Historical description of Sutherland, Scotland

SUTHERLANDSHIRE, a county, in the north of Scotland, bounded on the north by the North Sea; on the east and north-east, by Caithness-shire; on the south, by Ross-shire and the Firth of Dornock; on the south-east, by the Moray and Dornoch Firths; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. It lies between 57° 53' and 58° 33' (N. Lat.) and 3° 40' and 5° 13' (W. Long.), and is about sixty-two miles in length and forty-nine miles in breadth; comprising an area of 2875 square miles, or 1,840,000 acres, of which about 32,000 acres are inlets of the sea, forming salt-water lochs. There are 5157 houses, of which 4977 are inhabited; and the population amounts to 24,782, of whom 11,384 are males and 13,398 females. This county is supposed to have derived its name from its forming the southern division of the diocese of Caithness, of which it at one time was a part. It appears to have been early visited by the Romans, over whom Corbred I. obtained a signal victory, being assisted by a family of Germans who had been expelled from their native country by the Romans, and to whom, in consideration of their services, Corbred granted all the lands northward of the river Spey. In the reign of Corbred II., another body of the same people, who were called the Cattii, came over from Germany, and settling in these lands, contributed to the victory which that monarch, called by the Roman historian Galgacus, achieved over the Roman invaders previously to their subjugation of the kingdom. The ancestors of the present noble family of Sutherland early became proprietors of the territory; and from the ancient chieftains, first distinguished by the title of thanes, or earls, in the former part of the 13th century, the title has lineally descended to the present Duke of Sutherland, proprietor of nearly the whole shire.

Prior to the abolition of episcopacy, the county formed a part of the see of Caithness, of which the cathedral church was at Dornoch; it has since that time been included in the synod of Sutherland and Caithness, and comprises two presbyteries, and thirteen parishes. For civil purposes, the county, once a portion of the sheriffdom of Caithness, has been separated from that shire, and erected into a distinct sheriffdom, of which Dornoch, as the county town, is the seat of court. Besides the royal burgh of Dornoch, the county contains the villages of Golspie, Brora, and Helmsdale, on the eastern, and some smaller villages on the northern and western coasts. By the act of the 2nd of William IV., it returns one member to the imperial parliament.

The SURFACE presents a general assemblage of mountainous heights, valleys, and moors, in continuous succession; the coasts are deeply indented with inlets of the sea, running far into the land, and forming, as already remarked, extensive lochs. Sutherland is naturally divided into two districts, the characteristic features of which are strongly marked. The land in the south-eastern or level district, towards the sea, is flat and fertile, and sheltered on the north-west by a ridge of hills varying from 300 to 800 feet in height. The remainder of the county, and which embraces nearly five-sixths of its whole extent, is of a wild and mountainous aspect, abounding in lakes and with Alpine scenery, and intersected with some pleasant straths and rivers, such as those of Helmsdale, Brora, Fleet, Oikel, Naver, Halladale, and Tongue. It also contains some large tracts of table-land. The principal mountains are, Ben-More, in Assynt, which has an elevation of 3431 feet above the level of the sea; Ben-Clibrig, which rises to the height of 3164; Ben-Hope, near the lake called Loch Hope, and Fionaven, which are respectively 3061 and 3015 feet high; Ben-Hee, Spionnadh, and Benarmine, which range from 2800 to 2300 feet in height; and numerous other mountains, varying in elevation from about 1900 to about 1300 feet. Among the chief rivers is the Oikel, which has its source in Loch Aish, near the eastern base of Ben-More, and flowing in an eastern direction along a pleasant and well-wooded vale, forms a boundary between this county and Ross-shire. After a course of more than forty miles, in which it receives the waters of Loch Shin, and numerous streams, including the Carron from Ross-shire, it constitutes the Kyle of Sutherland, and falls into Dornoch Firth, from which it is navigable for a small distance. The Cassley and the Shin are both fine rivers, the former flowing along the strath of that name, and the latter issuing from Loch Shin: after a course of not more than six miles, they both fall into the Oikel. The river Fleet, flowing through Strath-Fleet with great rapidity, and across the estuary of which the improvement called the Strath-Fleet mound has been thrown, acquires a considerable breadth, and joins the sea at the small port known as the Little Ferry. The Brora, passing through Loch Brora, runs into the sea at the village of Brora; while the Helmsdale, rising in Loch Baden, in the parish of Kildonan, falls into the sea at the village of Helmsdale, about three miles to the south of the Ord of Caithness. In the northern part of the county are, the river Halladale, which rises also in the heights of Kildonan, and after a course of about twenty miles, flows into the Pentland Firth at the Tor of Bighouse; the Strathy, which has its source in the parish of Farr, and watering the Highland vale of that name, falls into the sea at the small village of Strathy; the river Naver, which issues from a loch, and passing through Strathnaver, after a course of thirty miles falls into the sea at the bay of Torrisdale; and several smaller streams, of which the Borgie, the Hope, and the Dionard are the chief. On the western coast are the rivers Inchard, Laxford, Inver, and Kirkaig, all of which, after flowing a distance of from ten to fifteen miles, through wild and romantic tracts of country, fall into salt-water lochs, or inlets of the sea. The inlets in the county form excellent harbours of refuge for ships and boats.

The principal lake is Loch Shin, the largest of a chain of lakes which, having merely intervals of land varying from two to three or four miles, like those in the line of the Caledonian canal, might afford a communication by water between the eastern and western seas. It is about fifteen miles in length, and from one to two miles in breadth, but is not distinguished by many interesting features. The other lakes in this chain are, Loch Geam, at the western extremity of Loch Shin, and closely adjoining it, about three miles in length; Loch Merkland, two miles to the west of Loch Geam, and from three to four miles in length; Loch More, about a mile and a half to the west of Merkland, and five miles in length; the Loch Stack, one mile to the north-west of Loch More, of circular form, and about one mile in diameter. Loch Assynt, the principal lake in the Assynt district, in which are about 200 lakes of smaller dimensions, is nearly seven miles in length, and from one to two miles in breadth; the surrounding scenery is beautifully picturesque, and from the heights that crown its banks are some extensive and deeply-interesting prospects. The chief lakes in the immediate vicinity are those of Urigill, Cama, Veyatie, Nagana, Beanoch, Gormloch, and Culfreich; these are all of considerable extent, and some of them are marked with features of romantic character. In Durness, Loch Hope is the most interesting lake. It is situated at the base of the lofty mountain Ben-Hope, and is about six miles in length, and from one to two miles in breadth. From its northern extremity issues a small river which, after a course of little more than a mile, flows into the sea at Inverhope. Loch Laoghal, on the eastern side of the mountain of Laoghal, is, with Loch Craigie, a continuation of it, about seven miles in length. To the south-west of this is Loch Maedie, about three miles in length, and having on its surface some picturesque wooded islands; and about five miles to the east of Maedie is Loch Naver, extending for six miles along the base of Ben-Clibrig. On the east side of this mountain are the secluded and picturesque Lochs Corr and Vealloch, the former three, and the latter two, miles in length; to the east of which are Loch Strathy, and various other lakes in the higher parts of Kildonan, including Loch Baden, Loch-na-Clar, Loch-na-Cuen, and Loch Truderscaig. In the south-eastern district are also some lakes. The most interesting is Loch Brora, three miles and a half in length, in some parts contracting its width to half a mile, and in others expanding to a mile and a half; its banks display many of the most attractive features of Highland scenery.

Only a comparatively small proportion of the land is in cultivation, the greater part by far being mountain pasture, heath, and moor. Of the arable land the prevailing soils are clay, sand, peat-moss, and a mixture of sand, gravel, and black mould, forming a kind of hazel loam. There are some very fine arable farms along the eastern coast and Dornoch Firth, which are in high cultivation, the system of husbandry being fully equal to that pursued in the most fertile parts of the country. The chief crops are barley and oats; the barley is esteemed to be the best in the north of Scotland, and some favourable crops of wheat are also raised. Peas and beans were formerly much cultivated, but since the introduction of potatoes, the growth of the latter has been discontinued. The mountainous districts afford good pasturage; sheep are the principal stock reared in the county, and more than 200,000 are fed on the mountain pastures, usually of the Cheviot breed. Cattle are reared and fattened on the arable farms along the south-eastern coast. The horses were principally of the Highland breed; but since the extension of sheep-farming, the number has been greatly diminished. On those portions of the arable land of the county occupied by agriculturists, great improvements have been made by drainage and inclosures. Some portions of waste land, also, have been brought into profitable cultivation. The farm-houses are in general substantially built and well arranged; and most modern improvements in the construction of agricultural implements have been adopted in the county.

There are a few remains of ancient woods, consisting of coppices of oak, with some birch and alder: the plantations, most of which are of recent growth, are of Scotch fir, larch, ash, beech, and elm, with a few birch, alder, and hazel. The principal substrata are coal, limestone, marble, and freestone; but no minerals of importance have been discovered. In this county the seats are Dunrobin Castle, Skibo Castle, Tongue House, Embo, Uppat, Clyne, Kintradwell, Cyder Hall, Crackaig, and a few others. The cotton-manufacture, formerly introduced, has been discontinued since the destruction of the works at Spinningdale, near Creich, by an accidental fire in 1806. The herring-fishery off the coast affords employment to a considerable number of persons; the chief trade of the several ports consists in the exportation of sheep, wool, salmon, and kelp: the cattle are mostly driven to the southern markets. Chiefly under the auspices of the Sutherland family, assisted by parliamentary grants, the interior of the county has been opened by excellent roads, which afford great facility of communication, and must tend much to the development of its natural resources. The Duke of Sutherland has also had excellent inns for the accommodation of travellers provided at all convenient stations throughout the county. The annual value of real property in Sutherlandshire, according to returns made in connexion with the income-tax, is £36,113, of which £33,689 are for lands, £860 for houses, and the remainder for fisheries. Among the monuments of antiquity are, the interesting remains of Dornoch cathedral, and the ruins of Pictish castles, of which Coles Castle and Dun-Dornigil are the chief; with numerous cairns, encampments, and subterraneous buildings. Dunrobin Castle, also, though still occupied, is a most ancient baronial stronghold.

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