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About The Project


This is a project took place in the north west mainland formerly known as The Province of Strathnaver or Duthaich Mhic Aoidh.

Over a 2 year period (2009 - 2010) a team of academics, local experts and interested volunteers are investigating the history and archaeology associated with this rather unusual Schoolhouse in the parish of Durness.


The abandoned Schoolhouse is located at the southern end of Loch Croispol not far from the modern Balnakeil Craft Village and would have originally sat within the township of Cnoc Breac. It was constructed in the early 1760s and appears to have fallen into disuse in 1861.

The study area which extends north from the Kyle of Durness to Balnakeil Bay is an area of Durness Limestone. That means it is a very fertile corner of Mackay Country so not surprisingly there are a number of ancient remains such as hut circles, a chambered cairn and old homesteads already identified.

Archaeological excavations in the Loch Borralie area in 2004 and 2005 revealed buildings of late medieval origin. This work yielded evidence of the sites being reused from the Norse period through into the 1600s. Pottery shards, a spindle whorl and pieces of worked red deer antler reveal early industry, Norse links and later trading links.


The current work focuses on a later period from the mid 18th into the late 19th centuries and has revealed evidence of what are often called 'pre-clearance' settlement and landuse patterns - patterns from before the creation of the crofting system and associated settlement patterns with which we are so familiar today. The current townships were laid out in the course of the early 19th century and are organised in a very different way socially and spatially from the previous tenure system.


At the heart of all of this is the Durness Parish Schoolhouse itself. It is believed that a very early school was funded and run by The Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) around 1708. This school does not appear on the list of SSPCK schools from 1748 however. By the 1760s the Parish School which is the focus of this study was in operation. By 1845 the parish had 3 other schools in addition to the original Parish School on the shores of Loch Croispol.

Contractors & Supporters


The Archaeological work has been carried out by Dr Olivia Lelong and Dr Ally Beckett of GUARD - Glasgow Archaeological Research Division.


Local History research has been carried out by Graham Bruce. Research into relevant regional and national history has been undertaken by Dr Issie MacPhail of ARC - Assynt Research and Consultancy, also of the UHI for History.

Additional specialist advice and research has been provided by:


  • Dr Mary Beith - 'Planting the Past' - local medicinal and domestic use of plants in 18th and 19th centuries

  • Dr Malcolm Bangor Jones - 'Durness Parish - From Clanship to Crofting' - social and cultural change in the
    area from the 17th to 19th century

  • Andrew Wright - chartered architect and heritage consultant specialising in significant historic buildings -
    on the importance of this schoolhouse locally and nationally

  • Arthur Dutch - 'A Tinsmith's Tales' - an account of the history of metalworking and design in Scotland with
    a focus on 18th and 19th centuries

  • Essie Stewart - traditions of the travelling families relevant to trade and daily life in the study period

  • Catriona Macleod - Gaelic support and translation for contemporary Gaelic and Mackay Country Gaelic
    words and phrases

  • UHI Centre for History - access to key books from the Dr Pennie Collection


Mackay Country Community Trust Ltd has provided archive materials and 'in-kind' voluntary time to support this project.

‘In The Trenches’ - The Dig – Summer 2009


n advance of the GUARD archaeologists arriving in August a very hard working team of local volunteers cleared the substantial build up of fallen masonry and rubble out of the interior of the Schoolhouse.


During The Dig these volunteers worked alongside the archaeologists turfing and sifting through each layer of soil to help uncover the story of this building and its past use.


A range of local schools joined in The Dig too:


  • Durness Primary School

  • Kinlochbervie Primary School

  • Kinlochbervie High School

  • Tongue Primary School

  • Farr Primary School

  • Farr High School


Local folk and visitors attended guided walks, illustrated talks and ceilidhs focused on this work.

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