Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

APPLECROSS HISTORY The history of the peninsula is a


  • pg 1

The history of the peninsula is a microcosm of that of Highland Scotland.
The common influences are the coming of Christianity, of the Norsemen, the union of
Pict and Scot under Kenneth MacAlpine and the emerging influence of the clan system,
in this case that of the politically adept Mackenzies after the watershed of the battle of
Harlaw in 1411 which saw the weight of power move from the Macdonald Lords of the
Isles to the Crown.
The considerable influence of the Church and the impact of the Reformation in the 16th
Century are reflected, as are the effects of the Jacobite risings. The breakdown of the clan
system and the sorry picture of the clearances are evident, as are the problems of land
utilisation and absentee landlords.
The Disruption of 1843 had a greater impact in the Highlands than elsewhere and the
years from then to the union in 1929, which also saw the breakaway of the Free
Presbyterians in 1893, saw much bitterness.
It is worth noting that while only 37% of the ministers supported the Church of Scotland
Free, the Highland exodus from the state Church was almost complete.
Educational reforms in the 19th Century had the twin effects of discouraging the Gaelic
language and accelerating the move from rural areas of those who benefited from
secondary schooling.      In the late 19 Century, pupils were actively discouraged from
speaking their native language in school playgrounds in much the same way that, under
the State education system in Wales, the Welsh language was outlawed. (See Jan Morris,
'The Matter of Wales').
What makes Applecross history so interesting is that the nature of the peninsula's
geography determined that, until the mid point of this century, its principal means of
communication with the rest of the country was by sea.
As a result, the Applecross of living memory was probably the most insular and unspoiled
on the mainland. I am unable to identify any other mainland community which has seen
so much change in the last fifty years.
In the 1931 census, over 75% of the population was Gaelic speaking. In 1971, of the
mainland, only Applecross and Stoer (another peninsula) had a Gaelic-speaking
population of over 50%.
The Annals of Tighernac give 'Appercrossan' in the 9th Century Latin. Records from
1500 use 'Apilcors' or 'Abilcors'. This evidence gives the lie to speculation in the Old
Statistical Account of 1792 that the name is a 'fanciful designation' and in recent
correspondence in An Carrannach. It is clear that the present name has been developed
from 'Aber' and 'Crossan'.
However, the peninsula was more widely known by the Gaelic name 'A'Chomraich' (the
sanctuary) from the time of Saint Maelrubha. Throughout the ages, with the exception of
the attention of the Norseman in the 9th Century and during clan feuds between the
Mackenzies and the Glengarry Macdonalds in the 16th Century, the sanctuary has been
respected. Over the years, it has provided refuge and there is a strong oral tradition that
the body snatcher Hare, who gave evidence against his partner William Burke (hanged in
1829), came to Applecross under an assumed name and worked in Camustiel as a weaver.
The weaver is buried in the cemetery.
The famous Bealach nam Bo, built as one of the last Parliamentary roads and completed
in 1822, had to wait until the 1950s for a bitumen surface, and electricity reached
Applecross about the same time. There were fewer than a dozen cars in the community
in 1950 and the first tractor arrived in 1952.
The Bealach, named after the old drove route used by cattle on their way to market, was
then, as now, impassable in winter and the community pressed for years for a route round
the peninsula that would avoid this two thousand feet high road and the equally uncertain
rowing boat access to Macbrayne's Stornoway steamer. In fairness to the authorities of
the time, we rarely spoke with unanimity, those on the north coast favouring the long
coastal road that would open up their inaccessible village while the south preferred a
shorter road from Toscaig to Russel. Those used to the sea felt that their own dedicated
ferry service to Kyle of Lochalsh was best. This easiest of options was given in 1955 and
the coast road was not provided for a further sixteen years by which time the indigenous
population of the more isolated villages had almost disappeared.
However, it will be readily understood that a community dependent on paraffin and
precarious communication was both resourceful and self-sufficient. Family and Church
ties were strong and hospitality and neighbourliness were taken for granted.
A vigorous oral tradition and awareness of Celtic culture together with a high level of
church attendance, albeit divided into three variations of presbyterian worship mainly on
family lines, made for continuity and contentment.
Before that community disappears for ever, it is appropriate to look at what is known of
the past.
Applecross has an illustrious past. That it has been little publicised is surprising and the
reasons why it has failed to attract attention as an important Christian settlement may
become apparent as we examine what we do know.
I should mention that there is no shortage of academic research and I am particularly
indebted to the late Kenneth MacRae's draft history and Kenneth D. Macdonald's 'The
Mackenzie Lairds of Applecross'. (Gaelic Society of Inverness).
On the other hand, little remains to remind us of the prosperous Monastery or the ancient
castle. While we shall discover the reasons for this, it is fitting to quote MacRae's words
on the more recent neglect: 'What the illiterate natives commemorated for over four
hundred years, one educated generation despised and forgot'.
It should be noted at this point that while we are concerned with the Applecross
peninsula, the term has also covered in times past the parish of Applecross which
included Torridon, Shieldaig and Kishorn. This is important to those who may wish to
study the Old (1792) and New (1836) Statistical Accounts and other historical documents
and should be remembered by the reader of this paper. It is difficult to separate fact from
mythology and there are many examples of the confusion caused by oral tradition.
However we depend on the Annals of Tighernac, the Irish historian, for confirmation of
both the advent of Maelrubha and the ancient origin of the name 'Applecross':
'673 AD Maelrubha flindavit ecclesiam Appercrossan'. (Maelrubha founded the Church
of Applecross).
The Nineteenth Century Bishop of Down, Dr. Reeves, traces Maelrubha's ancestry to
Niall of the Nine Hostages.
It is probable that Maelrubha and his party did land initially on Saint Island, off
Camusterrach. It would be a prudent move to get a first sight of the natives from a secure
vantage point.
The Monastery founded by him was to last for one-hundred-and-twenty years and was to
occupy the favoured ground from the river to the slopes of Beinn a'Chlachain, so it is
reasonable to assume that his Christianity was fairly muscular.
From the peninsula, Maelrubha spread the Gospel throughout the Pictish north and he is
remembered in many place names including Loch Maree. Maclean disputes the tradition,
mentioned in a number of writings and in Calendars of the Saints, that Maelrubha was
martyred by the Norsemen. His basis for this is that Tighernac records his death at the
age of eighty as 'a natural death in Applecross'. He also considers that the year 722 was
too early for Norse activity.
In any event, there is no dispute that the final resting place of the Saint's body is beside
the ruined chapel in Clachan cemetery. Although there are now no external markings for
the grave, past excavation has disclosed a mosaic of flat stones. At the centre of these
there is a large slab of stone covering the sarcophagus. The location is referred to as
'Cladh Maree' (Maelrubha's burial ground).
Earlier this Century, the two sections of carved stone displayed in the Church were
excavated close to the grave. Expert opinion is that they date back to the Eighth Century.
That these are the only significant finds and that the grave of a Christian Saint ranking
second only to Columba of Iona is unmarked are criticisms of our civilisation. Maelrubha
continued the work begun by Columba who, a century earlier, had made friends with
the Pictish King Brudei.
Irish records tell us that his successor was Failbe Macguaire and it appears that the close
association with the parent Monastery at Bangor was maintained. Macguaire and twenty-
two companions were drowned when returning from there to Applecross in 737
(Tighernac). The rock between Ardban and Coilleghillie, known as 'Sgeir na Maoile'
(rock of the tonsured ones) is thought to be the location. DESTRUCTION OF THE
There is reference in the Irish records to the death of the Abbot Ruaridh Mor MacAogan
ofMenchair in 801.
During his time as Abbot in Applecross, the first Viking raids on that part of Scotland
took place.
The Monastery and all the records were destroyed and MacAogan had to flee. This was
probably between 790 and 800.
On his death, the body was taken back to Applecross for burial. There is a tradition that it
floated on a stone slab and that the stone was used to mark his grave. Floating stones and
other contradictions of natural law are common in Celtic mythology but no matter how it
came to be there, the large stone to the left of the churchyard entrance is said to be that
which originally showed where the last of the Celtic Abbots lay. MacRae says, without
disclosing his source, that it was moved to its present position 'about a century and a half
ago'. As I write this, I regret, not for the first time, that I did not listen to him more
carefully! The stone is of considerable interest in itself. It is roughly hewn but it is
evident from the markings that a Celtic collared cross was planned. It may be that
following the destruction of the Monastery, there was neither opportunity nor skill to
complete the project.
If the tale is only partly true, the stone is an appropriate memorial to the influence of the
Celtic Christians and before we look at their successors, we need to be aware of the
complex changes of the times.
Maelrubha carried Christianity far into the Pictish Kingdom, following from his
Applecross base the work begun by Columba.
There were constant power struggles between Scots, Picts, Britons and Northumbrians.
In the Seventh Century, we find King Brudei of the Picts (MacBili, not to be confused
with Mac Maelcon, friend of Columba) defeating Ecgfrith of Northumbria at
Nechtansmere in Angus to the relief of both Scots and Britons. However, one of his
successors, Nechton, removed the Columban clergy from Pictland churches around 710
when the Picts conformed to the Church of Rome. Maclean considers that the Applecross
link with Bangor continued and that Applecross could not have conformed to Rome
during the life of the Monastery.
As we have seen, the raids by the Norsemen affected Applecross towards the end of the
Eighth Century. These raids were precursors of their extended settlement in the Ninth
and Tenth Centuries. For over four hundred years, the Norse influence was felt in the
Isles, the mainland seaboard, the Isle of Man, Ireland and Cumbria. The Battle of Largs
in 1263 was the signal of the end of Norse supremacy.
Its effects were twofold. In the first place, Pict and Scot were obliged to unite against a
common foe and about 843 Kenneth Macalpine of Dalriada became King of Alba (or
Secondly, as we have seen in Applecross, the Norseman sacked the religious houses of
the west coast and the centre of gravity for both church and state moved east.
The long settlement can still be traced in place names and loan words. Magne Oftedal of
the university of Oslo suggests that 'if a name on a map is not evidently Gaelic or
English, it is very likely to be Norse'. (While the greatest traces are apparent in the Isle
of Lewis, examples like Toscaig, Cuaig and Shieldaig are confirmation of presence
We know that Ruaridh Mor MacAogan was succeeded by his chamberlain, Obeolan,
some time before 801.     MacRae considers that in assuming responsibility for both
spiritual and secular matters he conformed to the Church of Rome rather than the old
Columban Church.
There is a Scandinavian tale that his daughter was carried off by raiders and in other
references his name is shown as MacBeolan. The use of both the Irish and Scottish
prefixes is of interest. It highlights the move away from Irish influence to the role of the
Lay Abbot.
Obeolan repaired the damage caused by the raiders and had his castles near the site of the
present farm buildings. The area was known as 'Borrowdale' within recent memory and
is shown as such in documents in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.
Rev. John Macqueen writing in the Old Statistical Account in 1792 says 'From the
Danish are derived all these names which have 'Burgh' in the compound, as Burghdale.
It is observable that in all places of this designation, there has anciently been a Danish
Dun'. The word 'Dun' is itself at home in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic as well as Anglo
Saxon and Old Norse so its presence in the present Gaelic name for what is now the
campsite, 'Cul an Dun' (The back of the fort) proves nothing but if Macqueen is right,
Borrodale may signify that the Norsemen as well as MacBeolan had a hand in building
the castle.
The Obeolan line was followed by the lay abbot Gillandreis family. Like Obeolan they
married and their family structure determined succession.     Little is known of the
Applecross of these dark ages but we do know that the clan system became influential
from the Tenth Century. Two clans are then mentioned in the Book of Deer and the
system developed in Scotland during the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Centuries, thriving
into the Eighteenth.
Out of this developed the strength to challenge the might of the Norse dynasty in the
In 1156 Somerled Lord of Argyll forced a division of the isles, taking over the southern
Hebrides including Islay and Mull. Somerled's descendants, by astute backing of Robert
Bruce and by politically correct marriages, became the lost influential in the Western isles
and on the mainland from Kintyre to Morar.
In those turbulent times, Applecross was surrounded by wild Noresmen, emerging Lords
of the Isles and, increasingly, Kings of Scotland determined to control their nation.
The Gillandreis chiefs of Applecross eventually recognised the lesson of history that
might is right and aligned themselves with the King.
In 1215 Ferchair Mac an t Sagairt, son of the lay abbot of the time, took on and defeated
descendants of Malcolm Canmore and of the MacEth Earl of Ross. He was knighted by
the King. He also subdued Argyll and Galloway and was further rewarded with the
Earldom of Ross.
He had two sons. William became Earl of Ross and Malcolm was given Applecross.
Unlike his predecessors from the time of MacBeolan, Malcolm took Holy Orders and
apparently lived the life of a hermit at Cnoc Dubh an t Strath, above Hartfield. He is
remembered in the name of the glen there, Srath Maolchaluim, and although the cave
above Hartfield is today referred to as Maelrubha's cave, this is part of the general
confusion of oral tradition.
As Malcolm left no heir, the succession went to the Earls of Ross. Malcolm's nephew,
the Ab Uaine or Green Abbot took over and reverted to the role of the Lay Abbot. He
married and was succeeded by his son Ruairidh.
The Green Abbot's brother, another William Earl of Ross fought at Bannockburn and his
force included men from Applecross.
Ruairidh's son was GiUaphadrick, the Sagart Ruadh or Red Priest of Applecross.
He appears to have aligned himself with Donald, Lord of the Isles during the latter's
claim to the Earldom of Ross and he died at Harlaw in 1411. That indecisive battle was a
major turning point for Highland culture leading, as it did, to the reduction and eventual
extinction of the Macdonald lordship. With the demise of that Kingship went many
aspects of Gaelic culture including a structured bardic tradition.
With it also went the Applecross lay abbots. The men carried their commander home to
burial close to the grave of Maelrubha.
GiUaphadrick, the Sagart Ruadh, entered into the folklore of Applecross. A variety of
tales confuse him with Maelrubha and with the Mackenzies whose influence on the area
post dated him. MacRae thinks that, as he was the last of his line and the old order passed
away, he represented to the new generations the 'good old days' and thus someone to
remember long after his place in the scheme of things had been forgotten.
We have seen that Harlaw was a watershed for the Highlands. Although Donald had won
the right for his son to be Earl of Ross, it was otherwise a pyrrhic victory, soon to be
reversed. His grandson John offended the Crown by assuming semi regal powers and
dealing with Edward IV of England in the Treaty of Westminster Ardtornish. He was
relieved of his lands of Ross Kintyre and Knapdale in 1475. This and the subsequent loss
of the Lordship gave opportunity for other clans to assert their power.      During the
following centuries, the Mackenzies would expand from their origins in Kintail until they
had possession of the country from Lewis, where they displaced the MacLeods, to the
Black Isle in the east.
King James I was restored from his years of English captivity in 1424. He set about the
task of controlling his unruly kingdom with vigour, breaking the power of the nobles and
reforming the Church. The undertaking he gave on his return to Scotland was at one time
known to every pupil : 'Let God but grant me life, and there shall not be a spot in all my
kingdom where the key shall not keep the castle, the broom bush the cow'.
On his direction, Applecross and its sanctuary remained the property of the Crown, the
incumbent to be a priest in Holy Orders appointed by the Crown. From 1500 we have
records of these appointments. Thus, we know that one Sir Murdoch Johnson was
promised one of the two chaplainries by James V in 1542 and also by Mary, Queen of
Scots in 1548.
It was while waiting for the promised post that Murdoch Johnson was influenced by the
Reformation and started to convert the people to Protestantism. He lost his papal title but
his initiative paid off as he was appointed by James VI in 1575 as the first minister of the
Reformed Church.
One other churchman of the times deserves a mention. Sir William Stewart had both
chaplainries but recognising the move away from the Church of Rome and, presumably,
the success of Murdoch Johnson's activities, hedged his bets. In 1569 he gave half of his
lands to Roderick Mackenzie of Davochmaluag. If the new order failed to prosper, he
still had a living and if not he had bought himself a protector.
In the event, this practical man retained his half until his death and the formal arrival of
the new order.
So now the Mackenzies had a foothold in Applecross to which we shall return.
Meantime let us look at the effects of the Reformation in isolated areas and in particular
in Applecross.
The Church of Scotland reformed was recognised by Parliament in 1560 and established
by law as the National Church in 1690. The hiatus reflects the struggle for power
between Episcopalians and presbyterians. The first presbyterian minister in Applecross,
Rev. Aeneas MacAulay, would not be appointed until 1731.
We have seen that the Church of Rome took time to take over from the early Celtic
churches of Columba and Maelrubha and there would be similar delay here.
In Applecross, Murdoch Johnson and his helpers, while persuading their people to forsake
the idolatries and abuses of the Church of Rome used the folk memories of heroes of the
past, the Sagart Ruadh, MacAogan (of the memorial stone) and, particularly, of
Maelrubha to replace the Romish discipline.
In much the same way that Christianity on its arrival in the country built upon ancient
Druidic influences, Murdoch Johnson used these memories to encourage their people to
change their ways. It is not surprising that when the Crown was unable to maintain a
ministry in remote areas things went badly wrong.
The emphasis placed on Maelrubha by Murdoch Johnson and his helpers must have
struck a chord. One hundred years after his ministry, the people of Lochcarron and
Applecross were found to be worshipping Saint Mourie (Maelrubha) and sacrificing bulls
in his name. We know this from the Minutes of the Presbytery of Dingwall on 8th and 9th
September 1656. One man named as an offender, Donald Smyth of Applecross was
undoubtedly the local blacksmith (Gobha). He customarily received the head of the bull.
The Presbytery solution to the problem was to insist that the Minister should travel to
Applecross and spend three days there once every five or six weeks.
It is appropriate to include under this heading, before we leave Murdoch Johnson, the
excesses indulged in by those who sought to eradicate all traces of the Roman Church by
mindless destruction.
The Norseman destroyed the Monastery but Obeolan set about repairing the damage and,
no doubt, the Church continued to process.       With the Reformation, people were
encouraged to destroy crucifixes and all ornate structures suggesting idolatry. It is ironic
that in doing so, the people of Applecross replaced those objects with a greater evil.
That this disdain of the beautiful and historic continues is evidenced by a Holy Water
Font, found in 1874, being used 'by successive incumbents of the church as a drinking
trough for their hens' and the sight of densely planted conifers waving over the greater
part of the Monastery site. Again MacRae : 'Until a comparatively recent date, the
cemetery at Applecross stretched from the riverside to the hillside and was of
proportionate width. It contained many beautifully and curiously carved stones, slabs,
obelisks, pillars and crosses. Progress demanded that ...all these stones should go under
the mason's hammer to build drains, so that the remainder of the too extensive cemetery
should be converted into a glebe'.
We return to the Mackenzies. Kenneth D. Macdonald of the University of Glasgow and a
native of Applecross has written in the papers of the Gaelic Society of Inverness (21/3/80)
a comprehensive study of 'The Mackenzie Lairds of Applecross' which is worth seeking
The Mackenzie influence extended from the acquisition by Roderick Mackenzie from Sir
William Stewart in 1569 as noted above, to the sale by Thomas Mackenzie MP to the
Duke of Leeds in 1857.
It thus embraced the emergence of the Church of Scotland after the Reformation,
Killiecrankie, the massacre of Glencoe and both the Union of the Crowns and the Union
of Parliaments.
It saw the Jacobite risings of 1715, 1719 (at Glenshiel on their doorstep) and 1745,
survived the Hanovarian atrocities after Culloden and felt the pressures of the dispute
between Church and State in the lead up to the famous disruption and founding of the
Free Church in 1843.
It saw the clan system develop into full strength only to fall away again and disappear
with the shift of power and the economic needs of a developing economy.
We shall take a brief look at their tenure.
Roderick died in the year following his good fortune. The grant by Sir William Stewart
specified that the lands were to go to his legitimate male heirs or, if there were none, to
Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail. About the same time Kenneth died and was succeeded by
his son Colin (Cailean Cam). His natural son Dougal was granted half of Applecross.
This Dougal gave his name to the loch in Glen Shieldaig.
In 1630, approximately, the lands of Applecross were united by Alexander of Coul,
natural son of Colin, eleventh Chief of Kintail. He was a notable warrior in the clan wars
with the Glengarry Macdonalds and the Macleods of Lewis.
Alexander gave the united estates to his son Roderick. Although Roderick predeceased
his father in 1646, history identifies him as the first Mackenzie Laird of Applecross. Both
father and son are buried in their east coast lands at Chanonry.
Roderick's son John was still a minor when his father died. He came of age in 1662 and
was notable for his generosity and positive interest in his estate.
In 1675 he built Applecross House and the keep forms the main part of the present
structure. He was a notable historian. His Applecross Manuscripts formed a basis for
later research by historians. A patron of the Arts and a hospitable entertainer of itinerant
bards and harpers, he is still remembered in elegies and oral tradition. He was known as
Iain Moloch (Hairy John) and died about 1685. He was succeeded by his son Alexander
who became the third Laird of Applecross.
From the time of Alexander, the third Laird, there are preserved in the National Library of
Scotland letters known as the Delvine Papers. These contain the correspondence between
successive Lairds and their legal advisers the Mackenzies of Delvine. The papers give an
interesting insight into the times and, increasingly, the financial difficulties faced by
Highland estates, particularly following the Jacobite risings.
They also highlight me landlord's relations with the Church from the settlement of the
Presbyterian ministers to the vexed question of patronage which led to the Disruption of
Alexander was 'out' during the 1715 rising. His brother, John (Iain Og) was one of the
four Johns of Scotland commemorated in the lament composed by Kenneth Macrae of
Kintail. All four were captains in a Seaforth regiment (John Macrae of Conchra, John
Murchison of Auchtertyre, John Mackenzie of Applecross and John Mackenzie of Hilton)
and all fell in the inconclusive battle of Sheriffmuir.
MacRae notes that this was the first time that the Applecross clansmen were mustered for
war since Harlaw and Bannockburn. It would be the last until the TA unit of the Ross
Battery mobilised for the Great War.
Alexander had to flee the country and his estates were forfeited to the Crown. There was
thus a break in the Mackenzie tenure. However, in 1722 the Applecross estate was
offered for sale by the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates and in 1724 Alexander's
son Roderick purchased Applecross for £3,777.2.0 and became the fourth Mackenzie
Laird. He did not live long after recovering the estate and his son John, the fifth Laird, is
in the Delvine papers as Laird by 1732.
He was to be the last direct descendant of Alexander of Coul to hold the estate. A
cantankerous man who fell out with his wife, with the Church and with his tenants, he had
at least the good sense not to hazard his lands by joining in the 1745 rising.
Macdonald tells of the arrival in Applecross Bay of the French ship Le du Teillay after
Prince Charles Edward had been landed at Loch nan Uamh between Arisaig and Moidart,
and of the captain urging him to 'hasten to join the Prince' with all the followers he could.
John chose prudence at this time but elected to will his estate to his sister's son Thomas
Mackenzie of Highfield rather than his brother Kenneth. And so in 1774 Thomas became
the sixth Laird.
Knox in his 'Tour of the Highlands' mentions his generosity and says: 'Perceiving the
bad policy of servitude in the Highlands, Mr. Mackenzie has totally relinquished all the
feudal claims upon the labour of his tenants, whom he pays, with the strictest regard to
justice, at the rate of sevenpence or eightpence for every day employed upon his works'.
This sits uneasily with the contemporaneous poem by Robert Burns, 'Address of
Beelzebub' in which he addresses the President of the Highland Society in 1786
following a report to that body by Thomas to the effect that five hundred Highlanders had
attempted an escape from the Macdonald Glengarry lands in search of liberty by
        'Faith you and Applecross were right To keep the
        Highland hounds in sight: I doubt na! they wad bid
        nae better Than let them ance out ower the water,
        Then up amang thae lakes and trees They'll mak
        what rules and laws they please'
Whatever emphasis Thomas put on this incident, Applecross was to feel the force of the
reformer when he was followed by his son John. The seventh Laird had been brought up
in Easter Ross where the fine agricultural land was undergoing change. Both sheep and
cattle breeding were developing and John came to Applecross with new ideas and decided
to use the good arable land, scarce enough in the peninsula, for himself. This involved
the clearance of people to inhospitable land elsewhere or emigration.
He was aided by his kinsman Rev. John Macqueen who was appointed under the
patronage system. In contrast to Macqueen, his colleague Rev. Lachlan Mackenzie,
minister of Lochcarron, was an outspoken critic of landlord tyranny..
John's brother Captain Donald, an MP from 1809 to 1815, disagreed with his actions.
These were unpleasant times for people who had been used to clan loyalty and who
believed that they had security of tenure. It would take the Napier Commission of 1884
to put this to rights.
There is an old man living in Applecross whose grand uncle was born in a cave at
Ardubh, following eviction of his family from Borrowdale to what was then an
inhospitable bleak deserted spot.
As part of his plan, John set up new farm buildings using the stone of the ruined
MacBeolan castle.
John was succeeded by his son Thomas who also became an MP in 1818.
The eighth Laird was delicate and died in 1822 to be followed by his sister Elizabeth
who, also delicate, became the ninth Laird but died only three years later.
There is a tradition that their father was cursed in his family because of the ruthless way
in which he introduced change.
The estate then passed once again through the female line to Thomas Mackenzie of
Inverinate in 1824. He was MP for Ross Shire from 1837 to 1847 and was known as
'Tomas Cutach' (Short Thomas) or 'Tomas an t Salainn' (Thomas of the Salt), the latter
because of a Bill he introduced in Parliament.
He was also the tenth and last of the Mackenzie Lairds of Applecross and in 1857 sold his
estates to the Duke of Leeds.
From the Delvine letters, it is clear that there were financial pressures on the predecessors
of Thomas. However, he would also have been encouraged to sell by the enthusiasm of
the Victorian rich for sporting estates.
Three hundred years of relative continuity, which on die one hand required utter loyalty
in peace and war but on the other gave protection to the enlarged family, were now at an
While the clearances were a despicable and harsh breach of this protection, taken as a
whole, the system will be seen to have worked rather better than what was to follow.
The Duke of Leeds did not last long. In 1864 his family sold the estates in seven lots.
Applecross was bought by Henry, Lord Middleton. He had some affinity with the area,
having married a Skye Macdonald. The Middletons made changes appropriate to the
times. During their time the Napier Commission, already mentioned, reported in 1884
recommending absolute security of tenure for crofters and the Crofters' Commission was
set up as a result.
Giving evidence to the Commission, Alexander Livingston of Fearnabeg stated :
'Complaint for the North Coast, Applecross; No road, distance over 20 miles; people
numbering about 400; three schools; children kept back for want of road; petition late
Lord Middleton and refuse road ...' (Para 29896).
Despite the relative success of the Commission in having its recommendations accepted,
as shown elsewhere in this paper, the North Coast had to wait nearly one hundred years to
get the road. It is interesting to look at Livingston's figures and speculate on what might
have happened to that thriving community had the road arrived then or even fifty years
However, despite their reluctance to sanction the North Coast road, the Middletons
connected villages by footpaths, and sheep fences were put up to separate the township
grazings. They helped to set up the post of District Nurse, encouraged the Women's
Institute and built the school.
They appear to have integrated well into the community and members of the family were
born in Applecross which suggests that they spent more than a few weeks a year there.
During their tenure, they developed the stud from the stock of ponies held by the
Mackenzies. They were also noted breeders of shire and blood horses in their Yorkshire
In May 1929, Lord Middleton, grandson of Henry, was obliged to sell Applecross
because of Death Duties and other high taxation.
His speech on the occasion of a presentation from the Applecross people, even allowing
for the sentimentality of the times, paints a picture of a family in harmony with their
surroundings. The hope expressed then that Lord Middleton's son might achieve his
ambition to buy the estate back was not fulfilled.
The estate was taken over by Captain A. S. Wills. The family contact continues, in recent
years through a charitable trust.
In the ten years before the last war, the estate provided a living for a significant number of
Applecross people with a full complement of farm workers, dairymaids, gamekeepers,
gardeners, joiners, a mason, housekeepers, support staff, boatmen and fishermen. Those
last days of the great empire created a nationwide aura of content and a measure of
prosperity, both wholly reflected in Applecross estate.
At the same time, the lot of the fiercely independent crofters and fishermen was also one
of contentment.     While the life was hard, families were self-supporting and it was
accepted that with limited land availability and large families, those who could not make
a living in the area had to move out.
Youngsters, and sometimes the not so young, sought their living in the cities, Glasgow in
particular, and the Americas.
In common with other Highland coastal and island locations, the peninsula provided
seamen for coastal and deep sea trade.
Developing education opportunities coupled with a respect for learning accelerated the
exodus. James Shaw Grant in his book on 'Stornoway and the Lews' tells of the woman
walking to church wearing her son's University Blues scarf and carrying a walking stick
brought home by his brother from Pitcairn Island! Applecross would be at home with
that tale.
The war saw an immediate reduction in the labour force on the estate which never
recovered the relative glories of the pre-war period.
The home farm is no longer being run by the landlord and although the noted herd of
Applecross Highland cattle is still in existence, the mounted head of the famous Highland
bull Leoch is the most tangible reminder of those days. Crofting, in the sense of growing
cereals and a range of root crops is no longer a viable proposition and even where the
more enterprising make use of the arable land unworked by absentee crofters, it is
ordinarily for grazing only. Although the Crofters' Commission is now taking action
against those who do not work the land, this is too little, too late.
Fishing has moved on from ground net and the ring net fishing for herring that provided
wealth during and immediately after the war. It has been in the direction of prawn and
lobster boats capable of being worked by one or two in contrast to four and five in the
past. Fish farming gives some employment but investment is not from local sources.
However, there are exciting developments in the growth of shellfish in suspended trays
and this is being undertaken by local enterprise.
The peninsula saw good times when for fifteen years in the Seventies and Eighties there
was a yard at Kishorn, building for the oil industry. At peak times, three thousand were
employed and priority was given to local people. Many were able to use their savings
positively when demand for concrete rigs fell and the company left the site.
Some employment has been created by the Ministry of Defence base at Sand and by the
Hartfield establishment, originally the West Highland School of Adventure started by
Major John Wills while he was Chairman of the Dockland Settlements. It is now run by
Venture Trust. When the School was set up, the estate renovated the church on the site of
the old Monastery which had been little used following the Union in 1929.
At the outset, the rate of change in Applecross over the last fifty years was identified as
the most rapid in mainland Scotland. Most relevant has been the change from a static
Gaelic-speaking, churchgoing population to a cosmopolitan one of several persuasions or
none. The emerging tourist interest in this most scenic area has benefited from better
roads and one effect has been that many, recognising a congenial way of life, have settled
in the peninsula. While there has been a healthy turnover of those who cannot thole the
robust winters of what is still an isolated community, those who have stayed have brought
their own enthusiasms and skills. In contrast to the attitude of educationalists at the turn
of the Century, Applecross Primary School teaches Gaelic!
Communities cannot stand still and Applecross is again in need of a nudge. Land reform
is being debated nationally and it is well to remember the words of that illustrious son of
Applecross, Farquhar Gillanders.
Writing in his paper 'The West Highland Economy' in 1962 he said, 'the Highlander
must cease to regard himself as a member of a chosen race to whom normal economic
laws do not apply.'
The way forward is to use available resources. Much has changed since my grandfather
gave evidence to the Napier Commission and it is arguable that even with Objective One
and other funding available, what is lacking is energy and imagination.
In the earliest history, we are able to discover it is clear that the Christian invaders created
something very special in Applecross. They did this by harnessing the energies of the
whole community and their heritage has survived invasion, superstition and ignorance. It
is not too much to hope that what they did with their bare hands can be accomplished
again with the skills and resources of the present day.
Ian Mackenzie : February 1996.
The Companion to Gaelic Scotland
Draft History                                     Kenneth MacRae, FSA.
The Mackenzie Lairds of Applecross                K. D. Macdonald. University of Glasgow
The Rising of the Stewarts                        Agnes Muir Mackenzie
The Passing of the Stewarts                                - do -
Celtic Myths and Legends    T. W. Rolleston
Highland Clearances Trail   R. Gibson

To top