Neilson Report: Moidart, 1755
by Jean Lawson

Richard Neilson was sent in 1755 by the Commissioners of Fisheries and of Manufacturers to report on conditions in Mull, Morvern and Moidart.

He wrote that he found a people who wove linen on crude looms, grew flax and oats and barley, and had just started to plant potatoes.
He described Mull and Morvern as being fertile and well-populated, remarking on the many trading ships passing through the Sound of Mull and trading up and down the coast. These included timber carriers from Norway, vessels from the Outer Hebrides with agricultural produce and ships returning from Glasgow with finished goods.
Finally he came to Moidart, crossing Loch Shiel near Eillean Fhinnan and making his way in rainy weather over the hill to the River Moidart, which was in spate. After crossing it with some difficulty, he came to the ruin of Kinlochmoidart House which had been razed to the ground after the Rising ten years earlier. He described the land in Moidart as not being generally arable, but able to support beef and goats and a very few sheep. The inhabitants were virtually all Catholic and spoke Gaelic, as there were no English schools yet.

Weaving and Agriculture in Mull in the mid-eighteenth century

… is not only sufficient for their own use, but a little is also sold to the people out on the Continent. Many of the young people have been taught to spin at the School at Airds, and there is now as much Linen made as serves the Inhabitants, and indeed I am told - there was last season several hundred yards sold at a fair in Morvern. As I was told the few weavers they had were extremely bad I enquired for and was directed to the principall Tradesman in the Island: When I came to his Hutt I found a Loom or two made of sticks and bound together with Ropes and Twigs, and in every respect such clumsey machines that I could not have believed (had I not been assured by good Authority) that any kind of Cloath could be made with them. And I must beg leave to observe that a few wheels dispensed in this Island, and a sufficient weaver and wheel wright settled about Airds would contribute much to forward the attempts that these people are making towards this kind of Industry.

Much shipping passed through the sound of Mull and in 1755 the major towns there were Fort William and Strontian

Upon my leaving this Island I proceeded for Morvern where I arrived at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. This Country including Glendow and Glengale is in the Shire of Argyle, and is bounded on the East by Kingairloch, on the South by that branch of the sea …..

Upon the whole the Climate is very healthy, the Inhabitants are seldom attacked with feverish disorders, and often Live to a good old age - The oats are sown betwixt the middle of February and the middle of March old stile, and the Barley about the beginning of May. The Harvest is finished about the latter end of September. - The Soil is a read earthy mould, with a small mixture of Channel [gravel from the channel of a river acc. to Chambers' Scots dictionary] and produces pretty good crops of Oats and Barley. It is however Extremely apt to throw up what is called Bent Grass, which the people seem conscious might be prevented with proper Culture. There is a general and prevailing opinion that the Ground will not produce Barley unless it is manured wither with Sheeps dung or Sea Weed. This manure is not tilled down with the Ground but laid upon the top of it and dispersed with the Harrows. The Barley sown upon the Ground manured with Sheep dung produces about sevenfold, and that sown upon Ground manured with Sea Weed about fifteen. The small black oats produce from three and a half to fourfold.

Potatoes make their appearance in Morvern and the local Minister estimates a population of nine hundred

Within these few years it is that these people began to plant potatoes: But they now find this Root of such Singular Service that it is planted in great quantitys on the Sides of the Hills that were formerly uncultivated.
Mr Campbell of Airds supplys them annually with flax seed, which most of them sow in small quantitys, and begin to be sensible of the advantages of such a Crop and that their soil is fit for it. The Country produces as much meal, together with the potatoes, as serves its Inhabitants for ten or Eleven months of the year; what more is necessary is purchased from the Ships that come along the Coast from Aberdeen and Banffshire. At the foot of the River of Aylin there is Caught some salmon.

The Boll of meal is bought at present at from 10 to 11 shillings. A pound of fresh Salmon is generally bought for a penny. A fat cow which will weight about 250 lib. will Sell at present for about fifty Shillings. A Sheep for 4/6 or 5 shillings, a pound of Butter for four pence, a pound of Cheese for two pence, and a peck of potatoes which Contains Eight pints for Eight pence.

These things are all good of their kind, but their mutton is very bad, owing as I am told to the frequent demands there are from the mines at Strontian, and the Ships passing through the Sound of Mull their Calling frequently for fresh provisions, which induces the people to dispose of their Sheep before they be of a proper age. All along this Coast there is great plenty of white fish of various kinds, of which the Inhabitants take only what is sufficient for themselves. They are generally associated into Companys who have the property of a Boat in Common, and go out to fish by turns.

The Ground is not Rented after any particular Rule, every farm paying according to use and wont; but for the Grassing of a Cow through the whole year they are generally Charged 5 shillings in the Strath, but if Grassed in the mountains only three shillings and four pence.

The Reverend Mr Robertson Minister, by his Catechising Roll, makes the Inhabitants amount to 941, who are mostly Camerons and Campbells, many of whom speak English - The only fireing used is Peat, which is Cut in the mosses that are Commodiously Situated on all their possessions, but there being none at any time Sold, a price cannot be ascertained.
On the farm of Ardtornish at the East End of the Country, the property of the Duke of Argyle, it is said there is the appearance of Coal, but as yet there is no Certainty of it. Mr Campbell of Airds told me that he could undertake to provide the people with Coals at the Rate of Twelve shillings per Ton.

The most remarkable places with which the Inhabitants Correspond are Strontian and Fort William. Strontian is reckoned Distant from the Kirk of Kilcolmkile in Morvern 12 computed miles of a bad road; and Fort William is distant 24 Computed miles likewise of a bad Road interrupted by several rapid Streams and a final Ferry at the Current of Ardgower. - As the narrow sound of Mull leads into the western Ocean, and is dailly traversed by Shipping going to and from the Clyde and the West of England the access to this Country must be very Easy by watter. On the east End of the Country there are two pretty good anchoring places vizt. the Bay of Innebeg and the foot of the water of Aylin, and about the Centre of the Country near the Farm of Killlindine is a pretty good anchorage for small craft. The opposite Coast of Mull affords many safe anchoring places where ships daily resort the most remarkable of which are Tobermorey Bay, Arros bay, Corinahinish Bay, and Mcalasters Bay.

Boats from the Hebrides on the way to Glasgow traded down the coast and locals from Morvern sold black cattle to drovers

In the Spring Season there are a number of people with small Boats loaded with Beef and mutton Barrells, Butter, Cheese, Tallow, dry'd fish, Train Oil etc. that come from the western Isles bound for Glasgow, who dispose of a good Deal of their Cargo's along this Coast on very reasonable terms. At Glasgow they pruchase broad Cloaths, Linen, wines, Suggars, and such other goods as they have a demand for at home.
Of the Salmon which are (as I have already noticed) caught at Kinlochalin there are a few Barrells yearly Cured and Exported with the fish of the water of Lochie that are Cured at Fort William. On the Coast there is burnt a little Kelp and Fearn ashes - which are disposed of to the people who call for them from Liverpool and the North of Ireland.

The black cattle are sold to Drovers who Come into the Country about the month of May, and several of them when fat are sold to the mines at

Strontian and the Garrison at Fort Willliam*, the Horses are sold at a Fair at Moss of Balloch near Dumbarton. In Gelndow were the Lead mines that were some time ago carried on by a number of Gentlemen taking the Name of the Morvern Company. * IT note: Capt. John Beckwith of Burn Beg(?) reporting to Gen Churchill at Edin Castle dated 1752, established a small garrison at Inversanda, no doubt guarding the entrancet o Glen Tarbert, consisting of 1 corporal and 3 men. The corporal reported that the party had been well supplied with milk, butter and cheese but at a great price. The milk 2 pence the Scots pint, butter six pence per lb. and cheese in proportion.

The ore was lodged in Store houses built at Liddisdale in the north side of the Country almost opposite to Strontian and was exported down Loch Sunart. The Ships that bring meal from Aberdeenshire into this Country are paid a freight at the rate of 9d to 10d p. Boll. The men Servants are generally ingaged by the year, during which time they are Allowed from 16 to 20 pounds Scots, with a Hide in the Hair; This they themselves dress and make into Shoes or Brogues for their own wear. Thw women again are allowed from 6 to 10 pound Scots p Annum, with two pairs of double soaled Shoes, valued at 16 pence each. Such of the men as are imployed for days wages are paid from six pence to Eight pence per day.

The Duke of Argyll required his tenants build their houses in stone instead of wood and turf

Sometime ago the Houses were made of wood wattled like a Basket, fortifyed on the outside with Turf. The Roof covered with thin Divot; but by a Tack which his Grace the Duke of Argyll entered into with his Tenents lately, they are obliged to build their Houses with Stone, although the Tenents upon the Estate of the other two proprietors have their houses still in the old fashion. Cameron of Gendessary's house is one of these wooden ones, but most neatly finished into several commodious appartments, and which to a Stranger is somewhat surprising. I am informed that one of these dry stone houses built by the Duke of Argyll's Tennents 60 feet long and 18 feet broad over the walls will cost about 12 pounds Sterling.

There is a good deal of natural wood on the farm of Ardtornish, but as it has not been taken proper care of when young it does not seem in a prosperous way. There is likewise some small oakwood upon Cameron of Gelndessary's Estate and on the Banks of Loch Sunart. Though it is this that the Inhabitants make use of in Building, yet I am afraid it would be of little use in such Buildings as the Honble, Board would propose to make. However I am told, that Timber may be conveniently purchased from the Ships passing from Norway through the Sound of Mull towards Ireland, Clyde, and the West of England. The Log timber at the rate of 40/- p Ton and the 100s deals 1½ inches thick and 9 feet long from 5 to 6 pounds Sterling.

Easdale which is 10 leagues distant from Killundine, a farm about the middle of the coast, affords plenty of Slates which is reckoned will cost at Morvern 25/- per Thousand. There is plenty of Limestone in the Country, and it is to be had at Tobermory in the Isle of Mull at the Distance of one League. Stones and Sand may be had everywhere.

I must in Justice to these people acknowledge that they appear to me the most Civilised and Industrious on the western Coast. They seem conscious of the advantages arising from it, and ready to grasp at every opportunity for Instruction.

The Country of Morvern is so Extensive, so well Inhabited, so commodiously situated on the Sea Coast, and the Soil is so fertile and proper for flax, that I think it a very fit place for Exciting one of the Stations at. For this purpose I lookt out for a Convenient Situation.

At the foot of the water of Aylin there is, as I have already noticed, a very good anchoring place for vessels, on the West Side of the River there is a plain belonging to Mr Cameron of Glendessary, and on the East one belonging to his Grace the Duke of Argyll, either of which would be a proper enough Situation for a village, but that on the East is certainly the most commodious.There is great plenty of Free and Limestone near at hand, which with the Conveniency of the Small Salmon fishing are advantages that would have induced me to have marked out the place.

But when I considered that it is Situated on the Extremity of the Country, and that the Inhabitants live all to the westward of the River, I was afraid it might not be so Convenient. I therefore looked for and marked out another place upon the farm of Killundine belonging to the Duke of Argyle where there is a pretty large plain. It is a proper enough Situation for a village, and I herewith present a plan of it to the honourable Board. But this place is not so well Situated as Kinlochaline for making a Harbour, and besides the Lime and Free Stone which would be necessary for the Buildings must be brought either from Kilochaline or Tobermory. I must therefore beg leave to Submitt it to the Honble. Board which of these is the most proper place for a Station.

A report of the community at the Strontian lead mines near to the forfeit estate of Sir Charles Murray

On the 27th I Sett out from Morvern to Strontian where I arrived that afternoon. This place is Situated on the side of Loch Sunart, which gives the name of Sunart to that District of the Country which is Bounded on the northeast by the Country of Locheil, on the South east Divided from Morvern by Loch Sunart, and partly bounded by the Hills of Ardgower, on the Norht divided by LochShiel from Moydart. It is 14 miles long and 9 broad. Though it is very mountainous, yet it is Esteemed amont the best Grassing Countrys in the Highlands. It belongs to the Shire of Argyll, and the parish of Ardnamurchan, is part of the Sequestrated Estate of Sir Charles Murray of Stanhope, and is possessed by Cameron of Dungallon by virtue of a wadsett.

The Strath or low Land of the Country is that upon which Stands Strontian, and which I think will be about 2 miles long and one mile broad divided by the water of Eggardale which at Strontian emptys itself into Loch Sunart. About a mile to the north side of Strontian is a pretty large plain on which stands the

Ruins of a Building Erected by the York building Company when they were in possession of the Lead Mines near this place for the Accommodation of their work people. Betwixt this and Strontian is situated a pretty large Moss from which the Inhabitants are Supplyed with Peats.

The Snow begins to fall about the month of November, lyes pretty long on the Hills but seldom about Strontian above two or three days. During the whole winter season there is not much frost but frequent and heavy Rains. About the beginning of March the weather becomes dry, the wind blowing briskly from the North. In the months of May, June and July it is also pretty dry; But from the middle of August to the end of September there commonly falls heavy Rain. In the month of October there is generally good weather.

The Soil of the Strath is a thin Sharp Gravel and formerly produced good Crops of Oats, provided there was a good deall of Rain through the Summer Season. But within these few years they are much hurt with a milldew. As yet there has been no flax Sown in the Country, Except a very Small quantity last year by one farmer, which I was told answered pretty well, but I am afraid that this high Soil is not fit for such a Crop, to which the milldew also would be very pernicious. However were the Inhabitants properly …..that the Intentions of the honble. Board for Introducing the Linnen Manufacture into this part of the Country would be Sufficiently answered by appointing a Spinning Mistress who should receive Wheels and Reels to disperse in the Country, and Lint from the Station in Morvern to give out to the people to Spin. She ought likewise to receive a Quantity of flax seed annually to distribute among the Inhabitants; and the flax raiser in Morvern might be Caused to visite them at the proper Seasons in order to give the people necessary Instructions.

On the 28th I wrote Mr Flint informing him of my having made the necessary observations at Morvern and Strontian, and that I was about to proceed in my Circuit by the way of Moydart, Arrasaick, Morrer, Glenelg, Kinlochduich and Loch Carron, at which place I presumed I might arrive about the fourteenth or fifteenth of July.

The journey to Moidart across Loch Shiel and fording the River Moidart in spate before coming to the ruin of Kinlochmoidart House, blown up after the Rising of '45

At 4 o'clock in the afternoon I Sett out for Moydart, But before I had travelled a quarter of a mile, there began to fall a very heavy Rain, which Continued till I arrived at Kinlochmoydart, Eight computed miles from Strontian. The Country through which I travelled was extremely wild. The Road led me either over high mountains, or through deep mosses intercepted by many Rapid Streams that were swelled by the Rains, and which I Crossed with great difficulty.

I was Carried over LochShiell in a Boat at Portneill, where there is an Island in the middle of the Loch which Serves as a Burying place to the Inhabitants of the neighbouring Country. When I came to the head of LochMoydart, I found the houses Situated on the North side of a River that emptys itself into the Loch, and which was so Swelled with the Rains that were told it was impassable, But there being no Shelter on this side, and the Rain continuing, I being Still on foot was persuaded by my Guide to attempt to cross it, and which we accordingly did fastned in one anothers arms after the Custom of the Inhabitants, thought the Stream was excessively rapid, and covered us to the Breast.

Detailed description of Moidart having much beef and goats but few sheep and little arable land

This Country of Moydart comprehends Glenfinnen, Glenalladale, Shiellside, Glenmoydart, and the point of Moydart Lyes in the Shire of Inverness, and belongs to the parish of Ardnamurchan being the property of the Crown, and McDonald of Clanronald, only Glenfinnen and Glenalladale are held by virtue of Either a wadsett or feu from that Gentleman by one of the name of McDonald.

It is Divided from Sunart and Ardnamurchan by the the fresh water Loch of Shiell and the River by which it Emptys itself into the Sea. On the north it is divided from Arasaich by Lochnamia on the west and northwest it is Surrounded by the Sea, and on the East and South East it borders with the Countrys of Locheil and Locharkig.The Salt water of Moydart runs four miles up the Country, where it opens to the Sea there is Situated a Small Island called Shuna at each end of which there is a narrow neck where Shipping may come in. At the head of the Loch is the Ruins of the House of McDonald of Kinlochmoydart situated upon a small plain upwards of a mile long, and three quarters of a mile Broad divided by a River and surrounded with high hills. On the North Side of the Country towards Arasaick is a Saltwater Loch called Loch Hallyort running from the foot of Lochnanua having two or three villages Scattered on its Banks. The whole Country is very mountaineous, and only fitt for breeding and Grassing of Cattle.

About the middle of September there are often heavy Show'rs of Rain and Hail accompanied with wind. About the middle of November the Snow begins to fall, which lyes long on the Mountains, but on the Sea Coast seldom above two or three days. About the first of April there are frequently Stormy winds with showers of Rain of which there falls a great quantity through the whole Summer Season. The oats are sown betwixt the midle of March and the midle of April, and a little Barley about the beginning of May. The Harvest begins about the middle of September. The oats which are of a Small grey kind produce about Three fold. The Soil of that plain at the head of Loch Moydart is a thing mossie Earth with a mixture of Gravel, and Is not I'm afraid proper for flax.

The Soil of the Arable Ground that lyes along the sides of Loch Hallyort is a red mould with a mixture of Gravel, and may possibly answer that Crop better, for these two or three years bypast there have been planted a few potatoes.

This Country produces very little meal but great abundance of Beef and Goats and a little Mutton. likewise as much Butter and Cheese as Serves its Inhabitants, and all along the Coast there are to be had white fish of various sorts in great plenty.

The ordinary price paid for Grassing of a Cow is four or five merks p. Annum. Some of the Cottars are allowed a little Cottage with Grassing for two or three Cows. They are obliged to manure the Arable Ground of the farm on their own Charge, being further allowed the fourth part of the Corn produced. Others of them are allowed a Small piece of Ground (which they labour on their own account) and the Grassing of two or three Cows, for which they are obliged to labour the Landlords arable Ground on their proper Charge, but when otherwise imployed in his Service, he is obliged to maintain them.

Moidart had a population of McDonalds, numbering perhaps eight or nine hundred, virtually all being "Irish" speakers

The Inhabitants are all McDonalds followers of Clanronald, and said to be of the Roman Catholic Religion except one family. I could not procure an exact List of their Numbers, but on taking the Account of each farm the number of familys they might contain, and reckoning the number of persons that may reasonably be Expected to be in Each family, I presume there will be about 8 or 900 persons, who all Speak Irish, there being no English Schools as yet Settled among them.

These people are principally Supplyed with meal from Banff and Aberdeen Shire, or from the Islands of Egg and Muck which are very fertile and not far distant from their coast. From these Islands likewise they are plentifully supplied with Potatoes. The meal Costs them at present from 10 to 11 Shillings p. Boll which Contains 16 pecks of 6 pints Each, and the potatoes sixpence the peck. A fat Cow can be bought for about 50 Shillings. A Sheep at 4 to 5 Shillings. A Goat about the same price. A Stone of Butter six Shillings and Eight pence or Seven Shillings, and a Stone of Cheese in Summer when Green at three Shillings and four pence and in winter when Dried from three shillings and four pence to four shillings the Stone of 21 pounds. But as I have already noticied, the Inhabitants make use of for the most part all the Butter and Cheese they make in their own familys.
Peat is the only fireing used with which they are Commodiously Servd from the mosses that are every where to be found.

The access into the Country by water is from the est Sea up Loch Moydart and Loch Hallyort. The Ships that bring meal from Aberdeenshire have 8 to 10 pence p. Boll freight.

Moidart was virtually inaccessible by road and the drovers took the black cattle over the hill to be sold in Falkirk or Crieff

The Roads Leading into it by Land are almost yea altogether impassable even for the little Country Horses when Loaded. The distance from Kinlochmoydart to Fort William is Twenty four Computed miles.The Black Cattle are either sold to the Drovers in the month of May, or towards the latter end of the Season who carry them to the fairs of Falkirk and Crieff. The Horses are sold at the fairs of Inverness and Moss of Balloch. Upon the Coast there is Burnt a little Kelp and Fearn ashes which are sold to the people who call for them from Ireland and Liverpool. The Kelp from 40 to 50 Shillings p. ton, and as much as a Herring Barrell will contain of Fearn ashes for Six Shillings.

The men Servants are allowed from Thirteen Shillings and Eight pence to Twenty Shillings the half year, and tow pairs of Shoes, the Women are allowed Six merks wt. Shoes, and some other small perquisites.

Moidart Houses were not built of stone

The Houses are generally made of wood and Turf as in Sunart, within the last two or three years there are a few Built of Stone. They are made by the Tennents who have no other assistance from the Landlord than the liberty of cutting what wood grows upon his Estate fit for that purpose and even if the farmer removes he has no allowance for his trouble either from the Landlord or Incoming Tenent.

There is not in this Country any Limestone, but it is to be got in Ardnamurchan at the distance of Three Leagues from Kinlochmoydart. There is some finall oak wood, but none of it fit for buildings of any Consequence.

In this Country of Moydart, Kinlochmoydart is the most Centrical Situation for a Manufacture, but the mountainousness of the Country the small number of its Inhabitants, Scattered at a very great distance and Separated by Rivers and high Hills, induces me to be of opinion that a Spinning Mistriss and a Sufficient weaver settled in this place, together with some wheels dispersed in the Country, and the Inhabitants annually supplyed with flax Seed, would Sufficiently answer the Intentions of the honble. Board.

For this account of the Country of Moydart I am particularly indebted to one Ronald McDonald, Brother to the late Kinlochmoydart.

On the morning of the 30th I took Boat at the foot of Loch Hallyort, crossed over Lochnanua and at Twelve o'clock that same day arrived at Borrodale in Arasaick.

I took up my Lodgings that night in a Countryman's Sheeling, and laid myself down for Sleep in my Cloaths on a Bed of Heather amongst a number of the Inhabitants. But my Lodgings not being very agreeable, I in a short time walked to the fields and place myself in the Cleft of a Rock, where, notwithstanding the coldness of ……..

MS. La . 11.623
Second Report to the Commissioners and Trustees for Improving Fisheries and Manufactures in Scotland. by Richard Neilson. 1755 (exerpts); Jean Lawson