Welcome to Gairloch
On Scotland’s west coast, around 60 miles west of Inverness, lie the pretty white buildings of Gairloch. Gairloch is a collection of small settlements such as Auchtercairn, Charlestown, Lonemore, Mial, Smithstown and Strath clustered around the sea loch which gives the town its name; derived from the Gaelic Gearrloch meaning ‘short loch’.
Torridon Mountains nr. Gairloch
Like Ullapool, about 25 miles to the north along the rugged and broken coast, fishing has long been important to the local economy. Again like Ullapool, Gairloch’s setting is a draw for tourists. The southern backdrop of the Torridon Mountains, the sunsets across the Minch to the Western Isles and its large clean sandy beach are just some of the features which make the area one of the most attractive in Scotland. More recently a golf course, a community centre, a museum (the Gairloch Heritage Museum) and a variety of accommodation have come to add to Gairloch’s traditional attractions while the harbour, at Charlestown, has come to be shared by fishing vessels and pleasure craft alike, as well as the occasional inquisitive porpoise or seal.
Human habitation in the area dates back millennia, to a time when prehistoric man carved out an existence for himself on these shores as a hunter gatherer. Amongst the most interesting prehistoric sites in the area, albeit from much later, include the remains of the Bronze Age hut circles by the Sand River and the burial cist at Bruachaig, near Kinlochewe, some of whose contents are on display at the Gairloch Heritage Museum. An Dun, at the southern end of Gairloch Beach, was an important site from the Iron Age, although the visible remains of a vitrified fort at the site probably date from much later.
When the Vikings began settling the west coast at the beginning of the 9th century AD they may well have remodelled the early fort of An Dun. The Vikings most likely recognised the loch as a convenient natural harbour, where their vessels could take refuge when storms whipped up the often dangerous waters of The Minch into a lethal tumult. The period of Viking dominance in the area is testified to by the number of local place names with Norse origins; such as the Isle of Horrisdale or Thorndale (named after the Norse God, Thor).
With the Viking defeat at the Battle of Largs, Viking domination of the western seaboard came to an end and local families came to vie for power in Gairloch. The clans Mackenzie and McLeod became locked in a deadly struggle for domination which saw the Mackenzies gaining the upper hand in 1494 when King James IV (1473-1513) granted Gairloch to Hector Roy Mackenzie, who subsequently gained the title of First Chief. Hector Roy also obtained a commission from the king for the destruction of the McLeods of Gairloch by ‘fire and sword’. The Mackenzies would have waged their war from the wooded Flowerdale Glen, a little inland from Gairloch Bay. Around the year 1500 AD local folklore tells us that one of the clan chief’s bodyguard fired an arrow from the hill overlooking Flowerdale House at a lookout on a McLeod vessel in the bay, striking him dead at a distance of over 700 metres. Flowerdale House, first built in 1738 and then extensively remodelled in 1904, remains the seat of the Mackenzies of Gairloch to this day. Despite Mackenzie suppression the McLeods survived; in 1623 Clan MacLeod became proprietors of Gairloch and had their seat at An Dun.
For the most part, such blood feuds would have been little more than a backdrop for the real business of eking out a living from the land and waters. Fishing and iron provided the traditional foundation of the local economy. Interestingly, early records suggest that in the early years of the 17th century there was already an ironworks on the shores of Loch Maree, near Letterewe, which produced great guns amongst other products. At this time several hundred English workers were brought in to work on the site leading to the appointment, in 1608, of a local clergyman capable of giving services in English as well as Gaelic. However, fishing has proved to be the most enduring sector of the economy. Once famed for its cod, today mainly crabs, lobsters and prawns are landed at the bay.
Since Victorian times tourists have made their way to Gairlcoh providing the area with another source of income. Queen Victoria herself praised the beauty of Gairloch after a visit in 1877, which did much to promote the area amongst the ever swelling ranks of pleasure seekers making their way north.
Originally visitors arrived on paddle steamers from Glasgow, nowadays most arrive by road. The presence of pleasure craft in the bay, however, suggests there may not be an insignificant number of amateur seafarers who still prefer to be introduced to Gairloch as were generations before them, framed by sea and sky.