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.

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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!

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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.


The funeral of James Sutherland of Pronsie, 1741

This week’s post is by Malcolm Bangor-Jones. Malcolm is a civil servant who makes regular contributions on Sutherland’s history to the ‘Am Bratach’ newsletter and to various academic publications.

In November 1741 James Sutherland lay sick in bed at Aberscross. James was Sutherland of Pronsie, wadsetter (or mortgage holder) to the Earl of Sutherland who had a controlling interest in the Skelbo estate in which Pronsie sat. The family had possessed Pronsienaird since early in the seventeenth century. James’ grandfather had expanded the family’s influence in 1679 and in 1687 by obtaining the wadset of Knockarthur and Easter Aberscross: the place where his grandsons, first James then William, were to die of the “rageing Distemper”.

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his 'raging distemper' or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

A longhouse at Aberscross. There is no way of telling whether it was the building in which Sutherland died of his ‘raging distemper’ or if one of his neighbours lived there. It overlooks the route the thirty carriers of his coffin would take across Loch Fleet to burial in Dornoch. Picture: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Isabella Grant had only been married to James for six years when she was widowed. She was left with two daughters, Margaret and Jean. Later Isabella married Dr John Gordon, surgeon at Golspietower and later of Jamaica. James did not leave his affairs in good order. He had not made up his title to his property (never a good sign) and was succeeded by his brother, David, who did not either. This David Sutherland of Knockarthur was generally agreed to be “remarkably weak in his understanding [and] altogether unfitt for manageing the affairs of [Margaret and Jean]”. Efforts were made to overturn his appointment. This was part of the battle over who should administer the affairs of the girls, and over the Isabella’s jointure. Both ‘sides’ appealed to the Earl of Sutherland for support. For the Earl, James’s death meant the loss of one of his political ‘friends’ or voters at a time when his political contest with the Mackays was intensifying.

As well as casting light on regional politics, the legal tussling over power and money after James’ death left a series of financial accounts about his funeral. These tell us about how minor gentry in the Highlands dealt with death and how they spent money at funerals to bolster their status.

Kenneth Sutherland, a joiner as well as bailie and sheriff substitute, in Dornoch charged for a “WenScot Cophin” £3; a “Box for Do Intralls” 6 shillings [30p]; the cost of “ane Express for Carriing” them to Aberscross 1 shilling [5p]; “Blaking ye Kirk Doors of Dornoch” 7 shillings [35p]; “Making the Funrall Table” 10 shillings [50p]; cash for “ale to Men for takeing off & putting on ye Grave Stons” 1 shilling 6d [7½p].

Andrew MacCulloch, bailie of Dornoch, charged for borrowing two mortcloths from the church (the funds from the mortcloths went towards assisting the poor), “Toleing the Great Bell for ii Days”, “the Litle Bell & making of the Grave”, and paying “the Beadle for going to Aberscorss with the Mort Cloaths”. That account came to just over £2. MacCulloch also furnished liquor: “3 Doz: 4 [40] Botles Claret & Zerry” £4; 3 “Botles Spirits” 6s; ale 1s; and candles 2s. Alexander Gray of Inverbrora, the renowned drover, added “two Dozen Botles Cherry for Pronsies Funeralls” at a cost of £1 16s [£1.80].

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Aberscross. The longhouse pictured above is located in the centre left among clear evidence of walled garden areas. Even two hundred years after the township was given over to sheep the distinction between the arable infield and the pastoral outfield is clear in the grass and heather vegetation. Photo: From collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

The corpse needed to be carried from Aberscross to Dornoch to be interred. John Polson, tacksman of Navidale, and John Peterkin provided victuals and drink to over 30 men from the parishes of Loth and Golspie. Polson’s account included “Conveening at Geo: Mcpherson house Kintradwell for Eale”. [This was probably the Wilkhouse Inn.] Peterkin provided rum and ale as well as ‘meat’ or food for the coffin carriers.

Various goods for the funeral, at a cost of £14 10s sterling, were sourced from Nicolas Ross, a merchant in Tain. The list included: “2 Ounces Cinnamon, 1 oz netmoogg [nutmeg], 1oz Mace, ½ pound black Spice, ½ pd Jemaicca Spice, 2 pound Rice, 2 pds Raisens, 2 pounds Currens, 2 pds pruins, 6 pounds pouder Suggar, 7 pounds 5 ozs loaf Suggar” – ingredients for a plum cake. He also supplied mourning materials: “3½ yards Cambrick @ 8/6, 1½ yards Do finer @ 10/, 6 yards black Ribeen, 5 Drops Dark blew Silk, Ane Card black Slive Buttons, a pair of black Stockens”. And he provided yet more drink: “6 Dozen and 1 Bottle Clerret,1 Dozen and 1 Botle white wine, 1 Botle best Clerret”, four bottles of vinegar, four bottles of brandy, four bottles of rum, and then a further two dozen bottles of white wine and two dozen flint wine glasses.

The accounts tell us a good deal about the arrangements although we must guess at some aspects. It seems there was a relatively protracted watch between the death and the burial, hence the need for Pronsie being disembowelled. His body was placed in the wooden ‘wainscot’ coffin and his entrails in a box. During this extended wake, which was typical of this sort of funeral, ‘guests’ would enjoy hospitality and view the deceased. Invitations may have been sent out to relatives, friends and acquaintances of equal or higher degree. Some would have come a distance. The hospitality may have included funeral bread baked with flour rather than meal, and it certainly included plum cake. There was a good deal of alcohol which could give rise to ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The funeral procession involved the wider community, not only of Dornoch but including men from at least as far off as Loth and Golspie. The kirk bells were rung announcing the death and a hand bell was probably rung alongside the funeral procession.

Just as in the Lowlands, these elaborate and public arrangements were what was expected of a minor gentry family at this period. It was a way in which social status was marked, whether the Sutherlands of Pronsie could readily afford it or not.

Donald’s Journey Part 2

Not long ago we left twelve year old Donald Sage in the inn at Kintradwell, eating meat, eggs and cheese on his way to the school in Dornoch.  After he, his brother, his father and their servant Tam had filled their bellies they unhitched their horses and set off towards Clyne manse, just north of Brora.  The arrived in the evening and

“Mr. Walter Ross and his kind wife received us with great cordiality. Mrs. Ross was a very genteel, lady-like person, breathing good-will and kindness. To her friends by the ties of affection, amity, or blood, her love and kindness gushed to overflowing … After breakfast next morning we proceeded on our journey. After having passed the Bridge of Brora there soon burst upon our sight Dunrobin Castle, the seat of the ancient Earls of Sutherland, the view of which from the east is specially imposing; and here I may remark in passing, that the present excellent public road which runs through the county of Sutherland was, at the time I speak of, not in existence. In lieu thereof was a broken, rugged pathway, running by the sea-shore from the Ord Head to the Meikle Ferry, and at Dunrobin, instead of going to the north of the castle as the present line does, it descended to the sea-side, passing about two miles to the east of the castle right below it, and so round by the south.

ImageImageThe “broken, rugged pathway, running by the sea-shore from the Ord Head to the Meikle Ferry” as it is today. [photos belonging to Elizabeth Ritchie]

The building filled me with astonishment. The tower to the east, surmounted by its cupola, the arched entrance into the court, and then the simply elegant front looking out on the expanse of the Moray Firth, which rolls its waves almost to the very base, were to me an ocular feast. The garden too, on the north side of the road, over the walls of which towered the castle in ancient and Gothic magnificence, was another wonder. I was perfectly astonished at its extent. It stretched its south walls at least 300 yards along the road, and at each of its angles were rounded turrets, which gave it quite an antique appearance, in strict keeping with the magnificent edifice with which it was connected.

The village of Golspie lies about a quarter of a mile to the west of the castle, close by the shore, and, as we advanced, the first object we saw was the manse, near which, on approaching it, we noticed walking towards us a low-statured, middle-aged man, dressed in a coarse, black suit, and with a huge flax wig of ample form. My father and he cordially recognised one another, and I at once discovered this venerable personage to be Mr. William Keith, minister of Golspie. We did not stop, but proceeded on our way to Embo, and reached the north side of the Little Ferry house at about two o’clock.

As we dismounted, and every necessary preparation was made by the boatman to get us over, I felt a good deal alarmed.  Except when crossing the Helmisdale river in a cobble some years before, I had never been in a boat or at sea; and I was particularly frightened at the idea of being a fellow-passenger with my father’s large horse and our own lesser quadrupeds, lest they, participating in my own fears, might become unruly and swamp the boat.  Matters went on, however, better than I anticipated; the horses, after remonstrating a little, were made to leap into the boat, and, with my heart in my throat, I followed my father and brother, and took my place beside them in the bow of the wherry.  As we moved off I was horror-struck, on looking over the edge of the boat, to see the immense depth of the Ferry.  It was a still, clear winter’s day, and I could distinctly perceive the gravelly bottom far below.  I could see, passing rapidly in the flood, between me and the bottom, sea-ware of every size and colour.  The star-fish intermingled with the long tails of the tangle which by the underswell of the sea heaved up and down, and presented the appearance of a sub-marine grove, retaining its fresh look by the greenish colour of the sea-water.”

Donald, the young landlubber, survived his experience unscathed.  The excitement of the ferry crossing and the astonishment of the glories of Dunrobin Castle filled his mind as they continued their trek towards Embo House where they were to lodge for the night.

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]

Donald’s Journey Part 1

Donald Sage was born in the Manse, half way up the Strath of Kildonan, in 1789.  When he was twelve he and his older brother Aeneas were sent to Dornoch to go to the grammar school there.  (Aeneas was the Anglicised form of Angus).  In middle age Donald reminisced about his life in a book with the rather off-putting title of Memorabilia Domestica.  A few weeks ago I blogged about his description of Dornoch’s market day and of a funeral which turned into a fight.  Over the next wee while I am going to post about more of his schoolboy experiences in the town, which really bring to life what Dornoch was like over two hundred years ago.  His journey to the town, being only his second trip away from home, made quite an impression him and gives wonderful glimpses into the places between Kildonan and Dornoch.  This is the first post about his journey.  He recalled that

“My brother impresses himself strongly on my reminiscences of this particular period of my life. I was warmly attached to him. Our fishing expeditions together on the burn to its very source, and along the bank of the river, and on one occasion to Loch Ascaig; our excursions … for blae-berries and cloud-berries, all now recall to my remembrance my brother’s … affection. It was about the beginning of November, 1801, I think, that we went together to the school at Dornoch.”

Until then Donald and Aeneas had been educated at the parish school and by their father.  They had learned the basics and had moved on to Latin.  Early in 1801 social unrest in Kildonan required the Sheriff to come north and he lodged with the minister’s family.  He tested the boys in their Latin and

“He was much pleased with my answers, and said that, if my father would send my brother and me to school at Dornoch, he would keep us for three months in his own house. He repeated the same thing to my father next day at parting, assuring him that the parochial teacher at Dornoch was resorted to as a teacher of ability and success. The proposal was entertained, and preparations were made for us to go thither in the beginning of November.


Kildonan Manse.  Picture by kind premission of Timespan Heritage Centre and SCRAN.

“The morning of the day of our departure from under the paternal roof, to attend a public school, at last dawned upon us. My brother and I had slept but little that night. After breakfasting by candlelight, we found our modes of conveyance ready for us at the entry-door. My father mounted his good black horse Toby, a purchase he had lately made from Captain Sackville Sutherland of Uppat, while my brother and I were lifted to the backs of two garrons employed as work-horses on the farm. We set forward, and both my sisters accompanied us to the ford on the burn, close by the churchyard, whence, after a few tears shed at the prospect of our first separation, we proceeded on our journey accompanied by a man on foot. We crossed the Crask, and stopped for refreshment at an inn below Kintradwell, in the parish of Loth, called Wilk-house, which stood close by the shore. This Highland hostelry, with its host Robert Gordon and his bustling, talkative wife, were closely associated with my early years, comprehending those of my attendance at school and college. The parlour, the general rendezvous for all comers of every sort and size, had two windows, one in front and another in the gable, and the floor of the room had, according to the prevailing code of cleanliness, about half an inch of sand upon it in lieu of carpeting.

As we alighted before the door we were received by Robert Wilkhouse, or “Rob tighe na faochaig,” as he was usually called, with many bows indicative of welcome, whilst his bustling helpmeet repeated the same protestations of welcome on our crossing the threshold. We dined heartily on cold meat, eggs, new cheese, and milk. Tam, our attendant, was not forgotten; his pedestrian exercise had given him a keen appetite, and it was abundantly satisfied.”

And so the boys set out on their journey with their father and with a servant, Tam.  Rather than take the road through the Strath that we would drive along today, it seems that they crossed the River Helmsdale and walked through Glen Loth.  They joined the coast at the inn and, after eating their substantial meal in the sand-floored room, they continued south, following the route that the A9 takes today.

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]