We’re delighted to welcome back Ullapool Museum as guest bloggers to update us on their Lost Inverlael project as they finally get out onsite and surveying.
‘Lost Inverlael: A’ Lorg Baile Bhlàir’ is a two year community archaeology project run by Ullapool Museum to explore the lost Clearance townships of Inverlael and Balblair. Over the last six months we have been waiting with bated breath to get onsite for the first phase of the archaeology work. The lifting of lockdown measures in mid-May meant that we have now been out and about and making some really exciting discoveries!
Over the last month we been working with volunteers from the local community and students from Ullapool High School to make a walkover survey, logging any identifiable structures or interesting looking features across the site. This involved using GPS to map each feature and then using poles and tapes to measure and record the details. This has been a huge task and the contribution of the volunteers has been really important. The site has never previously been recorded and the full extent of the township of Inverlael is only now being realised. It stretches across an area of more than two miles; from the visible remains on the current Inverlael Farm and into what is now plantation forest managed by Forestry Land Scotland.
At the top of the glen, beyond the forestry land is the site of the township’s summer ‘shelings’. Sheilings were an important part of ‘transhumance’, a widespread Highland and European cattle herding practice. In the summer months many communities decamped with their domestic animals up to sheltered glens among the hills. This protected the crops growing in the township and the cattle could feed on sweet hill grass. And it was up here that we have made our best discovery to date… an illicit whisky still! We have a site visit planned in July with an expert research team to explore this site further… so watch out for further updates in the coming weeks!
Meanwhile we are continuing our research to find Inverlael descendants and exploring the archives to illuminate the rich history of this now forgotten Highland township.
Discover more about the ‘Lost Inverlael: A’ Lorg Baile Bhlàir’ project on our dedicated Facebook page and also here:
Museum Mangaer, Siobhan Beatson, tells all about this exciting new project that launched just before lockdown and is slowly building up steam.
Lost Inverlael: Finding Balblair is potentially one of the biggest projects Ullapool Museum has undertaken that did not require rebuilding walls or emptying the museum. It will certainly be the longest running project and in my opinion the most exciting. The involvement of archaeological activities combined with in depth research of the townships of Inverlael and Balblair and its people will bring the community together in a single mission to reignite local memory of the area and the lives of its inhabitants.
There are several adjacent projects which include a cultural development of music and art, a recreation of the landscape and townships in Minecraft and a full digital interactive exhibit that will take a permanent place in the museum. The combination of the last two show how Ullapool Museum is stepping into the modern world and taking on new challenges to accent our engagement with the local community and our visitors which will hopefully develop an emotional connection to the project. With this blog we hope to involve our community and interested parties in the genus of the project, more recent events and how we plan to take the next steps.
The idea of exploring the history of Inverlael and Balblair was brought to us last summer by our now famous local historian Duncan MacKenzie, whose family had strong ties to the area. He had been brought up on stories of the Clearance of 1819/20 by Sir George Steuart MacKenzie of Coul. The folk tales of tenants being turfed out of their houses and having to set up a makeshift camp outside of Clachan church intrigued him to pursue the real story of the townships. He has spent many years playing detective and had conducted a significant amount of research on the land and in various archives. On the discovery of Land Tax records from the early modern period, he discovered that Balblair was valued considerably more than other townships in Lochbroom. This led to the educated assumption that Balblair, a township that had been all but forgotten even in the local community, had something significant to offer and was more notable than previously believed. A comment in some research read that Balblair was the largest township north of Dingwall. When all this evidence was presented to us we were all in agreement that we had stumbled upon an intriguing and previously lost story. We were eager to follow this up and Lost Inverlael: Finding Balblair was born.
In January we received confirmation of funding from Historic Environment Scotland, which gave us the green light for the project. In the early weeks of Lock Down we appointed the Archaeology team for the project. Highland Archaeological Services provided the best answers and foresight and we were thrilled to be able to offer a local company the opportunity to work with us. We also appointed Immersive Minds to the project who will conduct the recreation of the landscape and heritage in Minecraft (a block building computer game). We are very excited about this as it is something very different and gives us an opportunity to work with the local school children, and give them an opportunity to build parts of the landscape while learning about this history, culture and heritage through a very modern and familiar medium. The Crafting the Past website is available to look at which already has the preliminary landscape features. In June we were approached by Interface a consultation company who pair up digital projects with Universities to work in partnership. This has meant that we can look forward to developing an interactive museum display, which will be able to give our visitors all the details of the project in a user-friendly manner, with interactive maps, stories from the people who lived there, potential archaeology finds can be analysed and much more. The possibilities with this type of tech are endless and we hope to pioneer this use of technology for museums in the highlands.
The last couple of months have seen the start of the research programme of the project begin to take shape. Myself and our Reception and Admin assistant Arran MacDonald have started the groundwork for the more detailed research that will come later on. We have managed to collate a basic list of names in Family groups or individuals from the two eviction notices of 1819 and 1820. This gives us a good foundation on which to work on. Some interesting facts have emerged from this record, including the name of Lady Katherine MacKenzie (Ramsay) of Coul, who was the mother of Sir George Steuart MacKenzie. She is stated as the land owner in the eviction records, which we believe were left to her after her late husbands death to contribute to her upkeep. Further research into this is being conducted, including trying to find General Sir Alexander MacKenzie of Coul’s Last Will and Testament, which would confirm this theory.
We are excited to begin the project properly and we are working towards planning the community workshops for the winter period. This will involve bringing the whole team together including the schools and the archaeologists to develop a programme of workshops to inform the community of the details of the project and to involve them in various aspects of research, information gathering and potential volunteering opportunities. We hope to reach all aspects of the community from the youngest to the oldest and include all abilities and knowledge levels.
While 2020 has had a shaky start, we hope that Lost Inverlael: Finding Balblair will bring a new enthusiasm and vigour to the end of the year. Which can take us into 2021 with a renewed outlook and endless possibilities.