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Peter May, the Commissioners, NOSAS and the National Library of Scotland – a story of discovery

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

“Coigach is a very large country”

In 1756 a young man was sent by his employers to Coigach, the rough open wild country west of Ullapool. His job was to measure and survey the land. But he wasn’t altogether happy in his task. He wrote to his employers on 21st July:

The estate of Coigach is a very large country, and the subject difficult and tedious to measure, being little else but high mountains with scattered woods, steep rocky places, and a number of lochs in the valleys, which with the great distance there is between houses makes me obliged to sleep in the open fields for several nights together, which is dangerous in a climate where so much rain falls. I wish (you) would condescend to allow me a tent or otherwise I’ll have great difficulty to go through. There is no such thing as sleeping in their houses in the summer time, they are so full of vermin. Everything is scarce and dear, my living costs me more here than it does in Aberdeen although I can scarcely get bear bannocks.

(Adams, 1979, pp10-11).

The man was Peter May, his employers were the Commissioners of the Board for the Forfeited Annexed Estates.

The battlefield of Culloden saw the demise of more than the men who fought there. The clan chiefs who “came out” had their land appropriated by the Crown. Much of it was then ravaged, particularly those estates nearest Culloden. The Lovat estate at that time centred on the seat of the Fraser clan, Castle Dounie, at the head of the Beauly Firth. Castle Dounie was burnt following the battle. The estate comprised the parishes of Kiltarlity, Kirkhill and Kilmorack, near Beauly, the lands of Stratherrick on the south side of Loch Ness and a small section of land on the north side of that Loch at Dalcattick and Portclair. The Mackenzie estate of Cromartie consisted of land around Cromarty on the Black Isle, New Tarbat on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, parcels of land on the Tarbat peninsula, Castle Leod (near Strathpeffer), and the lands of Coigach on the west coast. Castle Leod was the ancestral seat, New Tarbat became the seat in the late 17th century, and the lands of Coigach were obtained in the dowry of Margaret Macleod of Lewis in 1606 (Clough, 1990, p3).

New Tarbat House in the late 17th century ©Canmore

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