Cuil is situated in the south-west part of the Ardsheal peninsula in the district of Duror which is in the mainland part of the parish of Lismore and Appin in the county of Argyll. Due to boundary changes in the 1970s it is now part of the Lochaber District in the Highland Region rather than Argyll and Bute. Gaelic dictionaries give the meaning of Cuil as recess, corner, niche or nook.
The history of Cuil began seven hundred million years ago when layers of mud were laid down in an ocean and by four hundred million years ago they had been compressed to form slate. Sixty to fifty million years ago when there were active volcanoes on Mull and Ardnamurchan the slate was lifted, turned and twisted. Magma broke through the mantle to form dykes and pipes. Twelve thousand years ago the ice age ended and Cuil as it now largely is started to appear through the receding glacier to reveal an area rich in geological formations. Since then the sea level has fallen leaving raised beaches in Cuil Bay and at the Back Settlement.
When humans first started to settle in the area is not known but just to the east of Cuil there is a standing stone in a field between Achara and the River Duror. It has been there for about five thousand years and it seems certain that people from Cuil would have been involved in its erection and have known its significance. But in Cuil there is no evidence of prehistory, no monoliths, no rock carvings, no hut circles. A curtain was drawn over Cuil for the next four and a half millennia with a very small window towards the end of the fifteenth century. In one of the stories in the Dewar Manuscripts it is mentioned that the Lord of the Isles had a hospitality house in Cuil. There were others nearby at Dalness in Glen Etive and Glasdrum on the north shore of Loch Creran. The tenant of the hospitality house paid no rent but had to entertain the Lord of the Isles and his entourage from time to time. On one occasion the tenant who was called MacTavish was informed that he would have to prepare a feast on a certain day. As luck would have it the River Etive was in spate and unfordable so the Lord of the Isles was delayed. Dugald MacIain Stewart (1st of Appin) told MacTavish (who was described as “but simple”) that the visit would not take place and that he and his friends and neighbours could eat the feast that had been prepared. So when the Lord of the Isles turned up a few days later there was nothing for him to eat. Stewart had foreseen this and had prepared a feast between Kentallen Bay and Lettermore. As a reward he was given Cuil. MacDonald (Lord of the Isles) said:-
O! Big gluttonous MacTavish Whose ways are filthy; Though I have taken from you Cuil Dear, do not harm yourself.
Stewart had brought with him two people, one called Buchanan from Dumbarton and the other Colquhoun (or MacCombie) from Loch Lomondside. A family of Buchanans were still in Cuil according to the 1851 census and Colquhouns to the 1901 one. Just where the hospitality house was is not known.
It isn't until the end of the sixteenth century that we have anything else written about Cuil. On one of Timothy Pont's maps "Choul" is shown with Rudha Mor (not named) looking like a weird proboscis. There are salmon heading for the mouths of the River Duror and the Salachan burn. In the text Cuil is not mentioned but he does say "Salmond ar in thois smal rivers." Can we assume that salmon fishing was already established in the area? Also on this map are the names of places still found today such as Lagnaha, Achindarroch and Ardsheal. Keil is marked as Kilcholkill. The River Duror is named but
the Salachan Burn is called Auo Quhoultyr (Abhainn Chultie). Blaeu’s map of 1654 marks “Durrour” but not Cuil and the Ardsheal peninsula is not apparent. Duror is absent from Moll’s map of 1714. We see on Roy's map of 1747 that there is a collection of houses in the region of South Cuil and arable land between the North and South Cuil burns. Cuil itself is not mentioned but “Dourar,” “Ardsheal,” “Acher,” “Kil-columb-Kill” and the Water of Coultie are. Murdoch Mackenzie’s marine chart of 1775 shows “Cule” and “Ardshiel” with three houses in the region of South Cuil and one in North Cuil. These are representational and do not indicate the exact location of buildings. George Langland’s The Map of Argyllshire (1801) shows “Cowls” with four buildings at North Cuil and three at South Cuil. Also shown are two buildings at the Back Settlement, the first mention of this place apart from a gravestone at the ruined late medieval church at Keil where “lies the corps (sic) of Dougald Stewart from Lechnasceire.” Leacnasgeir is the Gaelic name of the place. It is not until we get to E.J. Bedford’s marine charts of 1861 and 1867 that we get any accurate positioning of houses. The top of the first map runs just below North Cuil so that we have only named Rudha Mor, “Cul” Bay, S. “Cul” Farm and, near where the road into Cuil turns northward Salmon Fishery. The 1867 chart shows these places (Salmon Fishery is omitted) plus Rudha Mor na Cuil F(arm), N. Cuil, S. Cuil F(arm). With the first edition of the Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1871) we are now shown accurately the position and number of houses although one at the base of Rudha Beag and the Limekiln on Rudha Mor are missed. From census reports it seems that the Back Settlement originally included both Leacnasgeir and Port na Cloich but the recordings can be somewhat ambiguous.
Cuil is not mentioned in the First Statistical Account (1791) but in the second (1841) the author, Rev. Gregor McGregor, writes “the Bay of Cuil, about five miles north of the Sound of Shuna, is of a beautiful semicircular form, the cord being about a mile in length. It has a fine sandy beach, and is often frequented by large shoals of herring, whose visits to that quarter are of the greatest benefit to the inhabitants along the shore.” Nowadays herring are a rarity.
After the Battle of Inverlochy in 1645 Daniel Colquhoun was granted lands in Duror but it seems that most of the land remained in the hands of the Appin Stewarts until 1766 when the whole of the Appin Estate (which included most of the land between Lochs Creran and Leven) was sold to Hugh Seton of Touch (near Stirling) for £13,900. He was an improving landlord and caused the River Duror to be straightened and deepened in three places to reduce flooding, for a much needed bridge to be built over the Duror between Inshaig and Achara and for a stone dyke to be built between Cuil and Ardsheal. This dyke is still standing and topped by a late nineteenth century iron post and wire fence. Its north-west end is built from dolomite from a nearby quarry. Unfortunately Seton's activities in draining the Carse of Stirling led to his financial ruin and the Appin estates were sold in 1783 to the Marquess of Tweeddale. M.E.M. Donaldson in her "Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands" says that the Marquess of Tweeddale bought the estates as a speculation for £41,000 and then sold them on at an excellent profit to "another alien." She does not name this person but says, in discussing Cuil and the Back Settlement, that this alien did not only demand "the current rent to be paid but also the payment of all arrears, and, since the crofters were utterly unable to do this, they had to leave their homes not only here in the Back Settlement but round about Cuil also." This alien was Robert Downie who had made a fortune in Bengal. On his death in 1841 the Appin estate was divided into three parts and his unmarried daughters drew lots. Marion Agatha drew Duror which comprised Keil, Cuil and possibly other parts of Duror nearby. She married James Macalpine-Leny and it remained in this family's hands until May 1932 when Cuil (but not the rest) was bought by Harold Malcolm whose son, Kim, is now the owner.
Prior to the census in 1841 the population of Cuil is not known but some names of occupants can be obtained from several sources. Also James Hunter in his book Culloden and the Last Clansman states that in the summer of 1746 eleven men from Cuil stubbornly disobeyed instructions to surrender their weaponry but he doesn't give their names. One source names nine persons as being recruited to join the Appin Regiment in the 1745 rebellion but the book No Quarter Given, being the muster roll of the Jacobite Army, only gives five, four of whom were in the previous list. The Trial of James Stewart in Aucharn in Duror of Appin published in Edinburgh in 1753, a year after the Appin Murder, is an early example of spin doctoring! Here ten people are named but it is not certain if any of their descendants were here in 1841. The Episcopalian Robert Forbes, Bishop of Moray and Caithness, confirmed eighteen people from Cuil in July 1770 at Ballachulish. Three people from North Cuil and one from South Cuil had to pay two shillings each as tax on their horses in 1797. Gravestones at the ruined church of St. Columba at Keil and at the cemetery at Annat in Strathappin give several names. The Valuation Rolls give us some idea of the tenants and landowners. But it is in 1841, the time of the first reliable census, that numbers become available. At that time it was 119 but unfortunately it does not define which part of Cuil a person lived in but does give occupations. However, the valuation of Downie’s estate when he died in 1841 does tell us where eleven of the twenty-five heads of family lived. From then there was a decline with a levelling off between 1861 and 1881 until in 1901 (the date of the last available census) when the population had fallen to 41. The number of households fell from twenty-five in 1841 to eight in 1901. In 1935 there were four dwelling houses on South Cuil and one on North Cuil so the population had probably fallen further by then. Now there are fourteen on South Cuil and nine on North but, due to the diminished size of families the population is now only about fifty.
Looking at the census records one can see that some families were here for several decades but others were here one decade and gone the next. There were McLeans in Cuil in 1841 and one of their descendants was still here within living memory having died in about 1948. He was the only survivor from the previous century here after the Second World War. Where did they all go? Some seem to have died out such as the McColls from Port na Cloich who were here in 1841 but gone half a century later. Some must have emigrated and others were drawn to the urban centres of the Central Belt. Grandchildren born there are recorded in some of the later censuses. Some will have gone to work at the slate quarries in Ballachulish. Of the 119 people here in 1841 all but about 35 did not appear in the 1851 census. Miss Donaldson’s alien proprietor’s rent policies were showing their effect but the overall population had only fallen by seventeen. Many incomers had arrived from elsewhere in Duror or from Appin.
Over the centuries history has been quiet in Cuil, but dramas in the outside world have occasionally given the area a supporting role. Two months before the battle of Culloden on 14th February 1746 His Majesty’s Sloop Serpent off Duror put ashore a boat and one of its crew was threatened by a highlander with a gun. Capt. Agnew wrote to Ludovic Cameron complaining about this as he presumed that Cameron lived at Cuil. It is more likely that Cameron lived at Caol and that Agnew did not realise the difference between Cuil and Caol which are pronounced alike. During his flight to France Charles Stewart of Ardsheal narrowly escaped capture and no doubt Cuil was searched by Hanoverian troops. One resident, Buchanan, nicknamed ”The Duke,” who had been at Culloden and was the swiftest man in the Prince’s Army ran all the way to Glen Stockdale to warn Ardsheal and others that they had been betrayed and that a contingent of troops was on its way to arrest them. Later Buchanan complained that he had done much to help and was not going to put himself at risk by helping any more but did get another man and a boat to take Ardsheal to Cuilchenna Point in Lochaber.
There is a report that on the evening of Wednesday, 4th October 1786 John Dow MacColl from Cuil was aboard a boat between Balnagowan and Shuna when it was pursued by a small boat in which were Revenue Officers who suspected them of smuggling. In the ensuing skirmish another member of the boat was shot in the arm. The occupants of the boat were taken to court in Oban. No smuggled goods appear to have been found and what happened to the prisoners is not known except that Alexander Stewart of Invernahyle and James Stewart of Fasnacloich went bail for them at £200.
Before the First World War boats used to come from the north of Ireland to collect seed potatoes. Greenfield may have got its name from the fact that surplus herring was used as fertiliser which increased the lushness of the grass. This habit continued into the twentieth century.
In October 1943 during the Second World War the American forces held a mock invasion in preparation for the D-Day landings. On stepping ashore many of the troops stopped to light cigarettes. My father talked to their commanding officer and told him that if they did that on the day they would be mown down. They were mown down on Utah and Omaha beaches but not because they lit cigarettes. My brother is reputed to have approached some of the troops and asked if they were gangsters. So much for our wartime understanding of America! However there must have been some light fingered people amongst them because two chickens that had been killed for my sixth birthday party and were hanging in an outside meat safe vanished over night. In the last dozen years the one remaining crofter lost six hens to a contingent of British Armed Forces!
Motor launches from the naval base at Fort William used to anchor in Cuil Bay on a weekly basis. One lost its anchor and chain which are still probably at the bottom of the bay. Motor Torpedo Boats would cruise rapidly in and near the Bay from time to time.
In1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, the West Highland Festival was held in Cuil Bay from 2nd to 7th July. Two plays were produced, The Lost Cause by Compton Mackenzie and Murder in Lettermore by Angus MacVicar. These were held in the field between Greenfield Farm and the Fisherman’s Bothy. Apart from these plays there was an Exhibition of Music and Dancing. A pipe tune Cuil Bay was composed by Pipe-Major Ross of Edinburgh Castle for the occasion. Funds arising from this Festival went towards building the new Kentallen and Duror Community centre.
Agriculture has always been the main activity in Cuil. Many families were headed by a person designated as farmer, crofter, agricultural labourer or cottar. There were a few designated as quarrier but it usually cannot be known whether they worked at the slate quarries at Ballachulish, the granite quarry at Kentallen or the china clay quarry at Lagnaha. On man is said to have walked from Rudha Beag to Ballachulish, a distance of about nine miles each way.
Traces of rig and furrow (lazy beds) can be seen in most areas even those that had been ploughed by horse or tractor drawn plough for decades but it may need the right light at the right time of day and the right season to see these effects. Some areas are so steep that they must have been cultivated manually by using a cas chrom rather than a plough. The census reports show that there were farms at Leacnasgeir and South Cuil and two at North Cuil in 1851. There were also crofts at Port na Cloich, Rudha Mor and North Cuil and that several families were headed by cottars or agricultural labourers. In the earlier reports there were also herdsmen and dairymaids. In 1851 there were six labourers employed by South Cuil farm and four by Leacnasgeir. Over the years there were changes. South Cuil was divided into four holdings by 1861 and North Cuil reduced to two by 1871. Leacnasgier was lived in by an agricultural labourer in 1861 and thereafter by shepherds, one of whom was also a foxhunter, or cottars. Rudha Mor vanishes from the census lists after 1881 and Port na Cloich after 1891. Leacnasgeir became vacant after 1908. By 1935 there was one farm covering North Cuil, Rudha Mor and the Back Settlement (Leacnasgeir and Port na Cloich) and three smallholdings and a croft on South Cuil. During the 1950s the tenants of South Cuil retired or died and their holdings were incorporated into larger units so that by the end of the decade there was a farm at Greenfield (North Cuil) and South Cuil was farmed by the tenant of Achara Farm. By the late 1980s the whole of Cuil became one farm with the exception of the croft at 2 South Cuil. Oats, potatoes and turnips were the main crops along with hay although on one occasion the tenant at 1 South Cuil planted carrots and the whole crop was sold to Barr’s Store in Ballachulish. Until after the Second World War horses were used for ploughing, harrowing and reaping but in the late 1940s tractors were introduced. Livestock consisted of sheep and cattle, both beef and dairy. There was a stone fank at Greenfield which is no longer visible. In 1851 there were salmon fishers living at South Cuil. The foreman was also in the1841 census but in 1861 was living at North Cuil. As mentioned above salmon fishing had probably been carried on here for centuries. People used to come to Cuil to learn how to manage the nets. There were nets near the mouth of the North Cuil burn, at the mouth of the Salachan burn and at the tips of Rudha Mor and Rudha Meadhonach. All but the Salachan one are still in use but during a curtailed season to help with conservation of wild salmon. How they managed to dispose of their catches before the advent of the train in 1903 is uncertain but they were probably taken by boat to Oban or Fort William. The daily catch could be taken to the Duror station for the afternoon train and be in Billingsgate Market in London the next morning. Even when the local service had come to an end in 1966 the fisherman would drive to Bridge of Orchy station to send off his fish. Fortunately for the present fisherman he makes a decent living from catching prawns. His predecessors all had traditional clinker built boats with thole pins and square bladed oars and would row from net to net; the present fisherman has an aluminium boat with a powerful outboard motor -- much more practical seeing the wide distribution of his creels.
The first maps to show the location of houses with any degree of accuracy are two maritime charts surveyed by Capt. E.J. Bedford and published in 1861 and 1867. Of larger scale and showing more detail is the first edition of the Ordnance Survey. The survey was carried out in 1871 and published in 1877. This shows not only the location of each building but whether it was roofed or not. However it does not indicate the use of any building. Looking at this and the second edition of 1897 one can see which houses had become roofless and that there were considerable changes in the sizes and configuration of houses in South Cuil. It is interesting to note that both maps (and the maritime charts) failed to show the presence of one building at the base of Rudha Beag and the lime kiln on Rudha Mor. Combining the information from the maps with that from the censuses one can start to make headway with who lived where.
1. Mackechnie, J. (1963). The Dewar Manuscripts. Glasgow: William Maclellan.
2. McGregor, G. (1841). Second Statistical Account of Scotland. United Parishes of Lismore and Appin.
3. Donaldson, M.E.M. (1920). Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands. Paisley: Alexander Gardner.
4. Fergusson, J. (1951). Argyll in the Forty-Five. London: Faber & Faber.
5. Hunter, C. (2004). Smuggling in West Argyll and Lochaber before 1745. Oban: Charles Hunter
Neill Malcolm. February 2011