Cuspair 1: Àite làn Dualchais, Coimhearsnachd agus Cruthachaileachd
To visitors, Coigach and Assynt may seem a wild and sparsely-inhabited place; indeed, it has one of the lowest population densities of Western Europe. But ‘wild’ is of course a controversial term: this is a place where we can feel close to nature and the elements, but it is not a ‘wilderness’. People have been living along this coast for millennia, and there is a rich and precious history throughout the landscape.
There are pre-historic hut circles and roundhouses in Coigach; Neolithic chambered cairns in Assynt, Iron Age brochs in Assynt and Coigach, and signs of habitation in every fertile pocket of land – even the most exposed. During the Clearances of the 1700s-1800s, families living in productive inland glens were evicted and sent to the coastal fringes, where they survived on poor land growing rudimentary crops and raising livestock, supplemented by fishing, collecting kelp, and working for their landlords.
Maps of the landscape are crammed with names for every peak and knoll, which demonstrates the deep connection people have always had with their home; often expressed through oral traditions such as music and stories. Many of these names are Gaelic, which would have been the mother tongue of people until mid-1900s – and still is for some of the older generation. Gaelic is not just a language: it is a culture, with communal working and traditions such as music, spinning, weaving, pottery (and whisky!) at the core.
Gaelic is not the only influence; the sea-faring Vikings were early visitors around 1000 years ago, as we hear in other names: the mountains Suilven and Stac Pollaidh, Unapool in Assynt and Tanera in the Summer Isles are all thought to have evolved from the Old Norse.
The population of the area declined substantially in the late 1800s – early 1900s: the hardship of living on marginal land; a potato famine; landlords’ policy of encouraging emigration to North America or the Antipodes, followed by many young men leaving for the wars and not returning.
However, the small communities who remain are resilient, practical and surprisingly diverse. Gaelic may have dwindled (there are valiant efforts to revive it), but the strong community spirit and creativity still thrives.