In summer 1976 I read The Highland Clearances by John Prebble on the long trip north by train from a family holiday in Edinburgh. The memory is vivid as the journey took us past the statue of the Duke of Sutherland above Golspie, Sutherland. I recall feeling angry as I read how the tenants were compelled to contribute to this memorial to the man who had turned them from their lands. Equally vivid is the impact of the strath of Kildonan as the train chugged slowly through this cleared landscape. It was a place I wanted to visit.
Far too many years later, partly inspired by a UHI History student’s blog post about a field trip there, and on the best day of summer 2020, I finally visited Kildonan. Here’s a little about my day along with some background. Links to information about the Clearances in general at the end.
The Clearances Trail
Between 1807 and 1820, many of the inhabitants of Kildonan, tenants of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, were cleared from their homes to make way for sheep. The population of the parish fell from 1440 in 1801 to 257 in 1831.1New Statistical Account (1845), Kildonan, p147 https://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/viewer/nsa-vol15-Parish_record_for_Kildonan_in_the_county_of_Sutherland_in_volume_15_of_account_2/ Some settled in Helmsdale a village in Sutherland on the north east coast of Scotland, between Inverness and Wick. That’s where my visit began.
This map on the National Library of Scotland website will help you get your bearings.
There are two things, apart from a good map, to help you find your way. The Museum without Walls app from the Timespan Museum in Helmsdale (iPhone or iPad only). I’d recommend this for background, whether or not you are actually visiting. Then there are information boards along the Clearances Trail itself with QR code links to the same information. (I think this is so but I did not try it out.)
After leaving Helmsdale on the A897 north of the river Helmsdale, Kilphedir and the Chorick settlement was my first stop. Apart from traces of houses, there is also the well preserved remains of a kiln used for drying grain. A good place for hiding illicit whisky stills it seems!
There is evidence of settlement over many centuries all along the strath of Kildonan, brochs, cultivated terraces etc. It’s the kind of environment where I would expect to see habitation and cultivation rather than emptiness apart from a few houses belonging to the estates.
Further along, we diverted to Kildonan church. This was the church for the whole parish which stretched from the coast at Helmsdale some nine miles away, right up to area around the Garvault Hotel (said to be the remotest in Britain) and the summit of Ben Griam Beag. The church at Helmsdale dates from 1838. In the graveyard are stones in memory of the Rev Alexander Sage and both his wives. He was minister at the time of the clearances and his son, Donald, wrote an account of those times, Memorabilia Domestica: parish life in the north of Scotland. More on Donald later.
There’s a reminder here too of the many who left Scotland entirely as a result of the clearances. And the success of their descendants.
At Kinbrace I left the A879 and took the B871, along the Bannock Burn (not THE Bannockburn) heading west to another site I was keen to see. But first a graveyard visit.
Ach’ na h-uai
In some trepidation lest I miss it, I kept a close eye on the hillside above the road and the map, ‘just before the start of Loch Achnamoine’ (I wasn’t driving). (We seem to have missed the Clearances Trail marker post though.) The ruins of the mission house and churchyard at Ach’ na h-uai.
Perhaps due to its current day remoteness, this site had really captured my interest. The Clearances Trail app says of it “The Achness mission covered a large area including the whole of Strathnaver and the upper parts of Kildonan and Farr” [parishes].
It seems to have had a minister from around 1767 – see this extract from Sutherland and the Reay Country (1897). The Rev Donald Sage, son of Alexander, was ordained missionary here in August 1816. Along with his parishioners, he was turned out of his house during the Clearances.
The ruin is about nine miles from the parish church of Kildonan, a long Sabbath day journey, and even further from Farr parish church so it’s easy to see why it would have been built. A check of the earliest Ordnance Survey maps show the road, such as it was, going above this ruin rather than on the loch side which probably explains the setting.
The graves are those of shepherds who came to tend the sheep, Chisholms and a Gordon.
There are several other sites to visit, including the gold rush information point at Baile an Or. It was comparatively busy, possibly due to a spot for swimming in the river, so I gave it a miss in these pandemic days. Not as busy as in the heady days of 1869 I’m sure.
I’m sure I’ll go back for there is more to see and I have a tenuous link: William Mckay was born in Kildonan parish on 13 January 1805 and married Jessie Sutherland in Walls, Orkney, my one-place study area, in January 1834.
Under blue skies and in sunshine, I really enjoyed my long-awaited exploration of Kildonan. At the same time, there is a sadness for an unpeopled valley and the memories it holds.