Modern History of Applecross
Those who see the remote peninsula for the first time as we enter the 21st Century may find it hard to envisage the changes in lifestyle effected in the course of a lifetime from the years before the last war. No other part of the Scottish mainland has seen such dramatic movement in that time.
Long after most of the country and, in particular, the towns and villages on the western seaboard, had adapted from access by sea to the twin benefits of sound roads and accessible railways, Applecross depended on the traditional sea-ways with MacBrayne's Stornoway mailboat to Kyle and Mallaig as the main carrier for both passengers and goods. This vessel lay off the pier at Milltown and was attended by a large rowing boat. The whole operation was somewhat precarious in bad conditions.
An advantage of the service was that in the summer a passenger could catch the boat coming from Stornoway at three o'clock in the morning and arrive in Glasgow via Mallaig and the West Highland railway line at two in the afternoon. A less attractive feature was that, at any time of year, indifferent conditions could prevent the ferryboat from making contact so the unfortunate passengers for Applecross got a 'free' trip across the Minch to Stornoway and back again. Also, the steamer did not call at Applecross on the winter run from Stornoway to Kyle so those wishing to go to Kyle boarded the steamer at Applecross in the afternoon for a double trip across the Minch, never the most placid of waters.
Personal experience reminds that the delights of that otherwise fine Lewis town soon palled when there was time to kill between nine in the evening and midnight while nursing a sorely tried digestive system and waiting to repeat the trip!
It was a big step forward when, in the mid fifties, we got our own boat plying between Toscaig and Kyle of Lochalsh. A further twenty years, during which the population on the north coast haemorrhaged away almost to extinction, were to elapse before the opening of the road round the north coast to Shieldaig. This is the north coast community that in 1884 supported four hundred souls.
Although the famous Bealach nam Bo was completed as one of the last of the Parliamentary roads in 1822 it was not, nor is it yet, a certain means of access in all weathers. Until the early fifties the gravel surface made maintenance a challenge and the winter snows, which can still block the road in a very short time, were being removed laboriously by squads of men using shovels.
If adverse conditions persisted the road had to be abandoned, sometimes for weeks on end.
There are steeper sections of road in Britain but the Bealach retains its place in the Guinness Book of Records on the strength of the height of ascent to over two thousand feet in just over five miles from sea level.
When we see today's sophisticated road maintenance equipment including an efficient snow blower and, from time to time, bitumen-laying equipment, it is interesting to note that before the first world war, the contract for the upkeep of the road from Toscaig to Russel was for the annual sum of £50!
Until the coast road was opened in 1975, the peninsula was split north and south. The only connection from Applecross village to what were, sixty years ago, thriving hamlets dotted from Lonbain to Kinloch, was a footpath suitable only for walkers, horseback, cycle or motorcycle. This path, which can still be traced, most notably in the section over the 'Gualainn' or shoulder from Cruary to Sand, was constructed primarily to enable landlords to obtain access to their stalking and shooting ground. A look at the ordnance map (Landranger 24) will show other similar paths heading for the hills all over the peninsula and many of these, although sadly in need of clearance and repair, are good walking for the reasonably fit. The normal countryside courtesies should be observed, particularly during the deer stalking season.
The coast road mentioned above was completed much too late for those generations of crofters who had wrung a precarious living from the land.
There were many reasons for the delay in providing this basic need, which was identified in the evidence given to the Napier Commission report of 1884. Then Alexander Livingston of Fearnabeg pointed out in his information that there were about 400 people living on the north coast. The report led to the establishing of the Crofters' Commission, which gave crofters security of tenure for the first time.
The welcome sight, today, of renovated and new housing gives the lie to those who said, during discussions about the lack of a road, that the new road would not keep people in the locality.
The landlord of the time had a fine reputation as a caring laird as had his family who owned Applecross from 1864, when Lord Middleton bought the estate from the Duke of Leeds, to 1929. The family had provided paths between the townships, and separated the township grazings by sheep fences. Yet the Napier Commission report quotes Livingston as stating that the road had been refused by the landowners.
There are lessons to be learned, not least by those who remember the clear lack of unanimity in the community when communications were being discussed in the period after the last war. The option of providing a boat service between Toscaig and Kyle was undoubtedly the cheapest and thus welcomed by a cash strapped government. However there were others. The most obvious was a road round the north coast. But some favoured a low level road from Toscaig round the coast to Russel, shorter, and, for the people in the south of the peninsula, more suitable. The MOD development at Sand was the eventual catalyst for the new coast road, some twenty years later, although the direct labour undertaken by the council (and the cash restraints) may be observed in the first seven miles of switchback road from Kinloch to Kenmore over difficult terrain.