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)

A Tale of Two Kildonans

To commemorate the bicentenary of the emigration of Kildonan people to Red River, Canada, we have the contributions of two guest bloggers. This week Professor Marjory Harper of the University of Aberdeen writes about the impact of the Kildonan people in what is now Manitoba, and how they are remembered today.

Winnipeg is a city of monuments and memorials to the Highland pioneers who in the early nineteenth century established themselves at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. None could have foreseen at the time that the tiny Red River colony, conceived by Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, and populated most notably by emigrants from the Strath of Kildonan, would before the end of the century become the capital of a vast province, a major transportation hub at the centre of Canada, and the gateway to the prairies.

Tiny as it was, the infant Red River settlement was mired in controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1813, Lord Selkirk himself was present in Stromness to witness the embarkation of a contingent of 100 individuals from Sutherland. The second group of colonists to leave Scotland, many were victims of the savage Kildonan clearances, orchestrated by William Young and Patrick Sellar, and they had been selected from 700 applicants who saw no future in their native land. It was not long before they had a taste of the hazards of transatlantic travel, when typhus broke out on the ship, and a panic-stricken captain landed them, not at York Factory, where they had been expected, but 150 miles away at Fort Churchill. By the time they reached Red River, in August 1814, more than a year had elapsed since leaving Scotland.

The arrival of the Kildonan exiles ignited smouldering tensions between the rival fur trading enterprises of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. While the Napoleonic conflict raged on in Europe, Scots squared up to each other in their own “pemmican war”, over who would have access to the supplies of buffalo meat which were so essential to the survival of the fur traders operating in the vast territory then known as Rupert’s Land.

By 1816, when the Battle of Seven Oaks (now part of Winnipeg) determined that the Hudson’s Bay Company traders would emerge as victors from that struggle, the Kildonan pioneers had been joined by another wave of emigrants from the strath. A year later they were visited by Lord Selkirk, who earmarked land for a church as well as an experimental farm, and promised the settlers a Gaelic-speaking minister.

In the event, it was more than thirty years before they secured their minister, the non-Gaelic-speaking John Black from Eskdalemuir in Dumfries-shire. His appointment in 1851 triggered the construction of the church, which was completed in 1854 and is today the oldest stone church still standing in Winnipeg. Its location is very different from the depopulated but picturesque environment of its Sutherland counterpart, after which it is named, for it is to be found on the northern outskirts of Manitoba’s capital, adjacent to a busy highway and backed by the wide Red River.

There are, however, several similarities between the two Kildonan churches which are separated by 5,000 miles of ocean and continent. Neither is now in regular use as a place of worship, but each is preserved as a heritage site. Gravestone inscriptions that surround each building commemorate the individuals and families who shaped the histories of their hinterlands, while a plaque on the east wall of the Sutherland church memorialises George Bannerman, one of the Selkirk emigrants who was evicted from the strath in 1813 and whose great-grandson, John Diefenbaker, was Canada’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963.

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Kildonan Church in Sutherland and Manitoba. Photos by Marjory Harper

Interred alongside the pioneers of Winnipeg’s Kildonan are the Canadian clergyman, historian and novelist Charles Gordon (better known as Ralph Connor) and his wife. Gordon’s “Glengarry” novels, which were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, highlight the integrity and resilience of Scottish pioneers in another part of Canada, Glengarry County in Eastern Ontario, where Connor’s father, an emigrant from Perthshire, was also a minister.

Perhaps the best-known Sutherland memorial in Winnipeg is the Selkirk Settlers’ Monument, a full-scale bronze replica of the Emigrants’ Status in Helmsdale, which was unveiled in September 2008, fourteen months after its Scottish twin. The Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert’s Land has ensured that the settlers’ story is also remembered in cairns, plaques and monuments scattered throughout the city.

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The Settlers’ Monument, Winnipeg.  Photo by Marjory Harper

But let’s return, finally to the Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery. These stanzas from the Reverend John Mackay’s poem, Old Kildonan – despite some poetic licence in terms of the reference to the steeple – encapsulate the spirit of the cleared pioneers.

Have you been to old Kildonan
Seen the Red with gentle sweep
Guard the little rude, God’s Acre
Where the Selkirk settlers sleep?
Have you read the simple stories
On those headstones, old and grey,
Telling of a deep heart-hunger
For a dear land fear away?
Where the homes they left forever
Stand beside the Northern Sea,
And the old church lifts its steeple
Over heather, hill and lea.