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PLACE-NAMES AND LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHERS*

* This article was published in Issue 76 of 'On Landscape'.

PART 1 – ASSYNT, INVERPOLLY & COIGACH

Achnahaird #1













Despite its distance from major population centres, the north-west corner of the Scottish mainland between Ullapool and Durness is among the most-photographed areas in the country. References to ‘the Assynt hills’ are now commonplace in landscape photography media (and elsewhere). Sometimes, the impression is given that ‘Assynt’ begins the moment Ullapool is left behind on the A835 heading north. Very often, the term ‘Assynt’ is used to denote some or all of the parts of the districts of Coigach and Inverpolly.
I hope that the following paragraphs may help photographers better understand the admittedly confusing nomenclature in this outstandingly beautiful area. If readers are not interested in the detail, they can find a summary at the end of Part 1.

Some Definitions

Sutherland and Ross
The historic county of Sutherland lies in the far north and north-west of the Scottish mainland. In the west, it borders the historic county of Ross along the line of the River Kirkaig and Loch Veyatie. Today, driving on the wonderfully scenic road between Lochinver and Badnagyle (between Drumrunie and the coast to the north of Achiltibuie) you will still pass signs indicating the Sutherland / Ross-shire border as you cross the river to the south of Inverkirkaig. The border is also marked by signs on the main A835 road north of Ullapool - near Knockan Crag, to the south of the hamlet of Elphin.

Assynt
The origin of the term ‘Assynt’ is obscure (it may be derived from the Norse place-name element ass, meaning ‘rocky’) but the name was given to the southernmost parish of Sutherland on the western seaboard. To its south (across the River Kirkaig / Loch Veyatie line) lay the Parish of Lochbroom, in Ross-shire. To its north lay the parish of Eddrachilles (an Anglicisation of the Scottish Gaelic Eadar Dha Chaolais, ‘between two kyles / narrows’).

Lochbroom
The parish of Lochbroom in Ross-shire extended from the line of the River Kirkaig & Loch Veyatie south to beyond Little Loch Broom, bordering the parishes of Poolewe and Gairloch to the south and southwest. The district of Coigach, including what is now known as Inverpolly, lay entirely within the parish of Lochbroom.

Coigach
The district of Coigach includes Achnahaird, the Summer Isles, the coastal settlements of Altandhu, Polbain, Achiltibuie and Culnacraig and the area which is today known as Inverpolly. The name Coigach derives from the old Gaelic practice of dividing land into fifths (coig is Scottish Gaelic for ‘five’). [1]

The Assynt Foundation
The Assynt Foundation today manages the Glencanisp and Drumrunie Estates, which straddle the historic Ross-shire / Sutherland border. It participates in the ‘Coigach – Assynt Living Landscape’ conservation project along with a number of other local landowners (including the John Muir Trust, which owns the area around Quinag, in Assynt proper) [2].

Inverpolly
Inverpolly takes its name from the River Polly, which runs from Loch Sionascaig west into Enard Bay (Inbhir – anglicised to ‘Inver’, is Scottish Gaelic for ‘river estuary’, the river in this case being the pollaidh). It was formerly a National Nature Reserve, but lost this designation in 2004. It is now a Special Area of Conservation, with its southern boundary on the south side of Loch Lurgainn and Loch Bad a’ Ghaill and its northern boundary coinciding with the Ross-shire / Sutherland border [3]. Thus, modern Inverpolly lies entirely in the district of Coigach, in the historic county of Ross.

Loch Lurgainn & Stac Pollaidh













Blurring of the Boundaries

Norman MacCaig famously wrote in ‘A Man in Assynt’ (1996) [4]

"...Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out
these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
and left, on the hard rock below - the
ruffled foreland -
this frieze of mountains, filed
on the blue air - Stac Polly,
Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven,
Canisp - a frieze and
a litany..."

The first three mountains named here aren’t actually in Assynt, though they can of course be readily seen from it. MacCaig, who spent a great many summers at Inverkirkaig in Assynt, makes relatively little mention of Stac Pollaidh and Cùl Beag, though Cùl Mòr (which borders Assynt) features more prominently in his work. (In this context, it’s interesting to note that Ben More Assynt, the highest mountain in Sutherland, lies outside the borders of Assynt! Though again, it is very prominently visible from within the borders.)

Assynt’s Sutherland identity is long-established. As an illustration of this, take the following historical anecdote:

“At Altnacealgach, in the south-east corner of Assynt, the border of Ross-shire makes an unlikely invasion of Assynt as far as the slopes of Ben More and Conival. A dispute in the past over boundaries was settled there by two witnesses who swore they were walking on Ross-shire soil; they were indeed, for their boots were filled with earth.” [5]

Altnacealgach takes its name from the Scottish Gaelic Allt na Cealgach; ‘burn (stream) of the cheat’.

The Scottish Mountaineering Club is quite clear on where the border lies:

“Assynt forms the south-west corner of the district of Sutherland, separated from the adjacent area of Coigach in Ross-shire by the boundary line along Loch Veyatie, Fionn Loch and the River Kirkaig to Enard Bay.” [5]

Today, however, it seems that the boundaries of Assynt are becoming blurred in the public imagination. This blurring is doubtless a consequence of the internet age, when information published online is often repeated without question. A photograph of, say, Stac Pollaidh appears on the website of a well-known photographer with the caption ‘Assynt’, and understandably people unfamiliar with the area assume that the nomenclature is correct. The expansion of lands managed by the Assynt crofters to include areas well to the south of historic Assynt has doubtless further confused the issue.

However, Assynt’s historic boundaries are not in doubt.

Summary (with emphasis on most-photographed areas)

Assynt Former parish in old county of Sutherland, contains mountains Quinag, Suilven and Canisp, borders Inverpolly, to the south.

Inverpolly Special Area of Conservation, in the district of Coigach in the old county of Ross, contains Stac Pollaidh, Cùl Mòr, Cùl Beag, Loch Lurgainn, Loch Bad a’ Ghaill. Borders Assynt to the north.

Coigach District of the former parish of Lochbroom, in the old county of Ross, contains the area today known as ‘Inverpolly’ and the mountain Beinn Mhòr Chòigich (Ben Mor Coigach) and subsidiary peaks (notably Sgùrr an Fhidhleir) and Achnahaird Bay.

PART 2 – THE TROTTERNISH RIDGE

This part concerns what is without doubt one of the most photographed locations in Scotland.

I’ve photographed there myself on one occasion, during a family holiday in 2012. Towards lunchtime I was on my way back to the car when I thought that, despite the relatively late hour, it might be worth the effort of setting up the tripod. I make no claims at all about the artistic merit of the result, but it’ll serve to illustrate the place that I’m talking about.

Trotternish Ridge

This is the view looking south to the peaks of Cleat (left) and Dùn Dubh (right), which lie on the almost unbroken series of eastward-facing cliffs, running roughly north-south, along the centre of the peninsula of Trotternish (Scottish Gaelic: Tròndairnis), the northernmost ‘wing’ of the island of Skye.

Geologists know this feature as the ‘Trotternish Escarpment’. During the Paleogene, lavas were laid down on top of Jurassic shales. Eventually the weight of these lavas caused the underlying layer to fracture. Today the line of fracture is marked by these cliffs, which reach their highest point at the summit of The Storr, 719m above sea level. Erosion of the exposed lavas over the subsequent millennia has resulted in the formation of a series of towers and pinnacles. The most prominent of these is The Old Man of Storr, one of the most famous landmarks on the island.

I’ve taken the liberty of describing this here as ‘The Trotternish Ridge’. It is not, however, under any circumstances, ‘The Quiraing’, however many times photographers may describe it as such!

The Quiraing (Scottish Gaelic: A’ Cuith-Raing) is a spectacular geological feature on the east face of Meall na Suiramach, containing features known as The Prison, The Needle and The Table.

This information is freely available to anyone with a map [6], and I must admit to being genuinely puzzled as to how photographer after photographer can arrive at this location, set their camera towards the south and still think that they are photographing a feature clearly named on the map but lying fully 1km away to the north!

DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?

I have discussed the particular case of Assynt with David Ward (by his own admission, no stranger to pedantry himself!) when I took issue with his description of Achnahaird (a place where he has made many outstanding photographs) as being in Assynt. Achnahaird Bay is in the district of Coigach which as we have seen lies firmly within the county of Ross-shire. David’s reply was that the names of Sutherland, Ross-shire and their respective boundaries are relatively recent man-made concepts; that when compared to the timelessness of this landscape, these concerns are largely irrelevant and that in any case, hills such as Stac Pollaidh are geologically and physically very similar to those of Assynt ‘proper’, such as Suilven. This is all fair comment, of course, except that ‘Assynt’ is also a human term, every bit as much as the equally ancient terms Sutherland (a ‘southern territory’ of the Norse) and Ross. We often hear photographers talk of the importance of connecting with the landscapes that we photograph. Should respect for long-held naming conventions be a part of this connection, or should we just accept the use of names that we know to be inaccurate in the interests of simplicity (or marketing!), and move on?

Clearing Rain Shower, Druim Bad a' Ghaill











My position on this is clear – I’d like to see historic names such as Coigach and Assynt used correctly; they are part of the human history of this landscape, and as such deserve respect. I hope that, if you have got this far, you may agree.

In the case of the Trotternish Ridge, the naming of this view as ‘The Quiraing’ seems to me to be symptomatic of an approach that makes little or no attempt to engage with or understand the landscape that is being photographed. I think that our craft is diminished as a result.

REFERENCES

[1] WATSON, W. J. – The Place Names of Ross and Cromarty (1904), available online.
[2] Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape – Map of Project Area.
[3] JNCC – Inverpolly SAC Site Details.
[4] The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon, 2005) – ISBN 9781904598268.
[5] BENNET, D. J. & STRANG, T. – The Northwest Highlands – Scottish Mountaineering Club District Guide (1st ed., 1990), p. 284.
[6] Ordnance Survey, Landranger Series (1:50,000), Sheet 23, ‘North Skye’.