Bicentenary of the Strathnaver Clearances

Post Clearance village

Poulouriscaig – post Clearance village

The Bicentenary of the Strathnaver Clearances is supported by the local Highland Councillors and has received funding through the Ward Discretionary Budget.

Bicentenary Ceilidh, membes of Feis air an Oir

Bicentenary Ceilidh, members of Feis air an Oir

Strathnaver Museum’s programme of events to commemorate the infamous Clearances of Strathnaver commenced in Bettyhill on Saturday night with a Bicentennial Ceilidh in the Public Hall. Fear an tigh at the event was Iain Mackay, better known as Ian Inshlampie, a highly appropriate choice given that he is the son of the first, and only, shepherd to be employed on the Rhifail Sheep Stock Club, established by the Congested Districts Board in relation to the resettlement of Strathnaver by its native people. Topping the bill were the young musicians of Feis air an Oir, ably assisted by the All Welcome Ceilidh Band, whose core membership were the children of Janette Mackay of Strathy, with anyone welcome to join. Some did, including David Macleod of Achuvoldarch, who ordinarily plays with the Melness Band, and Shona Munro of Bettyhill who also opened the event on her pipes. Brother and sister Duncan and Rhona Macleod, of Bonar Bridge, also direct descendants of the dispossessed of Strathnaver, demonstrated their musical virtuosity, as did some impromptu contributors, including Lisa Macdonald of Helmsdale, with her rendering of ‘The Rose’ and Janette Mackay herself, who led community singing well in to the night.

Syre Church

Syre Church

On Sunday afternoon, the corrugated iron church at Syre was crowded for a special service. Though constructed in 1890, many years after the clearances, to serve the tiny population of shepherds and estate employees then living in the Strath, this was a very appropriate place for commemoration. A few yards away, at Langdale, the Reverend Donald Sage, then minister at Achness further up the Strath, preached what has become immortalised as ‘the last sermon in Strathnaver’ to his parishioners on the point of their eviction and wrote a moving record of that day, and the events that followed, in ‘Memorabilia Domestica’, an account of his own various ministries, and those of his father and grandfather, which was first published in 1889, twenty years after his death and almost fifty years after he completed the manuscript.

A brief outline of the background to the Strathnaver Clearances was given by local historian, Elliot Rudie, and the service itself was conducted by the Reverend Leslie Goskirk, himself a descendent of tenants evicted elsewhere in Sutherland, who took as his text the same verses from the Book of Revelation used by Sage on that fateful day. To mark the fact that, in the pre-Clearance Strath, the language of the entire population was Gaelic, there was also a selection of readings of psalms from the Gaelic Bible from Christine Stokes of Tongue and the Melvich Gaelic Choir, together with a contingent from the Lairg Choir, led by Raymond Bremner of Thurso and Graham Campbell of Halladale, contributed three songs on relevant themes in the authentic tongue of the Gael. Where singing in English was concerned, this was done in the style once common throughout Scotland, and dating from before universal literacy, with a precentor, Richard Bradley, ‘taking out the line’.

All of which added up to a moving and memorable introduction to the Museum’s commemorative programme which continues this week and next with a varied series of events along the North Coast culminating on the evening of Wednesday the 6th August with a lecture at the Farr Edge in Bettyhill by Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie of the University of the Highlands and Islands entitled ‘Why did the Clearances happen?’

Programme2.sla-page002 Programme2.sla-page001


Volunteering at the Stathnaver Museum



Strathnaver Museum was established by historian Dr Ian Grimble and a group of dedicated local volunteers who wished to preserve and protect their local heritage. We opened our doors to the public on the first of April 1976 and to this day the Museum remains a volunteer led organisation. Our volunteers are our greatest asset and through their combined and extensive knowledge the Museum explores the Highland Clearances, the story of the Clan Mackay and the agricultural story of the area.

As you can imagine we were delighted to be told last month that our application to the Voluntary Action Fund for a Volunteer Support Grant was successful! Our grant will enable us to develop more opportunities for volunteering through creating exciting outreach projects across the whole of Mackay Country. We know that it can be difficult to find the time to do all the things people want to do but we will create flexible and worthwhile volunteering opportunities for everyone. 

People volunteer their time for lots of different reasons from getting out and meeting people, expanding their skills and experience, to look good on a CV or for their own personal interest. So if you are interested in volunteering at the Strathnaver Museum, for whatever reason, we would love to hear from you!

To find out more drop Fiona a email at

Pipers marry their pipes and live in sin with their wives

Pipe Major George Ackroyd and Helen Mary Mackay on their wedding day 23-Dec-1927

Pipe Major George Ackroyd and Hellen Mary Mackay in 1927

Whilst perusing the vintage images we hold on the Strathnaver Museum computer I discovered this striking image of a handsome young couple on their wedding day. You can tell a lot from a picture. The bridal gown appears to be from the 1920s, the groom is a military man. But who were the couple? What is their story?

The obvious first question when researching this image further is what unit did our groom serve with? As I am no expert on military attire a quick search online pointed towards the Black Watch and more importantly brought me to what proved to be the very informative Great War Forum. The sporran, cantle, cap badge, plaid broch, collar dogs and flashes on his uniform indicate his regiment as Black Watch. As he is wearing Royal Stewart we can also tell our groom is a piper, as all pipers in the Black Watch wore Royal Stewart, to reflect their status of ‘Royal’ regiment.

We can also tell his rank as he is wearing a Pipe Major’s belt buckle and rosettes (celtic knots) on his kilt. If you look very closely at the image you can just see upturned chevrons on his right arm below a bagpipe arm badge. Also on the cross belt you will notice a ‘staff badge’, worn by ranks of Sergeant and above, with ‘42’ and the motto ‘Nemo Ne Impune Lacessit’ which means ‘no one attacks me with impunity’. Or if translated into Scots ‘Wha daur meddle wi me’!

As well as learning lots about Black Watch Pipers dress uniforms the Great War Forum also, to my surprise and absolute delight, put a name to our mystery groom! A former Black Watch Pipe Major, who is currently working on creating a data base of all Black Watch pipers, identified our groom as Pipe Major George Ackroyd. The project has so far identified 458 pipers from the Great War period alone and they would be grateful for any information about Black Watch pipers from all periods. You can submit information and find out more about the project on the Great War Forum.

But back to Pipe Major George Ackroyd! George was born on the 13 January 1902 to George Ackroyd and Janet Fisher in Edinburgh. George senior had also been a piper with the Black Watch and the family appears in the 1911 census record in Perth where George senior was a Sergeant Piper. During World War I George senior also served as a Pipe Major.

Young George’s piping career began in 1918 when he became one of the first pupils of John Grant at the Army School of Piping. The school was established in 1910 in order to train potential pipe majors. It was in 1854 that the British Army recognised pipers and established Pipe Majors, but in Highland forces the piper had, since early times, held an honoured position. Unlike other musicians the piper was also a fighting role and his day began when he roused his colleagues with the sound of the piob mhor (great pipe).

It was in 1925 that George became Pipe Major of the 2nd Battalion Black Watch stationed at Fort George, an 18th century fortress near Ardersier to the north east of Inverness. It was whilst garrisoned here that he may have met Hellen Mary Mackay from Trantlebeg, Strath Halladale and on the 23 December 1927 the couple married.

George was not the first military piper in Hellen’s life. Hellen’s brother Angus served as a piper with the 1/6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders Territorial Force during World War I. Sutherland was renowned for producing talented pipers, many from boyhood,  and in the early nineteenth century it was said that those from Sutherland (especially the parish of Tongue) came ‘as if trained in a school.’ Angus enlisted at Melvich and arrived in France in 1916 where the Battalion, now part of the 51st (Highland) Division was involved in the Battle of the Somme at High Wood. Due to the division’s growing reputation they were chosen to capture the fortress village of Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916. By 1917, the 51st was considered a leading assault division earning itself increasingly challenging missions. Looking to make a strategic breakthrough on the Western Front allied forces staged an offensive at Arras which began on the 9 April and lasted until 16 May. The 6th Seaforths were to be involved from the start of the offensive and were tasked with capturing three lines of German trenches northeast of the small village of Roclincourt. It was during this advance, at the age of just 24, that Angus fell. Angus is buried at the Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt.

Grave of Angus Sutherland Mackay, at Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt.

Grave of Angus Sutherland Mackay, at Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt.

Coincidentally during WWI the Black Watch had served with the 51st (Highland) Division although of course George was only a boy during the Great War. In 1930 George became Pipe Major of the Black Watch Depot at the Queen’s Barracks in Perth where he served until 1938 with 23 years’ service in the Black Watch.

George Ackroyd being carried aloft by his colleagues as reported in the Dundee Courier 11 October 1938

George Ackroyd being carried aloft by his colleagues as reported in the Dundee Courier 11 October 1938

The 2nd Transvaal Scottish in 1939. George Ackroyd is on the second row, far right wearing a SA Efficiency Medal.

The 2nd Transvaal Scottish in 1939. George Ackroyd is on the second row, far right wearing a SA Efficiency Medal.

From Perth, George went to South Africa where he became Pipe Major with the Transvaal Scottish Regiment, a reserve unit of the South African Army. Mobilised at the outbreak of WWII he served in Abyssinia and then the Western Desert before being taken prisoner at the fall of Tobruk in June 1942. He was held as a POW in Germany until he was repatriated back to South Africa in 1945.

PM Ackroyd of the Second Battalion Transvaal Scottish being presented with a pipe banner by the Colonel's wife Mrs Norma Thompson in 1946.

PM Ackroyd of the Second Battalion Transvaal Scottish being presented with a pipe banner by the Colonel’s wife Mrs Norma Thompson in 1946.

Back in South Africa George was involved with the Scottish Piping Society of Witwatersrand. One former pupil, Len Durham, recalls on the Scottish Piping Society of London’s website how ‘George brought his military approach to lessons and was often heard to tell a young piper that he would play better if he had his hair cut’. It was here that he took Len’s fiancé aside and told her to remember that pipers marry their pipes and live in sin with their wives.

Today the Scottish Piping Society of Witwatersrand holds an annual solo piping completion in October called the George Ackroyd Challenge.

Needed on a Journey

In 2014 we will be talking mostly about the Strathnaver Clearances. In fact we will be talking about the Strathnaver Clearances an awful lot as this year marks 200 years since that most brutal episode in our history. How can you get involved? Easy. We will have events and activities for everyone to take part in, just keep an eye out for our updates on this blog, Facebook, Twitter or sign up for our Newsletter to make sure you don’t miss a thing!

Several generations of a Sutherland family. Do you have any similar photographs of your ancestors?

Several generations of a Sutherland family. Do you have similar photographs of your ancestors?

First let me tell you about our Needed on a Journey project which everyone can get involved in, even if you are a thousand miles away from Bettyhill! How? Let me explain. Last week our volunteers’ got started on the preparations for the Needed on a Journey exhibition with project Curator Alison Boyle which will be launched on the 17 May and will feature Clearance era objects from the Museum and objects loaned from local people. Take part or come along and see the exhibition during the year! 

Participants in our first Needed on a Journey workshop.

Participants in our first Needed on a Journey workshop

But what about those of you whose ancestors left these shores many years ago? What did your ancestors take with them? Often they boarded a boat with few physical objects, what was important they carried in their heads. Their memories of the country they were leaving behind. The stories they were told as children. The songs they learnt from their fathers. The recipes they learnt from their mothers. What they carried with them was their heritage and culture. We want to hear from our cousins abroad and share YOUR family story. What has your ancestors given to you of their Scottish heritage and culture? Perhaps you have some photographs of your ancestors? If you can’t visit us we would still love to hear from you!

For more information about the project or to send us your story please email us at

Needed on a Journey poster-page001

The Needed on a Journey project is part of My Heart’s in the Highlands Highland Homecoming 2014 Initiative and lots of events and activities are planned across Highland and Moray during the year. To find out about the project and the iphone App which will list all events have a look at the website.

CASVAG Leaflet

Caithness and Sutherland Visitor Attraction Group Leaflet showing some of the fantastic visitor attractions in the north of Scotland.

Caithness & Sutherland Visitor Attraction Group


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200 Years’ in Mackay Country

Strathnaver Museum

Strathnaver Museum is an independent museum located in Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland. The Museum explores life in the ancient province of Strathnaver from pre-historic to modern times.

One of the main themes that the Museum explores is the 19th Century Clearances which saw thousands of Highlanders removed forcibly from their homes. These many thousands left the land which had sustained their families for countless generations to begin new lives on the coast, in the industrial south or on far and unfamiliar shores.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Strathnaver Clearances that saw the glens emptied of people to be replaced with sheep. We will be commemorating these events throughout 2014 with a series of exhibitions and events remembering the past and looking towards the future as we welcome the world to our beautiful part of Scotland during Homecoming 2014.