Case Study: Loch Hourn Survey 2002-2009

Meryl Marshall

A large project by the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NoSAS) aimed to locate and record archaeological sites around both shores of Inner and Outer Loch Hourn, Lochaber; it was part of the nationwide SCAPE (Scotlands Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) programme. In the 18th and 19th Centuries the fishing industry was centred on the north and east coasts of Scotland, the only exception being around Loch Fyne in Argyll, but yet the herring were frequent visitors to the west coast too.

Approximately 50kms of coastline plus were covered and, where appropriate, associated hinterland explored, if for example it was thought that there might be shieling sites in higher corries. The targeted area stretched from Inverguseran (NG 745 075) to Kinloch Hourn (NG 955 065 south shore) and from Kinloch Hourn to Sandaig (NH 770 145 north shore). The project did not cover the lands of Li and Coire Dhorrcail owned by the John Muir Trust which had been surveyed in 1992 by the Royal Commission for the Historical and Ancient Monuments of Scotland.

The visitations of the herring shoals to the west coast, although bountiful, were seasonal and the locations fickle. The native population were unable to exploit the fishing because of their poverty and lack of resources, the essential supplies of salt and the barrels for curing being unavailable because of the tax laws (Dunlop 1978,18-19). The distance from the markets was also a problem. Generally the west coast herring fishing of Scotland is poorly documented compared to the north and east coast Industries.

The first fishing stations were not established until the late 18th Century – Isle Martin in 1776 and Tanera Mor in 1784, with the British Fisheries Society founded in 1786. Loch Hourn however was also the location of a thriving seasonal fishing industry, described in the OSA of 1795 and by Thomas Pennant in his tour of 1772 (Pennant 1776); it was also depicted in paintings by William Daniel in 1819. The loch was visited by Clyde based “Busses” – vessels with supplies of salt and barrels which would buy the herring from local boats and cure them on board (Wombell 2003). The local boats were very often sailing/rowing boats with crews of four to six who would come from as far afield as the off shore Islands (Knox 1787). Pennant describes the ‘multitude of little occasional hovels and tents on the shore for the accommodation of the crews and the country people who resort here at this season to take and sell herring to the strangers’ (Pennant 1776).

Figure 1: Exploratory trench through the quayside and retaining wall or bank above of a probable herring fishing station at Mhogh Sgeir. ©NoSAS

Prior to the project only a handful of sites on the south shore of Loch Hourn had been recorded on the Canmore and the Highland HER, and none on the north shore apart from in the vicinity of Arnisdale. During the project around 1300 archaeological sites were located and recorded. Many were connected with the seasonal fishing industry – fishing stations, piers, cleared beaches, shoreline bothies, platforms and rock shelters. The majority of these were located in just one stretch of coastline 6km in length on the north shore of Inner Loch Hourn, comprising 82 cleared beaches/boat landings and 79 fishermen’s bothies. Measured surveys of many of the latter and of one site with a substantial pier thought to be an early fishing station (Mhogh Sgeir) were made. Two small excavations were undertaken, of a bothy, in which, predictably, finds of clay pipes and pen knives were made, and a section through the pier at Mhogh Sgeir.

The other study areas of the project particularly those of Outer Loch Hourn had a good representation of coastal settlement with many farms and townships of differing periods being recorded. It became clear as we progressed that these settlements were very dependent on transhumance; the importance of the shieling grounds is indicated by a total of 171 shieling huts.

Figure 2: Recording a shieling at Coire Allt Chamas Chonalain Mhòir
(Site 975). ©NoSAS

The survey was important for documenting structures relating to fishing and transhumance in an area now considered remote and which has seen relatively little attention. Although some fishing stations were established on the west coast in the late 18th century this project provides evidence of how the fish were caught, cured and transported in a location which was not developed and in particular the role of the local people in the process.

All sites were published in the project reports (available from the NoSAS website) with records now in the Highland Historic Environment Record. 

Further information

NoSAS Reports can be accessed through the Highland Historic Environment Record using the following link:

EHG702 – Archaeological Survey of Inner Loch Hourn