Some Coigach History

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Some Coigach History

The following history is a work in process, I have consulted many "secondary" sources, and reccomend any serious researcher seek out original documents! Useful has been the book based on the Cromartie estate papers (SOURCE INFO). The Associated Clan Macleod Societies Genealogy Resources Web Page, and the Battles of the Clans history placed on the Electronic Scotland website at Conflicts of the Clans where it mentions battles "The Troubles of the Lewis".

Feel free to comment on this pocket history, and suggest events for inclusion. I lack info on the Hector voyage, and the departure of Coigach people with the Revd. Norman MacLeod. I can be emailed at

This file links from my introduction web page at index.htm

The Barony of Coigach is about 145,000 acres, the northwest third of the Parish of Lochbroom, largest Parish in the County of Ross and Cromarty. Always remote, Coigach only became accessable to wheeled transport from the east in 1790.

Anciently Coigach was Clan MacLeod land, though through the middle ages it was also owned at times by Mackay of Strathnaver, and the Earl of Ross. Its Chieftans descended from the Assynt MacLeods, who were themselves a cadet of the MacLeods of Lewis.

Possession by the MacLeods was not a simple legal matter like todays real estate transactions; in 1596 Torquil Dubh MacLeod landed at Garvie in Coigach with 800 followers from Lewis and a battle was fought for the peninsula. His opponent was Torquil Connanach MacLeod, his half brother! The two Torquils were disputing not only possesion of Coigach, but also title and ownership of Lewis.

The brother's father, Rory, had nine children through three marriages, and five "base", or "natural" sons. Rory repudiated Torquil Connanach's mother claiming adultery by her (afterwords she did elope with his nephew), and had twice been imprisoned by Torquil Connanach, once for four years! All the sons were involved in the dynastic struggle, and several met their deaths at brothers hands or orders.

It is not likely the soap-opera of this family's life was normal for all the people at that time, though only such major landowner/Lairds were well documented.

Torquil Conannach was so named because he was raised amongst his mothers family at Strathconan. His mother Janet was a "natural" daughter of the ninth MacKenzie Laird of Kintail, head of that powerful clan. The government had recently acknowleged Torquil Connanach's claim as heir of Rory MacLeod, to the estates of Lewis, Coigach, and elsewhere.

The district became part of the Cromartie MacKenzie possessions when Torquil Connanach's daughter and heir, Margaret MacLeod, married her cousin Sir Roderick "Rory" MacKenzie of Tarbat, younger brother of the powerful MacKenzie of Kintail. The estate of Lochbroom including Coigach, and a great deal more of the Lewis property, was given by Torquil Connanach to his daughter Margaret as a dowry. Interesting that the eldest sons of the MacKenzie Cromartie Earls have continued since then to use the title "Lord MacLeod".

Torquil Dhu eventually lost the dynastic battle, and his life, when his niece Margaret's husband Rory MacKenzie, who was a member of the Scottish privy council, had him declared a rebel, arrested and beheaded in 1597.

MacKenzie, also known as the Tutor of Kintail, because he was guardian of his underage nephew, ended the inter-MacLeod battles by seizing Lewis himself, and executing many of his wifes feuding relatives.

Surnames for common people developed long after those for the Lairds. At the time of the inter-necine MacLeod battles most clansfolk would have had descriptive surnames locally, and if travelling they would have been known by their Laird's surnames. MacLeod remained as the dominant surname till the MacKenzie family inherited the Barony. Since then an increasing number of the tenants adopted the surname MacKenzie, or were immigrants from other MacKenzie estates. Few other surnames have become established among common folk.

Rory MacKenzie was politically astute, and rose to great influence with the Royal Stuart family, among the titles collected by his family was Earl of Cromartie, after their estate in Easter Ross. The Coigach tenants followed the fortunes of their Lairds, even though from 1600 on they were absentee landlords with interests elsewhere.

The Third Earl of Cromartie came out in support of the Stuarts in the 1745 rebellion, and his tenants in Coigach made up a large part of his regiment. The rebellion was disasterous for the MacKenzies; the Earl was spared from execution, but was forced to live in virtual house arrest in England till his death in 1766. His son, Lord MacLeod, was given a conditional pardon and went to Sweden, where he became colonel and aide-de-camp to the King of Sweden. The estate and titles were annexed by the Crown.

The French landed a crew on Eilean a'Chlerich (see COIGACH GAZETTEER), one of the Summer Isles of Coigach, to rescue Charles Edward Stuart in 1746, but he ended up leaving from an island much further south, near Skye.

The British Navy and its Marines raided the district for years after the rebellion, burning houses, and looting the black cattle the area was famous for. They are said to have burned the forest of Coigach. The people suffered greatly for their loyalty to their Laird.

For many years there were thought to be weapons hidden by the people, and a much sought Jacobite fugitive, Ross of Pitcalnie, had been hidden by David Ross (possibly an ancestor of todays Reiff Ross family?) following the defeat.

The Coigach Stewart families are said to descend from a party of Stuart of Atholl soldiers, who fled with their wives and families following the Battle of Culloden, and found refuge among the poor people of Coigach.

Though later there was some repopulation by families from Lewis to replace the people killed in battle, exiled or "transported" to the American colonies, the district never truly recovered, and remained impoverished into the twentieth century. The rents received barely exceeded the expenses of the landowners.

For four decades after the Jacobite Rebellion Coigach remained in the control of the Trustees of the Annexed Estates, though the loyalty of the common people seems to have stayed with the exiled MacKenzies who received gifts, and even rent payments while under house arrest in English exile!

Lord MacLeod, now a Swedish Count, returned to England in 1777 and offered his services to the British Crown that as an 18 year old in 1745 he had recruited the Coigach tenantry against. He rapidly raised a highland regiment and led it to fight in India. Again his soldiers included many Coigach people. In 1784, the government rewarded him for his services by returning the annexed estates, including Coigach. The titles were not returned until Victoria's reign.

In the 1820s and '30s much of Coigach's common grazing ground was seized by the Cromartie family, and leased out to sheep farmers and wealthy "sporting tenants" from southern Scotland or England.

The farming tenants were confined to use of lots of two to three acres by the seashore, and the older communal farming system or "runrig" was ended at this time, with the land divided into "Lots", and the tenants called Lotters if they rented land, or Cotters if they worked others rented land. The people were forced to rely more on fishing and growing of potatoes in a "crofting" system that has continued, with modifications, till today.

The fishing in Lochbroom was mostly for herring from small boats with crews of three to six sailors. There were a few larger boats which went to the more steady North Sea fishery off Wick in Caithness, such as the forty ton drifter, "Tonsor of Reiff", but the smaller boats predominated.

Many years the fish shoals disappeared and the people went hungry; the last famine was in the 1870s. The Cromartie family sponsored work schemes, primaraly the building of roads, so there was rarely starvation, though there was intense poverty most years.

Some sources point to a doubling or tripling of the population in the century before records such as the census began, though my own suspision is that it did not rise so fast. During the period covered by the files on this website the population remained stable, as children grew they emigrated to Canada, New Zealand, or Australia. Others went to work in southern cities like Glasgow, where labour was needed for the emerging industries, or they enrolled in the army.

During this time democracy was only slowly expanding to the Highlands; in 1832 there were 516 people eligible to vote in Ross and Cromarty, out of a population of 74,800.

There was widespread potato blight in 1836, and an early frost that destroyed the barley crop. 1836 and '37 were famine years in Coigach. Some of my contacts had ancestors who emigrated to Canada in 1837, I suspect as part of a larger movement related to that famine. The book "Achiltibuie" by Anne Barnes says that in 1838 two hundred people left for New South Wales.

That small famine was followed a decade later by the disaster of 1846-8. In 1846 the potatoes were hit with the same blight that ravaged Ireland. Widespread starvation was avoided by the Cromartie MacKenzie family sending in supplies of grain, and again sponsoring work projects.

Anne Hay-MacKenzie, the Cromartie MacKenzies heiress married the Marquis of Stafford in 1849. A few months after the wedding Anne's father died, and she inherited the estate, including Coigach.

Anne's new husband, the Marquis of Stafford, was heir to the Duke of Sutherland, who was one of the richest men in the Kingdom. Stafford and his wife were told to make their income from the Cromartie estates (Coigach, Strathpeffer, and Tarbat) during the Duke's life. Economy was a difficult task for them, as the recent famine, and large annual pensions to the widows of various Cromartie MacKenzies, had drained the estates resources. Their personal expenses were also high, with renovations needed to their castle, and entertaining in the style of nobility.

By this time the poor tenants or "Lotters" were being seen as a burden on the finances of the estate, with rents often years in arrears. Profit for the estate was made by the rental of large areas of the peninsula to southern sheep farmers, and "sporting tenants". A policy of gradual removal of the Lotters followed for some years, freeing up more land for sheep farms and hunting preserves.

Stafford was under pressure from his father's factors, who urged him to go to the massive evictions of tenantry that had been used on the Sutherland Estates. In 1852 it was decided to evict the Lotters at Badenscallie, and move them two miles away to smaller crofts by the sea near Badentarbat.

The Sherrif went out from Ullapool with police escort 18 March 1852 to serve eviction notices. When their boat arrived at Badenscallie they were met by a force of local women, who ripped off the officers clothes, searching them for the summons. A bonfire was made of all the eviction summons there on the beach, and the Sherriff's party was sent back to Ullapool.

A second eviction party was sent out, with the Factor himself, and more reinforcements. As they travelled along the coast they saw hundreds of angry tenants massed on the shores, and they were unable to serve their summons at either Achnahaird or Achiltibuie. At Achnahaird the summons were ripped from the officers, and burnt before their eyes. The boat they arrived in was dragged 300 yards across the shingle beach.

In February 1853 another attempt at eviction was made, with a boat landing at Culnacraig. Again the women seized and burnt the summonses, sending the officer back to Ullapool almost naked. The Factor of the estate began to refer to the tenants in his correspondance at this time as "the Coigach insurgents", and tried to arrange for a military force to be sent. The "Coigach Rebellion" ended then, as Stafford gave up the idea of large scale evictions of tenants when his request for troops was rejected.

Other Highland Lairds had been encouraging emigration for some years, and in 1853 the Marquis decided to fund an emigration from Coigach through the Highland and Island Emigration Society, possibly influenced by the growing revolt among his tenants. The Sir Allan McNab departed from Liverpool with 65 Coigach emigrants on 28 October, 1853, arriving at Hobart Tasmania the next year. Hugh Campbell, a Tasmanian historian, (CONTACT INFO), has written an article about the emigration, which is on this website at; corn.htm

Gwen Smith in Tasmania (CONTACT INFO) is also descended from Coigach people in that journey. Gwen has mailed me a photocopy of the passenger list of the Sir Allan McNab, which I have turned into a file; mcnab.htm. That list is complemented by the hiring list of the passengers at Tasmania, which was transcribed by Hugh; see hire.htm

In 1862 there was another crop failure, and the herring shoals vanished from Lochbroom. The old Duke of Sutherland had died the year previously, and the Cromartie estate management merged with that of Sutherland. Relief was now co-ordinated by the Sutherland Factors, much less sympathetic than the Cromartie Factors!

Road building projects again were launched, however the tenants had to purchase their grain from dealers who raised prices mercilessly. Thankfully a good harvest and return of the herring occured in 1863, however many tenants were left indebted to the meal merchants, and evictions due to unpaid rents increased.

Over the next decade things generally improved for the crofters of Coigach, though in 1870 and '72 there were again crop failures and wide spread hunger.

In 1872 the Scottish Education Act was passed, transferring control of the schools from the landed proprietors (like the Duke and Duchess), to elected school boards. This was the beginning of true democracy in Coigach, and the election in 1873 was bitterly fought, with the representatives of the Duke losing out to people supported by the Free Church minister, Rev. Kenneth McMillan.

The Duke was becoming less respected by, and respectful of, his Coigach tenants. For all its vast size Coigach was only returning him a net income of 800 pounds. A revaluation of all his property was set in motion in 1875, with an eye towards increasing rents. The valuation took three years.

In 1876 the Cromartie estates were transferred to the Duke's second son, Lord Francis, who as his father had been earlier, was limited to the income from the Estates, the revaluation of rents became of critical financial importance to him!

In October 1878 the Factor decided the new rent structure based on the valuation; although a few rents would decrease, most would rise between 33 and 50 percent.

The new rents were collected in 1879, a good harvest year, but there was growing resentment among the crofters, who were receiving news of rent-strikes on Irish estates. The period 1883 to 1886 had an atmosphere of revolution in the Highlands. The Coigach tenants began to refuse paying rent, and started political organisations to fight for their rights.

In December of 1881 there was a disasterous storm; only one of the boats at Achiltibuie survived. This was followed by crop failures in '82 and '83. Though the Duke provided substantial relief and also some temporary rent concessions, anger grew. More joined the Land League, and more began rent strikes.

The government in 1883 started an inquiry into conditions called "The Napier Commission on the Plight of the Crofters and Cotters of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland". The Commission held hearings all around the coast, including at Ullapool, where Duncan MacKenzie testified on behalf of Reiff. (See Duncan's Testimony).

As a result of the Napier Commission the Crofter Commission Act was passed in 1886. The Act gave the crofters some new measure of security of tenure, and certain other rights, with the landowners being diminished from their arbitrary powers of eviction and control of landuse.

In spite of tenants's pleas and petitions, the management of the estate dug in its heels, rejecting the idea of transfering land to the crofters, and through 1888 and 1889 increased pursuit of rent defaulters.

The tide had turned against the old landed families in favour of their tenants. One of the results of the Crofter Commission Act was a land court, which tended to render judgements in favour of the tenants. More rents were withheld, and in some parts of the Highlands there were "land raids", where crofters seized lands left vacant by the owners.

In advance of the decisions of the Crofter Commission rents in Coigach were cut twenty percent, the Commission ruling changed that to twentyone at the end of 1890.

Three deaths occurred which had great affect on the people of Coigach. The Duchess of Sutherland died in 1888, her husband the third Duke died in 1892, and then a few months later, their second son, who had inherited Coigach and the title of Earl of Cromartie.

The old Duke's will was contested in a bitter battle between family members, and as the new heiress of Coigach, Lady Sibell, was underage the estate was put into the hands of trustees. The House of Lords finally ruled on the will in 1896, cutting the Cromartie estates free from those in Sutherland, but also reducing Lady Sibell's payout by 80,000 pounds, and her income by 2,200 pounds a year.

With her new husband, Captain Walter Blunt, Lady Sibell was forced to deal with a money losing estate; the crofters were in arrears, the sporting tenants were not leasing the hunting lands of Coigach, and the sheep farms were also losing tenants.

Between the first and second world wars they sold off Coigach in pieces. The tenants mostly received new landlords, though there has been some movement since toward crofters buying their own lands.

Coigach today remains a very rural area, with an increasing reliance on tourism, and sale or rental of holiday homes. There is a fish farm on Tanera Mor, and a "Hydroponicum" at Achiltibuie.

The Crofters families are now connected to the world by phone and internet, and the district is less isolated than it was in the days covered by these web files. The descendants of Torquil MacLeod who battled his half-brother for possesion in 1596 still maintain a presence in Coigach; though they sold off most of the land they keep a pretty little cottage by the bridge at Achadh-a-bhraighe!

This file, and others dealing with history and genealogy of Coigach, links from my homepage at:

Any suggestions for additions or edits please feel free to email me,

Donald MacDonald-Ross, at:

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