Loch Alsh

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For the town of this name at the mouth of the loch, see Kyle of Lochalsh.
Loch Alsh
The Kyle (narrows) of Loch Alsh and the Skye Bridge
Location Wester Ross, Highland Region, Scotland
Coordinates 57°16′N 5°40′W / 57.27°N 5.66°W / 57.27; -5.66Coordinates: 57°16′N 5°40′W / 57.27°N 5.66°W / 57.27; -5.66
Lake type Sea loch
Primary inflows Loch Long (Highlands), Loch Duich
Primary outflows Inner Sound, Scotland
Basin countries Scotland
Max. length 12 km (7.5 mi)
Max. width 2.5 km (1.6 mi)
Surface elevation 0 m (0 ft)
Settlements Kyle of Lochalsh, Ardelve, Balmacara

Loch Alsh or Lochalsh (from the Scottish Gaelic Loch Aillse, "foaming lake"[1]) is a sea inlet between the isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides and the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. The name is also used to described the surrounding country and the feudal holdings around the loch. The area is rich in history, and is increasingly popular with tourists.

The hilly country around Loch Alsh has a temperate, well-watered climate. There is some pasture and woodland, but much of the area is moorland. The rocks are ancient Precambrian Gneiss, some of the oldest in the world, much eroded.

The earliest known inhabitants were Picts, but in the late 6th century Loch Alsh became part of the Gaelic island kingdom of Dál Riata. Between the 8th and 13th centuries the area was disputed between the kingdoms of Norway and Alba and often ruled by independent lords. Although nominally subject to the Kingdom of Scotland after 1266 AD, the history of the region until the failed rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 is one of obscure struggles between the local clans and against the central government.

To prevent further feuds and rebellions, in 1746 the government enacted laws designed to break the bond between the clan leaders and their people. An indirect result was gradual conversion of the land from crofting to more profitable and less labour-intensive sheep farming. These Highland Clearances and the subsequent Highland Potato Famine of 1846–52 forced many of the people to emigrate. Today, the area is thinly populated with an economy based mainly on tourism.


Sketch map of area

The loch runs inland about 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) from Kyle of Lochalsh to Ardelve. From there Loch Duich continues southeast another 10 km to Shiel Bridge while Loch Long runs deeper into the mountains to the northeast. A narrow strait from the south of Loch Alsh leads to the Sound of Sleat that separates the Isle of Skye from the mainland. The loch is overlooked by Sgurr na Coinnich, which rises to 739 metres (2,425 ft) on Skye. The mainland hills to the north reach 452 metres (1,483 ft) at the summit of Auchtertyre Hill and 344 metres (1,129 ft) on Sgurr Mor but are generally lower and slope gradually down to the west.[2]

The ancient stronghold of Inverness is 50 miles (80 km) to the east as a crow flies over the Northwest Highlands.

The climate is temperate. Annual rainfall is around 2.3 metres per year and temperatures range from 0–7 °C in January to 10–18 °C in July and August. On any given day of the year rain is more likely than not.[3] Much of the countryside is moorland or pasture but there are lowland areas of deciduous forest with native birchwoods and oakwoods and some conifer plantations.[4] At one time the forest would have been more extensive, but the early inhabitants converted parts of it to crofts (small farms) and when the Highland Clearances destroyed the crofts the land was kept as pasture.[5]


The loch lies between hills just east of the Moine Thrust Belt, an unusual geological structure that runs from the Sleat peninsula in Skye on a northeast diagonal to Loch Eriboll on the north coast of Scotland.[6] In this area, geologists found in 1907 that younger rocks from the west lay below the older rocks of the east, a discovery that helped lead to the modern theory of mountain building. The Lewisian gneisses around Loch Alsh were formed in the Precambrian period, about 2800 million years ago, while the volcanic rocks, gabbro and granite that make up most of Skye, and that in some places lie under the older gneisses, are just 55 million years old.[7] The ancient metamorphic rocks around Loch Alsh have been heavily eroded over the years, most recently by a series of ice ages.[8]


A Flame shell taken in Scotland

In 2012, a large colony of flame shells were discovered in the loch following a Marine Scotland commissioned survey, carried out by Heriot-Watt University. The reef is thought to consist of over 100 million flame shells covering 75 hectares (0.75 km2), making it the largest known reef of its kind in the UK.[9][10]


Records from Roman times describe the people of the area as Picts, a Celtic people. Pictish brochs, tall stone towers up to ten meters high and more than 2,000 years old, are found near Glenelg to the south of the loch.[11] The Scots, a tribe of Gaels from Ireland, established the kingdom of Dál Riata in the Hebrides and western Scotland late in the 6th century, and their Gaelic language gradually replaced the earlier Pictish language. Many of the local people speak Gaelic to this day.

In the 7th and 8th centuries the area suffered raids and invasions by Vikings from Norway. From the 9th century until the Treaty of Perth in 1266 CE control of the Hebrides alternated between the kingdoms of Norway and of Alba to the east, and independent Gaelic/Scandinavian rulers such as Ketil Flatnose, Maccus mac Arailt, Godred Crovan and Somerled. The kingdom of Scotland that finally established its authority over the area included many lowlanders who spoke a Northumbrian language akin to English. However, it was only gradually and comparatively recently that Scottish English became more common than Gaelic in the Lochalsh area.

The people of Lochalsh are thus a combination of Pictish and Scottish (Irish) with Norwegian and English elements.[12]


Feudal period[edit]

The history of Lochalsh from its nominal acquisition by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266 CE until the rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 is one of obscure struggles between the local clans and against the central government.

James I of Scotland

The Norse Clan MacLeod and Clan MacDonald on Skye, and the Celtic Clan Mackenzie with their stronghold in the castle of Eilean Donan at the head of the loch retained a large degree of independence for centuries. Often the MacDonald Lord of the Isles acted as a sovereign in alliance with the Scottish king rather than a subject. Thus Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles allied himself with King James I of Scotland against the Albany Stewarts in 1424, but in 1429 went to war against the king. Although defeated and forced to surrender, his authority in the Hebrides and western highlands was such that he remained a leading power in the kingdom. Alexander's bastard sons Uisdean (Hugh of Sleat) and Gilleasbaig ("Celestine") were given Sleat and Lochalsh respectively.[13]

Eilean Donan Castle

Clan Matheson, led by the McRuari descendents of Somerled, were another power in the area, participating in the battle of Largs in 1263 when King Haakon IV of Norway was defeated,[clarification needed] and later fighting for Donald of the Isles at the battle of Harlaw in 1411 against an army commanded by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar. Later, as a result of a feud with Clan MacDonell of Glengarry, clan Matheson switched allegiance to the Mackenzies. John Dubh was killed in 1539 while defending Eilean Donan Castle against Macdonald of Sleat. After this, the power of the clan declined although they retained property in Lochalsh and in Sutherland. Sir James Matheson of Sutherland was founder of the trading house of Jardine Matheson Holdings in the Far East. A Matheson still holds the title of Baronet of Lochalsh.[14]

The MacDonald of Lochalsh branch was founded by Celestine MacDonald (d.1476), second son of Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles. In 1491 Alexander MacDonald of Lochalsh joined Clan Cameron in a raid into Ross where they fought with Clan MacKenzie of Kintail, advanced east to Badenoch where they were joined by the Clan Mackintosh, and then to Inverness where they took Inverness Castle. In 1495, threatened by King James's army, most of the highland chiefs submitted. However, soon after Sir Alexander MacDonald again rebelled and invaded Ross-shire, where he was defeated in battle by Clan Munro and Clan MacKenzie at Drumchatt. He escaped to the Isles but was caught on Oransay and put to death.[15]

In 1580 a feud started between the Mackenzies and the Macdonells of Glengarry. The Chief of Glengarry had inherited part of Lochalsh, Lochcarron, and Lochbroom, while the father of Colin Cam Mackenzie of Kintail, a favourite of king James VI, had acquired the other part by purchase. Colin Cam MacKenzie took MacDonell prisoner and murdered his three uncles. The Privy Council investigated the matter and caused Strome Castle, which Macdonell yielded to Mackenzie as one of the conditions of his release, to be placed under the custody of the Earl of Argyll. MacKenzie of Kintail was briefly detained at Edinburgh, but shortly after pardoned by the king. His son Kenneth Mackenzie (c.1569–1611) successfully continued the bloody feud with the Macdonells of Glengarry and secured the entire island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Kenneth's son Colin Mackenzie (1596/7-1633) became 1st Earl of Seaforth, with vast estates and wealth.[16]

Calvinists and Jacobites[edit]

George I of Great Britain

Broader changes were to profoundly affect the traditional life of the clans. In 1560, inspired by John Knox, the Scottish Parliament abolished the jurisdiction of the pope in Scotland, condemned all doctrine and practice contrary to the reformed faith, and forbade the celebration of Mass.[17] Many in the west and the islands resisted these changes, and continued to adhere to the Roman Catholic faith.[18] In 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united when James VI became king James I of England.[19] The English Revolution of 1640–1660 destroyed forever the principle of the absolute power of monarchs,[20] and the Succession to the Crown Act 1707 ensured that no Catholic could hold the crown.[21] In 1714, the elector of Hanover succeeded Queen Anne to become George I of Great Britain.[22]

A Jacobite rising broke out in 1715 in an attempt to place Queen Anne's half-brother James on the throne. The Pretender's supporters led by Lord Mar instigated rebellion in Scotland. The rising was a dismal failure and collapsed by the end of the year.[23] In 1719, Philip V of Spain lent support to a fresh attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty. He lent ships, troops and guns to George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, landing him on the Isle of Lewis to raise troops. On 13 April 1719, Keith's men disembarked near Lochalsh, although the Highlanders did not join in the expected numbers. Keith could not proceed to Inverness as planned, and established his headquarters in the castle of Eilean Donan.[24] The bulk of his army moved south to Glen Shiel, a few miles south of the head of Loch Duich. On 10 May, three ships of the Royal Navy arrived off the castle which they captured and destroyed. On 10 June 1719 at the Battle of Glen Shiel the Jacobites were defeated by an army of English and Scottish soldiers dispatched from Inverness.[25] Yet another rising led by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in 1745-6 had more success, but collapsed when his Scottish soldiers refused to proceed from Derby to London.[26] Prince Charlie was forced to flee, taking refuge on Skye for some time before escaping to the continent. There were no further challenges to the Hanoverian kings.[27]

The Clearances and later events[edit]

The Jacobite risings resulted in laws that prohibited possession of swords and the wearing of tartans or kilts, ended the feudal bond of military service and removed the virtually sovereign power the chiefs had over their clan. The clan leaders became no more than wealthy landowners. Increasing demand in Britain for cattle and sheep, and the creation of new breeds of sheep which could be reared in the mountainous country, allowed higher rents to meet the costs of an aristocratic lifestyle. As a result, many families living on a subsistence level were displaced, emigrating in large numbers to Canada and elsewhere. Unrest was suppressed by troops where needed. The highland clearances continued steadily from 1762 onwards. Chiefs who once had been responsible for the welfare of their people became rich while the land was depopulated, a process that accelerated with the Highland Potato Famine of 1846–52 CE.[28]

After the clearances, the greatly reduced population was employed in sheep raising, fishing, kelp gathering and weaving. The romantic but bloody days of clan warfare were a thing of the past. Although one of the poorest parts of Britain, conditions gradually improved. In 1897 the Highland Railway opened the Kyle of Lochalsh Line, connecting to the Skye ferry.

During World War II, Loch Alsh was a British naval base. On 26 November 1940 the mine layer HMS Port Napier dragged her anchor during a gale and sank in the Kyle of Loch Alsh. The wreck remains and may be visited by scuba divers.

In 1995 the Skye Bridge across the Kyle of Lochalsh was opened, connecting Skye to the mainland and causing the ferry to close. The use of tolls to recover the cost of building the bridge was the subject of much controversy.[29]

Lochalsh today[edit]

Bridge over the Kyle (narrows) of Loch Alsh from the mainland to Skye, opened in 1995
Yachting marina in the sheltered waters of Loch Alsh at Kyle

Until recently part of Skye and Lochalsh, Lochalsh is now part of the Wester Ross, Strathpeffer & Lochalsh ward of the Highland Council. The entire ward had a population of just 11,454 in 2006.[30] The population is healthy, well-educated, growing very slowly and ageing. As of August 2003 the unemployment rate was 2.7%. Tourism is now central to the economy. The wholesale, hotels & restaurants sector is the largest employer with 26.8% of the workforce, followed closely by the Public Administration, Education & Health sector.[31][32]

There are many attractions in the area for tourists, including hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty through magnificent scenery, boat trips, sea fishing, scuba diving and visits to the ruined Pictish brochs and later castles that remain from the region's turbulent past. The local food is generally simple but very high in quality.[33]


  1. ^ "Placename Gazetter" Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba. Retrieved 24 August 2010
  2. ^ Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel and Loch Hourn, Ordnance Survey, 2007, ISBN 978-0-319-22991-0 
  3. ^ "Kinlochewe 1971–2000 averages" Met Office. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  4. ^ "Balmacara" Forestry Commission. Retrieved 23 November 2008.
  5. ^ "Lochalsh & The Isle of Skye Tourist Guide" www.lochalsh.co.uk Retrieved 23 November 2008
  6. ^ Moine Thrust Belt – general information University of Leeds School of Earth and Environment. Retrieved 24 November 2008
  7. ^ Rayner, Dorothy H. (1981), The stratigraphy of the British Isles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-29961-9 
  8. ^ "Minerals from Skye: Geology" www.volcanicscotland.com. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  9. ^ "Flame shell reef discovery". Marine Scotland. 27 December 2012. Retrieved 27 December 2012. 
  10. ^ "Marine Scotland survey uncovers 'huge' flame shell bed". BBC News. 26 December 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  11. ^ "Glenelg Broch" www.lochalsh.co.uk. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  12. ^ MacKie, J.D. (1991), A history of Scotland, Harmondsworth: Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013649-5 
  13. ^ Richard Oram The Lordship of the Isles, 1336–1545 in editor Omand, Donald (2004), The Argyll book, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 1-84158-253-0 
  14. ^ "The Mathesons of Lochalsh" Clan Matheson Society. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  15. ^ Gregory, Donald (2008), The history of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (original: 1836), Edinburgh: John Donald, ISBN 978-1-904607-57-1 
  16. ^ Roberts, John L. (1999), Feuds, forays and rebellions : history of the highland clans, 1475–1625, Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-6244-9 
  17. ^ Marshall, Rosalind K. (2000), John Knox, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-091-3 
  18. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: Scotland" New Advent. Retrieved 24 November 2008
  19. ^ Croft, Pauline (2003), King James, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-61395-3 
  20. ^ Fraser, Antonia (2002), Cromwell : our chief of men, London: Phoenix, ISBN 0-7538-1331-9 
  21. ^ Lyon, Ann (2003), Constitutional history of the UK, London: Cavendish, ISBN 978-1-85941-746-1 
  22. ^ Hatton, Ragnhild (1978), George I : elector and king, London: Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-25060-X 
  23. ^ Churchill, Winston S. (2002), A history of the English-speaking peoples, London: Cassell, ISBN 978-0-304-36392-6 
  24. ^ Roberts, John L. (2002), The Jacobite wars : Scotland and the military campaigns of 1715 and 1745, Edinburgh: Polygon at Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-902930-29-9 
  25. ^ "The Battle of Glenshiel June 10, 1719" Clan Cameron Association. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  26. ^ Forster, Margaret (1974), The rash adventurer; the rise and fall of Charles Edward Stuart, New York: Stein and Day, ISBN 0-8128-1607-2 
  27. ^ "Charles Edward Stuart: Bonnie Prince Charlie" www.englishmonarchs.co.uk. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  28. ^ Prebble, John (1969), The Highland clearances, Harmondsworth: Penguin, ISBN 0-14-002837-4 
  29. ^ "SKAT Fought the Cost of Over The Sea To Skye And WINS!" www.skat.org.uk. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  30. ^ "Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh" The Highland Council. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  31. ^ "SKYE & LOCHALSH ECONOMIC UPDATE OCTOBER 2003" Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). Retrieved 23 November 2008.
  32. ^ "Skye and Lochalsh Area Profile" Skye & Lochalsh Council for Voluntary Organizations. Retrieved 23 November 2008
  33. ^ "Visit Lochalsh – Wild and Wonderful" visit-lochalsh.co.uk. Retrieved 23 November 2008

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]