Duncan Macniven

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Sports day in Strath Halladale (1951)

Sports day in Strath Halladale (1951)

Arriving in Strath Halladale

Having arrived in Strath Halladale in the house opposite Sandra Train’s around 1953 when I was 3 years old, my memories are a wee bit sketchy. I remember Sandra’s dad Donald and her Mum Minnie Macdonald. They were very kind and gentle Christian people, who befriended my mother who was working as a carer for two old ladies that lived in the house opposite the Macdonald’s. It was a very difficult time in my mother’s life, and she was always grateful for their kindness.

Eve Mackay with baby David Sutherland.

Eve Mackay with baby David Sutherland

My mum Eve Macniven was a war widow, my father having died a couple of years before that, after RAF service. We were at that time in Slochd, Inverness shire, having moved from Pormahomack where he was briefly harbour master, and where I was born in Harbour House.

Jimmy Mitchel Forsinain

After that my mother met and married a local shepherd named James Mitchell Mackay, who worked at Forsinain farm. He was known to all as Jimmy Forsinain. His brother Iain worked there also. Mackay is a very common name in this part of the world, which is why many people were given the name of where they lived after their first name. There was a shepherd who used to live with us during lambing time who was called Angus Inchlampie, because he came from there. Jimmy Forsinain’s family were from Ribigil near Tongue.  (He was given the middle name Mitchel after the Mitchell family who owned the estate his father worked on at Ribigil. David Mitchell, the comedian who did the BBC programme Who do You Think You Are, discovered he is descended from there).

Forsinain Farm

We moved to Forsinain some time around 1955, I think. At age 5 I attended the primary school at Dalhalvaig. We stayed initially in the west house at Forsinain, and then a few years later moved down to what is known as Riverside Cottage. The move was conducted in grand style, on a tractor and trailer across the fields. With dogs and pet lambs running beside it. That was very memorable as we had running water, hot and cold, a toilet, a bath and a lovely big garden. The main heat for the house came from a Raeburn stove that burned peat we dug each year, it seldom went out.

forsinain steading

Forsinain Steading

Forsinain was laid out by the Duke of Sutherland in 1887. He and his Missus the Countess Gordon get a bad press for their work during the Highland Clearances; work that was done in his name by his employees. So in that regard the bad press is justified. However it has to be said that he created a lot of employment in his infrastructure schemes, Forsinain was one of them. As you drive over the Beallach in to Forsinard, you can see on the far horizon Forsinain. It is a view I have never got tired of. It sits on a south face of the strath, under the shadow of Sletil and Ben Griam, at the top of Strath Halladale. There are seven parks, laid out in approximately 7x10 acre blocks. Four of these were quite productive and arable, the other three were more rough grazing and bogs. The steading I remember was a work of art. It had a water mill that was supplied by a lade from the dhu lochs at the top of the parks. The dam and sluice are still there, I think. However over the years the mill was broken up and sold to a scrap merchant; actions that would be regarded as philistine these days. It was a great shame. The steading itself has now been turned in to a lodge or homestead.

joey mackay forsinain waterwheel

Joey Mackay at the Forsinain waterwheel

The construction of Forsinain must have taken years and huge amounts of back breaking labour. You can still see the piles of stones that were hewn from the soil to create the parks, surrounded by drystane dykes. You only have to look at the surrounding landscape to see the amount of rubble deposited by the retreating ice thousands of years ago. To create a huge farm in the middle of that took vision and money. There were no Massey Fergusons or Caterpillar tractors then, it was all done by hand and horse and cart. No doubt the people who were employed were grateful for whatever they earned as there was no Dounreay, oil rigs, or railway which provide work now.

Winters at Forsinain

The winters must have been brutal. Of course, anyone who created a croft or homestead in that time would have had the same struggle but on a different scale. No wonder so many of our ancestors did so well in the Americas, creating homes and farms.

My older sister Catherine took ill during one of these winters and had to go off to Raigmore hospital. I remember men appeared as if by magic and spent all day digging through snow drifts, with spades and shovels, to open the road up to Forsinain to get the ambulance to the house for her.

One winter around that time we had the RAF dropping feed for the animals and out in the hills feed for the deer. I think we were snowed in for six weeks. We had plenty food. Salted mutton, rabbits, hares, venison, and tatties and neeps in dry storage. No deep freezes or fridges. Plenty milk and crowdie and oats.

Wild horses

Speaking of the flows, I often hear news readers and such pronounce these flows as in flow, as if describing what a burn does, or water flows. All the time I lived there I never once heard them pronounced that way. The pronunciation was always flow as in how, or plough. I remember that wild horses roamed these flows and hills; they often came near to Forsinain looking for a feed. They were really wild untamed and beautiful creatures, long unkempt manes and tails flying in the wind. They could often be seen on Sletil green, which is an old homestead, at the bottom of Sletil Hill. I loved watching them, and envied their freedom and wild behaviour. There was one who seemed to be the boss at that time. He was a huge stallion, red with white bits in his main. I got close to him once and his eyes burned like flaming peat clods, he just snorted at me, tossed his head, and trotted away.

Duncan Macniven, James Mackay jr and Bill Taylor (dyker)

Duncan Macniven, James Mackay jr and Bill Taylor (dyker)

There was a family of Taylors who were father and sons who were rebuilding the dry stone dykes, and stayed in the east house at Forsinain in the summer. They seemed to me like film stars, as they had motorbikes and lived in the South. One of them one day decided he was going to catch one of the horses and tame him. He spent hours luring the horse with oats in a pail, eventually he managed to get a rope on him, a move he regretted. The horse came at him with teeth bared and front hooves flying, rearing and making a ferocious noise that scared me. He had to get the rope of him and let him go, otherwise the horse would have killed him. He tried to laugh it off, but he got a bad fright and never tried it again. My respect and admiration for these animals was complete.One of the dykers was a keen fisherman, and sometimes I would pester him enough to take me with him, until one day I missed my footing and fell in to a deep pool in the burn, quickly going under. He got me by the hair and lifted me out, and took me home. I think that put paid to our fishing trips. I did learn how to build a dry stone wall, but I think I was a pest to them. They never let me live that one down.

School car accident

The school car that took us to school was from the Hotel at Forsinard, which was run by a Mrs Barnetson. One day we had a bad crash at the corner by Craggie, where a car speeding to catch the train hit us head on. Mrs Barentson was driving and was badly hurt. Several of us were banged up, my self and the Dommie (Paul O’Brien from No.1 Forsinard) ended up in the hospital in Golspie for 10 days. I still have a scar and lump on my face. And I still shudder as I drive round that corner.


The railway between Helmsdale and the north which opened on the 28th July 1874 was constructed through Forsinard and the flows as a way to get sheep and wool to the markets. Forsinard mart was a big feauture of the county at one time and held several sheep and cattle sales in the year. These were great social occassions also, as shepherds and sheep people from all over met and exchanged stories, usually in the beer tent after their stock had sold. Although the station master tried to discourage me, I spent many happy hours at the railway sidings looking at the steam engines and blethering to the crews, with the smell of oil and hot steam and burning coal hanging in the air.

Forsinard sheep sale (1984)

Forsinard sheep sale (1984)

Forsinain was at that time owned by a sheep club of crofters from Strath Halladale. Sandra’s dad was one of them. As an infant I remember the sheep clipping days, when over a thousand sheep would be shorn over two long hard days and their wool bagged for the mill in Brora. As I became older I would be employed to pack the wool in to huge hessian bags suspended from a beam in the cattle shed, and various other jobs. The shorn fleeces were sorted and rolled expertly by The Old Dommie and my step auntie Joey. They were then thrown up to me and I had to pack them in a very certain way, or else be ribbed for shoddy work. Young Dommie was the buister, who had to put a buist mark (usually red or blue paint) on each sheep as their fleece was shorn of them. All sheep have these marks to show shepherds whose they are when they are out on the flows or hills. The buist would be placed on the sheep in a certain place. So if it were on the neck it was easily seen from a distance with the glass, and the owner identified. If it were on the hind quarter it was someone else’s. Sheep do not recognise boundaries.

Much merriment was created as each clipper finished and roared for the buist, as the Dommie was at the other end of the shed doing another one. It was done in good spirits and pure mischief. Some even waited until he was at the other end before roaring at the top of their voice. Then you had the catcher who was in the sheep pen, and had to catch the sheep and deliver it to the clipper. It got very interesting as the pen emptied and the catcher had to corner a lively sheep who would defy his efforts again causing much wise cracking and laughter. Woe betides the clipper who upset the catcher with his joking, he was certain to have the biggest dirties and often liveliest sheep delivered to him.

These days were one of the highlights of the calendar, great social occasions, as men met and swapped stories, told jokes and generally ribbed each other with great wit and humour, the days past very quick. Much sweat was shed, and a few curses were heard, as rebel sheep made their bid for freedom with bits of unshorn fleece on them. This always raised gales of laughter and merciless teasing of the person who was overpowered by a wee sheep, often having to retrieve the rebel to finish the job.

Do Mackay at Forsinain

Do Mackay at Forsinain

My mother and step gran would cook for these hungry men, who would remove their bonnets having washed their hands in a basin by the door, and would clatter in to the house in their tackety boots, just as well the floors were flag stone. After a grace usually said by Donald Macdonald or The Old Dommie, they would polish of plates of broth, bread and  slices of roast meat, tatties, gravy and veg, followed by tea and scones with crowdie and homemade butter. After a smoke and a blether outside the door, they got going again. How my mother and relatives, ever managed the catering was a miracle.

It was an education listening to these men talking about the old days. Some of them were in their 70s and 80s, and had been in Sutherland all their lives, and never felt the need to go anywhere else. One man Paul O'brien senior, or The Old Dommie, was listened to by all in total reverence and silence and respect as he told his stories of life in Tongue and Strathnaver. I can still hear his gentle Highland lilting. I think he had the Gaelic as he worked his dogs in Gaelic. He could name people whose lives had been affected by the clearances, although those times were never called that, but spoken of in subtle ways, but now I understand them. The stories were spell binding.

Every croft had annual events like this, some with only a puckle of sheep, but they all had to be done within a certain time frame, so everybody pitched in and helped each other. Forsinain was probably one of the biggest events on the calendar at that time. It was that way with all aspects of life there. Everybody looked out for each other, and helped in whatever ways they were able to. It may have been by sending some one eggs or a bottle of milk or some peats or tatties. It may just have been a kind hand offered at times of bereavement, unspoken but heartfelt support. It did not matter. There was a tremendous community spirit, which has all but gone now.

Joey Mackay and unknown woman milking

Do and daughter Joey Mackay milking


My stepfather and I would go fishing sometimes to the lochs. Sletil, Clachgeal, Talaheel, and up the Dyke river. The Dyke river always yielded fine fighting brown trout. I often fished the Forsinain burn but never seemed to catch very much; the midges often drove me home. My stepfather appeared to be totally oblivious to midges and clegs and could often be seen with them covering his exposed skin unflinching. How I wished I could. An uncle who sometimes visited from West Kilbride swore that the midges picked fights with the crows, so ferocious were they.

Duncan and Al Macniven getting the peats in for Gran Mackay at Forsinain (80's)

Duncan and Al Macniven getting the peats in for Gran Mackay at Forsinain (80's)

One day word got round that a man who was the accomplice of a famous Glasgow mass murderer was staying at the hotel. Word spread incredibly quickly in the Strath, usually by the postie or school kids. It was further said that he was going to go out to Clachgeal to fish. Lo and behold he turned up at our door looking for Jimmy Forsinain to show him the way. I remember being very impressed by my step granny Do, who went to the door with Jimmy, hiding behind her back the axe we used for chopping kindlers for the fires. I treated her with a bit more respect after that. I am confident she would have used it had he turned nasty. She did not want Jimmy to go, but he dismissed her with "ach he's only a wee harmless mannie." As it turned out he was only a wee harmless mannie, and as far as we know he never caught a thing.


Once when my step father and I climbed Sletil hill, with our backs to Forsinard,  he moved from East to West pointing with his walking stick and named every single loch, lochan, dhu loch, knoll, burn and hill you could see. He asked me what I would do if he became ill when we were out on the hill or if I became lost. By these questions, the answers stayed with me. If you became lost on the flows, you tried to find running water, of which there is plenty, and followed it as it would eventually lead you to a burn or even the river. And we all know that by the rivers and burns in these straths we find our homes.  All this was pointed out by the walking stick. He would ask me to look through his glass (a telescope in a leather case) to indicate something unseen by me, which he knew was there. In his own quiet way he was teaching me stuff I would never forget, as his own father had to him.

Often, as Sandra Train has said, you were asked what you had seen and where you had seen it. It was important to know these details. It could be the difference between life and death. Jimmy spent his entire working life shepherding at Forsinain. Over 45 years.


 When the estate was broken up and large swathes went under the plough for trees it broke his heart. His beloved flows and hills were gone under blankets of trees. He and his brother were eventually made redundant as the place was all sold to the private forestry people, who wanted them gone. Many often spoke of it as the clearances again. The big money spivs from the city had arrived and had money to make, and nothing was going to get in the way.

jimmy forsinain 1984 lamb sale

Jimmy Forsinain at the 1984 lamb sale

As Jimmy predicted these trees mostly failed to flourish on the blanket bog, and are now being slowly removed. Although, the landscape was covered in trees once. We often dug out ancient tree roots when working the peat banks. These roots were used as fire wood and gave of a long and lasting heat.

Jimmy Forsinain retired to Helmsdale, and never really settled. He often said he would go back and set fire to the trees, but we knew he would not. It was ironic that a man who often navigated the hills and flows in driving rain, gales and blinding blizzards, would get lost returning to his house in Helmsdale, as "everything looked the same." His brother Iain went on to shepherd in Grumbeg in Altnaharra.

Later days

So I grew up there until 1961 when I was 12 and moved to Golspie to attend Sutherland Technical School as a boarding pupil. At that time we only got home at the holidays. I have a few photos of my time in Forsinain. My mother is still alive and lives in Helmsdale with her daughter, she is 89 but still going strong, and has all her memories of that time also.

After that I left as so many did to join the army, I was a natural at field craft, according to my instructors, but marched like a duck. I never took to the drill and discipline well. We returned whenever we could to holiday as I married and my own family came along also, they loved going to Forsinain; the peats, the sheep, the tractor, the simple but nourishing food mostly from the land. Vegetables all grown in our garden. Milk, crowdie and cream from the cows, and eggs from our hens, ducks and geese. Now to me it seems like paradise lost.

Jimmy Forsinain and Duncan Macniven Junior

Jimmy Forsinain and Duncan Macniven Junior