History of Camuscross
Although little is known about the older history of Camuscross and Duisdale the names themselves may tell us something about how people thought about those places in the past.
Duisdale has been translated as ‘the misty or gloomy glen’, while the name of Camuscross in Gaelic, Camuschros, means ‘the bay of the cross’ and there is a tradition in the village that it was the site of a monastery. Another local tradition connects the village with St Columba. There was at one time a Norse presence in the area. It had been speculated that ‘the Camuscross anchor’ had Viking origins. Recent research suggests that this anchor, which was found in peaty ground in Cruard by Graeme MacKenzie in 2009, may instead be dated slightly later, from sometime between the mid-eleventh to mid-fourteenth centuries, and that it was made with iron ore mined in the Jutland peninsula or in northern Germany.
In 1469, Alexander MacDonald, the then Lord of the Isles, granted the Sleat peninsula of Skye to his son Uisdean, whose descendants are known as Clan Uisdean. Despite being just across the river from each other, in the seventeenth century Camuscross and Duisdale appear to have belonged to separate larger landholdings which were controlled by two sons of Donald Macdonald, the chief of Clan Uisdean at that time.
Duisdale was in the hands of Donald’s son Alexander, while from 1665 and perhaps earlier, Camuscross was held by Alexander’s brother, also called Donald. Camuscross did not have its present boundaries, but was part of a much larger area known as a ‘tack’. Although this tack was also called Camuscross, it actually stretched as far north as Litirfura, and included Barabhaig to the south. This tack stayed in Donald MacDonald’s family until the early nineteenth century, when Eilean Iarmain was established as a fishing port, and Camuscross was laid out in crofts.
The last tacksman was Donald MacDonald’s great-grandson, Roderick [known as Ruaraidh Mac Iain]. In the 1750s he was tried for the murder of Katherine MacKinnon, a woman that he had allegedly accused of being a witch. MacDonald described the charges against him as ‘false and malicious’ and it is understood he was found not guilty. It is possible that Duisdale Beag was in the hands of a MacKinnon family at this time. According to research carried out by the Sleat Local History Society, Duisdale was one of several townships divided into two parts in the eighteenth century, and Duisdale Beag,
…was originally rented along with Morsaig by a family of MacKinnon tacksmen. Then, in the 1840s after the death of the last Tacksman, John MacKinnon, it was absorbed into Knock Farm. In 1876 it was set out to 8 new crofts.
This conclusion accords with the Duisdale Beag delegate to the Napier Commission in 1883. Otta Swire, in her book on the legends of Skye, proposed that the Mackinnon family had held Duisdale Beag ‘for their services as standard-bearers to the Macdonalds of Sleat’
Duisdale Mòr, meanwhile, had been laid out into eight crofts. According to Sleat Local History Society:
Four of these were cleared in 1867 to make way for the construction of Duisdale House. This was built for Lachlan MacKinnon, founder of the Melbourne Argus and son of the Rev John MacKinnon, minister of Strath.
The way that Camuscross and Duisdale look today was fundamentally shaped by the major developments that took place in the twenty or so years around 1800. It was in 1790 that development of Eilean Iarmain as a major fishing port began, and it was around the year 1810 that the crofts of Camuscross and Duisdale Mor were laid out in the pattern in which they have largely remained until the present.
Eilean Iarmain was developed by John Elder, originally from the Black Isle, and Alexander Macdonald who was a son of Ruaraidh Mac Iain, the last tacksman of Camuscross.
The whole of the area which is Eilean Iarmain today, was then a rocky tidal island, and was flattened using explosives. It is possible the stone from these blasts may have contributed to the causeway and pier, which was built by 1805. Following from this saw the development of the herring fishery, and the construction of a shop, salting facilities, a cooperage, and a saw pit.
Shortly after this Camuscross and Duisdale Mòr were divided into small crofts. This was part of a wholesale reorganization of Lord MacDonald’s estate carried out by John Blackadder, a surveyor from Berwickshire who sought to individualise holdings and ‘introduce better habits of industry’.
In Camuscross, the new crofts were deliberately made too small for people to live from in order that the tenants would also have to work in the new fishing industry at Eilean Iarmain. There were now 40 crofts and eight cottar lots on an area of land which had previously held perhaps a dozen families; an area of land that had, moreover, actually been reduced in size as a result of the estate restructuring.
People came to the area from other parts of south Skye, and it was probably at about this time that Barabhaig, which had been quite extensively populated, was cleared and so some of the people from there may have come into Camuscross and Duisdale Mòr.
It was said that in the 1830s that the shop was one of the busiest on the north-western seaboard. The fact of having a shop at the pier was a strong attraction for fishermen as there were very few piers on the west coast at that time. The fish were exported internationally, with records showing a ship leaving Isleornsay for Gdansk in 1831 and also herring sent to Norway with deal boards returning.
However, while the business in Eilean Iarmain may have been successful there appears to have been hardship in the crofting townships. During the potato famine of the later 1840s, Chidhe a chlachaig (the small pier in Camuscross bay) and Rathaid a chomataidh [‘the committee road’, named after the committee which distributed meal to people made destitute at this time] were both built using local labour. Sixty-year-old John Martin, the Camuscross delegate to the Napier Commission, the government enquiry whose report led to the creation of crofting as a legal form of tenure, recalled that it was before his birth that the village had been laid out in crofts. It may be to this era of impoverishment that he referred when he remarked to the Commission:
There is no doubt it has put them [the Camuscross people] to very great inconvenience and hardship that their holdings were reduced, and the land was exhausted with constant cultivation during the past sixty years
Other related developments took place when fishing was at its height in Eilean Iarmain. The house across the road from the telephone kiosk was the police station for Sleat, and, reflecting the amount of maritime traffic in the Sound of Sleat, the lighthouse on Eiean Sionnach was built in 1857. For a short period in the 1850s there was a school in Camuscross, on the site of the tacksman’s house, called Sgoil na ‘Letties’ – it is said to have been supported by someone called Lettie/Letty.
Until the 1870s the hotel at Isleornsay was the single storey building on the right hand side of the road as Eilean Iarmain is approached. In this decade it was replaced by the current hotel.
As previously noted, following the clearance of the crofters at Duisdale, what is now called Duisdale Hotel was built by Lachlan Mackinnon as a home for his sisters. Sleat Local History society notes that the ‘house was turned into a hotel in 1933. It was requisitioned by the navy in the second war, and was not returned to civilian use until 1947, when it reverted back to being a hotel’. The church at Duisdale, called St Columba’s, was opened in 1901.
Duisdale was also the location of the school that served Camuscross, Duisdale and Drumfearn. It was built in 1876 and closed in 1976, following which it was the home for several ventures including a woolen mill and a Gaelic TV company.
The fishing industry in Eilean Iarmain began to decline in the late nineteenth century. Unsuccessful efforts were made in the early twentieth century to establish a deep-water harbor in the bay. However, the creation of rail heads in Mallaig and then Kyle of Lochalsh marked the end of Eilean Iarmain’s days as a major fishing port.
For most of the twentieth century, Camuscross and Duisdale followed the same pattern of social decline as the rest of Skye and much of the west Highlands. By 1971 Sleat’s population was less than half of its total at the start of the century. Young people continued to drain away, and Camuscross in the early 1970s was described as ‘a village full of bachelors, spinsters and old couples whose children had moved away’. There was only one child from the village in Sleat’s primary school. Crofting activity was also ebbing, and reached a low point in the 1980s in Camuscross, although more crofting was still happening on the larger crofts of Duisdale.
However, in the early 1970s, ownership of the Sleat peninsula passed out of the hands of Clan Uisdean after more than 500 years. The northern part of the peninsula was bought by a young banker called Iain Noble. Of the many developments he instigated over the following three decades perhaps the most important has been the Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, at Kilbeg. These ventures have brought new life to the area. Young families have moved or returned to these villages, and there are more families working their crofts. Today, two minibuses full of children leave Camuscross each morning, and Duisdale has its own bus-full too. The creation of the Camuscross and Duisdale Initiative, and the developments we are taking forward, is a prime example of bringing to life to the area.
Camuscross & Duisdale Initiative is made up of people from the area and all walks of life.
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Our community is situated in the Sleat peninsula, in the South of the Isle of Skye.
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