Shieldaig Past


Photo copyright Steve Carter

Whether you first glimpse Shieldaig at coast level travelling north from Lochcarron and Kishorn, or whether you approach the village coming down the hill from Torridon, the sight of the white- washed houses nestling on the shore between Ben Shieldaig and the pine-covered Shieldaig Island is quite breathtaking.

Shieldaig’s official history begins around 1800 during the Napoleonic wars to provide and train sailors for the Royal Navy. King George III decided that a Parliamentary village should be built on the west coast, ‘for bringing youths to the knowledge of the sea’. At first, there were problems finding someone to build the village, and it was not until 1810 that construction began. But, by the time the new village was fully up and running, the threat of Napolean had slipped away.

The people who arrived in the new village of Shieldaig did well. The government gave generous grants for boat building and guaranteed prices for fish supplies, as well as ensuring quantities of duty-free salt, land availability, and a new road to connect Shieldaig with Kishorn and Lochcarron. The salt enabled the local fisherman to cure their catches before sending them south to markets. Shieldaig was considered to be one of the finest villages on the west coast at this time.

Shieldaig, however, was not to escape the effects of the Clearances. The village was part of the vast Applecross Estate and the community’s problems began when the estate changed hands from the MacKenzies of Applecross to the Duke of Leeds, whose wife was one of the family who had been responsible for the cruel Sutherland Clearances.

The Duchess entrusted local matters to her gamekeeper, who, it soon became obvious, ‘preferred sheep herds and sheep to mariners and sailors’. Shieldaig fared badly in the next 30 years. The cattle grazings were taken away from the crofter/fisherman and snapped up by the local innkeeper and merchant who, by now, were involved in large scale sheep farming.

When the Duke of Leeds broke up the Applecross property into smaller partitions, the Lochcarron estate, including the village of Shieldaig, was sold to Sir John Stewart. His sons went deerstalking in Glenshieldaig forest and dispossessed many of the Shieldaig tenants, taking over their houses for estate use. Most of the land was rented out to incoming sheep farmers.

By the 1860’s it was reported that only one offshore fishing boat remained in ‘Herring Bay’, the translation of the Norse Shieldaig. The population of the Parliamentry village were now too poor to improve their lot ‘although the fishing was still very good’.

There must have been a slight improvement over the next 40 years which is the gap between recorded history and the memories passed down from parents to the eldest generation living in Shieldaig today. These improvements were probably due to crofting legislation which began to give land back to local people.

My children are the fifth generation of Camerons to live in Shieldaig. Their Great, Great Grandfather Keneth Cameron was born in 1856 in Ardoch, Kishorn, he later moved to Shieldaig from Kishorn and became the Inn Keeper in the village. He and his wife, Catherine MacKenzie, had five children, my Grandfather, Alla Cameron was born in Shieldaig in 1901. Alla was a true crofter fisherman, he married Joanna MacKinnon from South Uist and they had six children. My dad, Nommie Cameron was born in Shieldaig in 1945, he feels he caught the tail end of living in a true crofting community where everyone pulled together to work their crofts and every family had a cow. To some, this may sound idyllic in contrast to the hectic lives we live today but don’t be fooled, it was a harsh way of life. The evening meal was typically potatoes and salted herring, meat was strictly for Sunday only.

By the time he was ten, my dad can remember milk arriving at the local shop and his parents discussing getting rid of their cow. His memories are that between 1955 and 1960 there was a gradual move away from traditional crofting. Welfare payments started, and the road between Shieldaig and Torridon opened improving the transportation of goods and people in and out of Shieldaig. These changes were welcomed in the community.

My grandfather worked on a boat called ‘The Fern’. The purpose of the boat was to transport groceries and other goods from the village to coastal communities on the Applecross panisula because, of course, there was no road to these communities at that time. As a young boy, my dad often helped out on the boat, he remembers transporting a variety of essential goods such as groceries and paraffin from Nannys, sheeps wool, chicken feed, tobacco and even a coffin!