The Strathnaver valley is a lush Scottish landscape surrounding the natural beauty of the Naver river. This body of water travels north from Altnaharra’s Loch Naver nearly 20 miles to the sea off of the town of Bettyhill, in northern Scotland.
Strathnaver’s history is rich with drama, and the Strathnaver Trail – the road that runs alongside the river – has become popular with tourists looking to engage with Scotland’s history. Artefacts from ancient civilizations can be found along those that remain from some of the darkest moments in the history of the Scottish Highlands.
The Historical Significance of the Area
The valley has a long history of providing for local communities and industry. There are artefacts in the area from the Neolithic era, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. However, the area is best-known for its role in the clearances of the Scottish Highlands. In the early part of the 19th century a small group of settlements populated the area, inhabited by Gaelic speaking families who worked as weavers, agricultural labourers, smiths, and cobblers. Migrant workers often passed through, as the area provided ample opportunities for seasonal work.
Small structures for housing were created out of rudimentary materials like stones, thatch, and clay. While these were typically small, dark, and damp, they were often outfitted with basic furnishings such as a bed and fireplace.
While these labourers were often poor, the area had plenty of cultural activity throughout its history. Folk songs, music, and oral traditions were often shared, despite limited literacy.
Dark Times in Strathnaver’s Past
Strathnaver was originally part of the Countess of Sutherland’s estate, a vast holding of 1.5 million acres comprised of many similar tenant-inhabited areas, where residents worked the land and supported it with related industry. In times when crop production was high the entire estate would benefit, but when things got bad labourers would often find themselves unable to pay their rents.
As the population in the Scottish Highlands continued to grow, more and more landowners began to release their tenants from any obligations, encouraging larger amounts of the population to move to the coast and overseas. These “Highland Clearances” mainly sought to recover land that could be turned to more profitable enterprises than housing out-of-work labourers.
At Sutherland, the temptation to quickly move out excess labourers took a darker path. Between 1811 and 1821 nearly 15,000 tenants were forcibly removed from the Countess’s land, as the land was more valuable to sheep farmers than as a source of agricultural production. Tenants were rapidly pushed out to other areas of the shoreline, but not all could endure the hard travel, particularly those who were too old, too young, or too sick. In 1814 the Countess’s estate agent, Patrick Sellar set out to forcibly remove those who remained, and Strathnaver was essentially burned to the ground. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women who were left behind were subject to great injury. While Sellars was ultimately tried for these crimes, he was acquitted in the court of law, reflecting the political climate for tenants at the time.
The Strathnaver Trail
Today, visitors to Strathnaver can experience the effects of this event and plenty of others in Scottish history by following the river’s path along the Strathnaver Trail. Over 29 significant historical sites lay along the trail, and visitors can start their education with a visit to the Strathnaver Museum.
In addition to the ruins of many tenant settlements, sites along the way include a number of cairns – or stacked rock and stone artefacts and mounds. These date as far back as the Neolithic era, and also include examples from the Bronze Age.
The Strathnaver Museum – located in the north coast town of Bettyhill – is an excellent resource for understanding more about the region’s past. The museum covers the Highland Clearances in detail, and helps visitors locate and learn more about items ranging from ancient to more modern.
Natural Beauty of the Landscape
The initial appeal of many of the Highlands regions in Scotland was the lushness and availability of bodies of water. The fact that these areas were populated as far back as the Neolithic area and continuously since then has much to do with the natural landscape. While agricultural production of crops ceased with the Highlands Clearances, the sheep farming that followed helped return it to the natural beauty seen today.
The River Naver itself is a significant natural resource in Scotland, and has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation due to its aquatic wildlife. Both freshwater pearl mussels and Atlantic salmon can be found in the river, and fishing was another industry that flourished in the area’s history. I found this people carrier hire comparison website to be a good option for Strathnaver exploration. The same company I used for a recent ski trip (compare car hire at Zurich Airport) directed me to it and I saved a bit of cash which always helps.
How to See Strathnaver Today
Accessing Strathnaver’s rich history is easy for visitors, who can choose either to start on the coast at Bettyhill or at Altnaharra. Following a drive along the B873, visitors will begin the experience of this isolated region likely without ever seeing another car on this single lane road. The Naver trail itself is accessed by following the river, and this is where most of the historical artefacts can be found. Villages that were evacuated during the Highland Clearances include Grummore – where over 115 people lived, Rosal – home to 79 inhabitants, and Achanlochy – where 45 people lived.
While the areas have been uninhabited for some time now, there are plenty of remnants of the life that used to flourish there. At Rosal, visitors can see the remains of what used to be stone houses, as well as areas that were used for fields and processing of crops.
Since the residents of Strathnaver that could be moved were relocated to areas along the north coast, near the museum at Bettyhill is another place that visitors can experience how life was in the 19th century for residents. Starting a visit from this direction can also mean accessing the exhibitions and resources related to the area’s history, and can give clues about the inhabitants from ancient times.
If you have any questions about Strathnaver, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. We will do our best to help.