Aiste / Essay: The Dunmaglass Cairn, Raghnaid Sandilands

The third in a series of brief essays on place names and stories from Strathnairn and places nearby. An earlier version was published in Issue 97 of the Strathnairn newsletter, April 2018 , and at

'One of the most starkly dramatic of all the clearance sites' in Scotland lies in Strathnairn. I chanced upon these words in Rob Gibson’s ‘Highland Clearance Trails’ last month; a guide to clearance sites in Argyll, Perthshire, Skye and Raasay, the Outer Hebrides, the Northern Highlands and the Great Glen and Strathspey. It’s a compelling read that details the fraught history of the Highlands. I was struck to think that on our doorstep was a dramatic, tangible and unchanged memorial to the social past of the Highlands in the form of a cairn, 30 ft in diameter and 6ft high and yet, I had heard nothing about it.

I decided to dedicate this article to finding out what I could about this site and what happened to the people of that township at the turn of the century. I’ve spoken to people and looked at maps, censuses, photos, newspaper accounts, place-name books and history books in an effort to gain an impression of the people and the forces at play and how such history could be almost forgotten and barely recorded.

The information gathered locally by Gibson was in relation to this significant cairn on the Dunmaglass estate; ‘The last MacGillivray chief, John William XIII, at the age of 26 sold Dunmaglass to a London Stockbroker, William Sopper, in 1890. Some years later Sopper had an altercation with a tenant whom he regarded as having been impudent. The tenant was given notice to quit, but other MacGillivray tenants objected so all were evicted. Their homes were demolished and the house stones piled high in one great heap, presumably so that the tenants could not return.’

Rob Gibson was told this by Bob Mulholland, Farr who most probably had heard it from Andy Cumming, Croft Croy. I made some phone calls and spoke to another local who recalls hearing accounts of this in his youth from older members of the community. Those accounts would conceivably have been from living memory. One additional detail that he told me was that the estate workers who were made to raise the houses and clear the stones, burnt their fingers with the heat still in them.

I went then to the satellite images of Dunmaglass estate. Silently winging down from space, with the help of Google earth, it was startling to see the large cairn of stones and all of the base stones of the township clearly visible. It’s a very instant sort of archeology and a view that illustrates clearly the scale of the settlement.



At a busy meeting of South Loch Ness Heritage Society, at Gorthleck Hall, on a snowy afternoon, and standing under a brass plaque in memory of Colonel Frank W. Sopper, Sopper's son, I learnt a few other things; that there were in fact 3 cairns, that Sopper styled himself ‘Lord Strathnairn’ and that he had also owned Easter Aberchalder at one time. I asked one of the local historians how such an event as the clearance of people could be almost forgotten - he suggested that people would have kept quiet ‘about such matters’ and there would have been, he thought, an element of shame about it as tenants beholden to and employees in the pay of the landlord would have been hard placed to take in expelled relatives or clansmen.

I went then to the National Map Library website to access the old OS maps. The cairn is about 400 yards on the right of the road up to Dunmaglass lodge and visible from the B851. The settlement had a name; Crochy (not Croachy). The map website has a facility that allows you to marry the satellite image to the old OS maps - and the three cairns, of which Crochy is by far the biggest, correspond exactly to the three settlements of Crochy, Milton & Clovendale. It’s perhaps best to describe the evidence from this and other on-line sources in terms of a timeline.

1871 6-inch OS map: - The area was surveyed for the first edition OS map. There are 7 settlements on the estate - Crochy, Milton, Clovendell (Anglecized from Dail Sgaoilte), Lagg, Drumnacloich, Achnaloddan and Balnagaig.

1876-8: - The settlements are described in the OS place name books e.g. Crochy - crofters houses and offices and other dwelling houses. 1 storey high, thatched. Achnaloddan - applies to 2 small farm houses with their offices together with a collection of dwelling houses. Fair condition etc.

1878 1-inch OS map: - all 7 settlements are visible.

1890 - John William MacGillivray, 13th Chief of MacGillivray sells to William Sopper, a stockbroker from London, ending 400 years of Clan MacGillivray’s connection to the land.

1891: - the census documents people living in these settlements - I have yet to gather the figures and calculate the rate of change in population about this period.

1894 6-inch map revisions: - Outlines only remain of the settlements - apart from 3 roofed properties at Clovendell.

1899 revisions: - I spoke to a map expert at the Map Library in Edinburgh who explained that the outlines of the stones on the ground would have also been mapped. This is what is shown in the 1899 OS map, as there are no shaded buildings (shaded buildings indicating roofed properties).

1901: - interestingly at this census, all original place-names have been erased and descriptions are given only for properties on the estate e.g Dunmaglass Ploughman’s House, Dunmaglass Gamekeeper’s House, Dunmaglass Shepherd’s House etc.

Click on the images below for more details:

It was a time of upheaval and rapid change all over the Highlands. Alan Lawson in ‘A Country called Stratherrick’ tells us that ‘the last MacGillivray laird of Dunmaglass could maintain with indignation to the Crofting Commission in the 1880s that no tenants had been turned off the estate. At the beginning of the century there were 7 townships or holdings on Dunmaglass, all tenanted by MacGillivrays, in groups or singly, while at the close of the century no croft or small holding remained and the estate itself was in the hands of strangers.’ As Lawson has it ‘It was the end of an old song’. Lawson describes the changes that came to the Straths of South Loch Ness: ‘Local estates were now valued as mainly sporting properties. The wild North was a sportsman’s paradise waiting to be exploited... the ‘gentry’ and wealthy industrialists from the South flocked to the Highlands, to the hill estates they bought or rented. Shooting lodges of impressive size were built in remote glens and in the late summer were briefly graced by stylish ladies and tweedy gentlemen breathing blood and gunpowder with their retinue of personal servants. Local men found employment as keepers, stalkers, water-bailiffs, stablemen etc. but others, not employees, were unwelcome. When Foyers estate came up for sale in 1895 the prospectus made the point that there were no crofters or cottars on the Wester Aberchalder and Garrogie portions, similarly Farraline estate.’

Another phone call and a visit, this time to Willie Forbes, Farr, who told me about a Sopper family photo album. It had been sourced by Hilda Hesling who had been instrumental in setting up the Strathnairn Heritage Association with him. She directed me to the album from which she had 20 photos of interest from copied. The Highland archive told me that the album has since been taken back by the Sopper family.

On closer study of one picture and using the OS map and the angles of the ditch, wall, building and sky-line as bearings, I’m almost certain that this photo shows buildings at Crochy:


There is also a photo of the young MacGillivray, John William the 13th chief, who sold up at 26, presumably to cover debts and fund his life elsewhere. One wonders if he felt uneasy here, a curio on display. He himself was deceased in London at 50, with no heir.



I cycled up the drive of Dunmaglass estate to look at the cairn. One could almost assume it was a large field clearance cairn, commonly of Bronze Age origins, created when fields were cleared of stones; indeed one local I spoke to believed it to be such and had never queried its existence. Another thought it to be a cairn in memory of the Clan MacGillivray. Seemingly on the estate itself it is referred to as ‘The MacGillivray cairn’, assumed to be a memorial to the Clan.



The new searchable newspaper archives are revealing new sources. I came across an account of Sopper’s welcome party given by the tenants of the estate on 20th December 1889.

The Inverness Courier describes that the day as one given as a general holiday and on the occasion of his welcome flags and banners containing words of welcome were erected on points running up the road. A procession headed by a piper marched to the lodge to ‘welcome their new landlord with ringing cheers’.

The tenants’ address is most deferential and carefully worded. ‘ is not out place here, we think, to allude to the fact that for a series of years past agriculturalists of all classes have been passing through a very severe and trying ordeal but we believe that better days are at hand and we have every reason to anticipate much prosperity and contentment under your regime as our landlord’.

They finish by asking that the ‘Giver of all Good may abundantly bless you and your household, this is the earnest prayer and fervent wish of all your people’. How swiftly these hopes of a happy regime would have to be checked. All evidence seems to suggest that within 4 or 5 years many of their townships would be demolished and settled communities of people disbanded.

The article concludes ‘The night being dark, the colossal bonfire was visible at a distance of many miles. The company danced merrily around the fire to the music of the bagpipe, played ably by Mr. MacTavish’.

The newspaper archive also revealed a new source for the history of the Straths; The Deer Commission gathered evidence in Strathnairn, Strathdearn and Stratherrick in 1894. Gladstone’s ministry had heard the anguished cries of the crofting population. The widespread land raiding of 1891 in the Isles had failed to bring about any significant change towards a fairer distribution of the available land resources and a Royal Commission of Inquiry was tasked at looking at the unchecked expansion of sporting deer parks in the Highlands and Islands, and earmarking land which might be suitable for small-holdings.

William MacGillivray, Balnabeeran farm, aged 32, gave evidence that tenants were cleared by Sopper the previous year ‘under circumstances of severity’. The Sheriff court in Inverness was packed. The notable attendants were listed; sheriffs, M.P.s, church representatives and many factors and also famous agitators for land reform and crofters’ rights. It must have been an intimidating arena. His hope was to help improve the lot of the local crofters and to perhaps help reclaim for farming, land previously given over to sheep in the first round of clearances and for sporting pursuits in his own time.

He brought with him a letter signed by 50 ‘crofters, cotters, farm-servants and others’. Their petition states that ‘certain lands in the district are at present being cleared of people, apparently for the purpose of being formed into a deer forest’ and ‘that large tracts of the best land in the district ‘are already under deer and sheep.’

MacGillivray in his evidence says of the farm at Dunmaglass it is ‘evidently the intention to allow it to run out under sheep.’ Asked how much of the land is at present under rotation he says he cannot answer as ‘it was only last year that Mr. Sopper of Dunmaglass took it into his own hand.’ The general impression in the district is that ‘he is to convert the hill ground into a deer forest.'

In reference to tenants cleared from the settlement of Achnaloddan on Dunmaglass the year previous MacGillivray recounts that they each had ‘6 or 7 cows, a pair of horses and 200-300 sheep’. He also tells that ‘at one time the farm was occupied by 20 small farmers and crofters. It was now solely in the hands of the proprietor. The tenants who were removed had not fallen behind in their rents.’

Another man, James MacDonald , born on the neighbouring estate of Abrader, at Duhallow, describes how there were only half a dozen farms on the estate when there used to be ‘a great deal more’ and when asked how the farms had fallen out of cultivation he replied ‘the people could not afford the increased rents and had to leave’.

He is asked ‘How did these (farms) fall out of cultivation? What is the reason of their being uncultivated? do you know?- - Because he (E. C. Sutherland, the proprietor) would not let people have the land. He would not let them have the land because they could not pay the rent he wanted for it. He wanted double the rents it carried previous to 1880 and, I suppose, the people really could not afford to give that, and they were obliged to leave.’

The newspaper’s surmizes evidence from other parts of the Highlands - places infamous for the severity and brutality of their clearance and the enforcers; Glen Calvie, Sutherland, Rasaay, the names of Rainey and Sellar are mentioned. It was arresting to see mention of Dunmaglass.





I have been helped by Lynn Shaw Reid, a descendent of some of the MacGillivrays from Dunmaglass whose labour of love has been to trace back her family connections and gather together a sizeable online forum from the diaspora (The hills and the Heather Facebook group). She was able to tell me the 2 farming brothers cleared from Achnaloddan in 1892/3 were living on Aberarder in 1901 and had died from pneumonia in 1903 aged 55 and 68. Their ‘deplenishing sale’ was held in May of 1893 - they sold the mechanics of their working lives, their horses, ploughs, ladders, turnip drills etc. There was another ‘deplenishing sale’ the same month; a Mr Robertson of Dunmaglass auctioned 10 horses and 30 cows.

What recourse would the people have had? The Napier Commission had reported, the Deer commission had heard their story but, in reality, what could the people have done? I asked this question of Rob Gibson, a long time land-rights activist and historian of clearance. He said, in reality, very little. It has been suggested that crofters failed to appreciate that the remit of the Commission only asked them to schedule, or identify, the available land. They were not asked to create new landholdings.

It would seem many MacGillivrays left the Strath for New Zealand about this time. A published work on family trees from Dunmaglass ‘The Hills and the Heather’, written in New Zealand, makes only passing reference to the ‘clearance cairns’. It was the end point of the MacGillivray connection to the place and one wonders if to have investigated it further might have tarnished the romantic idea of home and clan.

One reason I was gripped by this story is that it illustrates how our own history can be almost completely forgotten and raises many questions about how people can become so disassociated from the history of their own place.

Mairi MacFadyen has written a great essay about how we see our landscapes and asks if this cairn, like other ruins in the Highlands ‘… embed dominant cultural narratives of defeat and exile in the Scottish landscape - associated with loss, with pain, social fracture, displacement and a sense of belonging lost.’ This should be the case here but, locally, people barely know anything of this cairn. When I was researching this people were always surprised to be asked, some remember hearing stories of Sopper senior, some expressed anger at the lack of any teaching of Scottish / local history in schools in their youth. There is a faint memory of possibly settlements, now rubble, and one source, that, even though a hundred years and more has passed, didn’t want to be named. Perhaps this essay can prompt some to consider these missing narratives and question the processes at play.

I chanced upon this quote by a French theorist on a radio programme - ‘After a while the coloniser doesn’t have to be in the room, since all the work of destroying the reflection in the mirror has been done.’ It’s as if the mirror here has no reflection. A cairn that could be iconic and known about is just a pile of stones.

Another reason I found this research so interesting is that the huge cairn and neatly levelled stone footprints are unlike other remnants of settlements that we are so used to seeing in the Highlands. It could be seen as a statement of sorts. It’s still there, strangely, the stone has not been re-purposed and it is easily mistaken for a prehistoric feature. It’s as if Sopper was saying; ‘I have erased you into pre-history, your connection to this place and community are of no importance now.’

In weeks where a lead item in one national newspaper reports on the ‘Scottish estate owners’ fear at reversing Highland Clearances’ and there are moves to have cleared land mapped, it would seem this is a live issue, in some sections of Scotland at least. One wonders if the efforts being made, and hope invested, will resolve themselves differently than they did in William MacGillivray, Balnabeeran’s day.

I’d be glad to hear any other information or thoughts people might have.


Some additional notes - Andy Cumming’s unpublished list ‘Place names of Strath Nairn’ includes an entry on a cairn at Dunmaglass. It reads as follows;

Carn nan Diolaibhean - Cairn of the bastards (at Dunmaglas). After the Calvinising of the Reformed Church reached the North bastardy was persecuted with astonishing severity. The church forced women having bastards to publicly put a stone on the cairn presumably to deter promiscuity.

Wille Forbes who recorded this information is unsure what site it refers to. It may be another interpretation or story attached to the same cairns. More research is required.

I had an interesting conversation with Maggie Mulholland - she told me that Andy Cumming’s granny as a girl could remember seeing smoke coming from the houses being razed opposite and to the right of their home at Croft Croy - on the old OS maps there are four buildings shown at ‘Craggan’.


References; Alan Lawson ‘A Country called Stratherrick’, Mary Miller Neé MacGillivary ‘From the Hills and the Heather of Scotland’, Edward Meldrum, ‘From Nairn to Loch Ness’, Inverness Courier 1894, Angus Macleod archive. Andy Cumming’s unpublished notes, from field work done by Willie Forbes, Proceedings of parliamentary commission - Royal Commission Highlands and Islands 1892.

Thanks to; Lynn Shaw Reid, Alister Chisolm, Willie Forbes, Hilda Hesling, Rob Gibson, Gwen Bowie, Maggie Mulholland, Leigh Barrett, Mairi Macfadyen, Neil Shaw photography & other local sources.