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Torridon & Shieldaig – an historical perspective


Torridon can be seen as the gateway to the Torridonian Highlands and the ancient rocks of that unusually geologically twisted landscape. The red sandstone of Torridon is is one of the oldest rocks in the world, having been laid down over 2500 million years ago. In some places, it is capped by a hard, white quartzite.

There are records that show that Queen Victoria loved to travel the road between Torridon and Diabaig in the late nineteenth century. Accompanied by John Brown, amongst others, she described this area as a fine and wild uncivilised spot, like the end of the world, as she wrote in her diary, and she noted that “hardly anyone ever comes here”.

Sadly, the area was victim to some particularly heartless clearances in these glens, especially when the estate was sold in 1831 to Colonel McBarnet who had made his wealth exploiting plantation workers in the West Indies. The tenant farmers were immediately cleared off to allow sheep farming,  and were only left with a tiny amount of land to grow potatoes. McBarnet ruled that that no tenant could keep any sheep or cattle, and the only cow was kept at the Inn. Eventually, in 1859, all the inhabitants of the area  were resettled at Annat, at the head of the loch, on land taken from the already pitifully small holdings of the people there, land that was already exhausted and liable to flooding. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Alligin, a previously prosperous village were ordered by McBarnet to give up their sheep. Crofters were only allowed to keep one cow - and its calf for six months. After that, they were deprived of a quarter of their arable land which was given to incoming shepherds.

The estate was later sold to Duncan Darroch, a wealthy man from Gourock, near Glasgow. Fortune changed again – this time, for the better. Darroch wanted a deer forest, not a sheep farm, and he saw no conflict between crofters and the presence of deer. He also believed that sheep ruined the mountain grazings for deer and cattle. So he cleared off the sheep, restored the lower grazings to the crofters and allowed their cattle to share the hill grazings with the deer. He gave land to the previously evicted tenants at Torridon. He also fenced off the crofting land so that deer could not eat the growing crops. He allocated peat bogs for the old and new villages, and gave positive encouragement (instead of forbidding) the collection of seaweed for fertilizer. He lent the tenants money for the purpose of buying cattle or for building boats.

Duncan Darroch died at Torridon House in 1910. On a stone by the roadside just beyond Torridon, his widow placed the words:

 “In memory of the devotion and affection shown by one hundred men on the estate of Torridon, who, at their request, carried his body from the house here on its way to interment in the family burial place at Gourock.”

Soon after buying the estate,  Darroch had sold off the Ben Damh section to the Earl of Lovelace. So when Torridon was bought after his death by Lord Woolavington, it was only the north side of the loch that was involved. His actual name was James Buchanan whose fortune had been made in the Black and White whisky company. He did not visit Torridon very much, and sold it to Sir Charles Blair Gordon of Montreal. He died in 1939 and eight years later the estate was sold to Richard Gunter from Yorkshire, who moved live in Torridon. When he died in 1960, the Earl of Lovelace then bought tTorridon to add to the Ben Damh property that one of his predecessorshad acquired when Duncan Darroch separated it from the northern part of the estate. After Ben Damh House was converted into a hotel, the Lovelaces came to live at Torridon House; when the fourth Earl died in 1964, Torridon was accepted by the Inland Revenue in part payment of death duty, and was transferred three years later to the National Trust for Scotland. The hotel is currently run by Dan & Rohaise Rose Bristow.


Shieldaig is situated at the head of Loch Shieldaig which is itself an inlet of Loch Torridon, which stretches north-westwards out towards open sea, flanked by the Torridonian Mountains on its north-east side, and the hills of North Applecross on the other.

Shieldaig was not originally built by the dispossessed crofters from the nearby glens, as were most coastal villages. It was constructed in Napoleanic times (around 1800) specifically to provide and train sailors for the Royal Navy. This was the idea of the Duke of Argyle who was a member of the Board of Admiralty. The site was considered to be a good position for a village. There were already some local cattle farmers living there, living on long leases from Mackenzie of Applecross. At first, no one could be found to build the village, and it was not until 1810 that the construction began.

The government gave generous grants for boat-building, guaranteed prices for fish supplies, adequate quantities of duty-free salt, plenty of land for all tenants, and a new road to connect Shieldaig with Kishorn and Lochcarron. The people who came to live in Shieldaig did well. They were able to build large boats in order to fish in the outer waters, and the salt allowed them to cure their fish catches at low cost before being sent southwards to markets.

By the time that the new village was fully functioning, the threat that Napoleon had posed had slipped away; there is no record of how many sailors from Shieldaig joined the Royal Navy.

Shieldaig was considered to be one of the finest villages on the west coast at this time, but sadly, things were to change. The Mackenzies of Applecross sold their large estates to the Duke of Leeds. His wife was one of the family who had been responsible for the cruel Sutherland clearances. She allowed her gamekeeper to prioritise sheep-farmers over mariners and sailors. He instigated new rules whereby cattle-grazing was taken away from the smaller tenants and added to sheep farms that were rented out to the innkeeper and a local merchant. The fishermen and crofters became poor. When the Duke of Leeds broke up the Applecross property into smaller sections, the Lochcarron estate, including the village of Shieldaig was sold to Sir John Stewart. His sons went deerstalking in Glenshieldaig forest and dispossessed many of the Shieldaig tenants, taking over their houses for estate use. Most of the land was rented out to incoming sheep farmers.

By the 1860s, there only remained one offshore fishing boat remaining – the inhabitants of Shieldaig were too poor to make any more although the fishing remained good. The estate was criticized by the Royal Commission for allowing cartloads of shingle from the shore of the loch to be taken away for road-building and ballast. The villagers were worried that their protection from storm tides was being removed. By then the stone pier that had been built by the Destitution Board during the potato famine in the 1840s was still standing, but lack of maintenance by the estate had allowed it to crumble away significantly.

The Lochcarron estate was eventually sold to the Murrays, and Shieldaig fared much better.

Until the early 1960s the road from Lochcarron stopped at Shieldaig. Then a road was built to link with the Glen Torridon road, with a bridge to 'bridge the Balgy Gap'. This shortened the journey from Shieldaig to Torridon to 6 miles (from 68 miles), and also meant that the route was opened up Achnasheen, Gairloch and the north.