Shenavall – A Brief History

For many years the IMC was responsible for maintaining Shenavall bothy, south of Dundonnel. This article was written by Alex Sutherland, a founder member of the IMC, who was in charge of maintenance for sixteen years. Sadly Alex died in 2014 at the age of 91. This article and poem were first published in the MBA Journal, Dec 1990. Duncan Macniven has written an article based on census data from Shenavall; The photo above is Shenavall in 1959.

Shenavall was first occupied by one Colin MacDonald and his family on a cold, dreich morning in November 1891. With swirling mist obscuring the surrounding peaks of An Teallach and Beinn Dearg Mor and many mountain burns in full spate, their arrival by boat at the head of Loch na Sealga was not an encouraging start to an occupancy which was to last all of ten years. The family’s miserable possessions consisted of no more than a few trunks, some bedding and a wheelbarrow.

The stonemasons who had built their home had left only the previous day; the walls remained unlined, and the bare earth floor was strewn with rubble. Within days, however, father and son had plastered the walls with some blue clay taken from a nearby mound of glacial debris. Major improvements were started in the Spring with the construction of upstairs bedrooms and the insertion of wooden wall linings and floorboards. The family’s arrival was due to Colin’s father having been appointed stalker on the Dundonnell estate. Mr MacDonald was also a skilful crofter, fisher, shepherd and stonemason. Evidence of this latter skill can be seen in the well-constructed dry-stone barn which abuts the house to this day.

Colin was born in the now-ruined house which still stands on the left side of ‘Destitution Road’ before the descent to Little Loch Broom. Mrs MacDonald must have been very busy looking after four children – three born during the family’s sojourn at Shenavall. In addition, there were four cows requiring daily attention, the milk having to be made into butter, cheese and crowdie. Wool was clipped from the sheep and spun on her spinning wheel, later to be knitted into socks and pullovers. The walled garden ensured an ample supply of fresh vegetables, while the surrounding estate furnished plentiful stock of venison and trout.

Shenavall with Beinn Dearg Mor and Bheag in the snow

Not that the MacDonalds were entirely self-sufficient. Twice a year supplies of meal – at twopence a bag – paraffin, sugar and tea were conveyed by pony from Dundonnell. A roll of tweed was brought from Ullapool every year from the then busy mill. Soaked in the burn for a few days, it was then stretched out on the roof to dry in readiness for the itinerant tailor who would make suits, trousers, skirts and jackets for the whole family.

Life was not lonely at the turn of the century, as there were then four other inhabited households in the area: Auchnegie, Larach an Tigh Mhor (‘Foundation of the Big House’) situated just across the river, the Watcher’s house at Loch an Nid, and Colin’s birthplace at Loch an Voir. Each homestead had four cows, each of which produced a calf annually. When weaned, the beasts were driven overland to market in Inverness. The problem of educating the children of this isolated community was solved by the School Board appointing a pupil-teacher from Dundonnell School – a young lady named Miss MacDonald. She stayed with each family for a month; board and keep in fair exchange for her instruction.

All told, however, life was very harsh for the inhabitants of the area. The winter of 1895-1896 was most severe. A few days after Christmas, so much snow fell that no-one could leave the glen until late March. More than five hundred sheep were starving at Loch an Voir when three men and numerous dogs set out on a rescue bid. In single file and alternately taking the lead the three men broke trail, with sheep following in tow, until they reached Loch na Sealga, where the snow was less deep, and grazing was possible.

The weather improved in April 1896. It became quite warm, though much snow still covered the land. One morning, as Colin and his family were working outside, a tremendous bang rent the air. No noise they ever heard before or after that morning surpassed the loudness of that sound – eardrums were almost burst. Later, when they had recovered from the shock, the family looked towards the Loch from whence the noise had arisen. A huge fissure had rent the entire six mile length of ice. As the meltwater had drained away down the Gruinard River, the iced surface of the loch had been left suspended. No longer able to withstand, it had split in one terrific explosive moment.

The isolation of Shenavall might have presented serious medical problems to the inhabitants, but this was not so. During the twelve years that Colin lived there, the services of a doctor were necessary only on one occasion, when his brother developed an abscess on his gum. The three children born to the MacDonalds at Shenavall were all safely delivered by the midwife, a Mrs MacKenzie from Dundonnell. The mode of transport for this important visitor consisted of a deer saddle fixed to a sturdy pony. In rather undignified fashion, the midwife was securely fastened into the saddle like a garrotted hind!

Shenavall in post bike shed days

My own first visit to Shenavall was by rather more conventional means. Inspired by a photograph of An Teallach in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Handbook of 1946, myself and two former Presidents of the IMC – Rod MacLennan and Don Cattanach – took the bus to Braemore Junction and proceeded on foot to Dundonnell. With tent, food and climbing gear, we traversed the An Teallach ridge and sighted the house thousands of feet below. Little did I realise how important this idyllic place was to become for me.

A winter traverse of An Teallach is one of the most challenging of all Scottish climbs. Get started on the path near the telephone box by the main road at Dundonnell. Then proceed up on to Glas Mheall Mor, thence to Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill and Sgurr Fiona, then down the Sail Liath ridge to the path which leads on to Shenavall.

A diversion to visit Corrie a’ Ghlas Thuill in winter would be most rewarding. It is possible to view the magnificent Hayfork Gully where three ribbon-like ice falls hang from a 1500′ buttress on the north-east side of Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill. The inhospitability of these apparently vertical gullies is justly intimidating. Walled as they are by hundreds of feet of Torridonian sandstone, up is the only way out. A few years ago, while surveying this awesome majesty at first hand, Jim Teesdale of the IMC – a Geordie exile and excellent alpinist – handed me a ‘deadman’ ice-climbing aid, and bade me follow. Four hours later, with twenty rope-length pitches, we emerged fifteen feet from the sunlit summit.

Many famous – and, no doubt, infamous – souls have sought shelter under the hallowed roof of Shenavall. HRH Prince Charles, for one, appreciated the austere comforts while he was still a pupil at Gordonstoun, near Elgin, he being one of many visitors to have recorded their thoughts in the Shenavall log-book. It was from that same book – through an entry by Colin MacDonald’s daughter- that I was to meet the man himself. He spent his twilight years in Dollar, Clackmannanshire where, at the age of 94, he accompanied me on an afternoon’s hillwalk. As we walked, this fit and articulate Highland gentleman related the incredible story of Shenavall. To Colin MacDonald I dedicate the following poem which was composed by Jim Baillie, my constant companion and helper at Shenavall.

Poem to Colin MacDonald

In Winter here, no heart could mourn for summer nor spring,
No blemish or deformity could be seen
In anything that grew upon the earth.
On all the land there was no stain.

Though hiking days are gone
And dull and grey the sky,
In memory still lives on
Days on mountain high.

Of valleys stilled in twilight calm
And fires that flicker in the evening breeze,
The mountain river sang an evening psalm.
Someday, perchance, we will return to these.

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