Shenavall was first occupied by one Colin MacDonald and his family on a cold dreich morning in November 1891. With a swirling mist obscuring the surrounding peaks of An Teallach and Beinn Dearg Mor and many mountain burns in full spate, their arrival by boat at the head of Loch na Sealga was not an encouraging start to occupancy that was to last all of ten years. The family’s miserable possessions consisted of no more than a few trunks, some bedding and a wheelbarrow.
The stonemasons who had built their home had left only the previous day; the walls remained unlined, and the bare earth was strewn with rubble. Within days, however, father and son had plastered the walls with some blue clay taken from a nearby mound of glacial debris. Major improvements were started in the Spring with the construction of upstairs bedrooms and insertion of wooden wall linings and floorboards. The family’s arrival was due to Colin’s father having been appointed stalker on the Dundonnell estate. Mr MacDonald was also a skilful crofter, fisher, shepherd and stonemason. Evidence of the latter skill can be seen in the well-constructed dry-stone barn which abuts the house to this day.
A Busy Life
Colin was born in the now ruined house which still stands on the left hand side of ‘Destitution Road’ before the descent to Little Loch Broom. Mrs MacDonald must have been busy looking after four children – three born during the family’s sojourn at Shenavall. In addition, there were four cows requiring daily attention, the milk having o be made into butter, cheese and crowdie. Wool was clipped from sheep and spun on her spinning wheel, leter to be knitted into socks and pullovers. The walled garden ensured an ample supply of fresh vegetables, while the surrounding estate furnished plentiful stock of venison and trout.
Not that the MacDonalds were entirely self-sufficient. Twice a year supplies of meal- at twopence a bag – paraffin, sugar and tea were conveyed by pony from Dundonnell. A roll of tweed was bought from Ullapool every year from the then-busy mill. Soaked in the burn for a few days, it was then stretched out on the roof to dry in readiness for the itinerant taylor who would make suits, trousers, skirts and jackets for the whole family.
Life was not lonely at the turn of the century, as there was then four other inhabited houses in the area : Auchnegie, Laroch an Tigh Mhor (‘Foundation of the Big House’) situated just across the river, The Watcher’s House at Loch an Nid, and Colin’s birth place at Loch an Voir. Each homestead had four cows, each of which produced a calf annually. When weaned, the beats were driven overland to market in Inverness. The problem of educating the children of this isolated community was solved by the School Board appointing a pupil-teacher from Dundonnell School – a young lady named Miss MacDonald. She stayed with each family for a month : board and keep in fair exchange for her instructions.
All told, however, life was very harsh for the inhabitants of the area. The winter of 1895 – 1896 was most severe. A few days after Christmas, so much snow fell that no-one could leave the glen until late March. More than 500 sheep were starving at Loch an Voir when three men and numerous dogs set out on a rescue bid. In single file and alternately taking the lead the three men broke trail, with the sheep following in tow, until they reached Loch na Sealga, where the snow was less deep and grazing was possible.
The weather improved in April 1896. It became quite warm, though much snow still covered the land. One morning as Colin and his family were working outside, a tremendous bang rent the air. No noise they ever heard before or after that morning surpassed the loudness of that sound – eardrums were almost burst. Later, when they had recovered from the shock, the family looked towards the Loch from whence the noise had arisen. A huge fissure had rent the entire six mile length of ice. As the meltwater had drained away down the Gruinard River, the iced surface of the loch had been left suspended. No longer able to withstand it, it had split in one explosive moment.
The isolation of Shenavall might have presented serious medical problems to the inhabitants, but this was not so. During the twelve years that Colin lived there, the services of a doctor were necessary only on one occasion, when his brother developed an abscess on his gum. The three children born to the MacDonalds at Shenavall were all safely delivered by the midwife, a Mrs MacKenzie from Dundonnell. The mode of transport for this important visitor consisted of a deer saddle fixed to a sturdy pony. In an undignified fashion, the midwife was securely fastened into the saddle like a garrotted hind.
Many famous – and no doubt, infamous – souls have sought shelter under the hallowed roof of Shenavall. HRH Prince Charles, for one, appreciated the house’s austere comforts while he was still a pupil at Gordonstoun, near Elgin, he being but one of many visitors to have recorded their thoughts in the Shenavall log-book. It was from that same book – through an entry from Colin MacDonald’s daughter – that I met the man himself. He spent his twilight years in Dollar, Clackmannanshire where, at the age of 94, he accompanied me on an afternoon’s hillwalk. As we walked, this fit and articulate Highland gentleman relatedthe incredible story of Shenavall. To Colin I dedicate the following poem which was composed by Jim Ballie, my constant companion and helper at Shenavall.
Poem to Colin MacDonald – Jim Ballie
In winter here, no heart could mourn for summer nor spring,
No blemish or sickness or deformity see,
In anything that grew upon the earth,
On all the land there was no stain.
Though hiking days are gone,
And dull and grey the sky,
In memory still lives on,
Days on mountain high.
Of valleys stilled in twilight calm
And fires that flicker in the evening breeze,
The mountain river sang an evening psalm.
Someday, perchance, we will return to these.
First published in the MBA Journal, December 1990
Alex Sutherland was the Maintenance Organiser for Shenavall
for Inverness MC and the MBA, 1982 – 1992
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Mountain Bothies Association is a charity registered in Scotland, no. SC008685 and a company limited by guarantee and registered in Scotland, no. SC191425