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!

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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.