Wilkhouse; Whelkhouse; Tighe na Faochaig

Submitted by Grace Ritchie – an enthusiastic volunteer.

It was a warm day in early summer when I walked along the old drove road at Kintradwell, between the railway line and the sea. I sat down for a rest on a low stone wall beside the track and listened to the murmur of the sea on the sand. Soon I became drowsy and I fell into a reverie.

I thought I heard the faint drone of distant cattle and, close by, the scrape of hooves on the cobbled floor of a byre. Dogs began barking and the lowing of cattle became more insistent as they jostled to drink at a pond behind me. The sound of children playing could be heard above the clanking of harnesses and the neighing of horses. Men’s voices rose in argument.

I became aware of a single storey house beside me. It was well made, the stones being held together with mortar, and had three windows with glass panes, two in front, overlooking the sea, and one in the gable. Unlike the usual old houses, it was roofed with slates, and a stout wooden door, strengthened with iron nails and strips of iron, secured the entrance.

On the door sill, and sitting round the paved entrance, sat a group of drovers, laughing loudly and joking as they smoked their clay pipes and teased boiled winkles out of their shells with pins before throwing them in a heap at the corner of the house. Above them hung a board announcing WILKHOUSE  INN.

Suddenly the door opened and a burly man rushed out shouting angrily. He had in his hand a small cauldron which had contained his dinner, now a burnt mess. In his fury, he took a pick-axe and proceeded to smash it into several pieces on the roadway outside! The inn-keeper’s wife came bustling out, trying to placate him and chattering soothingly all the while.

May - Wilkhouse Dig (12)

Volunteers Grace Ritchie and DJ MacLeod point out the join between the plastered main room was divided from an unplastered room. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie

Through the open doorway, and beyond the thick door-sill slabs, could be seen the clean sandy floor of the interior, the tidy best parlour with its white plastered walls and its fire burning brightly at the gable hearth. Facing the door was a small panelled room and, to the right, the main parlour – the general rendezvous for all comers of every sort and size. A group had gathered round the fire-place in this gable and drovers and other travellers were standing round the fire and sitting on the paved area in front it, relaxing in its warmth while their dinner cooked in a new cauldron next to the bread oven, with its gently rising dough. “What’s for dinner tonight then?” asked Angus, “Is it to be broth and cold meat with eggs, new cheese and milk like last time I was here? Or will it be salmon from the river or spare ribs or beef or maybe chicken?”

As they warmed themselves, the cook busily sharpened his knife on the large upright stone at the side of the blackened fireplace, and the conversation turned to items that some of the travellers had apparently mislaid recently. Murdo had lost his belt buckle and was asking for twine to hold up his breeks; Donnie’s button had pinged off; Angus had lost some small change; the inn-keeper’s wife couldn’t find her thimble or her bone double-sided comb and Ian had apparently mislaid both his pistol and his bag containing shot!

May - Wilkhouse Dig (8)

The site of the fire is visible, as are the scratched marks in the fireplace. To the left was an oven. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Soon the meal was ready. The table was set with a rich assortment of colourfully decorated glazed china plates and bowls, with jugs and glass bottles for ale. Glassed clinked, plates clattered, dishes were scraped and “mein hostess” bustled about attentively, talking all the while and seeing to the needs of her clients.

The aroma of peat smoke drifted past, the clamour was subsiding, the cattle were lying down for the night, the bairns were abed in the adjoining house and the soft murmur of the sea made itself heard once more. It was the harsh cry of a gull that roused me. I stumbled to my feet aware of a strange dislocation of time and space. Surely something had been happening just here, just now…

May - Wilkhouse Dig (18)

Reclining on the flagstone – the doorway to Wilkhouse Inn with the sandy floor still evident. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ritchie.

Continuing my journey, I soon reached Brora, where I called in on a long-standing friend. I told him of my day dream. “Och,” said he, “that’s the very same as those archaeologists found when they were excavating the ruins of Wilkhouse in May 2017. You must have drifted back in time, man! Maybe it was a day dream – certainly it was a dream come true!”

Note: Although a certain amount of poetic licence has been used in the above, all the items mentioned (and many more) were actually found at the Wilkhouse site during the dig there. Acknowledgement is made to “Memorabilia Domestica: Or Parish Life In The North Of Scotland (1899) by Donald Sage for lifting a few of his phrases from Page 108 of the reprint of his second edition, published by John Menzies & Co, Edinburgh 1899. The dig was organised by Clyne Heritage Society and GUARD.

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“Set Adrift Upon the World”: New Book on the Sutherland Clearances Launched in Dornoch

Last week James Hunter launched his new book in Dornoch, at an extraordinarily well-attended event organised by the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. People from all over the north connected with Jim and who share his passion for the history, and the future, of the Highlands and Islands gathered to congratulate him and to purchase truckloads of the volume with which to bless all their friends and relatives this Christmas. Weel-kent faces were easy to spot. There was John MacDonald, Rogart who showed Jim the documents about Ascoilemore which first inspired this book. And Malcolm Bangor-Jones, Inverkirkaig, whose meticulous research into eighteenth and nineteenth-century Sutherland ensured the accuracy of commentary about the evictions. Elizabeth Ritchie of the Centre for History interviewed Jim about the research for, and implications of, his book and a thought-provoking time was had by all.

SetAdriftUpontheWorldJim has provided a sneak preview here:

“Jessie Ross’s life began to be taken apart at about two p.m. on Thursday 31 May 1821. That was when as many as ten or a dozen men took possession of the Ross family home in the Strath Brora community of Ascoilemore. Those men were there to evict this young mother, her two small daughters, aged five and three, and her two-month old baby girl. They were also there to empty the house of everything the Rosses owned.

Jessie’s baby, Roberta, had been born less than a year after another baby, a boy who did not live. In just twenty months, then, Jessie Ross had been through two pregnancies – one of which had ended tragically. Unsurprisingly, she was not in good health. This was of no concern to the men invading Jessie’s home. Their remit was to make way for the expansion of a nearby sheep farm by ridding Ascoilemore of its inhabitants.

The man in charge of proceedings, a sheriff-officer called Donald Bannerman, began by ordering out the two Ross girls, Elizabeth and Katherine. Their mother, however, refused to go with them – in the hope, it seems, that her continued presence would lead to the family’s belongings being handled with at least a little care. ‘She would not leave … until the whole furniture was off,’ it was afterwards explained. On Jessie Ross also refusing to help move the wooden cradle in which her baby was sleeping, one of the party, William Stevenson by name, picked it up – roughly and angrily it was said – with a view to carrying both cradle and baby outside.

Perhaps, as would be alleged, Stevenson was drunk – he and his colleagues having got through ten bottles of whisky the previous night and another three that morning. Or perhaps he was just clumsy. At all events, Stevenson somehow ran the cradle up against the Ross home’s door or doorframe. Two-month old Roberta, though not tumbled out, was shaken awake and began to cry in alarm. She was still in distress when her cradle was set down in such shelter as an exterior dyke or wall provided from a chill wind out of the north-east.

Although Ascoilemore’s other residents had been evicted the day before, there were still people in the vicinity – some of whom now came to the Rosses’ assistance. Among them was a woman called Mary Murray. Like Jessie Ross, she was a nursing mother and, doing something that would be thought unacceptable today – but which, judging by the matter of fact way it was spoken about, must have been standard practice then – Mary quietened Roberta’s cries, a bystander said, by ‘giving the child a suck’ at her own breast.

The settlement of Kilpheddermore is just west of Ascoilemore. Note the size of the longhouse footings set in fertile riverside land. Visiting this site with John MacDonald, Nick Lindsay and UHI students inspired Jim’s book. Photo credit: Iain Copeland.

The settlement of Kilpheddermore is just west of Ascoilemore. Note the size of the longhouse footings set in fertile riverside land. Visiting this site with John MacDonald, Nick Lindsay and UHI students inspired Jim’s book. Photo credit: Iain Copeland.

The older Ross children were not so easily comforted. Not long after the evicting party got to work, Elizabeth, the five-year old, was struck in the face by a piece of planking thrown from inside the house – the culprit again being Stevenson. She too began to cry and, though her crying was said to have stopped after ‘quarter of an hour’, neither Elizabeth nor Katherine, her sister, could have been anything other than traumatised by what was happening to them. Both were reported to have ‘looked cold’ and to have been ‘trembling’ or shivering – their misery compounded by the fact that they had, or were incubating, whooping cough.

Nowadays rare, thanks to a vaccine developed in the 1950s, whooping cough was once a common childhood illness. Its symptoms – usually including a fever and the drawn-out cough from which the infection got its name – were always unpleasant, sometimes severe and occasionally fatal. What happened to the three-year old Katherine Ross some three weeks after the events of 31 May, then, might have happened anyway. But when Katherine died, it is understandable that her father, Gordon Ross, unavoidably elsewhere when his wife and children were evicted, should have insisted that his daughter’s death resulted from what he called the ‘inhuman treatment’ she had experienced the day the Ross family’s home was taken from them.”

Relaunches of “Set Adrift Upon the World” are taking place in Inverness, Helmsdale and Bettyhill if you feel you have missed out and would like to participate! Copies of the book can be sourced in the usual places.

Alex’s Farm: On Space, Time and Going Places

They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with it's own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with its own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.

Eiden, looking towardsTorboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from colelction of Elizabeth Ritchie

Eiden, looking towards Torboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms and the road up Strath Carnaig before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Covers the joins of three modern OS maps. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.

Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.

The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.

With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!

The Migdale Hoard

In the May of 1900, a group of workmen were labouring on a hillside overlooking the loch. Slotted in to a crack in a rock, one of the workmen felt something. Something that didn’t feel like a stone, a plant, or a spider. What he had found was quite remarkable, and the last person to see it had been dead for the best part of four thousand years. Piece by piece the workmen extracted the items. There was a bronze axehead, some jewellery including armlets or anklets, six buttons for a jacket, and items which might once have been attached to a head-dress. It is quite possible that they were in a bag which has since rotted away. Apart from the buttons, everything was made from bronze. When the buttons were analysed, scientists discovered that five of them were made from cannel coal or shale, but the sixth one was made from jet. This type of jet is not found in Sutherland; it is found near Whitby in Yorkshire. It had been traded from 450 kilometres away.

Buttons of jet and cannel coal. Online id: 000-100-034-752-C Image from: http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-752-C

Buttons of jet and cannel coal. Online id: 000-100-034-752-C Image from: http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-752-C

These items, finely crafted objects made from precious bronze, and a button imported from a great distance, were of high value. They must have belonged to a person of great importance. Wearing the objects would have demonstrated that the owner had the wealth to spend on skilled craftsmen and access to far-flung trading networks. They were expressions of power and prestige as well as beauty. How did such valued items, possibly belonging to a military and political leader of this part of east Sutherland, end up in the crack of a rock?

'The axehead had been tinned, giving it a silvery appearance and making it extra special. Tinning was a technique used by the early metalworkers of north-east Scotland to enhance the appearance of axeheads.' Online ID: 000-100-034-727-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-727-C

‘The axehead had been tinned, giving it a silvery appearance and making it extra special. Tinning was a technique used by the early metalworkers of north-east Scotland to enhance the appearance of axeheads.’ Online ID: 000-100-034-727-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-727-C

Sometimes such hoards appear to have been hidden away. It is quite possible that Sutherland in 2000BC was not a peaceful place. It might have been that the items were hidden away in a time of war or raiding to ensure that they did not fall into the hands of enemies. Perhaps the owner intended to return for them but was killed in battle, or was captured, or was enslaved. Archaeologists at the National Museum of Scotland feel that it was likely that the hoard ended up in the rock for a quite different reason. They think that the items were placed there as a gift to the gods. It may have been that the local community needed something from the gods: perhaps they had been suffering a time of famine, disease or attack. Perhaps they thought that a sacrificial offering of the most valuable items that the community possessed would persuade the gods to relieve their suffering or to give them something good: perhaps victory in battle, perhaps a good harvest. Perhaps it was a sign of repentance for some evil that had been done. It is impossible to guess what these items symbolised and why they were hidden away. But the objects do tell us a little bit about Bronze Age Sutherland.

'These two bronze anklets were found at Migdale in Sutherland in a hoard containing an axehead, jewellery and dress accessories. The dress accessories reflect female fashions in central and northern Europe between 2250 and 1950 BC. The anklets are made of butt-jointed strips of cast bronze, with triple horizontal mouldings around their exterior. They are decorated between the mouldings with close-set vertical lines, and with faint slanting nicks on their outer edges. The Migdale hoard represents the possessions of a wealthy high status owner, with links across the North Sea.' Online ID: 000-100-034-728-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-728-C

‘These two bronze anklets were found at Migdale in Sutherland in a hoard containing an axehead, jewellery and dress accessories. The dress accessories reflect female fashions in central and northern Europe between 2250 and 1950 BC.
The anklets are made of butt-jointed strips of cast bronze, with triple horizontal mouldings around their exterior. They are decorated between the mouldings with close-set vertical lines, and with faint slanting nicks on their outer edges. The Migdale hoard represents the possessions of a wealthy high status owner, with links across the North Sea.’ Online ID: 000-100-034-728-C http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-034-728-C

The hoard tells us that the inhabitants of Migdale four thousand years ago were far from being isolated. There were clearly trading links to Yorkshire. Perhaps traders sailed up the east coast to sell their wares, or perhaps they travelled on foot, or perhaps items were traded from person to person and gradually the jet button made its way into the hands of a chieftain in the far north. The remains of the head-dress and the axe show how connected the population was with Europe. Their design echoes the fashions of Central Europe. This fits with other archaeological evidence that we have which tells us that there were links between north east Scotland and central Europe.

A hundred years ago, the workmen took their precious find down the hill. It was sent to Edinburgh to be examined, and it can still be seen their on display.

Sources:
National Museum of Scotland: nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php (accessed 31st August 2015)

Key information was also taken from an interpretation panel on the north side of Loch Migdale, designed by the Kyle of Sutherland Initiative by the National Museums of Scotland, 2005.

Funny-Looking Bumps and Ridges: Landscape as Historical Evidence

Today’s post considers the evidence of social, economic and agricultural change provided by the landscape in south east Sutherland. Once you get your eye in, it is possible to identify pre-clearance field systems, townships, houses and barns, head dykes and gardens. The next layer of the archaeological palimpsest are the new arrangements of land and settlement introduced in the early nineteenth century. In this area there is not only the more famous crofting landscape, but also that of the big commercial farms which are such a feature along the fertile strip of the east coast. This twelve minute video thinks about what landscape changes in south east Sutherland can tell us.

Sources:
R. Houston, ‘The Clearances in South East Sutherland’ in J. Baldwin (ed), Firthlands of Ross and Sutherland (Edinburgh, 1986)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)

Of Cathedrals and Canals

One of the first things a visitor to Dornoch notices is the sandstone cathedral, pride of place in the centre of the town. Visitors are encouraged to walk around it and admire the beautiful stonework, the gargoyles, to consider the first cathedral building of the 1220s and the restoration of two hundred years ago. But Bishop Gilbert of Moravia’s removal of the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness from Halkirk to Dornoch left an archaeological mark not only on the town, but running through the surrounding countryside.

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Dornoch Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1820s (From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

The landward side of the parish, stretching up the Evelix Valley, is now crofted. Criss-crossed with single track roads it rises into a series of low hills. The lowest road runs parallel to the River Evelix. Venturing westward off the A9 it is now possible to skirt Milltown of Evelix Farm, where the ruins of a large water mill and its lade are clearly visible. Unlike ruined mills further upstream, this one operated into the twentieth century. The road to Rearquhar passes through unremarkable fields of sheep, with the occasional pony. As it rises the land becomes a little rougher. Soon it wends its way among a little patch of old birch trees, picturesquely crooked and shady. There is a reason this patch of soil is left as woodland rather than being under cultivation. It is not flat and smooth like the surrounding fields. In fact there is a pair of rather steep banks running for twenty yards or so straight towards the road. The geomorphology of the area, especially the long esker separating Dornoch from Camore, might suggest that the feature is another remnant of glaciation. But eskers and drumlins do not tend to come in parallel pairs. This is man-made.

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

canal near Rearquhar (photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie)

Making Dornoch into the Seat of the Bishopric of Caithness was much more than an administrative move. As the cathedral was built, so were a series of buildings to house various members of the church hierarchy and to enable the administration of the region. Today’s Castle Hotel is one remaining tower of three, surrounding a courtyard, which made up the Bishop’s Palace. Other impressive stone-built houses for the church officials towered above the wattle and turf homes of locals. Placenames show how Gilbert divided up land to help support the six canons. ‘Achendean’, now the name of a house beside the Castle Hotel, and ‘Achinchanter’ on the outskirts of the town, suggest these areas were granted to the Dean and, possibly, the Precentor.

There are a few theories as to why Gilbert chose to locate in Dornoch. Was it because he was related to the Earl of Sutherland, busy establishing himself at Dunrobin, in the hopes that he could protect him from the sort of attack suffered by his predecessors in Halkirk? If so, why was the cathedral not built in Golspie? Or was it because there was already a religious establishment at Dornoch? There are certainly indications this was the case. Whether they were already there or brought in by Gilbert it appears Dornoch was home to a number of monks.

Monks did not spend all their time in prayer, meditation or singing. Most orders were highly practical. They grew their own food in gardens and on farms and laboured on church-related building projects. Undoubtedly they worked on Dornoch’s new buildings. As Dornoch developed into something more than a mixed farming township, especially one which reflected the prestige of such a great person as the Bishop of Caithness, also needed good infrastructure. Especially water. Water for people to use and water for operating the flour mill.

The best supply was from the River Evelix. The monks used the original line of the glacial river for their canal, although before their time the river had changed its course, now turning sharply to the south-west and emptying into the Dornoch Firth at Meikle Ferry. Details as to where exactly it can be seen are explained in Robertson and Park’s Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley, but it was cut from Rearquhar, and its remains appear and disappear past the Astle road and through Fleuchary. Beyond that no traces of it can be found. The remains of this substantial engineering project, which must have been one of the wonders of Sutherland at the time, did not survive the enclosure of fields and the advent of deep ploughing.

Sources:
Michael Hook, A History of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2005)
S.J.T. Robertson and R.G. Park, Abandoned Buildings of the Evelix Valley (Dornoch: Historylinks Museum, 2009)

Field Trip to Aberscross

This week’s post is by Roslyn Galbraith, a third year Scottish history student at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She writes of her experience at Aberscross. All photos are from Roslyn’s collection.

In mid May I met up with a group of fellow students from the Centre for History, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, to explore Aberscross, the site of a Sutherland farming township. The area, near the boundary between Dornoch and Rogart parishes, has a long history of settlement and agriculture. Aberscross was the residence of the Murrays who came to Sutherland in 1198, who were involved in many feuds and battles fighting for the Earls of Sutherland and defending the region from their enemies the MacKays.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Although the weather forecast was not favourable, the heavens were with us for it stayed dry for the most part. We clambered up one side of Strathfleet. As we reached a certain height it was possible to recognise the valley floor below us. As it was subjected to tidal floods farming took place up the sides of the hills. We came across a large circled area outlined by stones with what appeared to contain at least three separated areas – maybe the foundations of a tower house: residence of the Murrays perhaps?

Not far from this mysterious outline, Dr Ritchie showed us an example of a corn drying kiln, where barley or oats were dried, in preparation for grinding. The kiln would have had a roof, while the hole on the left side of the kiln was where air was bellowed in to help the drying process.

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

As we climbed further we soon came to a recognisable settlement, which contained a longhouse with turf walls built on a stone foundation. This would have had a thatched roof supported by wooden beams. The family would live at one end with the cattle at the far end or byre-end on a slight downwards slope with drainage to divert animal waste from the cattle’s feet. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. There was also a kaleyard for the cultivation of vegetables, such as kale and cabbage; an enclosure where hens and chickens might be kept; and a threshing floor with storage area.

The threshing floor was an interesting discovery, for none of us students knew at the start what this outline might be and had fun guessing its use. This smaller building was probably used for storing grain but it had two doorways opposite each other, in line with the prevailing wind. This section in the middle was where the grain was threshed so the airflow separated the wheat from the chaff. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. This whole settlement was much easier to make out from the other side of the hill.

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Other areas of interest included the runrigs where barley and oats were cultivated in raised ridges with furrows for drainage between them, and the summer pastures for the cattle and sheep on higher ground.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

It gave me an understanding to how people lived and farmed pre-clearance, producing enough food and produce for a comfortable subsistence existence provided the weather and harvest seasons were favourable.

We sat for a bit debating on where the cottars might have lived. Were the small square buildings the homes of the poorest members of this society? As there is almost no information about the cottars we could only surmise on what type of building they lived in and in which part of the settlement they stayed.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar's home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar’s home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

It was soon time to leave and we stumbled down the hill as the heavens opened up, giving us a good soaking. On reaching Pittentrail Inn for our supper we reflected on the day’s findings, which brought what I had learned in class to life. It was a most enjoyable, thought-provoking and interesting field trip.