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.

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Wandering in the Strath: A History Fieldtrip

Alison Kennedy, a fourth year Scottish History student at UHI, writes about her experience of a fieldtrip in Sutherland.

Recently students and staff from the Universities of Highlands and Islands and Aberdeen, met in Helmsdale to explore the landscape of the clearances and other historic sites in the Strath of Kildonan.

First stop was Lower Caen which was the subject of a community archaeological excavation in June 2013. The dig focused on the final phase of occupation and the abandonment of a longhouse and its outbuildings. Later, displayed at Timespan’s Museum, we saw some of the artefacts discovered at the township: pottery, the remains of shoes and parts of a whisky still. The site is up a steep incline from the road and the settlement would have been exposed to the elements. Often cattle were kept under the same roof as the family, especially during the severe winter months. In the spring of 1807 200 cows, 500 cattle and more than 200 ponies died in the severe conditions in Kildonan alone.

Next stop was Kilphedir and the clearance settlement of Chorick. Here we are in the corn drying kiln!

The fieldtrippers in the corn-drying kiln

The fieldtrippers in the corn-drying kiln

These were often built into the slope of the hillside and were used to dry cereal crops. At Eldrable, on the opposite side of the River Helmsdale, we spotted horizontal cultivation terraces which farmers had used to grow their crops. Some agricultural critics suggested that terraces like these produced poor crops and encouraged farmers to draw furrows up and down the slope to improve drainage.

Remains of runrig field systems, Eldrable

Remains of runrig field systems, Eldrable

We then stopped at Baile an Or, site of the Sutherland gold rush in 1869. Robert Gilchrist’s find of an ounce of gold, worth £3, prompted a host of prospectors to arrive. Now no evidence remains of the extensive settlement of rough huts built to house as many as 500 hopeful people.

Last stop for the morning was Ach-na-h’uaidh at the southern end of the Strath of Strathnaver. The Rev. Sage preached at this meeting house for the last time in 1819 when he and his parishioners were cleared to make way for sheep farming. The walls and adjoining graveyard partially survive, together with three headstones marking the final resting place of some shepherding Chisholms and a Gordon.

Gravestones at Achnahui

Gravestones at Achnahui

Our picnic lunch was eaten in the shelter of Kinbrace Cemetery’s wall as we endeavoured to find a spot away from the wind. A circular sheepfold stood in the distance, and a brightly coloured corrugated iron roof of a disused shepherd’s house was a few yards away. One of the table stones in the graveyard is dedicated to George Grant who died on 1 May 1857. George served with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Many men from Kildonan were away serving with the regiment when the Clearances swept through their native land.

By Kinbrace Cemetary

By Kinbrace Cemetary

Retracing our steps, we visited the broch at Upper Suisgill. Many of the stones used in the construction have been robbed to use elsewhere but the remains, measuring 12m in diameter and walls up to 4.5m thick, show what an impressive structure this must have been.

Our last stop was Kildonan church where a sermon on the clearances and emigration was preached by Professor Marjory Harper from the imposing pulpit to all the students. Today the church is used for special services and events. The plaque commemorates George Bannerman of Kildonan, great-grandfather of the Right Honorable John G. Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada 1957-1963, whose ancestors probably came from the nearby township of Learable, as well as commemorating the settlers who migrated to the Red River Settlement.

Plaque at Kildonan Church

Plaque at Kildonan Church

Arriving back at Helmsdale we had a look at the exhibits in the excellent Timespan Museum and Arts Centre and immersed ourselves in the virtual world of the reconstruction of Caen township.

Part of the Diaspora Tapestry

Part of the Diaspora Tapestry

Our day finished with visiting the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry Exhibition hosted by local needle-workers in Helmsdale Community Centre. It depicts Scotland’s global legacy through tapestry. Although by now dark, our goodbyes were made fittingly under the Emigrants’ Monument erected in memory of the people who went to the Red River Settlement. A very enjoyable day!

Sources:
Clerk, Archibald, Second Statistical Account for the Parish of Duirinish, Skye 1834-45
Discovery and Excavation in Scotland Vol. 14 (Archaeology Scotland, 2013)
Inverness Courier
Sage, Donald, Memorabilia Domestica; or Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick, 1899)
Timespan – Museum without Walls, Scotland’s Clearances Trail App, Helmsdale Heritage and Arts Society (2012)

Clearances Fieldtrip in Kildonan

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!Image

This is how many people you can fit in a corn-drying kiln.

[Photo belongs to Kirsty Reid]