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Durness, Sutherland

Historical Description

DURNESS, a parish, in the county of Sutherland, 20 miles (N. W. by W.) from Tongue, and 76 (N. W.) from Golspie, containing 1109 inhabitants. This parish probably derives its name, which is of doubtful origin, from Durin, the principal township, and ness, a headland or promontory. It anciently comprised the whole of the lands called "Lord Reay's Country", a district 800 square miles in extent, from which, since the year 1724, have been separated the parishes of Tongue on the east, and Eddrachillis on the south-west. The parish is bounded on the north by the North Sea, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and is about twenty-five miles in length and twelve in average breadth, comprising, with its several inlets, an area of 300 square miles, of which scarcely one-hundredth part is under cultivation. Its surface, which is boldly diversified, and abounds with magnificent scenery, is naturally divided into three mountainous districts, separated from each other by spacious inlets from the North Sea. Of these the district of Parf, extending from the Atlantic Ocean on the west to the Kyle of Durness, occupies an area of more than seventy square miles; the district of Durness, reaching from the Kyle to the western shore of Loch Eriboll, has an area of about eighty square miles; and the district of Westmoin, extending from the eastern shore of Loch Eriboll to the morass east of Loch Hope, contains nearly 100 square miles. The principal Mountains in the parish are, Scribhisbheinn, Faisbheinn, Fairemheall, Creigriabhach, and Bendearg, all in the Parf district, varying in height from 1500 to 2500 feet Ceannabinn, Meallmeadhonach, Cranstackie, and Ben-Spionnadh, in the Durness district, of which Ben- Spionnadh has an elevation of 2566 feet; and Ben- Hope, 3150 feet in height, in the district of Westmoin, which contains also several ranges of lofty and precipitous hills. The valleys are, Strath-Dinard, extending from the Kyle of Durness along the river Grudy for about fourteen miles; Strath-Beg, a narrow fertile vale about two miles in length; and Strathmore, extending from the north base of Ben-Hope, for about six miles, along the banks of the river to which it gives name. Among the rivers are the Strathmore Water, which has its source in Glen-gollie, and having run for ten miles, flows into Loch Hope; the Hope, which is merely a continuation of the Strathmore Water; and the Dinard, which rises in Loch Dinard, and after a course of ten miles falls into the Kyle of Durness. These rivers are impetuous, especially when swollen after heavy rains, and afford good fishing. There are numerous inland lakes, of which the most extensive is Loch Hope, six miles in length, and about half a mile broad. Loch Borley is one mile in length, abounding with char, and in its centre is a beautiful green island. Loch Crospul is about half a mile in length, and has abundance of trout. Loch Dinard and various others are of still less extent.

The COAST is generally bold and elevated, and in most parts defended by a chain of rocks, rising precipitously from the sea to heights varying from 200 to 700 feet; in some places the shore is low and sandy, and at the bay of Balnakiel are hills of shifting sand. The headlands are, Cape Wrath, Farout Head, and Whiten Head. A lighthouse has been erected on the first-named, at an elevation of 350 feet above the level of the sea: the building, which is of granite found near the spot, was commenced under the direction of the lords commissioners in 1827, and is about fifty feet in height, displaying a revolving light alternately red and white, and visible at a distance of twelve nautical miles. Since its completion, wrecks, which were previously frequent, have seldom occurred. Of the inlets that intersect the parish, the principal are, the Kyle of Durness, about six miles in length, and one mile in average breadth; and, to the east of this. Loch Eriboll, ten miles long, and varying from one mile to four miles in breadth. The chief bays are, Durness, between the district of Parf and the long promontory of Farout Head; the small bay of Balnakiel, to the east; and the bay of Camisendun, in Loch Eriboll, affording excellent anchorage, and resorted to by vessels unable to double Cape Wrath or enter the Pentland Firth. There are several islands off the coast, of which Garvellan, to the east of the Cape, and about a mile from the shore, is 100 yards long, nearly of equal breadth, and sixty feet high, and is frequented by various species of seafowl. Hoan, near the entrance of Loch Eriboll, is one mile in length, and half a mile in breadth, covered with verdure; and Choaric, within the loch, is of equal dimensions and fertility: in both there are places of sepulture, said to have been originally selected for security from the depredation of wolves which infested the parish. Numerous caverns have been formed in the rocks along the coast by the action of the waves; the most remarkable is Smo, two miles eastward of the church, having natural arches of great height, in some parts 100 feet wide, and abounding with features of romantic character. About a mile from the eastern part of the coast, towards the north, are the rocks called the Stags, whose summits only are above water; and at some distance from Cape Wrath are others, visible only at neap tides; all of which, previously to the erection of the lighthouse, were frequently fatal to vessels making for the Cape.

Of the small portion of land under cultivation, the soil is generally clay or moss, resting on a substratum of limestone and clay, and the crops are grain of various kinds and potatoes; but the parish is principally pastoral, and dependent in a great measure on its fisheries. Owing to the smallness and quality of the lots, there is an annual importation of from 300 to 500 bolls of oatmeal. The cattle are of the Highland breed, and the sheep, with the exception of a few of the black-faced, are chiefly of the Cheviot breed. Several tracts of waste have been reclaimed and laid down in pasture, and comfortable cottages have been built on most of the small holdings. The annual value of real property in the parish is £1745. The herring-fishery commences in June, and continues till September; a small kind of herring of superior flavour is found in Loch Eriboll, but it is used only for home consumption. In this fishery are engaged ten boats, manned with four men and a boy each, for which the harbour of Rispond affords good accommodation. The lobster-fishery commences in May, and continues till August, employing six boats, with two men each; when taken the lobsters are kept in a perforated floating-chest, whence they are forwarded weekly in smacks to the London market. Cod and ling are abundant off the coast, but they are taken only for domestic use. Salmon are found in the river Dinard and in Loch Hope, and the number caught annually, including grilse, averages about 11,000. The cattle and sheep of the parish are sent to Falkirk, and the wool to Liverpool and Hull. The harbours are, Loch Eriboll, affording safe anchorage and ample shelter for vessels of any burthen; Rispond, where a substantial pier has been constructed; and Port Our, near the bay of Balnakiel, which is adapted only for boats. A boat-slip, also, has been constructed at Clashcarnach, two miles to the east of the Cape. There are considerable remains of ancient wood, consisting principally of birch, growing in sheltered situations; but no plantations have been formed. At Balnakiel is an ancient mansion-house, formerly the residence of Lord Reay, but now occupied by a sheep-farmer. There is no village properly so called, but in various parts are clusters of small houses consisting of from ten to thirty each. Good roads have been constructed, among which are those from the Kyle of Durness to Cape Wrath, from Loch Eriboll to Tongue, and a line from the west to the east of that parish, thirtyfour miles in length round the loch, or crossing the ferry of Loch Eriboll twenty-four miles. A post-office has been established, which has communication with Tongue twice every week.

Ecclesiastically the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Tongue, synod of Sutherland and Caithness. The minister's stipend is £158. 6. 8., of which more than two-thirds are paid from the exchequer; with a manse, and a glebe valued at £20 per annum: the patronage is in the Crown. Durness church, situated within a few yards of the sea-shore, is a plain structure erected in 1619, and containing 300 sittings. In the Eriboll district, about ten miles from the parish church, is a small church in connexion with the Establishment, built in 1804, and containing 100 sittings. There is a place of worship for members of the Free Church, containing 400 sittings. The parochial school is not well attended; the master has a salary of £30, with a house and garden, and the fees average £11. A school, also, is maintained by the General Assembly, and another in connexion with the Free Church. There are remains of several Picts' houses, of which the most entire is Dornadilla's Tower, at Strathmore, consisting of circular concentric walls, about 150 feet in circumference, and nearly twenty feet in height. Robert Donn, the "Burns" of the Highlands, author of some Gaelic poems, lies interred in the churchyard; and a substantial monument of granite has been erected to his memory.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis