Story of 'no ordinary township' emerges as history of Highland glen uncovered

A Highland township emptied during the Clearances was much bigger and older than first thought and may have been a ‘bustling’ trading centre for hundreds of years.
Looking across to Balblair from Inverlael, a landscape where once a bustling centre of commerce could be found. PIC: Jim Dunn.Looking across to Balblair from Inverlael, a landscape where once a bustling centre of commerce could be found. PIC: Jim Dunn.
Looking across to Balblair from Inverlael, a landscape where once a bustling centre of commerce could be found. PIC: Jim Dunn.

The history of Inverlael near Ullapool is being uncovered in a series of archaeological digs and ongoing archive investigation as part of a project funded by Historic Environment Scotland.

Now, it appears that Inverlael, and neighbouring Balblair, likely formed a centre of commerce close to a central droving route, with archive records suggesting it was a place of importance from the 1300s.

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Helen Avenell, project co-ordinator at Ullapool Museum, said: “As we have started to spend a lot more time in the archives we know now that Inverlael is popping up as far back as the 1300s.

“That is starting to indicate to us that it’s was an important place – it is not just an ordinary township.

“This is somewhere mentioned in very early archive records and it’s being mentioned either because of its size, its economic value, or both.”

An illicit whisky still has been found at Inverlael with the remains of a large-scale corn drying kiln also to be investigated. Some evidence of a blacksmith’s workshop also exists. A series of archaeological digs, where the surrounding community has worked with professionals, is due to enter its third week.

Inverlael and Balblair were cleared by Mackenzie of Coul in the early 19th Century but research has now found they were cleared twice.

The first evictions took place in March 1819 when 56 families were forced to leave and the second in early 1820, when another 21 families left the glen.

Their fate remains a mystery, not least because parish records of the population were reportedly destroyed, such was the shame of the minister’s wife over what had happened.

It has always been assumed that residents left for overseas ,with one boat thought to have left Ullapool loaded with tenants, but the destination remains unknown.

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A global call was put out by the project for descendants of those evicted from the glen and now connection with a farmer in Australia has been made, with his family farm called Inverlael.

Ms Avenell said: “In the early 19th Century we now know there were 70 families cleared so you are looking at 250 to 300 people.

"That it a significant number and a really sizeable community. The names of those who lived there were all different. It is not a township of only Mackenzies or Macleans. It indicates different people were moving in and out, that it attracted commercial activity.”

She added: “The clearance story of Inverlael and Balblair is how this project started and it remains very important. But in a way, that was the end point.

“We are on land where today people come to climb the mountains as they want to experience that Highland wilderness.

"Two hundred or 300 years ago they would be walking through a bustling place. So the project is also about reframing that idea that the Highlands are empty, that they are remote. There were a lot of people living, working, dying on this land.

“The communities were not static and they certainly weren’t remote. They were at a crossroads, and they were at a centre.”

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