“A location on the north coast of Sutherland, Highland Council Area, Coldbackie lies at the head of Tongue Bay, two miles north of Tongue. The small bay here is dominated by a sheer conglomerate red sandstone cliff.”
The Edinburgh University online gazetter for Scotland
Coldbackie sits under the Watch Hill, looking north over it’s spectacular beach to the Rabbit Islands. It is one of series of crofting townships, running from Tongue, through Coldbackie, Strath Tongue, Dalharn, Blandy and Scullomie to the desterted township of Slettel that sit on the eastern fringes of the Kyle of Tongue.
History of Coldbackie
The meaning of Coldbackie
Back , as the old norse (ON) word for a hill or ridge is a quite straitforward translation, (Gaelic (G) bac a bank ON Old Icelandic (OI) bakki a ridge , Danish (D), bakke Swedish (Sw) backe a hill, hillock). There is of course a Back in Lewis, and a Backie in East Sutherland near Golspie. The Cold in Coldbackie, is somewhat more problematical, however. A number of Scottish Place name Commentators have translated the Cold as the G coil or cuil , meaning a nook or corner. Cuille G a wood is also mentioned. This would give us the nook or corner under the ridge or woody ridge , both accurate and descriptive.
There is a problem with this approach however, in that it clearly combines a Gaelic and Norse root to form a word. This is not impossible, as there is ample evidence of place names combining words from the two languages, with Dalharn mixing the Norse word dale for Field, with the Gaelic word for stones or Cairn. However it is important to remember that Dal in Gaelic is a borrow word from Norse, and is therefore part of the Gaelic language. The other key issue that the place name Coldbackie is not unique to the Kyle of Tongue, with there being two Coldbacks in Shetland (in Unst and Delting) and one in NW Iceland, there is also a Culleybackey in Aintrim, north of Belfast. As there is no evidence at all of any Gaelic influence in Shetland, or Iceland, (and a very strong Norse presence in Ulster) it makes a Gaelic Norse word combination very unlikely.
As the pattern of Norse colonisation of the Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland, Faeroes and Iceland was from Norway, through Shetland and thence North to Faeroe and Iceland (and Greenland), and from Shetland south to Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland, i.e. through Shetland rather than direct from Norway, it would seem that there is an argument for the Sutherland Coldbackie to be the same word combination as those in Shetland and Iceland.
There are a number of possibilities as to its meaning. Two obvious possibilities occur in Old Norse, Kald – Cold (the same root word for English and Scots) or Kol Charcoal, Coal or Peat. This could give us Cold Ridge, or Peaty Ridge, both accurate descriptions. There is a problem with using Kol for peat, as there is no evidence that this Norse word was ever used in Scotland, with Peat being called Turf – ON torf in Scotland. Omand, in The Sutherland book, translates Coldbackie as kula-bakki bank with the bump , whilst Stewart, in his seminal work Place names of Shetland says that Coldbacks is Cold Hill.
Pre-history in the Kyle of Tongue
The recent human history of the east shore of the Kyle of Tongue stretches back to the end of the last ice age, ten thousand years ago, when the last of the glaciers melted to give us the landforms which we see around the Kyle today. This ice age would have destroyed any evidence of human settlement in the North of Scotland in earlier times.
There is little recorded evidence in the far north for this Palaeolithic period, but archaeological evidence of the lifestyle of hunter gather families excavated on the Isle of Jura, of the coast of Argyll, over the past 20 years gives us a clear picture of how these handfuls of people would have lived off the beaches and cliffs of North Sutherland eight to ten thousand years ago. It may be that their shell middens, created by generations of families moving between around the coasts, have yet to be recognised or excavated in this part of Scotland. However such sites on Jura, and at a rock shelter and shell midden recently discovered and excavated in Skye have shown that at this time people had tools of bone, stone and antler, were living off shellfish, fish and deer using pot-boiler stones ( i.e. stones heated in a fire which were then used to boil water) as a cooking method, were making beads from seashells and had ochre pigment and used shellfish which can produce purple dye. Neolithic (ie three thousand BC or five thousand years old) middens can be seen at the east side of the Kyle of Tongue, near the Youth Hostel.
The sea level would have been much higher at that time (or to be exact the land level was lower – the weight of ice having depressed the land significantly – in fact it is still rebounding over northern Europe, up to one centimetre every ten years in the Northern Baltic sea area.) There would also probably have been wide salt marshes in the upper reaches of the Sutherland firths, and extensive Forests of Birch, Alder and Scots Pine on the fertile land, with a wide spread scrub forestry on the poorer land. Most importantly, and the greatest contrast to today, there would have been no Peat.
These Hunter Gatherers would have lived a nomadic lifestyle in the area for five thousand years, until the first permanent farming settlements by the Neolithic people, around four to five thousand years ago. The Neolithic people lived in small family groups, practising simple agriculture and animal husbandry, supplemented by hunting. Most evidence of their lifestyle has been submerged by the growth of peat since 2000 BC, but some cup and ring rock carvings dating from that time can be seen near Loch Hakel, at the south end of the Kyle of Tongue. On the shore of this small loch you will find a large boulder marked with 34 cupmarks (11 of which are ringed). A local tradition recorded in 1870 explained the marks as being made by a fairy with pointy heeled shoes.
Nearby Orkneys rich archaeological remains show how such Neolithic communities lived and worked. On the Orkney Island of Papa Westray there is a remarkable well preserved stone house at the Knap of Hower, occupied over 5000 years ago. The walls stand to a low eaves height, and the stone furniture is intact. Evidence from nearby middens shows that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, farming barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats. Finely made and decorated Unstan ware pottery fragments links the inhabitants to chambered cairn tombs nearby, as well as to sites in other parts of Scotland.
The Wreck of the SS Onega
The SS Onega was a Dundee based brig (a two masted square rigged sailing vessel) on passage from Montreal in Canada back to Dundee in December 1862. She was owned by George Armitstead & Co, bought by them in 1852, when she was two years old. Her tonnage was rated at 229, making her the largest brig in the companies fleet, although she would have been only about twice the size of a modern fishing vessel.
The SS Onega was sailing along the North Coast on the 20th December when it was hit by a violent storm. The ships master decided to try to sit out the storm in the quiet waters behind Eilean Roan. However he misjudged the waves that build up in the shallow waters of the Kyle when the wind is in the North East, and the vessel dragged her anchor. She dragged right into the shallows off Coldbackie Beach, where the huge waves pounded her to a wreck. The shallow waters of the Kyle can raise significant waves in a very short time.
The vessels lifeboats were carried away and overturned, and despite attempts to launch boats from Coldbackie and Scullomie all the crew were drowned. The bodies were washed up on the coast from Coldbackie Beach around to Eilean Roan. Three were recovered in a small cove on the South East of the island, which was then known as Port na Coinnle – Bay of the Candles, from the phosphorescence in the water draining from the clothes and lifejackets of the dead crew. All the crew were buried in Tongue, and a song, well known as The Stately Onega was composed locally at the time of the wreck. It tells of the vessels voyage, the shipwreck and the great efforts of the local people to rescue the drowning crew. It was popular at ceilidhs up to the 1970s.
All that remains of the Onega is buried on Coldbackie beach, and consists of wrought iron ribs, a few which can be seen at low tides hard against the tip of a rock on the east side of Coldbackie beach. The rock must have halted the vessels progress up the beach. Occasional metal ribs could be found on the beach, wedged between rocks, up to the 1980s. They fascinated me as a child in the 60s and 70s and indeed I pulled a muscle in my back recovering one around 1984! The wreck was completely covered in sand from about 1970 (when the causeway was built and Coldbackie beach grew significantly) until the late 1990s, when the beach lost a lot of sand. For a time the complete outline of the wreck was visible, although now only one or two ribs can be seen.
Coldbackie In Decline
London people who were touring Scotland, inquired of a hotel-keeper on the North coast of Sutherland, “What do the people do about here?” He replied, “Oh, they just walk about!” His reply would have been more accurate had he said “They are fast dying out!” The population of Sutherland has shown a steady decline, over a large number of years, and will continue to do so, unless something of a bold nature is attempted to arrest such decline, and to instill new animation in the county.
As an example, consider Coldbackie, a small clachan described in Macdonald’s Scottish Gazetteer:,’Place with PO. under Lairg, MO. and T. Tongue 3 miles.”
This little hamlet stands on the Kyle of Tongue, facing the Rabbit islands, looking out to the Suier Skerray Light, visible at night, and to the far beyond, the dismal expanse of the Arctic. It has a resident population of 16 souls, about half of whom are in receipt of their Old Age Pension.By the end of another decade, I will venture to prophesy the permanent population not to exceed 8. Deplorable this, when we realise that less than 50 years ago, Coldbackie was a lively little place containing upwards of 50 people, and were I to reach back 70 years, I could easily add another dozen to that number.
Its inhabitants were a God-fearing, industrious, happy and contented family, fine specimens of that gallant race, the Clan Mackay, of which Clan the majority were members.It is interesting to examine the position in Coldbackie 40 and 50 years ago. In doing so I shall use Gaelic names to avoid confusion – there being so many Mackays – but the proper Gaelic spelling will not be attempted.
In the first house from the west there lived Sutherland Mackay (Seulin) and his wife Marion (Meran). They possessed a cow and horse, sheep and hens and worked the croft next to the sands with, I fear, small return for their labour, as in these days the sands were “alive” with rabbits and on poor Seulin, I fear fell the burden of feeding the rabbits as well as his own stock He and his wife, thevertheless, lived to a mature age, and his croft was taken over by his son Hector (Eachan Dhu) who died in tragic circumstances a few years ago. The house stands unoccupied, and the stock is extinct.
The next house contained William Mackay (Ilvam) his sisters Betty and Girshal, and his mother Lexy. These being the days of giants and centenarians, Lexy lived to the ripe old age of 103 years.This was a house which gave me special interest and pleasure. Betty was a picturesque figure with nice pleasant features, who always wore a red kerchief round her head, and in her later years, walked about very bent, and with the aid of a stick. The house was of a very old type, turf roof, with bare rafters in the kitchen, on which the hens perched at night. In my childhood days a visit to Betty was always rewarded with a scone and crowdy. Hyam invariably spoke in Gaelic, and to listen to him haggle with tinkers over the price of a horse, was something not to be forgotten. He seemed to have parted with the most of his teeth, giving his face a “Punch” like contour. This house, alas, no longer stands, and the stock, associated with it is out of existence.
It may be of interest at this stage to note that the cattle belonging in these two houses, at one time did not mix with the Coldbackie cattle. The Coldbackie cattle always moved in the direction of Dalcharn, whereas the two West-enders seemed to favour the hill above Rhi Tongue. Thus do “West end” cattle have their preferences and fellowships!
The next house was also occupied by a William Mackay (Ilvom Kiepur) and his wife Christina (Kirsty Carnal) [Campbell] together with their son Wattle. There had been a large family here, the members of which had gone South and found employment.
As a boy it was very convenient for me to be wakened each morning from my slumbers by Kirsty putting her cows “East the Cronk” assisted by her dog. Wag, both cows and dog seeming to understand her Gaelic perfectly. This was a house I liked to pass when going to the well for water, and yet I was afraid On the East gable there grew a honeysuckle bush, diffusing its delightful fragrance all around, but Kirsty also kept turkeys and the bubbly jock was a difficult comer to negotiate. This croft, happily, is still cultivated by Willie and Wattle and the stock will remain much as before with the possible exception of the cattle.
We move along now to Mrs. [Andrew] Ross (Henny Watt) who worked her croft with the assistance of her sons. Bill, Neil and Andy, when they were not otherwise engaged at the fishing. Mrs Ross was the most energetic old woman I have ever known and withal quiet and kindly. Rob Oag with his coach and pair of horses Thurso bound, would pass Coldbackie about 7 am. The termination of my holiday meant an early rise to join Rob, and on such a morning, I would be afoot at 6 am.
At 6 am 1 have seen Granny Ross, bent with her years, coming up from the bottom of her croft with her dog. Sharp, after having cleared the marauding sheep from her corn. Mrs Ross was one of the original recipients of the Old Age Pension in Coldbackie, being over the allotted span when the scheme was introduced The croft carried a full stock, horse, cow, sheep and poultry, and is now in the possession of her son Andy his wife and two children, who still carry on the good work.
The next house was occupied by the Mathiesons (Vanadh), the mother Shonnage [Janet dark, Widow of George Matheson], the daughter Shene, and two sons – Eustion and Aundra There was no croft attached to Tongue, and as a form of prerequisite had right of grazing for their cow in the plantation. They also had sheep on the hill. I was very fond of the Mathiesons, especially Eustion. We occupied the same seat in the old church at Strath Tongue (Rev. John Ross MacNeil). I mean the building which was demolished about 35 years ago, to give place to the present structure. Hugh always handed me a supply of peppermint each Sunday, a gift I greatly appreciated, as children were not overloaded with sweetmeats then as they are in a vulgar way today. In the evenings Eustion went East” to ceilidh, in Johnny’s and a special attraction was to hear him read “Sandy MacNab’s Chronicles” from the “People’s Journal”, which he did with a rare command of the Doric. All the Mathiesons are dead with the exception of Andrew who now lives in well-earned retirement at Rhi Tongue. The old house still stands and is occupied by Mrs. Harper but there is no stock attached.
We now come to John Bruce (lan Perish) and his wife Janet (Shortage), lan was district shoemaker, and used his awl and last in the days when a shoemaker made shoes as well as mended shoes. Handmade shoes are now only for the wealthy. Shoemaking has almost become one of the lost arts, and the only branch of the trade left for the small man, is cobbling or mending. lan was also a fiddler, with a local reputation and though he did not make a trade of his art, by attending balls, he and his fiddle gave much pleasure to the young folks. On the death of his son Robert, who was apprenticed to a grocer in Wick, he never again handed the bow lan also worked his croft which carried the usual stock, with the exception of a horse. He had a large family of daughters who all betook themselves to the South, and to one at least of whom (my mother), he gave the sage advice not sufficiently observed today. “If you love your son, don’t spare the rod” lan, you will note, did not mention daughters in this connection! The house, which by the way, was the first slated house in Coldbackie, is still occupied by his daughter Jess, now advanced in years, though young in spirit, and there is no stock attached.
Across the Cronk the first house was occupied by James Mackay (Shamus), his wife Girsal, and his sister Kayina [Mackay ina]. Shamus went to the fishing and in his absence the croft and stock were managed by Girsal. I have no clear recollection of Shamus in life, but I, along with one or two other youngsters on the Sunday evening of Shamus’s demise, were with great solemnity taken in, and reverently beheld Shamus in death, with his arms neatly folded Shamus was not by common assent a “holy man” and Girsal said his last words were “Troker, Troker, Troker!” I bore Shamus no malice, and Girsal was a quiet kindly old soul, but Andy made his coffin and I, Girsal’s “bonnie bo-ey” helped Andy (or thought I did) to drive nails into it. Shamus’s house was at this period the popular “ceilidh” house of the district, the youth of Coldbackie, Scullomey, Blandy and Dalcharn, foregathering here in the evenings. The house was of an old type and falling into disrepair after Shamus’s death, Girsal moved down to the Bridge, Strath Tongue, that comfortable home reserved for the aged ladies of the district, set amidst lovely surroundings of bum and wood, where she spent the concluding years other long life.
Adjoining Shamus’s house was one occupied by Hugh Mackay (Eustion Ruach) his wife Hughina (Hughag), and their family often children. This was then, as now, the Post Office, which served the district. Eustion was employed on the Estate at Tongue, while his wife and numerous family worked the croft and attended the business connected with the Post office. Eustion was regarded as the “holy man” and Bums’ “Cottar’s Saturday Night was an every night in this household,
The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious
face They round the ingle form a circle
wide; The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal
The big ha’- Bible, ance his father’s
They chant their artless notes in simple
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest
Perhaps “Dundee’s” wild warbling
Or plaintive “Martyrs” worthy of the name;
Eustion has long since gone to him he served so well: his family are scattered over the Globe save one, the youngest Magnus, who remains at home, to carry on the Post Office and additional business of a general store. The croft is worked in a limited way and the stock considerably reduced.
The next house was occupied by John Mackay (lan Cordach) his wife Emily [Munro] and their family of seven. His mother, Ishbal [Isabella Mackay. widow of Alexander Mackay, who died aged 96 years, also lived with him. Johnny was very energetic and led a full and busy life. In addition to the work connected with his croft he was a dealer in cattle, sheep and wool and with the assistance of his family, carried on a butchers business, sold fish when they were obtainable and cured haddocks. He also found time for a number of years to serve on the Sutherland County Council and on the Tongue School Board. Truly a man of action he was ever on the move, and this in the days before the motor car had made its appearance. His family also are scattered over the world, but Mrs Mackay (Emily) is happily still amongst us, and resides with her daughter-in-law who manages the croft. There is still a little house at the top of the steading, reconstructed many years ago by Johnny, for his two sisters Dora and Doll.
We now arrive at the end house in Coldbackie occupied by Mrs Munro [Robertina Sutherland] her son Andrew; her daughter Maggie, and her g’andchildren, Hugh and Lizzie Fields. A large family had been reared in this house but with the exception of the son and daughter named all have gone south. The croft which was fairly large, was well kept. Mrs Munro being a capable woman, and in addition a small general store conducted to an extension to their house, was car’ied on Andy was a joiner to trade and plied his hammer and plane in a workshop situated above the stable and byre. The croft is still worked by Andy and his family, the stock carried being probably much the same as in the days of his parents.
Coldbackie has an annex which must not be omitted. I refer to Lower Coldbackie, tenanted by Mrs James Mackay (Boelter) who lives here with her two children, Hendry and James. In the small house adjoining reside Betsy Mackay (Bishie) and Mary Sutherland (Marie Boelter). These two charming old ladies, in advancing years, moved down to cosy quarters at the bridge, where they
lived in sublime content till their end. I liked both of them especially Hishiem whose oatcakes “eran oork” I frequently sampled If we children happened to be playing down about the Mill and the fun was good, “”cravings inner” was more happily satisfied with Bishie’s oatcakes at the bridge than in running home to Coldbackie. I was always known to Bishie as lan Preish. Kirsty is still in Lower
Coldbackie and at the age of three score year and ten has so well kept her youthful agility that she can perform acrobatic feats the envy of many in their teens. Her two sons were lost as a result of the last war and her stock was disposed of.
This then is the Coldbackie that was, a happier or more gladsome community could not have been found. Each lived by the grace of God, and with the goodwill of his or her neighbour. The religious life resolved itself into the social life, the Sacrament was the time of visiting. The seasons had their duties to perform, and if the lame and the sick were unable to attend, willing hands were there to help them.
They were a hard working people and every square yard of ground which could produce was in production. In addition to the fields in front of the houses, there was cultivated ground in front of the Laid, which each had a share in. Below the Cnoc Bute there was common ground, the grass of which was cut by the men and divided equally. The grass above the sands and on the bank below the crofts was allotted and cut, there was no waste. Peat cutting, cockle gathering.sheep rearing, spinning and all the seasonal jobs connected with rural husbandry were joyfully undertaken. Coldbackie was a veritable beehive of Jobs life went with a swing.
Where is that activity todav! Coldbackie does not stand alone the dead hand is creeping all over Sutherland. Any person may become sick or ill but any person cannot diagnose the malady and effect a cure. So it is with Sutherland The best brains, the most active spirit, all have to be enlisted, their ideas pooled and their energies united to administer the medicine which alone can restore Sutherland to its old time health and vigor.
I believe that there is only one medicine. Sutherland must interest itself in itself.
Note by Calum Davidson – the article was found – in poor condition – by Mrs Peggie Wirgman, nee Mackay, of Coldbackie. It was transcribed by Mrs Janie Mackay, Coldbackie, who passed me a copy through my Mother Mrs Nancy Davidson, nee Mackay, Coldbackie and Edinburgh.
The Watch Hill, Coldbackie
“a femicircular chain of mountains paffes nearly through the middle of the parifh, the principal of which are Knok-Rheacadan (the Watchman’s Hill), Ben Loaghal and Ben Hope”
Old statistical account of the Parish of Tongue 1799
At 1008 feet, Cnoc an Fhreiceadain (Hill of Watching) is modest in height, but both commands the township of Coldbackie and provides dramatic views across to Kyle of Tongue, to Orkney in the east, and Arkle in the West.
The Watch hill is Old Red Sandstone Conglomerate, and is around 400 Million Years old, dating from the middle of the Paleozoic era. The rocks are fairly loose and friable, and not particularly suitable for climbing, although some of the chimneys have been ascended.
Travelling from the east along the coast, Cnoc an Fhreiceadain is the first hill of any significance that the traveler meets in Sutherland. It certainly made an impression on the Rev Charles Cordiner who passed through Coldbackie in June 1776.
He describes Strath Tounge as a “narrow deep and gloomy valley.” His pen picture of the Watch Hill continues. “The mountainous ridge by which it is bounded on the west, terminated perpendicularly in precipices of enormous height.”…”other immense masses, seemingly loose, hanging on high, and threatening to tumble, every moment, down, made the passage round it hideous.”
Antiquities & Scenery of the North of Scotland – Rev Charles Cordiner – London 1780
In October 2004, the BBC motoring programme Top Gear tested the new Land Rover Discovery, in North Sutherland. As part of the TV Programme, Jeremy Clarkson “drove” a car up the Watch Hill – he actually drove up the road to the TV mast site on Ben Tongue and then over to the Watch Hill – but it made for good Television.