the larger places and no exception, quite a simple, charming friendly little place and community in which the hotels play an important part.
The Ben Loyal did not start out with any aspirations to be a hotel. In fact the original buildings provided for some of the needs of the local community. What is now the staff cottage was once a post office, the beer cellar was one of the three local bakeries, this particular one being the only one on the north coast to use peat to bake the bread, and finally what is now the lounge bar was a shop. From at least 1910 there was a corrugated iron building, which sat alongside what was to become the hotel. Once it had been a lodge on the side of one of the local lochs. It was transplanted into the village and in around 1906 became the bed and breakfast known as Kyle View. We know this date both from the visitor’s book of the period and when the building was demolished in 2000 the insulation consisted of magazines and periodicals from the period! Over the years previous enterprising owners pulled the various buildings together and in the 1960’s with the addition of the west wing the Ben Loyal Hotel was completed.
Tongue has shops, services and a youth hostel. Local attractions include the ruins of Castle Varrich (reputed to have been the stronghold of a Norse warrior of the 11th Century and Coldbackie Beach. The bridge over the Kyle of Tongue offers excellent views of the surrounding area especially Ben Loyal to the South. Ben Loyal the Queen of the Scottish mountains with Tongue Bay and the Rabbit islands to the North. The islands take their name from the fact that rabbits were first introduced there in the 1700’s as a source of meat for the local Laird.
Tongue is situated in the heartland of Mackay Country, one of the principal villages and the pick of the villages along the north coast. Situated on the sandy Kyle of Tongue, the village is an important junction where the road from Altnaharra, Lairg and the south meets the North Coast Along with the next-door village of Kirkiboll, Tongue has many facilities and places of interest. Tongue is a green village and well wooded, a contrast to the surroundings. It’s very small and quiet but sitting beneath the grand Ben Loyal that rises an impressive 2506 feet and predominates the skyline overshadows Tongue and nearby is Ben Clerbrig (961m / 3154 feet). Being close to lovely beaches, it’s in a great location. Tongue has shops, services and a youth hostel. Other facilities include a filling station, bank, post office and local shop. The Kyle Gallery is an art gallery and dealers in fine arts. There are also two craft centres: The “Tongue Scottish Shop” based in the Tongue Hotel. “Weavers Craft Shop. The House of Tongue, former home of the Lords Reay, Chiefs of the Clan Mackay, on the coast of their ancient province of Strathnaver. It was burnt in 1656 by the Cromwelliian English invader’, but rebuilt by the Master of Reay in t678, and added to in the eighteenth century. But in 1829 it had to be sold by the 7th Lord Reay, together with the vast Mackay estate (the whole north-western corner of Britain) for debt to the Sutherland family.
Tongue is a green village and well wooded a contrast to the surroundings. Before the causeway was built in 1971 the only route to the west from the village of Tongue was by the road around the Kyle. At low tide seals, waders, and seabirds can be seen from the causeway.