It's probably a historical accident that led to this significant settlement being called "Tongue" rather than "Kirkiboll", a name coming from the Old Norse for "Church Farm" and now applied to the uphill areas of the village.
The name Tongue also has Old Norse origins, but more obvious ones. It comes from "tunga" or tongue of land projecting into the loch. But although the Norse probably lived here between the 900s and 1200s, nothing certain has been found of their settlement.
It is possible that they built the now ruined Caisteal Bharraigh (or Castle Varrich), a small tower spectacularly located on the summit of a bluff dominating the Kyle of Tongue just to the west of the village and reached on foot from it. The origins of the castle are unclear, but some believe it could be the "Beruvik" mentioned in the Norse Orkneyinga Saga. Others believe it was built as recently as the 1500s, by either the Bishops of Caithness or by the Mackay family.
The Mackays were undoubtedly responsible for the tower house built at the House of Tongue, a little north of today's village and overlooking the Kyle of Tongue. This dates back to the 1500s and was built by the Mackays as Lords of Reay to support their domination of much of north west Sutherland. It was attacked and largely destroyed during the Civil War in the 1660s, and the House of Tongue that exists today was built by the Mackays in 1678 and 1750 on a more modern pattern nearby, leaving the ruins of the original tower house to be cleared away in 1830.
Perhaps Tongue's most significant moment in history came in early 1746 when the ship Hazard, en route for Inverness, fled into the Kyle of Tongue to evade the HMS Sheerness, a Royal Navy frigate. It was carrying over £13,000 in gold coins to fund Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, and its crew took the gold ashore in an effort to carry it overland to its destination.
The Mackays were supporters of the government and their forces caught up with the crew of the Hazard next morning at Lochan Haken, near the southern end of the Kyle of Tongue. The gold was thrown into the loch by the crew before they were captured, though most of it was later recovered by the government. What adds significance is the story that when word of this reached Bonnie Prince Charlie he sent 1500 of his men north in an effort to regain the gold, and they were defeated en route. Some believe that had these men still been available a short time later at the Battle of Culloden the outcome might have been different. It is more likely that Culloden was so one-sided the missing troops would have made little difference, but who can say for sure?
Tongue itself is an attractive village with some imposing stone buildings. Among these are large hotels like the Tongue and Ben Loyal, as well as the Royal Bank of Scotland. Views from the village are dominated by the bulk of Ben Loyal to the south and by Caisteal Bharraigh and the truly beautiful Kyle of Tongue to the west.
Tongue became something other than an island community relying on the sea for its communications in 1828, when Thomas Telford completed the road south to Lairg. In 1836 a road to Thurso followed, complete with a daily coach, and during the rest of the 1800s efforts to complete the road west to Durness continued, though as late as 1894 anyone making that journey relied on ferries to cross the Kyle of Tongue, the River Hope, and Loch Eriboll.
The passenger ferry across the Kyle of Tongue stopped operating in 1953, as greater car ownership meant it was no longer viable. In 1971 a bridge and causeway replaced the narrow road that made its way around the southern end of the Kyle. The bridge is 201 yards long and linked to the eastern side by a heavily-engineered causeway. At the far end of the bridge is the junction at which you can decide to press on towards Durness, or turn north for the lovely detour along the west shore of Tongue Bay to Talmine.
Driving in the far north of Scotland still entails use of many stretches of single track road. For more information about driving Scotland's single track roads and how to drive them, visit our feature page.
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