How many people can you cram into a ruined corn-drying kiln? This was one of the questions that we set themselves as we explored the historical landscape up the Strath of Kildonan a short time ago. A group of eleven from the University of Aberdeen and the University of the Highlands and Islands met in Helmsdale to put life into our studies of the Highland clearances by retracing the steps of those who resisted, those who resettled on the coast and those who emigrated to Canada. The group gathered on Friday evening from Inverness, Thurso, Elgin, Aberdeen and Dornoch for a short lecture by Dr Elizabeth Ritchie of UHI’s Centre for History on ‘Why did the Clearances happen’ to give some context for the sites we would visit the following day. As Saturday dawned clear and chilly, we familiarised ourselves with the new iphone app created by Timespan which formed the basis for our fieldtrip. Our first stop was only a few miles up the road at Caen where a long stone barrow provides evidence of human habitation as far back as the Neolithic period, and the footings of some longhouses and a corn drying kiln show people still populated the township in the early nineteenth century. We examined copies of old maps and birth notifications from the Old Parish Registers which named many of the hundred or so people who used to live and farm what is now a very wet hillside above the river. The names began to bring the dead stones to life. Even better examples of houses and kilns were evident at Kilphedir and we saw how people had clustered the buildings together on the higher rocky ground, keeping the fertile fields for crops and the upland pasture for livestock. West of Kinbrace we searched for the ruins of the meeting house at Achnahui. Caen might have been wet but it was only going to get worse! Some judicious bog-hopping brought us to the enclosed burial ground and low walls which are all that remains of the little chapel which served the surrounding community. Many parishes in the Highlands were too big for one minister so remoter regions had meeting houses and assistant ministers. For some time Achnahui’s assistant minister was Donald Sage who later wrote a fascinating account of life in late eighteenth century Kildonan and of the clearances in his book Memorabilia Domestica. As we stood in the ruin and surveyed the moorland, we imagined the landscape cultivated, fertile and populated. We played some Gaelic psalm singing, in the lining out tradition, on the laptop and imagined the people walking to the meeting house, bringing with them their stools, to sing and hear the weekly preaching. Our packed lunches energised us to explore Kinbrace cemetery where we found the grave of one George Grant who had lost an arm serving with the 93rd Highlanders at the disastrous (for the British) Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Who ever said that nineteenth century people never went more than a few miles from their homes! Just north of Suisgill we delved further back in time as we inspected the impressive defensive ditches of the Iron Age broch by the river. Our hopes of discussing the Kildonan riots in the old church, the very spot where the land surveyors were chased from the Strath by angry inhabitants, were thwarted by a locked door. Instead we gathered round the grave of Alexander Sage, the minister and the father of Donald, and fortified ourselves with fruitcake as Aberdeen’s Professor Marjory Harper explained the events of 1813. We concluded our fieldtrip by examining the crofting landscape at Marrel to compare how land use changed when people were cleared to the coast. Sated with history we happily collapsed into Timespan’s café for revivifying cake and tea before trundling down the road via the Emigrants’ Monument and a fleeting glimpse of Dunrobin Castle. The students (and staff) all had a huge amount of fun exploring Sutherland’s history in a practical way and more fieldtrips are definitely in the pipeline!
This is how many people you can fit in a corn-drying kiln.
[Photo belongs to Kirsty Reid]