by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)
What is believed to be an old droving route from Badinluchie, south of Loch Achanalt in Strath Bran, to Dalnachroich in Strathconon was followed by several NOSAS members on a sunny day in October.
The Roy map of c1750 has two roads from the east coast to the west through Ross-shire, one through Strathconon and one through Strath Bran. At this time they would hardly have been roads but more probably bridle ways easily traversed by ponies; a road from Contin to Poolewe through Strath Bran first appears in the records about the year 1760. From the late 1700s, and probably even earlier, communication with the Isle of Lewis passed through the tiny port of Poolewe, cattle were shipped from the Islands to join the droving routes which led eastwards to the tryst at Muir of Ord; John Knox was to report that he sailed from Stornoway to Poolewe in a small unworthy vessel used for the transport of cattle (Tour of the Highlands and Islands 1786). Cattle export was to reach its height in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars.
The main route by which the drovers headed east for Muir of Ord was via Loch Maree, Achnasheen and Strath Bran, although there were other routes to the north. Maps of the late 18th and early 19th century – John Ainslie 1789, Arrowsmith 1807 and John Thomson 1832, indicate a branch road heading south over the hills from Achanalt in Strath Bran to Strathconon via “Baud Leuchie”; this route would have made eminent sense for drovers wishing to avoid hazardous river crossings on their way to Muir of Ord.
There were Inns at both Dalnachroich and Scatwell in Strathconon and evidence of an Inn at Badinluchie; a list of householders in 1798 has Murdoch Matheson, “vintner” living there. Osgood Mackenzie writes about his father travelling from Conon House to Gairloch via this route in about 1800:
A troop of men and some 30 ponies came from Gairloch, everything had to go west, and I have heard that my father was carried to Gairloch on pony back in a kind of cradle when he was only a few weeks old. The plan was to start (from Conon House) in the afternoon for the little inn at Scatwell at the foot of Strathconon as there was a road of a kind thus far, the old yellow coach carried the quality (the gentry) there before dark. There were several difficulties in those days. One was the crossing of the various fords over the rivers and the next was keeping dry all the precious things. Next morning the start was made at 6 o’clock up Strathconon and across the high beallach into Strath Bran and on till Kenlochewe was reached. (A Hundred Years in the Highlands, Osgood Mackenzie (1921))
From the 16th century Strathbran and Strathconon were held by Mackenzie of Seaforth, Chief of the Clan. By the 1830s they had been sold to James Balfour of Whittingham who turned over some of his estate to the sport of shooting. The census of 1841 has a gamekeeper in residence at Badinluchie and in 1851 two families are noted, one of a gamekeeper and one of a shepherd. A plan of the Strathconon Estate (NRAS RHP 2525) of 1825 has a track between Badinluchie and Dalnachroich; today a well-made track takes exactly the same route. This track is marked on the 1st Edition OS map of 1875 and in the 1870s was traversed by none other than William Gladstone, the Prime Minister:
Mr Gladstone was staying in Strathconon (at Dalbreac Lodge) with his wife and daughter as a guest of Arthur Balfour. He was very fond of the outdoor life and reluctant to leave when it came to the end of his visit. Mr Gladstone was due in London for a cabinet meeting but put off his departure, sending his luggage the 16 miles to Muir of Ord and deciding to go overland the 5 miles to Achanalt (the document actually says “Achnasheen” but this is clearly a mistake) to catch the train. He lingered until the last possible moment and then made a rough hurried journey over moor and loch to Achanalt only just managing to make the train in time – Arthur Balfour got the blame! (NAS E433-2-85 Memoirs of Arthur James Balfour)
We journeyed by train too for the outward journey on “our” day, always an enjoyable experience; and we felt quite intrepid as we alighted at the remote request stop of Achanalt. A short walk along the road and across moorland found us at Badinluchie. The two obvious buildings here were designed by Joass, the Dingwall architect, in 1878 and were falling into disrepair. But we were more interested in the remains of another building beside the burn; could this be the old inn? A roofed building appears on the first edition OS map but very little is left of it and what did remain was badly wasted; there was however evidence of a fireplace with two side slabs in the only wall of any significance. The structure was marked on the 2nd Edition OS map of 1903 as a kennel.
The track southwards was easy going and climbed gradually. We had noted several bench marks on the 1st edition OS map and we were to find two of them. Two sites, both comprising enclosures with roughly built structures adjacent, were also located; these were probably connected with sheep-farming……or cattle droving? On the descent to Strathconon there was a much more interesting site; in a small hollow at the junction of two burns a cluster of shielings was investigated. The six grassy dished mounds beside the burn were a token of a way of life long since abandoned and overtaken by the sheepfold alongside them. Also of interest was rig and furrow cultivation strips neatly “sectioned” by the track – did this indicate permanent settlement?
The problem with a linear walk such as this, where one ends up in a remote location, is that the homeward journey has to be carefully planned; on this occasion we were met by a very kind support team, our thanks to them for a super day!