Portree

(Port Righ)

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Portree (anciently Kiltaragleann, from Celt. kil, `a chapel;' tar,' the bottom;' and gleann, `a glen,' meaning the chapel at the bottom of the glen), a parish with a town of the same name in the Skye district of Inverness-shire, and comprehending the central part of the E coast of the island of Skye, as well as the adjacent islands of Raasay and South Rona, which are separately noticed. The portion in the island of Skye is bounded N by the parish of Snizort, E by the Sound of Raasay, S by the parish of Strath, and W by the parishes of Bracadale and Snizort. The total length, from the mouth of Bearreraig river on the N to the source of a small stream rising between Marsco and Beinn Dearg and flowing to the river Sligachan, is 163/8 miles, and from the extremity of Rona south-south-westward to the same point on the S is 23 miles; the greatest width of the mainland portion, from the river Snizort on the W due eastward along the head of Portree Loch, is 6¼ miles, and to the E side of Raasay in the same line 101/8 miles; while the total area is 8, 974.628 acres, including 336.734 acres of water, 1663 997 of foreshore, and 34.928 of tidal water. Of the total area 15,704.384 acres are in Raasay and 2564.905 in Rona. The coast is mostly rocky, and rises pretty steeply from the sea, while at various points there are lines of cliff. Near the N end is the small Holm Island, and there are several skerries between Portree Harbour and the Narrows of Raasay. The coast-line is indented by several bays, rendering the outline along the E highly irregular. Five miles from the N end is Portree Bay and Loch, 1½ mile wide at the mouth, and extending 2 miles inland; 2¼ miles farther S is the small Tianavaig Bay; and at the narrows of Raasay a promontory juts out with Camas a' Mhor-bheoil on the N and Balmeanach Bay on the S. Opposite Kyle More between the S end of Raasay and Scalpay, is Loch Sligachan, 3 furlongs wide at the mouth and 3 miles deep; while opposite the middle of Scalpay is Loch Ainort, 5/8mile wide at the mouth and 11/8 mile deep. Only the NW side of Loch Ainort is in Portree parish, and from the head of the loch the parish boundary line strikes up the burn at Kinloch Ainort, twists southward to the source of a burn that rises between Marsco and Beinn Dearg, and follows that stream to the river Sligachan, down which it passes to the top of Loch Sligachan. From the top of Loch Sligachan it strikes up the Allt Dubh across the road to Portree, and follows the course of the stream to the bend before it again crosses the road, and passes irregularly to the NW, till it reaches the river Snizort at Achaleathan. It follows the course of the Snizort to Hornisco Burn, and thence turns eastward to the small Loch nam Learg, and then irregularly N and NNE to the middle of Lake Leathan, and thence down Bearreraig river to the sea, the southern two-thirds of Loch Leathan being within the parish. The surface is irregular. In the portion to the N of Portree Harbour it rises from the sea by a steep slope terminating in a bold line of cliff, rising at Sithean Bhealaich Chumhaing to a height of 1286 feet, and again sloping from this inland to a hollow from 250 to 450 feet above sea-level. To the NW of this there is another line of cliff, which, on the border of the parish, reaches a height of 1087 feet at Bealach Mor. In the portion between Portree Loch and Tianavaig Bay it again rises steeply from the shore, and then by a line of cliff to the ridge of Ben Tianavaig (1352 feet) whence it slopes north-westward to Portree Bay and Loch. Round the W and SW sides of Portree Loch it slopes from the loch up to heights of 1367 feet at Beinn na Greine, 1288 at Skriag, and 1300 at Stròc-bheinn, and from these again falls away to the basin of the river Snizort. Between these heights and the lower slopes of Ben Tianavaig is the basin of the Varragill river, and between Glen Varragill and the Narrows of Raasay the ground reaches a height of over 700 feet, and between Glen Varragill and Loch Sligachan heights of 1456 at Ben Lee and 1099 at Meall Odhar Beag. In the W of the peninsula, between Loch Sligachan and Loch Ainort, is Ben Glamaig (2537 feet) and Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach (2094). From these the ground slopes eastward to Gleann Torra-michaig, the upper end of which is 429 feet above sea-level, and then rises again to 922 feet above Moll. Speaking generally, there may be said to be a chain of hills along the coast broken by the sea lochs and another chain inland, the two lines being separated from N to S by the hollows occupied by Lochs Leathan and Fada, Glen Varragill and Gleann Torramichaig. In the extreme N the drainage finds its way by small streams to Loch Fada and Loch Leathan, and thence by Bearreraig river to the sea. On this river there is a pretty waterfall, as there are indeed on several of the other streams. Between Loch Fada and Portree Harbour the drainage is carried off by the Chracaig and the Leasgeary, which flow into the harbour E and W of the town respectively. In the portion between Portree Harbour and Loch Sligachan the drainage of the portion farthest to the W passes by Glenmore river to the Snizort, that of the centre by the Varragill and its tributaries, to the sea at Portree Loch, or by smaller streams directly into the loch and harbour; that of the district along the coast by a number of small streams direct to the sea, and that of the peninsula between Loch Sligachan and Loch Ainort by small streams to the river Sligachan or direct to the sea. There are a number of small lochs and lochans, but the only ones that need be mentioned are Loch Fada (454 feet; 6 x 2 furl.) and Loch Leathan (438; 6 x 4 furl.) in the N; and Loch Conardan (4 x ½ furl.), ¾ mile SW of Tianavaig Bay. Both lochs and streams afford excellent trout fishing. South of Loch Sligachan, about Ben Glamaig, is a deer forest of about 10,000 acres belonging to Lord Macdonald. Particulars about Raasay and Rona are given in separate notices, and what follows applies to the mainland part of the parish. The soil includes patches of sand, gravel, and clay, but is principally very wet gravel or moss, almost everywhere cold, unkindly, and barren, so that the arable part bears but a very pitiful proportion to the pasture and waste moorland. Ground under coppice or plantation is hardly to be seen except about the town of Portree, as trees will not thrive. The little that is under cultivation is in the hands of crofters, who have a hard struggle for life, and have generally to eke out their scanty means of subsistence by taking part as `hired-men' in the east coast herring fishing. The townships between Loch Sligachan and Tianavaig Bay are known as The Braes, and the inhabitants of them have, during the last three years (1881-84), earned a somewhat unenviable notoriety for their lawless proceedings in connection with alleged land grievances. The other principal crofter districts are at Sconser, on the S side of Loch Sligachan; at Glenmore, near the centre of the parish on the W side; and Drumuie, 2½ miles NW of Portree. The greater part of the parish is under sheep. The underlying rocks are mostly volcanic, the tract of country between Loch Sligachan and Loch Ainort being occupied by syenite, and that N of Loch Sligachan by greenstone. On the S shore of Loch Sligachan near the centre is a patch of rock of oolitic age, and similar deposits exist on both sides of Portree Bay, and extend in a belt northward from the head of Loch Sligachan, and also northward from Portree Bay. They consist of beds of limestone, shale, and sandstone, and are in many places richly fossiliferous. In the early part of the present century Lord Macdonald tried, but unsuccessfully, to work some veins of lignite. A cave, 3 miles N of the entrance to Portree Bay, and about 5 miles from the town of Portree, bears the name of Prince Charles' Cave, and here, according to the guide books, the prince spent some time in concealment after Culloden; but it is more than doubtful whether he was ever at the place at all, for, according to Flora Macdonald's account, he passed straight from Kingsburgh to Portree, and, after visiting the inn, embarked almost at once for Raasay. On a stream a little to the S of this cave are two small waterfalls. There are some other caves along the coast, but none of importance. The Skye Union Poorhouse is in this parish about ½ mile W of the town of Portree. The principal residences are Portree House and Viewfield House at the town, Lord Macdonald's shooting-box at Loch Sligachan, and Raasay House. The only industry is a small woollen manufactory, started during the destitution in the district about 1850, and the only result as yet of the many proposals to bring the manufacture into the district where the raw material is produced. The fabrics woven are excellent tweeds, plaids, and winceys. The antiquities are confined to a few tumuli, and in 1884 a valuable find of silver coins of the latter part of the 16th and the early part of the 17th centuries took place at Hillside of Woodend. The coins belonged mostly to the reign of James VI., with a few of Elizabeth, and one of Henry of Navarre.

The parish, which was anciently included in Snizort and Kilmuir, was disjoined in 1726. It is in the presbytery of Skye and the synod of Glenelg, and the living is worth £273 a year. The churches are noticed in connection with the town. Under the school board the schools of Braes, Glens, Portree, Raasay, Rona, Sconser, and Torran, with respective accommodation for 90, 27, 180, 30, 30, 50, and 60 pupils, had (1884) an average attendance of 32, 20, 123, 36, 26, 25, and 23, and grants of £14, 17s., £23, 1s. 3d., £110, 6s. 6d., £36, 16s., £25, 10s. 10d., £', and £27, 16s. In the Braes district there is a school built and endowed with part of a fund of £2050, given by Mr Donald Macdiarmid, of South Carolina, in 1831, for the purpose of erecting and endowing schools at Borve, in Snizort, and Braes, in Portree. The fund belonging to the Braes school is £800, and it is proposed under the Endowed Schools Act to hand the management over to the school board. In the same district there is a mission church, built partly by public subscription and partly by a grant from the funds of the Baird Trust. Lord Macdonald holds almost the whole of the mainland part of the parish, 1 other holds between £500 and £100, 2 hold between £100 and £50, and there are a few of smaller amount. Valuation (1860) £4607, (1884) £8406. Pop. of whole parish (1801) 2246, (1831) 3441, (1861) 3159, (1871) 2928, (1881) 3191, of whom 1485 were males and 1706 females. Of these 2448 (1 103 males and 1345 females) were in the mainland portion, including the town of Portree.

Portree Bay opens off the Sound of Raasay almost opposite the middle of the island of Raasay, and is 1½ mile wide at the mouth. From this it extends westward about 2 miles to the town of Portree, and then turns off at right angles southward for over a mile in the portion known as Portree Loch. The shape resembles a stumpy leg and foot, the foot being formed by the loch. From the N side of the bay a point projects, terminating at Sgeir Mhòr, and from the S side Vriskaig Point stands out a little farther to the W. The portion of the bay to the W of a line drawn between these two points is Portree Harbour, a fine land-locked piece of water, spacious enough to accommodate a large number of vessels, with a depth of from 5 to 6 fathoms, and the bottom, being strong clay, affords excellent holding ground for ships at anchor. At the corner where the bay turns southward there is another point, on which the Established church and part of the town of Portree stands. The upper part-the Loch-is nearly dry at low water. On both sides of the portion running E and W there are picturesque cliffs of volcanic rocks. One reach on the N side somewhat resembles Salisbury Crags on Arthur's Seat at Edinburgh, and those on the S side are pierced at several points of their base by caverns, and at other places recede so as to leave a steep grassy talus between them and the shore. Suidh Fhinn or Fingal's Seat, to the W of Portree Loch, commands from its summit a magnificent view of almost the whole of the western coast of Ross-shire, and of nearly the whole of the Skye and Long Island portions of the Hebrides. The Town of Portree, a post-town and seaport, stands at the point where Portree Bay bends round to the southward, and, though of no great size, gains importance from being the largest seat of population and the chief business centre for Skye and the neighbouring islands, as well as the headquarters of the ever-increasing number of tourists who visit the district every year. Via Dingwall and Strome, the town is 103½ miles W of Inverness, and 32 miles WSW of Strome Ferry; by steamer it is 120 miles NNW of Oban, and 60 miles S by E of Stornoway; and by road 24½ NW of Broadford, 14 SE of Uig, and 23½ E of Dunvegan. The name is a corruption of Port-an-righ, the king's harbour, a title which was given when the royal fleet, commanded by King James V. in person, anchored in the harbour on the occasion of the great expedition to the Western Isles in 1540. Other authorities, however, refer the origin of the name, not to the visit of King James, but to that of Haco, King of Norway, when on his Largs expedition. There seems to have been a Columban church in the neighbourhood, for the bay NW of the town was formerly called Loch Columkille; and an islet, with traces of graves and of a small building standing E and W, is called Eilean Columkille. This is possibly the church from which the old name of the district was taken. The site is along a steep acclivity at the north-western corner of the bay, and the description given by Alexander Smith in his Summer in Skye (1865) is as applicable then as now:-` Portree folds two irregular ranges of white houses, the one range rising steeply above the other, around a noble bay, the entrance to which is guarded by rocky precipices. At a little distance the houses are white as shells, and as in summer they are all set in the greenness of foliage, the effect is strikingly pretty; and if the sense of prettiness departs to a considerable extent on a closer acquaintance, there is yet enough left to gratify you as long as you remain there, and to make it a pleasant place to think about when you are gone. The lower range of houses consists mainly of warehouses and fish stores; the upper, of the main hotel, the two banks, the courthouse, and the shops. A pier runs out into the bay, and here, when the state of the tide permits, comes the steamer on its way to or from Stornoway, and unlades. Should the tide be low the steamer lies to in the bay, and her cargo and passengers come to shore by means of boats. She usually arrives at night; and at low tide the burning of coloured lights at the mast-heads, the flitting hither and thither of busy lanterns, the pier boats coming and going with illuminated wakes and ghostly fires on the oar blades, the clatter of chains and the shock of the crank hoisting the cargo out of the hold, the general hubbub and storm of Gaelic shouts and imprecations, make the arrival at once picturesque and impressive. In the bay the yacht of the tourist is continually lying; and at the hotel door his dogcart is continually departing or arriving. In the hotel parties arrange to visit Quirang or the Storr, and on the evenings of market-days, in the large public rooms, farmers and cattle-dealers sit over tumblers of smoking punch and discuss noisily the prices and the qualities of stock. Besides the hotel and the pier, the banks and the courthouse already mentioned, there are other objects of interest in the little island town-three churches, a post office, a poorhouse, and a cloth manufactory. And it has more than meets the eye-one of the Jameses landed here on a visitation of the isles; Prince Charles was here on his way to Raasay; Dr Johnson and Boswell were here; and somewhere on the green hill on which the pretty church stands, a murderer is buried-the precise spot of burial is unknown, and so the entire hill gets the credit that of right belongs only to a single yard of it. In Portree the tourist seldom abides long; he passes through it as, a fortnight before, he passed through Oban It does not seem to the visitor a specially remarkable place, but everything is relative in this world. It is an event for the Islesman at Dunvegan or the Point of Sleat to go to Portree., just as it is an event for a Yorkshireman to go to London.' Whatever may have been the case when King James was here, however, it is certain that in Prince Charles' time, and even later, when Dr Johnson and Boswell were here, there was no village, but only an inn, and perhaps a clachan or kirkton, for Boswell says, in 1773, `Sir James Macdonald intended to have built a village here, which would have done great good;' but though Sir James did not carry out the plan, the village made its appearance in due time under Sir James' successor. To the S of the town a craggy wooded promontory projects into the harbour, and is crowned by an octagonal tower erected by Dr Alexander Macleod in 1834, and commanding a good view. Portree House, belonging to Lord Macdonald, is to the W of the town; and farther W still is the woollen manufactory already alluded to. The quay was erected in 1819, but there is no great depth of water at low tide. The Established church on the promontory already noticed was built in 1825, and contains 800 sittings. There are also Free, U.P., and Episcopal churches, of which the last, St Columba's, is a good Gothic edifice, after designs by Mr Ross of lnverness, erected in 1884 as a memorial to the late Bishop Mackarness. None of the others call for special notice. Skye being one of the judicial divisions of Inverness-shire there is a courthouse, erected in 1867, where the resident sheriff-substitute holds his courts. The district prison, legalised in 1848, was formerly used for prisoners whose sentences did not exceed 60 days, but since the passing of the Prisons Act it has been licensed only for prisoners whose sentence does not exceed 14 days. Instead of the one hotel mentioned by Alexander Smith there are now three, and there are also a post office, with money order, savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, under Dingwall, branches of the Caledonian, National, and North of Scotland Banks, a National Security Savings' Bank, and agencies of 11 insurance companies. Portree is one of the polling stations for Inverness-shire. The sheriff court is held for both ordinary and small debt cases every Thursday during session. There are cattle fairs on the last Tuesday of May and the third Tuesday of August. Communication is maintained with the mainland by the Highland Railway Company's steamer between Portree and Strome Ferry every day during the summer months, and in winter three times a week, while the Glasgow and Stornoway steamers call thrice a week both summer and winter. The principal imports are miscellaneous goods; and the principal exports are sheep, cattle, wool, salt herring, salmon, and cod and ling salted and dried. Pop. of town (1861) 679, (1871) 731, (1881) 893, of whom 396 were males and 497 females. Houses, 111 inhabited, 5 uninhabited, and 1 building.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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