Hidden in plain sight

Broadcaster Pennie Stuart shares the story behind her latest podcast and radio series, Hidden in Plain Sight, about one township’s experience of the Highland Clearances.

DUNCAN MACKENZIE parks his landrover beside a rough forestry track where plantation pines part to give a view down to the fertile flatlands at the head of Lochbroom. Ullapool glints to the west, while the constant thrum of ferry traffic on the A835 below reminds us how close we are to the main road south and east.

Duncan points across the river: “See the horseshoe there of the forestry? This was all Munro land then the river splits and the other side was Mackenzie of Kintail country.” A Mackenzie descendant himself, Duncan’s unearthed documents that show just how much warfare there was between the two clans back in the late 1500s.  One hundred and forty bowls of oats – equivalent to 12 tonnes – 40 bowls of barley, sux horses, 180 cattle… the list goes on and on, not to mention numerous murders. For Duncan this is all evidence, not just how viciously and aggressively the two clans feuded, but more importantly, of how sizeable the settlement was on the fertile plains below. We’re looking at what may have been the site of a medieval city, Duncan tells me, “There could have been 1,000 people here, 86 buildings and there’s still stuff in the woods that I’m finding”.

Hidden in Plain Sight - Blablair and Inverlael

Duncan’s passion for the people and stories of Inverlael is limitless. At first glance, the landscape here seems to hold little but piles of stones, dense forestry, and sheep, but take a walk with Duncan – local historian, butcher, gamekeeper and captivating storyteller – up onto the hillside and suddenly shielings, mills and illicit whisky stills are conjured into being along with more and more of the characters he’s discovering who were a part of the Inverlael story.

Inverlael and neighbouring Balblair were cleared by Mackenzie of Coul in the early 19th century and all but forgotten even to the local people like Duncan who are descended from those forced to leave. The first evictions took place in March 1819 when 56 families were forced to leave, and the second in early 1820, when a further 21 families left the glen. For many of them, their fate remains a mystery, not least because parish records of the population were reportedly destroyed.

Duncan recalls as a ten-year-old boy his father and grandfather telling him stories of Inverlael. He furiously wrote them down in his notebook. Later in life his grandfather pestered him to tell these stories again. Duncan was aware that with every passing day stories were being lost, people were taking their family history to the grave with them. He approached Ullapool Museum and asked what they had about the Inverlael clearance. There was nothing, but they invited him to sift through some documents in an archive if he wanted. He found the briefest of articles referring to 50 families being cleared from Inverlael and this lit the touch paper for him to find out more and make sure that these voices would be heard again.

Duncan’s determination to bring Balblair back to life was the driving force behind a two-year community project by Ullapool Museum, Lost Inverlael: A’lorg Baile Bhlair, which started in 2020 to mark the 200th anniversary of the township at Inverlael being cleared.

For Duncan, the most poignant part of all this has been how much everyone has gained from the project. It has helped people in the community of Ullapool and Lochbroom discover more about themselves. “The more they have searched,” he says, “the more we have all discovered about the roots that still lie in the community today. One of the most inspiring things though was seeing the local school children come to the archaeological digs and the enthusiasm they had for learning about their history and community.” Through the project, more and more of the local community have had the opportunity to re-discover their past and remember their family history, including acclaimed box player Ruaraidh Maclean, who’s own family were cleared from Inverlael and has contributed to the project through a specially written piece of music he’s called The Ghosts of Balblair.

Now, the people and moments from history that Duncan and the Ullapool Museum project has uncovered are being brought to life through a series of innovative and thought-provoking radio drama-documentaries, Hidden in Plain Sight, supported by the Audio Content Fund. Produced by Highland-based production company Adventurous Audio, written by the award-winning dramatist Chris Dolan, and featuring Duncan Mackenzie along with numerous historians including Professor Sir Tom Devine and actor David Hayman among others, the innovative and thought provoking eight-part series provides snapshots of life through the centuries of this important but largely forgotten piece of Highland history.

Duncan Mackenzie and his two dogs

For Duncan, it is Hidden in Plain Sight that brings the real drama “because this story of Inverlael and Balblair is full of drama and history, so it needs to be told as drama, which is exactly what Hidden in Plain Sight does”.

While the project may be coming to an end, Duncan says: “We’ve only scratched the archaeological surface of Inverlael now. There is so much more to tell, more to search, discover and deliver for this community. So, we need funding and my hope is that this is just phase one of many years to come, because if we can explore more about some of the things we’ve found then the future is going to be very, very, exciting.”

For Duncan, along with many of the Lochbroom residents, the experience of standing up on that hillside gazing along the lochshore will never be quite the same ever again.

Hidden in Plain Sight will be broadcast on community radio across January, including Radio Skye, Isles FM, Lochbroom FM, Two Lochs Radio, and Oban FM. The series will also be available as a podcast on all the usual platforms including Apple, Spotify, and Amazon, with the first episode available from 16 January. Click here to follow the series and listen now to the trailer.