High Mingarry
by John Dye

Mingarry was once known as Mingarry Park and probably established in the mid-nineteenth century.

Nowadays, there can be seen a number of public buildings, such as the school and the church, which were erected by the Hope Scotts in 1862 as well as some private houses of more recent origin.

However, close by but out of sight, are also a number of cairns and another older township, now deserted, known as Upper Mingarry. This contains ruins of many houses, some of which were occupied in living memory.

The oldest building in Mingarry probably is at Cnoc Breac, where MacLaren lived at Peteran's. Here he survived a machine-gun burst in the War from Canadians "practising", not knowing he was at home at the time.

Mingarry was once known as Mingarry Park

In common with several other local villages, the place we know as Mingarry is not in its original location. The village now called Mingarry was once called Mingarry Park (although there does not appear to be any evidence that the English version of this name was ever used by the inhabitants) and was a settlement which apparently replaced the old settlement after the original villagers moved out. The church and school were constructed in 1862 and the other houses in the township look to be about the same age, with the exception of Cnoc Breac, which is certainly older. The best houses in the old village, now known as High Mingarry, are in the upper wood and are presumably the homes of the last three or four families to live there since they are in far better condition than the houses above the wood. However, 14 inhabited houses were noted in Mingarry in the 1841 census although no details were given as to their location.

The old bridge has a grizzly secret

Starting from the Blain Bridge, the area has many interesting features. The old bridge can still be seen although it is getting surrounded by brambles. It might date from the construction of the Kinlochmoidart Road in the early nineteenth century, but there are records of people parting at Blain (to go to High Blain and Dalilea) in the early eighteenth century. The new bridge was constructed by the late Robt. Cameron, Kentra, in the 1970s. Its construction involved the removal of a fine pine tree at the corner, where it has been said that people used to meet. The late John Smith, Blain, told me that he once had to dig a hole close to the old bridge and discovered a body in a red coat, possibly a soldier killed in the eighteenth century, he quickly filled in the hole.

Funeral cairns dot the route on the way to the township

A hundred metres or so east of the bridge is a group of cairns on the north side of the road. I have counted over thirty cairns, which are certainly markers left by funeral parties who rested there to drink at a well called the Tobhar Ruadh, which is now overgrown.

The first house in Mingarry village is Drumfearn, which is a recent building but it is on the exact site of an earlier house. It now belongs to Ian and Mairi MacMaster but in the old days the croft belonged to Misy MacDonald, known locally as Misy Ruadhraidh. She was a sweet character who rather resembled Margaret Rutherford in the old films. She had formerly lived at Oak Point, Moss, near the boat house, and latterly she lived at MacNaughton Crescent - one of its first inhabitants. Drumfern was a good croft which extends northwards from the road along the edge of the wood. At the top of the croft are some old crop marks which continue under a patch of woodland. They used to have a reputation for growing good potatoes on this croft. Misy's house was basically a small stone building with an extension of corrugated iron, but the extension had a history of its own since it was originally constructed as accommodation for gardeners at Kinlochmoidart and later moved an re-erected at Mingarry.

Leaving Drumfearn the road climbs up to a corner. Unfortunately recent road widening has removed all traces of a fine well which used to be at the roadside below the pine trees. The well was lined in stone and had a set of stone steps leading down to a small pool.

The next house is also a new one, Mingarry Point, but this again replaces an older building which I remember as being unusual in that it had a tiled floor in the kitchen. Next to the house, on the east side, was a byre with what appeared to be a pig sty next to it. Pig sties are unusual in the Highlands and there seem to have been three of them in Mingarry, the only township in which they appear locally, the only other one I know of locally is at Ranachan Steading on Sunart, but the hill behind Blain is called Torr na Muc (pig hill) so presumably there were pigs there.

The stretch of road after Mingarry Point has been tree-lined for the past hundred years at least and was known locally as 'The Avenue'. Halfway along it on the south side is a passing place which conceals one of the buried Moidart milestones, which was hidden in World War II. The idea was to confuse German invaders but in this case it might have been intended to make things more difficult for troops in the area on training exercises, there were many Polish troops in the vicinity of Mingarry and, they were accomplished poachers by all accounts.

Opposite the passing place one can discern the remains of a bank dyke which once ran right round the wood. It is shown in the first series OS map of about 1871 and some sections of it are still in very good condition. Since the steep side of the dyke is outside the wood it was certainly built to keep animals out and was probably not built as a holding compound for cattle but could well have been a protection for planted woodland. The stream which passes through this area is called Allt na Pairc.

If one leaves the road at this point and walks up the hill to the north (i.e. within the enclosed area) you would soon reach an attractive glade of large beech trees. To the south and west of this glade there are many conifers, mostly pine and larch, but to the north most of the wood is clearly planted oak, which was presumably a replacement for trees cut for charcoal in the nineteenth century or even before. No stances for charcoal burning have yet been identified (although one piece of charcoal has been discovered close to old buildings) but they may be found when the area is surveyed in detail.

At the end of the avenue the road crosses Allt na Pairc and on the right side is a small house which was once a byre and a larger house called Burnside which was built by Alastair and Jochan MacGillivray in 1964 as a replacement for an older building, probably of the same age as Drumfearn and Mingarry Point. There is a small track, much overgrown, opposite Burnside which was used as an access to a midden in the woods.

Clanranald Hotel and Fergie MacDonald's family links with Mingarry

After Burnside there are several new buildings belonging to Fergie MacDonald and his family. The centre of the Clanranald Hotel was once a croft house called Mingarry Cottage, the only one of the old Mingarry croft houses remaining. One of the old wells for the Mingarry houses was out in the field below Fergie's new house. I only saw this well once and I believe it was a barrel sunk into the ground.

Mingarry Cottage was occupied by Fergie MacDonald's parents, John (Ton) and Mima. Ton MacDonald was an extraordinary man who survived the entire Gallipoli campaign and fourteen continuous months of duty on the Somme front line. He returned to Mingarry without a scratch and worked as a local postman. When he died not far short of his hundredth birthday, he had drawn his pension for a longer period than he actually worked! Mima was from Morvern and a fine singer, with a fund of local stories.

Opposite the Clanranald is the old school. There are still a few of the large beech trees in the vicinity - the largest of these was immediately to the east of the gate and it fell in a gale a few years ago and came close to hitting the front of the school. The school ceased to function in the 1980s, when all the pupils transferred to Acharacle Primary School. So far as I know, all of the school facilities remain, complete with the unpopular outside toilets. When the school was built it was intended that it would be linked to a small convent but this was abandoned during construction with the strange result that there is a fireplace on one of the outside walls connected to a functional chimney. The school, the Priest's House and the church were constructed in 1862, when the estate was owned by Mr. Hope Scott, who closed the chapel at Dorlin and incorporated some of it into Dorlin House. I presume that the chapel at Langal was also closed at this time.

The 'park' dyke system is visible as a low wall on the east edge of the school grounds. Above the school are several dams which formed the Mingarry water supply before the mains supply was connected in the early 1970s. At the top of the wood above the school is a small cave which was regularly used by the pupils in break times.

East of the school there are now two holiday chalets which are built over the site of another well which served the school and the Priest's House. This is a big house and very soundly built with a fine pitch pine staircase. It used to have two large monkey puzzle (Araucaria) trees in front but these became unsafe and were felled in the 1980s.

The Church and the Hall

The Church of Our Lady and the Angels was built by a London company. One of its interesting features is a stained glass window close to the altar commemorating St Hyacinthus, a rather obscure Polish martyr. The connection was probably Lady Howard of Glossop, wife of the estate owner a hundred years ago, whose Christian name was Hyacinth.

Opposite the church is Mingarry Hall, erected in the 1920s as a result of public subscription. I have heard that the floor of this hall was paid for by Dr Symers MacVicar, who lived at Invermoidart, but there is some doubt about this. There was some controversy locally after World War I, when Acharacle village was given the army drill hall for community use, since that hall had been jointly used by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, on the south side of the loch, and the Lovat Scouts, on the north side, so the Moidart people felt they had a joint right to the Acharacle Hall.

To the south of Mingarry Hall is a small hill with an old, but small, rowan tree on it. Maddeningly, I have been told by several people that there is a story attached to this tree but nobody can remember the story! According to Celtic folklore, rowan trees were said to give some protection against witches and the area around the hill is reputed to have a reputation for inexplicable phenomena.

The bridge over the Mingarry burn has the appearance of a 'Parliamentary bridge' and probably dates from 1807 or so when the Kinlochmoidart road was constructed from Ardgour. There is a track for access to High Mingarry above the road next to the bridge. This track was built around 1890 by the then landowner, Lord Howard of Glossop, for picnics by his family and visitors. Another track is marked on the first series OS map which runs past the church and connects to the High Mingarry track at a ford. It seems likely that this was the original route, abandoned after the new track was built.

From the bridge the road climbs in a series of curves up the hill eastwards. Halfway up the hill, above the new house, a cairn can be seen close to an electricity pole. This is actually a composite cairn made by amalgamating several funerary cairns demolished when the power line was put in around 1974. There are more fragmentary cairns on the north side of the road within the forestry fence, so it may be assumed that this was a stopping place on the coffin route to St Finan's Isle and there was probably a spring nearby although no trace of this remains.

The croft at Deeke and the Rusianach MacDonalds

The turning on the right near the top of the hill leads to a croft now called Mo Dhachaidh, but formerly called Deeke (pronounced jeek). In the 1960s, Deeke was still inhabited by two brothers and a sister called John, Angus and Mary MacDonald. They were also known as 'Rusianach' since their father, Iain, had made a trip to Russia before he got married. All three of the Deeke inhabitants lived to a good age, Mary, sometimes known as Polly, survived well into her nineties and walked as straight as a ramrod. She had travelled widely in service and spoke Italian, French and Spanish as well as impeccable English and, of course, perfect Gaelic. She also played the piano and might have led a completely different life had she not been compelled to return home when her mother got ill. Her two brothers were, on the contrary, very quiet men; the late Hugh MacDonald said they had little English.

I have since been told of two other sisters: one was dumb and was only vaguely mentioned, the other was called Bella and emigrated to Canada long ago. Mary had a photograph of Niagara Falls sent by Bella on prominent display. Bella had a son who tried to visit during WWII but was unable to cross Corran Ferry without a permit.

Just over the top of the hill facing to the south-east, is an old stone building known as Cnoc Breac. This is probably the oldest roofed building in West Moidart, although the Moidart Smokehouse in Dalnabreac is also a contender. An account of the building is appended at the end of these notes.

Mingarry Woods were managed for charcoal and coppicing

The woods have been managed for several hundred years. The western woods were certainly planted and maintained as an oak plantation, probably for charcoal production in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The records of the Lorne Furnace refer to charcoal production in several Moidart woods in 1795. Beech and larch were also planted in this section during Victorian times and the pines are probably also planted. The east end of the wood is a more typical plantation, with at least three periods of major conifer planting. Among the conifers are many very old oaks, carefully preserved, a credit to the landowners involved. Many of these old trees, particularly towards the top of the wood, are multi-stemmed, indicating that they are overgrown coppice-stools originally managed for the production of oak poles. On the west side of the present gate can be seen the remains of an old iron fence which probably dates from the first phase of planting in the late nineteenth century.

The present track climbs through the wood, with some fine grand fir and silver fir planted along it, to a bridge constructed by the estate. Halfway to the bridge is a forestry gate on the west side and I believe this is the point at which the original track crossed the burn at a ford. The estate bridge apparently replaces an earlier bridge shown on the first series o/s map (1871) with a different alignment but in the same position. The situation is complicated by the presence of abutments of a third bridge about forty metres to the east. Above the bridge one can see more of the old fence, and another gateway, one gatepost made from a length of railway line (which must have travelled some distance to reach Mingarry!).

The 1871 map shows the original track from the estate bridge to High Mingarry taking a course fairly close to the stream, but the route of that track is now covered by dense Sitka spruce plantation and is ploughed and difficult to detect. There are faint traces of a third track to the west which runs north of and parallel to the course of another stream eventually reaching a line of houses at the top of the wood. The present track takes a drier route and was constructed by the estate.

To the left of the track, one passes a Bank dyke which is part of a dyke system protecting a substantial cultivated area west of the road, now planted with small larch but with many scattered hawthorn which might once have been part of a hedge system. One of these dykes crosses the line of the present road and continues to the west for about a kilometre. To the east of the road this dyke is interrupted by an old gateway and the remains of a footpath above an attractive glade of two lines of oak trees (possibly planted?), some of which might have been pollarded. At the bottom of the slope is the route of the old track. A new drainage ditch has recently been dug here, exposing several old drainage tiles possibly indicating the cultivation ridges nearby could have been in operation after the 1850s exodus.

At the top of the wood is a second stone bridge and the track continues beyond it into the village of High Mingarry, but the 1871 map shows that the old track crossed the stream further to the east, close to the confluence of two streams, probably at a ford, and continued over the hill northwards. Beyond the top of the hill there are the remains of another bridge abutment above the ravine.

Signs of previous habitation on the walk up the burn to High Mingarry

The route of the Mingarry Burn on the east side of the wood runs along a fairly straight wall, an indication that the course of the burn was once, at considerable expense, straightened. This wall is extended upstream in the region of the confluence so that the bank at the original crossing is now steep on the south side.

Immediately before the bridge and on the west side of the track is the outline of a demolished stone house (the stones could have been incorporated in the bridge) and there may have been other houses on the east side of the road - there seems to be an artificially levelled area there. Several more structures can be seen north of the track after it crosses the bridge, one of which might be a much-altered recessed platform. To the right of the bridge, beyond the confluence is a large building which I have tentatively called 'The Smiddy' - it is close to the route of the old track and seems to have an artificially dammed pool close by. There is a local tradition that the ravine north of this building once held a still, certainly the course of the stream seems to have been modified in the past.

The area now called High Mingarry is divided by the streams into three parts: to the east there are a group of buildings at the top of the hill among the forestry plantation, to the west is a wide area which was once cultivated, bounded at the top by a substantial head dyke and to the south, in the present plantation, are several more buildings the condition of which suggests that they were the last inhabited dwellings in the village.

To approach the east section it is necessary first to pass the 'Smiddy' and go down the east bank of the stream until one reaches a dyke running up the hill to the north. Cross the fence and follow this dyke, a stone building is clearly seen on its south side. Eventually the dyke merges into a bank dyke among a glade of oak trees and then links up with several other dykes around old cultivation areas under the plantation. Following the original dyke up the hill one reaches a narrow ravine which has been blocked by a wall beyond which is a substantial building in the centre of the valley (possibly connected with the collection of cattle?).

This was once a well-populated area with many houses extending northwards and eastwards. An enclosed cultivated area continues eastwards beyond the forestry fence and there is another similar area a few hundred metres further east.

The west of High Mingarry is enclosed within a substantial head dyke which meets the burn at the site of a rough stone bridge. At the north end of the dyke is some high ground with several houses and indications of cultivation. This area was once forested as a small plantation, possibly for stock shelter, a single iron fence post remaining at the north-west corner. The old stone bridge was said to have been constructed in a single day by the unaided efforts of a local strong man, Domhnuill Dubh Laidir Mingarry (Strong Black Donald of Mingarry, a MacVarish).

There is a story that the crossing at this point was used by coffin bearers taking bodies from Scardoish and Briaig to St Finan's Isle and on a particularly bad day when the stream was in spate the bearers stumbled and the coffin was swept away downstream and smashed.

I have read that a Donald MacVarish later emigrated from the area to Prince Edward Island with his family (I believe this was in the 1830s) and this could have been the same man. Interestingly, he gave his address as High Mingarry, the first recorded use of the name, indicating that the village must have extended to the lower ground at that time. There is no indication as to where Donald lived, possibly on one of the cultivated areas close to 'his' bridge. During a visit to the site on 13th October, 2002, a substantial piece of iron slag was found in the stream close to Domhniull Dubh Laidir's Bridge indicating the presence of a bloomery site in the vicinity.

To the south of the old bridge, built by Domnhuill Dubh Laidir, the head dyke continues southwards along the slope towards the present Mingarry wood. Below it, among the remains of an old plantation is some very uneven ground which may be an Iron Age settlement. Crossing the forestry fence into the wood one can see a strange walled enclosure built on top of a flat rock outcrop, the purpose of which is unclear, there are at least two other similar structures in the vicinity. Beyond this structure is a cultivation area among some very old coppiced oaks.

Cnoc Breac

Cnoc Breac (pronounced 'kroch-ka brech-k') means speckled hillock, presumably from the appearance of scattered boulders. The name is applied to the croft i.e. the patch of land from the knoll down to the burn. At one time all this land was under cultivation but it has now reverted to rushes and heather. Apart from the building, the only marks of habitation are a few broken fences and the trees. A few years ago there was an apple tree on the site but this has since died. Many fruit trees were planted on the local crofts between the wars, some being given to the crofters by the landowner, Lord Howard of Glossop, but it isn't known if the Cnoc Breac tree was one of these.

Technically, the croft is identified as No 22 Mingarry, although it is some distance from the village now called Mingarry (and originally referred to as Mingarry Park). The house is obviously much older than the other buildings in the village and may well have been an outlying part of the old village of Mingarry, the remains of which may be found to the north of the afforested area.

The exact age of the house is not certain, nor do we know the identity of its original inhabitants. Judging by its general shape (particularly the rounded corners) and size it is probably over 150 years old. Only two other houses of a similar style remain in Moidart in something like their original form; one in Dalnabreac and the other in Glenuig. The original configuration of the Cnoc Breac house (as discovered during the 1979 restoration work) is quite unusual in that it possessed two doors, the present one and another in the position of the present fireplace. Only one other local building had this arrangement, but this has also been converted from its original plan. The house must have undergone more than one phase of rebuilding since the fireplace was almost certainly in position before 1898. It is possible that there were originally only two windows, one on either side of the present door. The design, and the presence of a cobbled floor under the wooden floor, indicated the original use of the building by both beasts and humans in the style of the 'black houses'. There is no trace of a well near the house, presumably all the water was carried up from the stream in pails

The house used to be called "Peteran's"

The house was known locally as Peteran's, after its last inhabitant, Peter MacLaren. The MacLarens occupied the house from the late nineteenth century until about thirty years ago. Peteran's father, also called Peter, was a big man and he worked as a general labourer on and around the estate. He wasn't born locally and there is a story that he came into the area when the telegraph system was being installed.

The house underwent a considerable reconstruction around 1898 when a brick chimney and window alterations were made to convert the house into two 'flats'. The MacLaren family occupied the north end and the other half was taken by Mr. Peter Bruce MacGregor, possibly a relative, known locally as 'Para Bruce'. Mr. Bruce had formerly tenanted Shiel Cottage (now called Moss Cottage) with his two sisters and moved in with the MacLarens after the old ladies died. Para Bruce had been a valet to a Col. Cardoyle and had accompanied him on big game hunting expeditions to Africa. He was also a well-known piper, a pool in the river Shiel near the New Bridge known as the Piper's Pool is said to have been named after him. He died at Cnoc Breac during the First World War.

Para Bruce's part of the house was fairly spacious by the standards of the time, he had a wooden floor (covering the original cobbles) and two windows, although the new brick chimney didn't keep the smoke out of the room! He slept on a folding iron bed which was placed near the fire against the west wall. During the day the bed became a seat which, placed in front of the fire, gave him a fine view down the road to see who was coming by. The remainder of the house had a flagstone floor and only one window; the most interesting feature was the central fireplace with its big wooden smoke hood which vented through a hole in the thatch, all of the cooking was done on this fireplace. The fireplace, and most of the thatched roof, was still in place in the late 1960's, all stained and reeking from many years of peat smoke.

The MacLaren family comprised 'Old Peter', his wife, Belle, two daughters, Marjory (Misie) and Annie, and Peteran. In the 'Old Days' the house was well-known for its ceilidhs, when everyone would crowd round the peat fire singing or telling stories while the candles flickered and a little oil lamp on the dresser threw dark shadows on the roof timbers.

Misie MacLaren was a big, strong girl - during the First World War, when the men were away, she worked lock gates on the Caledonian Canal. There was very little local employment for girls in those days and both the sisters left the district around 1936 to work 'in service', eventually dying far from their Moidart home.

The design of the MacLaren's 'flat' included, tucked away behind the fireplace, a tiny, windowless room known as 'the closet' in which Old Peter lived his last years when crippled with arthritis. Peteran himself stayed on until after the Second World War. He was a stockman at Dalilea for many years and then he went to Drumsallie, Kinlocheil. He returned to the site briefly around 1970, living in an old caravan. However this arrangement did not last and he moved to an Old Folk's Home in Fort William where he died in 1976. He was not a big man, like his father, but rather slight of build and with a very quiet, unassuming manner.

The Canadians strafed it during the War

Strangely, the building was damaged by machine gun fire during the Second World War when it was strafed by Canadian troops training in the area, and not aware that Peteran was inside at the time! The windows were broken and some of the brick chimney was damaged, but Peteran miraculously emerged without a scratch.

In 1979 the building was restored to something like its pre-1898 state by a local co-operative called Teachd air Tir, which opened it as a museum for two seasons: the brickwork round the windows and chimney were replaced by stone, and the wooden flooring, which had mostly rotted away, was replaced by a stone floor. Near the door, a piece of a quern stone was built into the floor. The roof was also reconstructed using traditional methods (no nails were used) but this roof was dismantled in 1981 and has been replaced in a more conventional manner.
A few hundred metres east of Cnoc Breac is a bend in the road known locally as 'Peteran's Corner', after the last inhabitant of the croft.

A similar corner to the east was called 'Peat Corner', being the point of access to the peat banks which were the fuel supply for the local crofters. From this corner a rough track can be discerned, running across the moss in the direction of Acharacle. This was the first phase of the construction of a road to the boathouse at Moss. Unfortunately, Mr. Hope Scott (a relative of Sir Walter) died before the road was completed and the project was abandoned.