Shenavall in the Census

This article by Duncan Macniven, former Registrar General for Scotland and friend of the IMC, complements the brief history of Shenavall by Alex Sutherland drawn from recollections of one of the first occupants. Alex was a founding member of the IMC and former Maintenance Organiser for Shenavall; his article can be found at https://invernessmountaineering.club/shenavall-a-brief-history-by-alex-sutherland/. The photo above is of Shenavall in 1959.

Censuses have been taken in Scotland since 1801 but the first from which individual records survive is 1841 – before the present house at Shenavall was built. 

The 1841 Census records Strathnashellag before the coming of the sheep. There were 4 households around where Shenavall now stands. May and Ann McLeod, May aged 50 and described as a cottar (the smallest kind of tenant farmer) and 55-year-old Ann (perhaps her sister) lived with 20-year-old Rodrick McLenan (perhaps a relative of the McLenan family who lived nearby). Foxhunter Alexander McRae (30) lived with his wife Ann (20), their infant son Kenneth and 15-year-old Margrat McKenzie who was a farm servant. The third household consisted of agricultural labourers James and Alexander McKenzie (probably brothers aged 35 and 30), with whom lived Barbra McKenzie (60, and perhaps their mother), Murdoch McKenzie (80, perhaps their father or grandfather), 13-year old Lee McRae and 20-year-old farm servant Kathrin McKenzie. The final household was the largest – 7 people living in much the same kind of black house. Duncan McLenan (a 30-year-old agricultural labourer), his wife Flora and their 3 children aged from 4 to 8 lived with Donald McLenan (20, agricultural labourer and perhaps a relative) and 20-year-old farm servant Kathrin Mathison. All four households would have cultivated smallholdings, growing potatoes and probably oats, and would have kept a few black cattle and blackfaced sheep. They would have spoken Gaelic but would probably not been able to read or write. Their houses would have been dry stone walled, low and turf-roofed, with the cows living in one end and the people at the other. The smoke from the peat fire in a hearth in the centre of the living room would have escaped through a hole in the roof. People would have slept in box beds – wooden cupboards around the walls.

A Black House at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore

Ten years later, the 1851 Census recorded two of the same households.  The McLeod sisters and Roderick McLennan were all described as “Cotter and pauper”, meaning that they were so poor that they were receiving parish relief.  The McRae family had expanded: besides Kenneth, they had two daughters aged 9 and 6, and a servant (a local girl, 20-year-old Johanna Munro) and a visitor called Catherine Cameron, a 61-year-old farmer’s wife.  The father, Alexander McRae, was described as a “Gamekeeper and foxhunter”.  Besides these two households, there was certainly one more occupied house at Shenavall, occupied by shepherd Malcolm McLean (52, from Gairloch), his wife and mother-in-law (who hailed from Stornoway) and a house servant, 27-year-old local girl called Mary McBain, who was deaf.  Somewhere along Strathnashellag, but not necessarily at Shenavall, there were three more families – two headed by shepherds (one of whom lived in “Strathnashellag shooting lodge”), one by a gamekeeper and deerstalker, and one by a cottar and gamekeeper.  So at that time the Strath was used both to graze sheep and as a deer forest – with the original cottars at the margins of subsistence.   

By the 1861 Census, the land was a large-scale sheep farm, with only one family living there, in a house (probably of stone and lime, and almost certainly on the site of the present house) which had 3 rooms with windows.  Alexander McKenzie (56) and his wife Christiana (53) lived with their sons Angus (27) and Donald (19).  All 3 men were described as shepherds.  The whole family had been born in the local parish of Lochbroom.  On census night, they had a visitor – a 62-year-old grocer, also a local man and presumably a relative, called John McKenzie.

In the 1871 Census, Shenavall was home to a family of shepherds – the McLeods.  Alexander (37) had been born in Lochbroom parish and his wife Christiana (36) in Applecross.  They had 4 young children, probably born at Shenavall, aged from 1 to 8.  Christiana’s elder sister Alexandrina (40, described as a general servant) stayed with them.  The house had 3 rooms with windows and was probably the same building as in 1861.

In the 1881 and 1891 Censuses, no house was identified as “Shenavall” and the Ordnance Survey maps of the period suggest there may have been two houses.  Both Censuses show that William Angus (from Braemore in Lochbroom parish) lived somewhere in “Strath na Sealg” (and probably at Shenavall) with his wife Isabella (from Crofton, Lochbroom), their son James born in 1872 and their 6 daughters born between 1873 and 1885.  The family all spoke both Gaelic and English.  In 1881, William was described as a shepherd but in 1891 as a “forester”, working not with trees but with deer.  Their house appears to have been extended to cope with the large family, from 2 rooms with windows in 1881 to 5 rooms in 1891.  But that may not have been the present house – because Alex Sutherland, a member of the Inverness Mountaineering Club who died in 2014 aged 91, recalled talking in the late 1970s to 94-year-old Colin McDonald, who remembered moving to the present house when it was newly-built.  Colin, at the age of 7, is recorded in the 1891 Census living in the Strath in a 3-roomed house with his family, headed by his father Archibald (a 49-year-old deer stalker born in Gairloch), and a 60-year-old domestic servant.  Like the Anguses, the family spoke both Gaelic and English, while the servant spoke only Gaelic.  If Colin McDonald’s memory was correct, the Angus family lived in a house now ruined and the McDonalds were the first to live in the present house. 

Extract from the 1891 census listing Colin McDonald

By the time of the 1901 Census, the Strath was used simply as a deer forest.  Only 2 people lived at Shenavall – Finlay MacKenzie (25, a gamekeeper) and his sister Katie (22, a housekeeper).  Both were born locally, in Lochbroom parish, and both could speak Gaelic and English.  The house was described as “Shenavall Lodge”.  It had 3 rooms with windows.

The 1911 Census is the last from which individual records are at present published.  Again, no building was identified as “Shenavall”, but there were two houses in “Strathnashellaig”, both with 5 rooms with windows.  One was occupied by William Angus, described as a stalker, his wife Isabel and two of their daughters – and the other by their son James and another daughter.

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  1. […] 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; https://invernessmountaineering.club/shenavall-in-the-census/ […]

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