Surveying Isle Ewe, Wester Ross

by Anne MacInnes (NOSAS)

Aerial of Isle Ewe from Canmore

Isle Ewe is centred on NG 85046 88444 and lies within Loch Ewe just off the coast at Aultbea.

It was surveyed as part of an ongoing project to survey islands in the Gairloch parish area that have been inhabited. It is the largest of these islands comprising 764 acres and stretching roughly two miles from NW to SE. It is an island of two halves due to the geology. The NW consisting of Torridonian sandstone is higher, rockier with rough uncultivated grazing, whereas the SE consisting of deposited New Red sandstone has gentler contours with  improved arable pasture. The SE is also sheltered from the prevailing NW winds.

The earliest reference that I could find about the island was from 1583 when Nicolay refers to Loch Ew and the island. There are various references after this with differing spellings and Roy’s map of 1747 shows two settlements on the island. The island has been settled since the bronze/iron age as I found 5 roundhouses on the island and there could be more as the N end of the island is covered with rank heather overlying deep moss. At times it felt like I was swimming across the landscape, about to disappear never to be found.

Roy Map Isle Ewe

The island is still inhabited by the Grant family without whose help the survey would not have happened.

The full report on the survey can be found on the NOSAS website under ‘past surveys and reports’ so rather than repeat everything I will highlight some of my favourite moments.

The logistics of getting to the island involved constant communication with the Grants about the weather and once on the island a watchful eye was kept on the conditions. They picked me up from Aultbea and ferried me across to various landing points depending on where I was surveying which eventually took about ten trips. I find myself still going back as various queries crop up about more sites as they notice the island through different eyes.

Footings of building at N. settlement marked on Roy’s map

Spot the roundhouse

I started in the north of the island and worked my way back and forth as methodically as possible, finding evidence of past enclosures, one with a shell midden beside its wall, dykes both turf and stone, the roundhouses, ruined fishing bothies, and the footings of other buildings. Apart from the roundhouses, I was delighted to find what I think are the footings of the N. settlement  marked on Roy’s map. A cluster of buildings at the top of a slope covered with lazy beds which leads down to the sheltered bay of Acairseid Bheag. I also found the location of the quarry where the stone for the Aultbea Free Church was hacked from the cliff and dropped into waiting boats below.

 

Broad rigs leading down to Acairseid Bheag

Quarry face where the stone for church was dropped on to boats

In the centre of the island is a hill called Torr Loisgte which means singed small hill referring to the Bealltainne fires lit to celebrate the 1st of May. All people and livestock were driven between two fires to kill off any diseases and give protection. A pagan ritual that survives in places today.

Across the island are a total of 15 concrete platforms constructed during the second WW as there was a heavy military and naval presence in the area due to the fuel depot in the hills above the village which is still operational today. A submarine defence boom was placed across the loch to deter any invaders! The platforms were for Nissan huts and gun emplacements although no guns were ever placed on the island. However 4 barrage balloons were installed. The shore at the S. end of the island reflects this military use as there are a lot of small walls and jetties used for landing personnel.

WW11 concrete platform

Abandoned jetty opposite MOD base

To explain the landscape at the S. end of the island, a bit of history!

Records show that a large farm was established at the S. end around 1795.

In 1843 Sir Francis Mackenzie, who had started the process of  planning the Gairloch crofting townships died, and his brother John Mackenzie took over as estate factor until his nephew reached the age of majority. Estate maps were drawn up by Campbell Smith mapping out the townships and Isle Ewe was surveyed in 1848 when ‘Dr John’ decided to set up a model farm on the island to illustrate his new farming methods for the crofters.

 

Example of stone dyke in S. of the island

The area was cleared of stones and these used to construct boundary dykes around the fields. The area to the N. Was drained and water channelled to a mill. A large farmstead measuring 47×37.5m was built along with a farmhouse.

Approaching the ‘The Square’

I found that the field boundaries are still intact with the huge walls surviving, and as I approached ‘The Square’ I thought how am I going to tackle this, being used to single crofthouses!

Solution was to break it down into sections, doing detailed measured surveys of each part with lots of photographs and finally Jim Buchanan came over to help do a plane table of the relevant location points and luckily it all matched up. Contained within ‘The Square’ are a farmhouse, also used as a school, kiln, threshing mill with lade and wheel still visible and running, stables, large byre for 30 milking cows, dairy, and other sections used and reused.

Mill wheel

It was fun trying to work out the phasing of the building, as the S. wall has been demolished and original arches blocked up and then redesigned. My theory is that they had no idea about the NW winds and found it a bit draughty. The buildings are no longer used and the roof is starting to collapse.

A modified archway in ‘The Square’

Redesigned wall and collapsing roof

I found the remnants of the lathe and plaster walls within the farmhouse where ‘Dr John’ lived very interesting.

 

Lathe and plaster wall

There are also a row of fishermen’s and farmworker’s cottages which were planetabled.

Dr John left the island in 1856 and the farm was relet until after WW1 when it was divided into crofts for returning servicemen.

I was lucky enough to do an oral history interview with Kenny ‘Sandy’ who was born in one of the cottages and is now over 90.

The Grant family are descended from one of the original families.

There is also a disused burial ground on the S. end of the island with unmarked headstones and a boundary wall. Date unknown.

Burial ground

Apart from ‘The Square’, an old byre/barn and fank, the burial ground, and some enclosures and field boundaries, no other sites have previously been recorded on the island so the survey was well worth the effort.

Now on to Gruinard and Longa.

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