The last township that survived the Highland Clearances

It is a remarkable window into old Scotland and a way of life lived for hundreds of years.

Wednesday, 26th July 2017, 12:23 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:52 am
Auchindrain residents in the 19th Century included Isabella McCallum (left), Isabella McCallum - or Bell a Phuill (centre) and Edward McCallum, the first of his family to farm the site. His descendant, Eddie, was the last to leave Auchindrain in the early 1960s. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.

Auchindrain in Argyll, a scattering of cottages and longhouses south of Inverary, was first recorded more than 500 years ago.

It is now considered the last standing example of a Scottish township, where residents banded together in a joint tenancy and shared responsibility for paying the rent and working the land.

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Auchindrain survived the Highland Clearances after the 8th Duke of Argyll rejected plans to raze the township which he then ran as his "pet project". PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.

Today, it stands today much as it did in the late 1700s after surviving the Highland Clearances given its landowner, the Duke of Argyll, rejected advice to break down the township and turn the land into individual crofts.

Incredibly, the township survived until 1963 when the last tenant, Eddie McCallum, surrendered his tenancy with the Duke and left Auchindrain for good. His family had farmed there 1829.

“That was like an old song coming to an end,” said Bob Clark, director of The Auchindrain Trust.

Washday at Auchindrain, possibly around 1870. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.

Auchindrain, which is run as an open air museum, was the modern equivalent of worker’s co-operative - a set up at the very root of Scottish, Highland and Gaelic identity, Mr Clark said.

“What we have at Auchindrain is the largest standing collection of vernacular rural buildings in the whole of the UK and possibly Northern Europe,” he added.

Mr Clark said: “Auchindrain is just as significant as Callanish or Stonehenge.

“The townships, and there were thousands of them across Scotland, were fundamental to Scottish identity and in particular Highland and Gaelic identity which is found in the township from the period at the end of the Iron Age right up to the 18th Century.

The McGoughan family around 1890. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.

“If you are looking at modern incarnations of Highland culture and asking yourself ‘where does it all start?’ well the answer is in the township.”

The 8th Duke of Argyll believed that erasing the township and creating crofts in its place would offer a poor return on investment.

While his agents proceeded to clear land in his Hebridean estates, the Duke took on Auchindrain as his “pet project” from 1842 and “persuaded” tenants to adopt new farming methods, Mr Clark said.

Rent was put up amid the promise of increased productivity. The run rig system was phased out, fields were introduced with horses and new tools forged in Scotland’s industrial heartlands increasingly used for labour. Investment was made in drainage and more sheep were brought onto the land.

An Auchindrain cottage photographed in the late 19th Century. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.

In 1875, it was described by Queen Victoria as a “primitive village” following a visit with the Duke.

Mr Clark said: “The Duke was a more radical thinker than many Scottish landowners of the time who, in most cases, were embarking on eviction and compulsory modernisation.

“Here at Auchindrain, the Duke is our saving hero - but don’t mention him in Tiree or the south of Mull, where his tenants were cleared.”

Only one family left Auchindrain in the 1840s to head for Canada.

Indeed, the population increased during the period of the Highland Clearances as “refugees” from other townships sought new homes.

Up to seven families held the joint tenancy at Auchindrain at any one time but cottars, or farm workers, also lived in the township. It’s largest population was recorded in 1851 when 70 people called it home.

A mother and her children at Auchindrain around 1890. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.

Around this period, communities across the Hebrides and Highlands were further devastated by the potato blight, but Auchindrain continued to function given its cultivation of cereals.

Residents of the seven main families of Auchindrain included Isabella McCallum, or Bell a’Phuill, the ‘wise woman’ of township who would administer herbal remedies and basic health care to her community. She she died in 1915, aged 93.

Another McCallum was ‘wee Jock”, born in 1900, who almost died aged four or five after accidentally eating water dropwort.

With Bell a’Phuill unusually away from the township, his life was saved when a passing traveller administered opium to sedate him while the poison passed through his body.

Forever thankful, his family offered a property at Auchindrain to the travellers who then forged a long association with the township and provided labour in the fields.

The Munros were another key family of the township. According to 1779 population records, 28 out of Auchindrain’s 38 residents had the surname Munro. Of these, five had the first name Duncan.

Auchindrain is now run as a visitor project with several projects running to support education and training of school pupils, young people and university students. Traditional skills such as reed thatching are also practised here.

The site and its buildings are Category A listed with Auchindrain considered a collection of deep national importance.

An open day and festival of food, drink, music and heritage will be held at Auchindrain on August 5 from 10am to 5pm.

The township, which is run as an open-air museum, today. PIC: Lewis Houghton.
Auchindrain survived the Highland Clearances after the 8th Duke of Argyll rejected plans to raze the township which he then ran as his "pet project". PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.
Washday at Auchindrain, possibly around 1870. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.
The McGoughan family around 1890. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.
An Auchindrain cottage photographed in the late 19th Century. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.
A mother and her children at Auchindrain around 1890. PIC: The Auchindrain Trust.
The township, which is run as an open-air museum, today. PIC: Lewis Houghton.