Where are the Highlands?

In my last blog I said something about how important it is to define your terms before having any discussion: otherwise you may find that disagreements have been caused not by any actual differences, but because the people in the discussion were simply talking about different things. So if we are going to disagree about the population figures in the Highlands, it is essential first to be completely sure that we are all talking about the same “Highlands”. As I say elsewhere, many observers have avoided saying where the Highlands are; many others have given sharply divergent definitions, for example leaving out large swathes of the southern Highlands, or on the contrary taking in large areas to the east of the Gaelic area, or indeed far to the north of it. When I began studying the history of the Highland clearances, I decided that an essential first step was to decide where the Highlands were. I therefore spent a long time on this preliminary problem, and (rightly or wrongly) I came up with the following definition. (This demarcation is given in terms of the old Scottish counties. When in 1974 the upheaval took place which abolished the old counties, a completely new structure was substituted: and this new disposition was itself revised a few years later, in 1996. How long the present arrangement will last no one can tell.)

The Highland area, so far as I could see, took in four of these old Scottish counties: Sutherland, Inverness-shire, Argyllshire, and Ross and Cromarty. (The last of these was formed by the amalgamation of Ross-shire and Cromarty-shire in 1890.) It also took in part of ten other counties – the shires of Bute, Dumbarton, Stirling, Perth, Angus, Aberdeen, Banff, Moray, Nairn, and Caithness. The Highland line rarely or never ran neatly at the edges of parishes; where a parish appeared to have more Highland territory than Lowland, it was included; where it had more Lowland territory than Highland, it was excluded. (In the following summary, parishes are given in the county where they were placed in the lists of the Old Statistical Account in the 1790s.)

The 162 parishes which, so far as I could judge, made up the Highlands were as follows.

Sutherland (thirteen parishes): Assynt, Clyne, Creich, Dornoch, Durness, Eddrachillis, Farr, Golspie, Kildonan, Lairg, Loth, Rogart, Tongue. (All of these, of course, were on the mainland.)

Ross-shire (thirty-three): Alness, Applecross, Avoch, Contin, Cromarty, Dingwall, Edderton, Fearn, Fodderty, Gairloch, Glenshiel, Killearnan, Kilmuir Easter, Kiltearn, Kincardine, Kintail, Knockbain (or Kilmuir Wester & Suddie), Lochalsh, Lochbroom, Lochcarron, Logie Easter, Nigg, Resolis (or Kirkmichael), Rosemarkie, Rosskeen, Tain, Tarbat, Urquhart (or Logie Wester), Urray, Barvas, Lochs, Stornoway, Uig. (In other words, twenty-nine mainland parishes, and four island ones.)

Inverness-shire (thirty-two): Abernethy & Kincardine, Alvie, Ardersier, Boleskine & Abertarff, Croy & Dalcross, Daviot & Dunlichity, Dores, Duthil & Rothiemurchus, Glenelg, Inverness, Kilmallie, Kilmonivaig, Kilmorack, Kiltarlity, Kingussie & Inch, Kirkhill, Laggan, Moy & Dalarossie, Petty, Urquhart & Glenmoriston, Barra, Bracadale, Duirinish, Harris, Kilmuir, North Uist, Portree, Sleat, Small Isles, Snizort, South Uist, Strath. (Twenty mainland parishes, and twelve insular ones.)

Argyllshire (thirty-five): Ardchattan & Muckairn, Ardnamurchan, Campbeltown, Craignish, Dunoon & Kilmun, Glassary (or Kilmichael), Glenorchy & Inishail, Inveraray, Inverchaolain, Kilbrandon & Kilchattan, Kilcalmonell & Kilberry, Kilchrenan & Dalavich, Kilfinan, Killean & Kilchenzie, Kilmartin, Kilmodan, Kilmore & Kilbride, Kilninver & Kilmelfort, North Knapdale, South Knapdale, Lismore & Appin, Lochgoilhead & Kilmorich, Morvern, Saddell & Skipness, Southend, Strachur & Strathlachlan, Gigha & Cara, Jura & Colonsay, Kilarrow & Kilmeny, Kilchoman, Kildalton, Kilfinichen & Kilvickeon, Kilninian & Kilmore, Tiree & Coll, Torosay. (Twenty-six – mainly – mainland parishes, and nine insular ones. Kilbrandon, and Lismore, are part mainland, part island, and have been considered mainland parishes in this list.)

Buteshire (four): Kilbride, Kilmory, Kingarth, Rothesay. (The first two parishes formed the island of Arran, and the second two the island of Bute.)

Dumbartonshire (three): Arrochar, Luss, Rhu.

Stirlingshire (two): Buchanan, Drymen.

Perthshire (twenty-two): Aberfoyle, Alyth, Balquhidder, Blair Atholl, Callander, Clunie, Comrie, Dull, Dunkeld & Dowally, Fortingall, Fowlis Wester, Kenmore, Killin, Kirkmichael, Little Dunkeld, Logierait, Monzie, Monzievaird & Strowan, Moulin, Muthill, Port of Menteith, Weem.

Angus (one): Glenisla.

Aberdeenshire (three): Crathie & Braemar, Glenmuick Tullich & Glengairn, Strathdon.

Banffshire (four): Aberlour, Inveravon, Kirkmichael, Mortlach.

Morayshire (three): Cromdale, Edinkillie, Knockando.

Nairnshire (two): Ardclach, Cawdor.

Caithness (five): Halkirk, Latheron, Reay, Thurso, Watten. (All the parishes listed from Dumbartonshire to Sutherland and Caithness are of course on the mainland.)

According to the contemporary evidence, these 162 parishes were those in which Gaelic was spoken by everyone, or by many people, in the middle of the 18th century. The only exceptions were Cromarty and Rosemarkie, in Ardmeanach, or the Black Isle. In 1750 they were largely English-speaking, but subsequently they received so many refugees from the clearances further west that Gaelic was widely heard there as well. Besides that, the shire of Cromarty (including these two parishes) had been considered for so long as an integral part of the Highlands that it would seem provocative to exclude any part of it.

Dr John Walker was one of the very few people to have attempted a detailed delineation of the Highlands.1 Curiously enough, he also said that there were 162 parishes in “the Gaelic part of Scotland”, that is to say where “the Gaelic language is either preached or spoken by the natives”; but there were differences between his list and mine. Compared with my schedule, he left out the parishes of Rhu, Fowlis Wester, Monzievaird, Clunie, Cromarty, Aberlour, Mortlach, Edinkillie, and Watten; but he included the parishes of Cumbrae, Rosneath, Crieff, Kincardine O’Neil, Coldstone, and Nairn, none of which appeared in my reckoning. Of these latter six parishes, none of the parish reports on Cumbrae, Kincardine O’Neil, Coldstone, and Nairn, in either the old or the new Statistical Accounts of Scotland, mention Gaelic (unless to say it was not spoken there); the O.S.A. report on Rosneath seems to show clearly that Gaelic was no longer a local language; while as for Crieff, the Gaelic that could be heard in the main part of the parish was spoken by refugee Highlanders, fleeing from the improvements – many Lowland towns at that time had numbers of these fugitive families, but (without some specific local consideration) that does not justify us treating them as part of the original Gaelic area. Dr Walker’s numeration was also affected by treating Tiree and Coll as two separate parishes; and he counted Kilbrandon, and Lismore and Appin, twice, since the two of them appeared both in his island and his mainland lists.

If anyone disagrees with my definition of the Highlands, it would be interesting to hear from them.

1 Dr John Walker, The Economical History of the Hebrides and Highlands of Scotland, University Press, Edinburgh, 1808, I 20

By Alwyn Edgar

Author of The Highland Clearances.