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.


Isabella’s Story, Part 4: Family Crises

In that first year in Kildonan, Isabella and Alexander struggled with a big house, managing a glebe and a farm, contracting debts, and their two young children. It also fell to them to manage a building project. The old chapel was heather-thatched and housed the burial place of the chiefs of the clan Gunn. The new church was erected on the same site, just down from the manse so Isabella, with Betty and Jane, would have watched the walls rise each day. That first year must have been exhausting for Isabella. Not only was she managing the house, probably significant parts of the farm, trying to improve the poor impression Alexander had made on the parishioners, and raising the girls, but she was again pregnant. Just over a year after their move Angus, or Aeneas, was born. This first son was named, as tradition dictated, after his paternal grandfather. Slightly more than another year later, in October 1789, Isabella gave birth to another boy in the manse at Kildonan: Donald, named after her father. Isabella, perhaps unable to feed the babies herself, or perhaps to assist with childcare, or perhaps to build up relationships locally in the traditional way through fosterage, perhaps all three, sent both boys out to be nursed. Marion Polson, married to the parish catechist, took in Angus. Donald was sent to Barbara Corbett who lived with her husband at Lonn-riabhach, near the rock of Marrel. Donald was very fond of Barbara’s care and the family connection persisted to the next generation when Donald employed her daughter Barbara, his foster-sister, as his servant. Isabella’s decision was not at the expense of loving ties with the boys. It seems that after they were weaned they largely lived at home again and Donald remembered Isabella’s tender attitude to him when he was a petulant toddler.

The new Kildonan church building. Photo: Marjory Harper

The new Kildonan church building with the manse (significantly refurbished!) behind. The ruins of the township of Kirkton are just to the right of the present farm buildings. Photo: Marjory Harper

The three year old’s demands were part of daily life as the dank November days closed in around Kildonan’s manse in 1792. Having lost a baby since Donald’s birth, Isabella was again pregnant. There were four children under the age of seven in the big smoky, dusty house, and the new baby was due at the end of the month. Her contractions began on the 26th or 27th. When labour really took hold she retired to one of the east-facing bedrooms. Someone would have sent word to the local midwife. There may have been one living in Kirkton, just a few minutes up the road, or she may have come from one of the further off townships. Several women would have gathered at the manse. Marion Polson and Barbara Corbett might have been there, and any other friends or near neighbours, all of whom would have had experience helping each other give birth. Things did not go well. The baby died and Isabella was losing a lot of blood. It became clear that she was not going to make it through the night. About an hour before she died, all the children were called to her bedside so she could see them and bless them. Donald later recalled that he was her favourite and he was told that she took particular notice of him that evening. Her feelings choked her as she prayed that he ‘might yet be useful in the vineyard of Christ.’ He did not remember the deathbed scene, but he did remember creeping in to her room a few hours after Isabella had died.

‘On the bed lay extended, with a motionless stillness which both surprised and terrified me, one whom I at once knew to be my mother. I was sure it was she, although she lay so still and silent. She appeared to me to be covered with a white sheet or robe; white leather gloves were on her hands, which lay crossed over her body.’

Alexander was sitting in the corner. He had been quietly weeping. When he caught sight of his little boy, the favourite son of his Isabella, the floodgates opened. He caught hold of Donald, his whole body shaking and the tears rolling down his face. Donald didn’t know that grown men could cry and, as his father held him he stared at Isabella’s body, her gloved hands engraving on his memory. Isabella was forty two. Alexander buried her by the wall of the church building that she had watched grow out of the ground a few years earlier.

Isabella’s children were given the loving mothering they needed for the next few years by Eppy, a servant. Within two years Alexander had found a new wife. She was a local woman, Jean Sutherland of Midgarty. Isabella’s boys stayed at home, being educated by the parish schoolmaster and by their father until they turned twelve and thirteen when Alexander took them to school in Dornoch. Doubtless largely due to Isabella’s smoothing over his early difficulties, Alexander eventually became a well-respected and loved minister in Kildonan. Today he lies beside his church, between his Jean and his Isabella.

Isabella Fraser Sage's gravestone. Photo: Jacquie Aitkin.

Isabella Fraser Sage’s gravestone. Photo: Jacquie Aitkin.

Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica

Isabella’s Story, Part 3: Of Babies, Houses and Husbands

After her wedding, Isabella travelled north to take up residence in the ‘low, uncomfortable cottage of two rooms and a closet, not far from the old ruin of Dirlot’. There she ran her household for three years as her husband traversed the district, mainly on foot, accompanied by his gillie or kirk-officer.

A later set of buildings at Dirlot, Caithness. Not far away is an old graveyard and a little further along the road the ruins of a church. Sometimes places that seem remote today were community hubs not that long ago.

A later set of buildings at Dirlot, Caithness. Not far away is an old graveyard and a little further along the road the ruins of a church. Sometimes places that seem remote today were community hubs not that long ago. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Almost a year and nine months after her wedding Isabella gave birth to her first-born. Elizabeth was followed in March 1787 with Jane. A few months later Isabella and Alexander bundled the babies and sticks of furniture onto ponies and carts for the move south to the vast parish of Kildonan. Their income rose from a relatively humble £40 to £70: a lot to many of the people to whom they ministered, but not in comparison to other ministers or gentry. Isabella became mistress of Kildonan manse, half way up the fertile Strath, scattered with cattle, grain and whisky producing townships. Unlike the longhouses that everyone else occupied, the Sages had a lime and stone-built house bracketed with gables and chimneys which smoked instead of drawing the fumes upwards. On the ground floor were a parlour, bed-room, and a closet. Upstairs were a dining-room, bed-room, and another closet. In the attic storey were two garrets, one fitted up as a bed-room, the other a storeroom used for lumber. The house was nightmarish to keep clean as the walls were ‘cat and clay, plastered over with lime’, finished with a coat of whitewash which came off on everything that touched it: on visitors’ coats, on Isabella’s skirts, and on every part of active toddlers. There were not just those three floors to heat, light and clean, but also the two low buildings stretching out from the manse which contained, on the west, the nursery, kitchen and byre, and on the east, the barn and stable. Each compartment was divided from the next by the inadequate ‘cat and clay’, so fairly soon humans and animals could eye each other through the gaps. Like their neighbours’ longhouses, the office roofs were constructed of turf and finished with clay and straw, never quite keeping out the worst of the rain. Muck was constantly trailed in from the rick-yard, the kiln and the cattle-fold. The manse was the centre of an active farm. Ministers were granted the use of a glebe as part of their pay. In Alexander’s case this was fifty acres. He was not terribly interested in the agricultural improvements that so excited many of his colleagues so the land continued to be operated without many changes.

Despite the promotion from missionary to fully-fledged minister, the move came with major financial challenges for the young couple. They had to buy furniture for a larger house, stock a considerable glebe, and they decided to lease a farm. They contracted debts and money was extremely tight. Isabella, blessed with a sense of humour, would say, ‘is bochd so, is bhi bochd roimh’ (out of the fire into the embers).

Money was not the only challenge. Alexander was not immediately accepted by locals. He was rather uncompromising and rather willing to challenge people’s wrongdoing. He was a slow thinker, needing much time to study a matter. His difficulties with catching on and finding words to express his ideas was exacerbated by a shyness which confused him, often rendering him speechless. A number of his parishioners were far more pious than he. His faith deepened as he increased in age, but Kildonan’s key church members were not impressed with the new man. His problems were compounded by his temper. Isabella was vital in smoothing his path. Unlike him she was reflective, with a deep faith and a sharp mind. She was patient and mild. It was she who had the difficult job of checking her husband’s anger, protecting both him and others from it.

To be continued…

Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica

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!

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)

Cock o’ the North

In February it feels like winter is eternal.  The people of Dornoch cheered themselves up with what we would consider a rather brutal amusement: a cockfight.  Early in the nineteenth century Donald Sage, a teenager from Kildonan, attended school in the town.  Although he later described it as a barbarous pastime, at the time he enthusiastically participated.

For schoolboys across Scotland the cockfight was the peak of entertainment.  Far from being a surreptitious activity for which the students would be punished, it was an intrinsic part of the school and community calendar.  Dornoch’s teacher, Mr. MacDonald, entered into it ‘with all the keenness of a Highlander and with all the method of a pedagogue’.  In the days leading up to the cockfight, am cluiche nan coileach, there was a ‘universal scrambling for cocks all over the parish’.  ‘We applied at every door, and pleaded hard for them.  In those primitive times, people never thought of demanding any pecuniary recompense for the birds for which we dunned them.’


‘Cockfighting in London. 19th-century artwork of cockerels fighting at a royal cockpit (demolished 1816) in Birdcage Walk, near Whitehall, London, UK. This blood sport was banned in England and Wales in 1835. This artwork is from ‘The Microcosm of London’, a series of 104 hand-coloured aquatints depicting London buildings and scenes. They were published by Rudolph Ackermann between 1808 and 1810, and then collected in three folio volumes. The artworks combined architectural details by Charles Augustus Pugin, and human figures drawn by Thomas Rowlandson. This aquatint, published 1 May 1808, was engraved by John Bluck.’ 

Image and above text from British Library.

The main event was staged in the county court room.  The ‘chamber of justice was converted into a battle-field, where the feathered brood might, by their bills and claws, decide who among the juvenile throng should be king and queen.’  A stage was built and the schoolmaster seated himself on the bench where Sheriff McCulloch usually dispensed justice.  He was joined by a band of his friends who would judge the proceedings.  Any bird that refused to fight when placed on the stage was called a “fugie”, and it became the property of the teacher.  The winner was the youth whose bird had gained the greatest victories.  He was declared king and the lad in second place gained the title of queen.  The fights were over but the event was not.  The cockfight created such excitement in the town that it could be sustained to another day when the victors would be crowned.  Although the participants were the schoolboys and the judge was the teacher and his friends, the February cockfight was a community event.  It is not clear whether the fight itself was a male-only preserve, but it was the ladies in the town who ‘applied their elegant imaginations to devise, and their fair fingers to construct, crowns for the royal pair.’  They were also present on coronation day when the boys assembled in the Dornoch schoolhouse. Donald describes what happened.

‘The master sat at his desk, with the two crowns placed before him; the seats beside him being occupied by the “beauty and fashion” of the town.  The king and queen of cocks were then called out of their seats, along with those whom their ties had nominated as their life-guards.  Mr. MacDonald now rose, took a crown in his right hand, and after addressing the king in a short Latin speech, placed it upon his head.  Turning to the queen, and addressing her in the same learned language, he crowned her likewise.  Then the life-guards received suitable exhortations in Latin, in regard to the onerous duties that devolved upon them in the high place which they occupied, the address concluding with the words, “taque diligentissime attendite”.  A procession then began at the door of the schoolhouse, where we were all ranged by the master in our several ranks, their majesties first, their life-guards next, and then the “Trojan throng,” two and two, and arm in arm.  The town drummer and fifer marched before us and gave note of our advance, in strains which were intended to be both military and melodious.  After the procession was ended, the proceedings were closed by a ball and supper in the evening.’

Today’s community comes together in the summer at the Sutherland Agricultural Show and the Highland Gathering.  The differences are obvious: the attitude to animals is quite different, they do not revolve around the school and nor do the prize givings involve classical learning!  However, just like their cockfighting predecessors, the events involve competition, sport, judging, presentations, musical parades and dancing.  Today’s showing of cattle, athletics, pipe bands, silver cups and ceilidhs have replaced the cockfights, fife and drum, handmade crowns and dinner dance of two hundred years ago.

Donald’s Journey Part 3

We last found Donald, his travelling companions and several horses bobbing around on a ferry crossing Loch Fleet.  Dornoch was within a few miles, but they had come far that day so they made for Embo House.  The owners of Embo House were Gordons, connected to the powerful Sutherland family whose base was at Dunrobin and who would soon make themselves unpopular by clearing people out of Kildonan and Strathnaver.  Mr Gordon built the house to impress the very few people in Sutherland who had the vote, in hopes of becoming an MP.  He gained many votes but failed to get elected, although by doing so he gained the enmity of the House of Sutherland.  By the time the Sage party turned up on the doorstep, the house was rented by a prosperous farmer named Kenneth MacKay who held lands at Embo, and further to the north at Torboll.  The MacKays were well established in the area and were distant relations of the Sages (and everyone else!)

“My father reminded me that it was getting late, and that we must make the best use of our time, as Embo was still at a considerable distance. We arrived there, however, before it got dark, so that I had an opportunity of seeing in fair daylight the most elegant mansion I ever witnessed, with the exception of Dunrobin Castle.  Embo House stood nearly half-way between Dornoch and the Little-Ferry, on the old line of road.  It was the manor-house of a family of Gordons, scions of the Gordons, Earls of Sutherland; and they had held it since the days of Adam, Lord of Aboye, the husband of the Countess Elizabeth. … Robert Hume Gordon, having some years before canvassed the county, with the view of being its representative, in opposition to the influence of the Duchess of Sutherland, built this splendid mansion for the purpose of entertaining the electors.  Mr. Gordon lost his election, yet by a narrow majority. He was supported by the most respectable barons of the county.  Dempster of Skibo, Gordon of Carrol, Gordon of Navidale, Captain Clunes of Cracaig, and Captain Baigrie of Midgarty; and most of those gentlemen, being tacksmen and wadsetters on the Sutherland estate, gave by their opposition to the candidate of the Sutherland family, almost unpardonable offence.  Although Mr. Hume Gordon built the house at great expense, he never intended to reside permanently either in the mansion or in the county; and Embo House and property were now rented by Capt. Kenneth Mackay, who also farmed the place of Torboll from the Sutherland family.

Embo House was constructed very much after the fashion of the houses of the new town of Edinburgh, begun on the north side of the Nor’ Loch on 26th Oct., 1767; the front was of hewn ashlar, and consisted of three distinct houses, the largest and loftiest in the centre, joined to the other two by small narrow passages, each lighted by a window, and forming altogether a very imposing front.  The centre house was four storeys high – first, a ground or rather a sunk floor, then a first, second, and, lastly, an attic storey.  The ground or sunken floor contained the kitchen and cellars, and in front of it was a wall surmounted by an iron railing, resembling exactly the fronts in Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Outer stairs ascended to the principal entry door, and along the whole front of the building extended a pavement.  The lesser houses, or wings, were each of them a storey less in height than the central building; and the attic storeys were lighted from the front wall, instead of from the roof, by windows about precisely half the size of the rest, which greatly added to the effect and beauty of the whole.  Behind were other two wings of the same height with those in front, extending at right angles from the principal buildings.  The interior of the mansion corresponded with its external appearance.  The principal rooms were lofty and elegant, ornamented with rich cornices, and each having two large windows.”


Image from: http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number2448.asp

The house was impressive, but the welcome less so.

“Mrs. Mackay, my stepmother’s half-sister, was a neat little woman, with a pleasing expression of countenance.  She was very lady-like, but she received us with that politeness which might be reckoned the precise boundary between kindness and indifference.  … [Her] children at that time amounted to six – Harriet, Esther, Jean, Lexy, George, and John; they were afterwards increased to fourteen.  We were both sent to sleep upstairs in one of the attics, but I scarcely shut an eye, being so much stunned with the noise of the sea, which, when excited by the east wind, is at Embo perfectly deafening.  Next morning we rode into Dornoch.  The road to the town lay on its south-east side, and, as we approached it, I was almost breathless with wonder at the height of the steeple, and at the huge antique construction of the church.  My father brought us at once to the school.”

Flushed with new experiences, young Donald and Aeneas had arrived at their new home and school where they would stay for the next two years.

For more information about Embo House, see:


And for more of Donald’s memoirs see: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org]