The History of Ormsaigbeg

Ormsaigbeg is a separate crofting township within the general geographic area which is referred to as Kilchoan.  The settled land today, as shown on this map, extends southwestwards from the stone wall which runs inland on the south side of Grianan croft, to the end of the Ormsaigbeg road at Cuingleum.

Ormsaigbeg's early history is largely lost.  Evidence that it was settled by the Vikings when they dominated this coast over a thousand years ago is suggested by the settlement's name, which is derived from the Norse ormr, a snake or serpent, and vik, a bay, with the Gaelic word bheag, small, added [1].

One imagines that, at least from the Middle Ages onwards, it was a typical 'clachan', with a small group of houses, more or less huddled together, surrounded by infield land which was used intensively for arable farming, surrounded again by outfield land which, if it was used for arable farming, had to be left fallow for long periods.  The settlement also had a very extensive area of common land, now called the 'common grazings', which ran north and westwards into the hills.

Ormsaigbeg's land was valued at 20/- in 1667.  Alexander Murray's survey in 1727 found that there were six families comprising eight men, ten women and ten children, a total population of 28.  The land consisted of 1,640 acres, and the 'penny land', which was an assessment of land productivity for the purposes of levying rent, being 5.  There were 60 cows, 16 horses and 60 sheep.

In 1737 it had five tenants, Neil Campbell, Alexander MacDonald, Donald McIllvraw, Hugh Henderson and Kenneth McKenzie. In the same document, the settlement is associated with another settlement or shieling at Reidh-Dhail, which is marked on current OS maps some 2 kilometres to the west of Ormsaigbeg. [2]

The first map evidence comes from Bruce's map of 1733 [3], which shows a settlement of 'Ormsaigleg', as well as neighbouring settlements of Ormsaigmore and a much bigger, 'Killehoun'.  On this map the settlement is shown about 100m inland from the coast.

Roy's military map of 1748 [4] marks 'Ormsaig beg' much further to the southwest, beyond the extremity of the present settlement, and on high land.  However, it also marks another, un-named settlement in almost exactly the position Bruce marked his 'Ormsaigleg', though Roy seems to have lumped this in with 'Ormsaigmor'.

There is plenty of evidence, both on the ground and from Google maps, that a settlement existed where Roy marked his Ormsaig beg'.  This enhanced Google image shows an area to the northwest of the end of the Ormsaigbeg road.  Extensive field workings are visible, including lazy beds and field boundaries, on what is now part of the present township's common grazing - click on it to see detail.

Bald's map of 1806 [5] is much more detailed than Roy's.  It places Ormsaigbeg back where Bruce originally had it, and shows that it consisted of about a dozen buildings.  The map is good enough to locate the original clachan fairly accurately, using the position of the little lochan by the sea - just by the Ferry Stores, and now called Lochan na Nal - and the small burn which ran down through the settlement.

This stream, and the slight turn it makes, is easily found today, and is seen on this enhanced Google image, but neither here....

....nor on the ground - the area occupied by the clachan was roughly within the red oval on this photo - is there much evidence of its buildings, most of which were probably destroyed and their stones re-used to make field walls and new houses.

On Bald's map there is no sign to the southwest of the 'satellite' settlement marked on Roy's map, although it shows fields still being worked in that area.  Since Bald was meticulous in marking every building, it seems likely that, by 1806, this settlement had been abandoned.

Bald's map is remarkable for its detail.  It shows clearly the separate fields belonging to the clachan, gives the area of each, and marks the limits of the common grazing, which extends inland and to the west - follow the reference at the bottom of this entry to see this.

The present layout of Ormsaigbeg was largely established by the time the Ordnance Survey drew its first map of the area in 1872.  The clachan had gone, its communal landholding arrangement replaced by separate crofts, each of which ran from the common grazings wall at the back down to the sea.  This map clipping, taken from the 1872 OS 25" map [6], shows the croft on which the clachan once stood.  The building marked with a red arrow is the present croft house, so the others around it may have been structures left from the clachan, used as byres and store-buildings.  Of these, only the two marked with yellow arrows are visible on the ground today; one is still in use.

The drastic changes visible in the 1872 map came as the result of Sir James Riddell's policy of 'improving' his Ardnamurchan Estate by clearing some clachans and turning their land over to tenant sheep farmers.  Their inhabitants, and those of clachans which were not to be used for sheep, were resettled on individual, tenanted plots called 'crofts'.  This was a process which was happening all over the Highlands and Islands, and is generally known as The Clearances.  Many people, rather than face resettlement on plots of land far too small to support a family, left for newly industrialised Scottish cities such as Glasgow, or for overseas destinations such as Canada and New Zealand.

For those that remained in Ormsaigbeg, life must have been exceptionally hard.  The crofting system was designed to force people who had been subsistence farmers to work for cash.  In some parts of the Highlands money could be earned by collecting kelp for the phosphate industry, but on Ardnamurchan it meant that the men were obliged either to find work on the Estate, in other local industries such as salmon fishing, or to enter occupations, such as the merchant navy, which took them away from their families.

Only the land close to the sea was fit for growing crops.  Since the staple was potatoes, crofters were even harder hit when potato blight arrived in the Highlands in the 1840s.  At least Ormsaigbeg crofters all had access to the sea, which meant that they could collect shellfish and, since all had boats, go out into the Sound of Mull to fish.  Most crofts also had a cow which provided milk, and sheep which were largely kept on the common grazings.  A description of this life is contained in Mary MacGillivray's booklet, 'Growing Up on an Ardnamurchan Croft', available locally.

Comments on this history are much appreciated - particularly where I have made factual errors.  If you have anything to add, it would be much appreciated.  Please contact me through the 'Comment' system or at

Blog posts related to Ormsaigbeg's history:

A Lost Ormsaigbeg House

A Lost Cottage

References -

[1] 'Ardnamurchan Place Names' - Donald MacDiarmid - available from Kilchoan retailers.

[2] J E Kirby (2015) The Lost Place-names of Ardnamurchan and Moidart (forthcoming)

[3] Alexander Bruce, 'A Plan of Loch Sunart', printed 1733, by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.  View the map here.

[4] William Roy's Military Map of Scotland, 1747-55, by kind permission of the British Library Board.  View the map on the National Library of Scotland's website here.

[5] William Bald's 'Plan of Ardnamurchan and Sunart, Argyll', 1806, image reference RHP72, by kind permission of the National Records of Scotland. View the map here.

[6] Ordnance Survey 25" map, survey dated 1872by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.   View the map here.


  1. Kelly McLaughlin30 August 2012 at 01:38

    Hello, my name is Kelly McLaughlin and I was directed to this link as I believe I have an Ormsaigmore connection in my family history as my ggggrandfather Archibald McLachlan lived as tenant there in the early 1820s. If anyone is familiar with the family history in the area around that time or has any idea as to who I may be able to contact in regard to that it would be appreciated.

    Thanks for your time..

    Kelly McLauglin, Alberta, Canada

  2. This is a great site. I am just discovering my McGilvray ancestors. My McGilvrays came to Australia on the ship "George Fyfe" in 1839/1840. Donald McGilvray and his wife Mary Livingston had a son Donald who was born in 1787 in Ardnamurchan. His wife was Sarah Cameron. They settled in the Paterson River area of New South Wales, Australia. I am descended from their daughter, Mary.Would love to hear from anyone associated with the McGilvrays.
    Thank you,
    Jen McMillan

  3. Sarah married Alexander - their son Donald and siblings were on the George Fyffe - Donald ended up marrying Mary McLucas who was also on board.

  4. Your site is very interesting and has help me understand where my ancesters lived.
    I will be visting Ormsaigbeg in Nov16, if I can convince my Wife. I live in Australia.
    If anybody can help me find the property they lived on would be appreciated.
    Some information on my family is

    Lachlan McPhee born 1869 is my GF who left for Australia on the Loch Garry. He was the son of Donald Mcphee. Donald my GGF and before him Lachlan my GGGF were tenant crofters in Ormsaigbeg from 1841 or earlier.
    John Macdirmid was the son in law of Donald and Donald macdiarmid was Johns son were living at the same address per 1901 census.
    Donald Mcphee died in 16/3/1904 in Ormsaigbeg.
    1st Lachlan (my GGGF) was a Crofter in 1851 and his son Donald (my GGF) was living at the same address in 1861 to 1904. Mary Mcphee lived at the property until at least 1911 as per the valuation roll and census.

    Darryl Mcphee

  5. My ancestors came from Ardness which I am told is in the area of Ardnamurchan. My MacDonald left in 1791 on the Dunkeld to Nova Scotia.

  6. Ardness is on Movern which is part of the Highland Council administrative district of Ardnamurchan, but isn't on the peninsula of Ardnamurchan itself. Ardness is on the Sound of Mull, just to the west of Lochaline. Jon