New project to rediscover the history of a lost Highland township

26 March 2020
Caption: Duncan Bain MacKenzie, descendant of one of the clearance families stands amongst the Inverlael township ruins
A new two-year community archaeology project launches this week with the aim of rediscovering the history of a lost Highland township.

The project, ‘Lost Inverlael, Finding Balblair’ will be led by Ullapool Museum, supported by a grant of £68,000 from Historic Environment Scotland alongside funding from Forestry and Land Scotland.

Remembering the Inverlael Clearances

2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the Inverlael Clearances, a township near Ullapool in the northwest Scottish Highlands. In the winter of 1819, more than fifty families were brutally evicted from their homes by landowner, George Steuart Mackenzie of Coul, to make way for more profitable sheep farms. Forced from the land their ancestors had lived and worked for generations, families faced a struggle to survive the onset of a harsh winter. Some moved to larger towns across the Highlands, many made the painful decision to emigrate. 

The brutal eviction of the old township of Inverlael ruptured a centuries-old community and although this painful history is now largely forgotten, its legacy is hidden in plain sight amongst the huddles of croft house stones strung out across the hillside and glen amongst the modern planted Inverlael Forest. 

What will the project involve?

Over the next two years, the team at Ullapool Museum will be supported by archaeologists to investigate the history of the township of Inverlael through a series of community digs, archive research, genealogy workshops, activity days and interactive tours. The project will also work with local arts organisations to create artistic responses which will commemorate and celebrate this lost community.

Dr Kevin Grant, Archaeology Manager at Historic Environment Scotland said: “We are delighted to be able to support this valuable project which is exploring an important aspect of the history of Wester Ross. Cleared townships like Inverlael are not only of local interest but are a crucial part of our story as a nation – they contributed greatly to the culture and society of modern Scotland. Historic Environment Scotland looks forward to working with our partners and the local community to deliver this project which will explore the history, heritage, and culture of the West Highlands and support the diverse communities who live there today.” 

Project co-ordinator Helen Avenell added: “The launch of ‘Lost Inverlael: Finding Balblair’ comes at a challenging time for us all, but we are thrilled to be able to begin work on what we know will be an important and meaningful project for our local community. Over the coming two years there will be lots of opportunities for people to come together to get involved."

Do you have Inverlael or Balblair ancestors?

Helen continued: "As we launch this project we are putting out an appeal to anyone who may have information on ancestors who were from Inverlael and Balblair. Scraps of the social history of Inverlael have been preserved through oral tradition handed down through generations of local families. However much of the story of this cleared community and its evicted families has been lost, even though we know that Inverlael was a thriving community, at one time the largest community north of Dingwall.

"Alongside the archaeology programme, we are running a research project to get stories from families and relatives that will help in our understanding of the area.

“We also wish to hear from people who believed that their family were from Balblair (Cromarty). We believe that Balblair (Lochbroom) was a hugely populated area and many people may have the wrong Balblair when it comes to their own family history. If you believe your family were from Balblair but have found little information on the East Coast, then we at Ullapool Museum would really like to hear from you.”

If you can help, contact Ullapool Museum by e-mail; tel: 01854 621987; website. You can visit the project's Facebook page here.

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Please note that due to the Coronavirus regulations the museum is closed until at least 1 May 2020.