Geography of Sutherland

The geography of Sutherland


This text file provides an overview of the changing geography of Sutherland. It quotes extensively from:

A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, from its origin to the year 1630; written by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, Baronet, with a continuation to the year 1651. Edinburgh, 1813. (Hereafter: Earldom (Gordon)).


Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol III pp 96-110 gives a document entitled ‘The Description of the Province of Southerland. With the commodities thereof.’ In the table of Contents the editors of this volume, Sir Arthur Mitchell & James Toshach Clark, comment (p xxxvii) ‘No author, no date’. In fact the description is the same as that found in Section 1 (pp 1-12) of Sir Robert Gordon’s book mentioned above. The ‘Advertisement’ at the beginning of the printed volume is dated 1812 and mentions that 4 manuscript versions then existed. The book was published in 1813 on the basis of the manuscript possessed by the Marchioness of Stafford. A second manuscript was said to be in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh whilst the whereabouts of the other two manuscripts is not given. It seems likely that the source for the section in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol III was the manuscript in the Advocates’ Library. It is almost identical but there are some small differences in spelling, punctuation, the use of capital letters etc. Where these concern the spelling of Gaelic place-names the existence of this second version can be very useful. In this file I have relied on the printed book but where there is relevant material in Macfarlane I have added this in brackets (e.g. MGC III p x).


This is supplemented by other material from Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections, by earlier maps and estate maps, as well as charters and other documentary sources. We have to look past the later county boundaries to reveal the earlier geographical descriptions. Unfortunately we are not moving from a fixed later cartography to a fixed earlier cartography. Geographical descriptions themselves have a history. They evolve over time – as do the names employed to signify them. I suspect the earliest landscapes were generally defined by watersheds and drainage-basins. But, as the landscapes filled with people so these definitions became insufficient. Then we find boundaries based on rivers or burns, features such as cairns or standing stones. But rivers occasionally change course, memories are forgotten, disputes arise and have to be resolved. In other parts of Britain we know much about ‘beating the bounds’, about annual events to fix memory and avoid dispute, and, in later centuries, the innumerable court actions. Much of this is lost in Sutherland but enough survives to show that boundary issues were just as significant here. In what follows there is much that I cannot pin down. But if we elaborate some of the issues we may move towards a better picture of how our mental landscape has changed.


I am going to start with the conceptual rather than the geographic. Caithness, and the earliest form of Sutherland made up the province of Cat. This takes us back to the pre-Norse period and the oldest provincial divisions of Scotland.


Earldom (Gordon) p 2:

The province of Southerland is called in old Scottish or Irish language Cattey, and the inhabitants Cattigh, … and therefter it wes called Southerland. … This cuntrey of Cattey did somtymes contean all the region lying betueen the Port-Ne-Couter [Portnaculter (west of Tain) NH 7385, although Gordon may here be meaning the river, or lower part of the Kyle of Sutherland] and Dunsgbie [Duncansby (by John o’ Groats) ND 3872/3972], being divyded almost in the midst by a mountane called Ord [ND 0517], and a range of other hilles runing from the south sea to the north ocean;…. And the cuntrie which is now called Catteynes, wes first so named at [as?] the Nes, or promontorie of Cattey, lying be-eist the montane Ord.


This is repeated on p 18:

evin vnto this day the cuntrey of Southerland is yit called Cattey, the inhabitants Catteigh, and the Erle of Southerland Morweir Cattey, in old Scottish or Irish, which language the inhabitants of this cuntrey doe still use.

This countrey of Cattey did sometyme contane all the region lying bewixt Port-ne-couter and Dungesby, being divyded almost in the midst by a montane called Ord or Mond, which runeth from the south sea to the north; … and the cuntrey which is now called Catteynes wes first so named, as the ness or promontorie of Cattey, lying by-east the montayne Ord.


Gordon uses two supporting arguments here: firstly that the earl of Sutherland was the mormaer or great steward/chief of Cattey, secondly that Caithness was the ness or promontory of Cattey. He doesn’t state it but this would imply that the name Caithness evolved after the Norse period since -ness is a Norse suffix. Equally the name Sutherland (the land to the south) is plainly from Norse not Gaelic.


These arguments are repeated on pp 19-20:


Bot, in progresse of tyme, the whole region of Cattey, (which then conteyned all the territorie lying betuen Port-ne-couter and Dungsbie), wes divyded into tuo pairts. That portion which lyeth by-east the hill Ord wes called Catteynes, that is, the Nes, or promontorie of Cattey, stretching it selff foorth into a poynt toward the east and northeast: and that pairt of Cattey which lyeth to the south and southwest of the montayne Ord wes called Southerland, or South-Cattey, as being the most southerlie pairt of that cuntrey, still retayning the name of Cattey in Irish or old Scottish language, as the most eminent pairt of that region; for at this day Southerland is in that language called Catty, a Southerland man called Cattegh, and the Erle of Southerland Moir-Wair-Cattey.


Gordon also summons the extent of the bishopric of Caithness as another supporting argument.


Earldom (Gordon) p 2:

The bishoprick of Catteynes, without doubt, had first the denomination from Cattey, because this diocie [diocese] doth not onlie contein the cuntrey of Catteynes, bot also Southerland, Strathnaver, and Assint; all which in former tymes wes within Cattey; so that the bishoprick took the denomination rather from Cattey, which wes the whole, then from Catteynes, which wes bot a pairt and promontorie thereof; and further, the cathedrale church of the diocie, together with the bishop’s seat, and the residence of the channons, is, and hath ever been, (since the first institution) not in Catteynes, bot in the toun of Dornoch in Southerland. So, from the progres of tyme, the cuntrie of Cattey loseing the auncient name and taking the name of Southerland, the name of the bishoprick, notwithstanding, still remained, and, instead of Cattey, it wes called Catteynes, as drawing neirer to the old name and etymologie then Southerland did.


p 18 – referring to the bishopric of Caithness:

which bishoprick had the denomination first from Cattey, for this diocie doth not onlie contayne the cuntrey of Catteynes, bot also Sutherland, Strathnaver, Assint, Durines, and Edderachilis, all which in old tymes wes within the bounds of Cattey.


(Similar arguments are to be found in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol II pp 448-450, 464-469 which both derive from Sir Robert Gordon. In each source attention is drawn to the mormaer’s cross, on the east side of Dornoch).


Here we must enter a caveat. There is no doubt that Gordon makes significant points about the name and extent of the Bishopric. It does suggest Cattey was an important provincial name. Equally Dornoch became the cathedral centre. But to equate the extent of the bishopric with the extent of Cattey is a step too far. Strathnaver, Assynt, Durinish and Edderachylis may have become part of the bishopric but it is by no means certain they were always regarded as part of the province of Cat. In fact other names such as Brae-chat and Diri-chat make it doubtful.


Gunn & Mackay, ‘Sutherland and the Reay Country’, have some useful comments (p 145):

Sutherland comes from Sudrland, Norse, Southern land. … But we must remember, that when it was so called by the Norsemen, it embraced only what is now the south-eastern portion of Sutherland – a district which is still distinguished by its Gaelic name Cataobh. …

There is no Gaelic name for what is now known as Sutherland. Cataobh designates only the south-eastern portion.

and p 148

Caithness, where the foreigner came to settle permanently, is Gallaobh to the present day.

(However, see also OPS II, II p 652 fn 9 for quite different etymologies).


The names Brae-Chat and Diri-chat survived as district names for long enough for them to appear on our early maps. The first is a compound of bràigh + Cat which implies the upper or higher part of (the province of) Cat. The second is a compound of dithreabh + Cat which implies the wilderness or less cultivated parts of Cat. We have several examples of dithreabh names in Ross and Sutherland (Dirimore, Dirimeanach etc).


Dirichat is partly defined in Earldom (Gordon) p 3:

the forrest of Diri-chat, which is of the parish of Kildonan, wherein are conteyned the tuo hills called Bin-Ormin [Ben Armine NC 6927];

and p 4

Strathvlly [i.e. Strath of Kildonan], which is tuentie mylls in lenth, and marches with Diri-chat;


Sir Robert Gordon also wrote a description of Sutherland which appears in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections II pp 464-469. On p 466 he writes:

There is also another part of Sutherland commonly called Bra-Chat, that is, the Height of Cattey or of Sutherland, the whole productive of crops and fish, pasturage and timber. It is in the parish of Lairg. The length of Bra-Chat is twenty-two miles, and it is divided into two parts by the River Shin, which issues from a loch of the same name. The southern part of this land is commonly named the Barony of Gruids, in which is included Diri-meanigh.


The names also occur on a number of early maps, e.g.:

Probably Braywhat on Mercator’s map of 1564 and Ortelius (1573)

Brae-chat (Gordon(2)), Brae-chatt (Blaeu – Strathnaver), Brae Chatt (Blaeu – Sutherland)

Dyrychatt (Pont 2 front), Dyrry-Chat (Gordon(2)), Dirry-Chat (Blaeu – Sutherland)

Dirry-moir (Gordon(2))

Dyrry Meanach (Gordon(2))


The geographical location of these names reinforces the argument that Sutherland was formerly only the south-eastern corner of the present county. This is further endorsed by the coverage of the Blaeu maps in 1654. The map of Sutherland is only of the SE corner. The map of Strathnaver is completely separate but would, today, be reckoned part of Sutherland.


Sir Robert Gordon writes (p 4):

Besyde the rivers of Port-ne-couter [i.e. the lower section of the Kyle of Sutherland] and Oikell [Oykell], which doe divyd Rosse from Southerland, and besyds the rivers of Strathnaver, Durines, and Edderachilis, ther ar in Sutherland fyve principall rivers, to witt, Vnes [Unes, Golspie parish], Broray [Brora], Holmisdell [Helmsdale] or Vlly [Ullie, an alternative name for Kildonan], and Casley [Cassley];

(Although he only names 4 rivers Gordon goes on to describe the River Shin so this is plainly intended for the fifth). They are all in the south-eastern corner of what is now Sutherland.


This brings us to the issue of what divided Sutherland from Strathnaver, Durness, Edderachylis and Assynt. Since the seventeenth century they have all been absorbed into Sutherland – but were formerly distinct. As above, the evidence is both textual and cartographic. Firstly the textual:


Earldom (Gordon) pp 8-9

Southerland is about fyftie-fyve myles in lenth, from the west to the eist; to witt, from Alde-Ne-Gealgigh [Altnacealgach, NC 2610], Kean-Loch-Eilsh [Kin Loch Ailsh, NC 3110/3111], and the west sea at Glencule [Glen Coul NC 2730], vnto the merches of Catteynes be-east the Ord; and in breidth it is about 33 myles, from the south sea into the north ocean, including herein, Strathnaver, which in some pairts is eleven myles in breidth. Most pairt of the rivers in Southerland doe descend from the north mountanes to the south sea; and the rivers of Strathnaver doe descend from the south to the north ocean; which is occasioned by the range of hills, runing from the east to the west, that divyd Southerland from Strathnaver.


Here we come to the principal distinction between the former Sutherland and Strathnaver – one that is characterised by drainage-basins. Sutherland drained SE to the North Sea. The rivers of Strathnaver ran northwards.


We often hear of Druim-Alban as the prime geographical feature of early Scotland – the ridge of hills dividing the waters which run east from those which run west. For much of the Highland massif this is true. However there is another watershed in the far north which runs largely east-west. Sir Robert Gordon describes it. Mercator gives us a cartographic hint of it in his map of 1564. The Hondius map of Northern Scotland from 1636 displays it very well. The map included in the Book of Mackay (facing p 488) shows how it defined the southern boundary of Strathnaver.


Earldom (Gordon) p 2:

Sutherland is separat from Strathnaver and Edderachilis by a range of hills, running along from the east to the west; to witt,

by the hills of Halledell, [(Strath) Halladale]

by the Millanninleay, [Mulaninliach on Roy(FC) – marked S of Caol-loch (Beag) c. NC 7743]

by Kean-Loch-Strathie, [(Meall) Ceann Loch Strathy NC 7645]

by the Reawagen, [(Creagan Dubha) Reidhe Bhig NC 7544]

by the Loine-Keill, [(Allt) Lon a’ Chuil NC 7240/7241/7242]

by the Loyn-Tarsin, [(Allt an) Lòin Tharsuinn NC 7133/7233]

by the Dow-Loyn, [An Dubh-lòn NC 6832/6932]

by Leayd Shrom, Ne-Gerramgh, (Leayd Shrom ne Gerramgh, MGC III p 97) [=(Leathad + Sron? + ?) An t-Sron NC 6530, Allt na Sroine NC 6630]

equallie divydit by Corrie, Nesairn (Correy, Neasairn MGC III p 97), [Coire na Feàrna NC 6225]

by Binchearoll, [Ben Harrald NC 5131. (Ben-chearail in NLS Dep.313/3613 of 1855)]

by Binchie, [Ben Hee NC 4233]

by Corri-Chrutter, [Coir’ a’ Chruiteir NC 4133]

by Aldi-Nalbanagh, [Allt nan Albannach NC 3832/3833]

by Knokan-Challegh, [Cnoc a’ Choilich NC 3734]

by Aldmillan-Choile, [(Allt) Meallan a’ Chuail NC 3429]

by Droit-Bin-Leyd, [Drochaid Beinn Leòid NC 3329]

and by the hight of Binloyd. [Beinn Leòid NC 3129/3229]

Most of these place-names are still traceable and in some cases modern boundaries (see OS 1″ maps) still follow the ones described above. Several of the above names appear on maps well before the first OS series.


Sir Robert Gordon repeats the point in the description printed in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol II p 464:

Sutherland is also separated from Strathnaver by certain mountains that stretch westwards.


Gordon also works round the other districts giving the boundaries in turn. Firstly the boundary with Caithness:


Southerland is separated and divyded from Catteynes [Caithness] by the brook or strype called Aldituver, [Cnoc an Tubhadair, ND 0518] and by the hill called Ord (or Mond) [ND 0517] with a range of other hills which doe streatch from the south sea to the north ocean. These hills, begining at the Ord, doe extend themselves from thence to Drumhallesdell, [Drum Hollistan NC 9263/9264] where Feahallesdell [Fèith Hollistan] divydeth Sutherland and Strathnaver from Catteynes, and then these hills doe stretch from Feahallesdell unto the north sea.


My interpretation of Drumhallesdell and Feahallesdell requires an explanation. Should they not read Druim Halladale (the ridge of Halladale) and Fèith Halladale? (Fèith is a Gaelic term for boggy ground which is often used as a burn-name in Sutherland). I don’t think so. Drum Hollistan survives as a place-name and lends its name to a neighbouring moss and loch. I suspect Fèith Hollistan was the name for the small burn which runs out of Loch Hollistan into the sea. The only ambiguity in Gordon’s description is the last clause since it is only about two-thirds of a kilometre between Loch Hollistan and the sea. Support for my interpretation comes from a description of the parish of Reay dating to June 1726 which is printed in Macfarlane’s Geographical Collections Vol I pp 181-6:


Strath Halladale is separate from the interest [i.e. estate] of Sandside by Drim-Hollistill a hill two miles west from the church of Reay.

Here the boundaries of Cathness and Strathnaver do terminate and are separate by a rivulet called Fae Hollistil.


However, locating Feahallesdell caused problems. Burnett and Scott produced a map of Sutherland in 1833 (NLS Dep.313/3602). This marks ‘Drumhallastain proper’ and ‘Fea Halladale’ along the line representing the county boundary. The updated version of this map produced in 1855 (NLS Dep.313/3613) marks ‘Druimhollastan’ but no ‘Fea Halladale’.


Then Assynt:


Southerland is seperat from Assint [Assynt] by the Gorm-Logh, [Gorm Loch Mòr, NC 3124/3224] Fin-Logh, [Fionn Loch Mòr, NC 3323, Fionn Loch Beag, NC 3322/3422] and  Loghmarkell; [Loch an Eircill? NC 3027] toward Toin-Ne-Toyne [Na Tuadhan, NC 3021] by the Glasiom (Glaswin in MGC III p 97) [Glas Bheinn NC 2526], lying northeast* from the Bin-More [Ben More, NC 3120] in Assint; by the Eynagh of Bin-More in Assint, [Meall an Aonaich, NC 3316] inclyning to Glen-Muck; [Gleann na Muic, NC 3613/3713] and by Strathnordell** falling into Kean Logh Eilsh, [Kin Loch Ailsh, NC 3110/3111] the mother of the river Oikell. [River Oykel]

* Glas Bheinn actually lies north-west of Ben More, Assynt

** Strathnordell should probably be read Strath Oykell


and the boundary with Ross:


Sutherland is divyded from the province of Rosse, by the river Port-ne-Couter (or Tayn) [easternmost section of the Kyle of Sutherland], by the water of Oikell, [River Oykel] and by the hight of Glenmuck; [Gleann na Muic, NC 3613/3713] so that Casley, [River Cassley] Kean Logh Eilsh, [Kin Loch Ailsh, NC 3110/3111] and all the lands lying upon that river of Casley, evin unto Aldi-Ne-Geale-Gigh, [Altnacealgach, NC 2610] and the Layd-More in Assint, [Ledmore, NC 2412] and whatsoever els that payeth tithes to the parish of Creigh, [Creich] apperteyneth all to the province of Southerland.


And then the division with Durness and Edderachylis – for further detail see under respective parishes:


As yow descend into the west sea, Southerland is seperat from Durines by the Diri More, and by Edderachiles; Southerland is divyded from Edderachiles by Knokan-Challegh [Cnoc a’ Choilich NC 3734], and the Diri Meanigh, even to the hight of Bin Loyd [Beinn Leòid NC 3129/3229], as sayd is.


The melding of the various parts of what is now Sutherland involved settling numerous boundary disputes. Sir Robert Gordon writes of his administration of earldom affairs (p 344):


First of all, then, he appoynted a meitting with his nephue, Sir Donald Macky, for setleing of the marches in the Dirimore, which wes there in controversie betuein the Earle of Southerland and him. This particular was setled and composed in the moneth of September 1617 yeirs, … The ffealing* and girsing** of Aldinalbanagh [Allt nan Albannach NC 3832/3833], and the hill Rinhie [Meall Reinidh NC 3537, Aultanrynie NC 3436], wer appoynted to be the marches betuein Southerland and Strathnaver, at that pairt of the countrey …

* ffealing – I am not sure if this is a misreading of shealing/sheiling or perhaps indicates a place where feal (turf/peat) was cut.

** girsing – grassing/grazing

Allt nan Albannach (Burn of the Scotsmen) may have been a much older tribal/ethnic boundary between those who held the west coast and those who had the hinterland?


Sir Robert Gordon was always keen to point out that the earldom of Sutherland included Assynt, Edderachylis and Strathnaver:


p 2

Assint wes, in former tymes, a pairt of Sutherland, and of the barony of Skelbo, as appeirs by ane infeftment given of the same to the lairds of Kinnaird, who had somtymes the lands of Skelbo.


p 18

for the cuntrey of Assint apperteyned, in former tymes, to the erledome of Southerland. Strathnaver also, and Edderachilis have been of old, and are at this day, a pairt of that erledome;


Gordon was concerned with the politics of the earldom but during the seventeenth century the various districts of the far north began to fuse together into one province called Sutherland. The process is outlined by Gordon:


pp 243-244

John Earle of Sowtherland … took a new infeftment of the whole earledome of Sowtherland, by resignation thereof into his majestie’s hands, in the moneth of April 1601 yeirs; not onlie confirming the old regalitie of the earledome of Southerland … bot also conteyning divers other privileges; … and the vniting of Strathnaver, Edderachilis and Durines to the earledome of Sowtherland, as a portion and pairt therof;…

The yeir of God 1601, John Earle of Sowtherland wes served heyre to his father in the few-lands which he holdeth fue of the bishop of Catteynes. [Durness is meant here].


Gordon’s manuscript closes in 1630 but in the same volume there is a continuation by Gilbert Gordon of Sallagh. On p 451 he writes:


there past a mutuall contract, this year one thousand six hundreth and thirty-one, betwixt King Charles and John Earl of Southerland, whereby the Earl of Southerland did resigne into his majestie’s hands the regalitie and shriffship of Southerland, for a certain soum of money; … The king did then, by this contract, dismember the shriffship of Southerland from that of Invernes; and adjoyned to the shirriffship of Southerland, the lands of Strathnavern, Edderachiles, Durines, Strath-halledail, Assint, and Ferrinkoskary (or Slishchiles), which was formerly a part of the shirriffdome of Invernes:


Although the district names are still useful, from here on we can think of Sutherland as it is now.


There is another early geographical source for Sutherland which we should notice. This was published in 1980 by the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, London) as No 44 in their series of Maritime Monographs and Reports. It is entitled ‘Alexander Lindsay – A Rutter of the Scottish Seas’. This dated to c. 1540 but may contain material which is older. The second and third parts cover the Scottish coastline from Leith to the Mull of Kintyre in an anti-clockwise direction. These contain renderings of many coastal place-names plus distances, hazards, tidal and general information.

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