Lost Inverlael: Finding Balblair

In the autumn of 1740, a highland laird journeys to his west coast lands at Inverlael on the shores of Lochbroom to collect rents from his tenents. This annual visit from Sir Colin Mackenzie of Coul, 4th Baronet and Clerk of the Pip in the Exchequer to the Scottish Crown, will be his last. Mackenzie catches an incurable fever and dies. His body is buried overlooking the River Lael within and elaborately carved stone Sepulchre.

Some eighty years later, Sir Colin’s grandson makes a similar journey west. But instead of the annual rent collection, George Steuart MacKenzie of Coul 7th Baronet issues his tenants with a notice of immediate eviction. More than fifty five families are forced from the land their ancestors have lived and worked for generations. Many flee to rough hillside grounds across Loch Broom, facing a distressing struggle to survive the onset of a harsh winter. Some families make the painful decision to emigrate. By 1825, the old township of Inverlael is populated only by sheep and a few Lowland shepherds.

Project Outline

2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the Inverlael Clearances. Our project seeks to commemorate this event by launching a two year community project to explore the historical and cultural landscape of Inverlael through archaeological investigation and Historical archival research. Using these parallel approaches, we will interpret the stories f this township’s past and its people, to share the history of a lost local community.

Historical records date Inverlael to at least the 13th Century. until the establishment of Ullapool in 1788 Inverlael was described as ‘the largest settlement north of Dingwall‘. The area was owned by Munro family for at least three centuries until the mid 17th Century when the MacKenzie’s of Coul took ownership of the Glen (Jones, 1994, pp79-117).

The MacKenzie’s ownership of Inverlael is visibly marked on the landscape by the sepulchre surrounding the grave of Sir Colin MacKenzie of Coul 4th Bt. The family’s brutal eviction of the old township of Inverlael by Sir George Steuart MacKenzie on Martinmas 1819 ruptured a centuries old community. This painful history is now largely forgotten but one that is hidden in plain sight. Huddles of stones from the old croft houses are strung out across the hillside, clearly visible from the public road and car park. More satellite sites associated with the township lie further up the glen, amongst the modern planted Inverlael Forest and adjacent to very popular walking routes. These have been identified as possible beehive sheilings and a still site, amongst evidence of historic and lengthy occupation.

Scraps of the social history of Inverlael have been preserved through oral tradition handed down through generation of local families. However, much of the story of Inverlael has been lost, even within the local community. Over the past twenty years the volunteers genealogy team at Ullapool Museum have painstakingly gathered family genealogies and this work will provide a strong base from which to collect and collate this community history.

There will be a public programme of formal and informal learning opportunities, designed primarily around engaging with our local community. These will include opportunities to participate in archaeological digs; genealogy workshops; a lecture programme; activity days and interactive tours. The commemoration and celebration of this lost community will also be explored from a modern creative and artistic angle through engaging with local arts and traditional music organisations such, to create artistic responses to the project findings.