Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Boys and Guns

Boys will be Boys

Boys the world over have a common denominator - a sense of adventure and inventive imaginations. Whilst the youth of Badbea did not have the scope of those in the populous areas, they did not lack in spirit or adventure.

The rocks swarmed with thousands of sea-fowl in the summer. We could climb the rocks like squirrels. Often do I wonder how so few accidents happened to us. 

Game laws

The game laws were very strictly enforced upon us. Offenders were first subjected to the usual course of law, and if householders, they were driven off the estate at the next term. If not householders but living with their parents, the parents were visited with the sins of the children, turned out of their house and land, and no rest found for the soles of their feet on the estate. My parents were very much against the use of a gun by any of us, lest, in an unguarded moment, we might be tempted to break the law, game being then very plentiful.

Straw in a barn at Laidhay

Lucky Escape

On one occasion we had concealed a gun under some straw in the barn where a younger member of the family found it. He was not the length of being able to use a gun, and not knowing it was loaded, he held it over the lower half of the door and pulled the trigger. The gun went off about the ears of several onlooker children. Luckily all escaped unhurt, but a couple of hens fell victim to the rashness of this child.

Old Rusty Gun Barrel

Our firearms were of a very primitive sort. An old rusty gun barrel that no rational being would pick up from the refuse heap would put us into ecstasies, and in a very short time we would have it cleaned and mounted in a stock of our own handicraft, ready for sport.
We sometimes risked a shot at a hare on the sly. 

Red Davies and the Stuffed Hare

There was a youth of the name David Bruce, 'Red Davies' as he was called in the place. He was a few years our senior, and, we thought, did not treat us with due respect at all times. He was very fond of the gun and thought himself better than any of us. One day we snared a hare, stuffed the skin with grass and laid it down very near to a hare's natural position amongst the heather. A messenger was dispatched to Davie telling him there was a hare on the face of the brae. Davie came in all haste with his gun loaded, and came with the messenger to where we were pretending to watch the movements of the hare. Davie crept along the ground for some distance, took aim, and fired, after which we took to our heels. Davie ran forward and lifted what he supposed was a dead hare, when, lo and behold, it was only a stuffed hare skin! We took good care that he did not forget the exploit for many a long day.

Source: Alan Roydhouse unpublished 1977. This article was published by Alexander Gunn but the Northern Ensign original is missing. Alan Roydhouse had access to many of Gunn’s articles while he was resident in Helmsdale in the nineteen seventies.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Escaped prisoner, Braemore, Dunbeath. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XXVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 8 February 1883 – Part B

Farm buildings at Braemore 

"Braemore, that quiet and rural township, so secluded and embedded among the hills, was about this time the centre of attraction. An aggravated act of theft had been perpetrated, and caused considerable surprise and commotion among the inhabitants. Placed at a distance of five or six miles from their nearest neighbours and brought up in a state of simplicity and innocence, crime of all kinds was all but unknown."

"The ‘black bothy’ was a well know institution, no doubt, but that was considered but a venial sin, and vice of any kind was very rare. Besides the people were very comfortable, and want was unknown among them, so that there was no excuse for anyone to commit a breach of the eighth commandment. The party guilty of this found crime was the head of a family and had also a bit of a farm. He was apprehended, and tried before the High Court of Justiciary in Inverness where he was sentenced to a term of penal servitude."

"On the return journey to Wick – the mode of conveyance being a spring cart – and while passing Forse, the prisoner asked permission to get down from the machine for a second or two, which wish was complied with. The prisoner, thereupon, leaped over a dyke which ran along the roadside, having the handcuffs on all the while. The officers in charge stood still with the machine, waiting for the return of their prisoner, but after waiting for some time they considered he was rather long in making his appearance, and on looking over the dyke, to their dismay there was no man there. Their prisoner had made his escape. The disappointed officers scoured the country in all directions, but no tidings of the runaway could be found." 

"Latterly it was mooted that he had returned to his home and family. The criminal authorities made a raid on the dwelling at midnight, but the prisoner managed to escape from among their fingers, and the police had to return empty-handed. Several attempts were made from time to time to get hold of him, but he always managed to make good his escape. Latterly he took up his abode in a subterranean cave in Ben Nagoviag, half way between Braemore and Berriedale, making occasional stealthy visit to his wife and family, and he was frequently seen by the neighbours. The police did not care to attack him in his mountain fastness, as it was alleged that he was well armed, and the entrance to his mountain home being very narrow and contracted, that he would be in a position to defy anyone who should attempt to intrude. He managed to keep out of the reach of the authorities till the time of his sentence (five years) had expired, after which he returned to his family but shortly afterwards left the place."

(To be Continued)

My Comments

An interesting story. I have not found any records of this incident from the Court at Inverness nor in any newspaper archives.

Without a record it is impossible to know what the crime was but I did find a report of a cattle theft deal that happened between an unnamed Braemore local and some drovers. I suppose a similar incident would be a possibility and it would carry the likelihood of a sentence of penal servitude – five years imprisonment with hard labour.

The spring cart with the prisoner and officers was heading for Wick. Wick has had a jail for centuries. The first town hall and Burgh jail were erected in 1750 in Tolbooth lane. That building was superseded by another town hall and prison in1828. Apparently a row of old stairs from the prison below Bridge Street was somehow connected to a spiral staircase that led to the courthouse. 

The escaped prisoner who eventually took up residence in a cave was probably a lot more comfortable there than living in a prison cell underneath the court house. Considering the vigilance with which the police usually hunted down ‘black bothies’ (illicit whisky distilleries) and jailed the owners it seems that they were not that determined to find this particular offender.

Scaraben near Braemore is a long ridge with three tops. This view looks up the rough terrain that forms the northern slopes of Scaraben's western top. There are probably good places to hide in the hills here.
Braemore has been a place of habitation and residence for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Standing Stone, Braemore, looking toward Maiden Pap and Morven 

The place Alexander Gunn refers to as Ben Nagoviag I wonder if it is an alternative spelling for Bienn Nan Coireag a hilly area between Braemore and Berriedale. If I am correct there is a Trig station there.

Prisoner’s Leap

The Braemore prisoner was not the first prisoner in this district to leap to freedom. In the Dunbeath Strath near to Braemore is a gorge known as the Prisoner's Leap. The rock on the north side is 100 feet high and on the south side 70 feet high. The distance between is 35 feet. The tradition is that in the sixteenth century a powerfully strong man from Braemore, Ian McMormack Gunn was imprisoned in Forse Castle by his enemies, the Keiths. Fear of retribution from other clans prevented the revered McCormack being hanged.  Instead, the Keiths set him an impossible task, sure to end in his death, saying they would let him go if he jumped the gorge. Of course the strong man confounded all and jumped the gorge. Various versions of the story have the gorge being wider and higher at the time of the feat while others suggest the opposite must be nearer the truth.
Source: Tales from Braemore, Robert Gunn

Monday, August 7, 2017

Gold Hoard Houstry, Dunbeath. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XXVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 8 February 1883 – Part A

Gold at Houstry, Dunbeath

“We have heard of gold discoveries in Kildonan, and in the Berriedale River, but there is not a word said about the discovery of the precious metal that was made at Dunbeath a number of years ago, yet true it is, and no mistake, gold has been found in Dunbeath. In Houstry of which we have been speaking in the past articles, gold was found, not as on the Kildonan and Berriedale in small particles which require much skill and labour to perceive, but in bars and wedges.”

“Somewhere about thirty years ago, a crofter in Houstry, in preparing his ground for the seed in the spring time, turned up some yellow metal, in the form of bars, wedges and rings of a large size. It looked very pare and yellow, not having suffered from rust, or being tarnished in the least, from having been embedded in the soil. 

The man examined it very minutely, and came to the conclusion that the metal was copper. He told his neighbours about it, and showed them what he had found, and also expressed his opinion as to what metal it was. His neighbours seemed to agree with him as to its being copper; one of them a shoe maker, got a few of the bars, and by means of a cold chisel cut the most of it into ‘sparables,’ which he used in the heels of women’s boots, under the impression all the time that it was copper that he was using. Others of the neighbours got some of the rings, in shape and size like dog’s collars, all the while in the belief that they were copper rings or collars. 

After a week or two had elapsed, by some means or other the original finder came to the knowledge that what he had considered all along to be copper was nothing less than pure gold. His first thought was to get possession of the bars and collars he so freely gave to his neighbours, and keep the secret of its real quality to himself. He succeeded in some cases in regaining possession of part of the stuff, but so true it is that ‘murder will out,’ that by some means or other it came to be known what the real quality of those bars and collars were, and those who had not returned them to the finder refused to give them up; the pretence they made was that they considered them so valueless that they threw them aside and they were now lost.”

“The original finder, however got a considerable portion of his lucky find into his possession, and he was determined that no one would deprive him of them. The authorities in Wick heard of the find and the nature of the metal, and they set inquiries on foot with a view of getting possession of them as treasure trove, but the story that the man’s neighbours concocted in answer to his inquiries, he found suitable for his own case, and the authorities did not succeed in getting possession of a single ounce. 

By and by the poor man paid a flying visit to Edinburgh, on pretence that he was visiting friends, while in reality he was disposing of his gold and rings to some of the Edinburgh jewellers. It was reported that he got a couple of hundred pounds as the proceeds of his unexpected find, but he was old fashioned enough not to tell anybody what he got, and by and by the story about the gold bars, wedges and rings was forgotten and the poor man was allowed to reap the fruits of his good luck in peace. No doubt he searched and scanned the place where the treasure was found with great interest and care ever after this, but whether his searches were rewarded with success or not he kept to himself. How these pieces of gold came to be there was a mystery that could never be solved. The same bit of ground had been under cultivation for a long time previous to this, and there never was the least trace of anything of this kind see in it; and how or when it came to be there was a profound mystery.” 

My Comments:


There have been a number of ‘Hoard’ finds in Scotland over the years, some very recently.

Derek McLennan with a Minelab Metal Detector
         & holding ingots and arm-rings discovered in Galloway

  • The Galloway Hoard, also known as the Dumfriesshire Hoard is a hoard of more than 100 gold and silver objects from the Viking age discovered in 2014 by a metal detector enthusiast.
  • The Dairsie Hoard of late 3rd century Roman hacksilver was found in 2014 by a teenage boy at a metal detecting rally. The hoard comprises over 300 pieces of silver, including fragments of at least four vessels.

  • The Migdale Hoard is a collection of early Bronze Age jewellery discovered by workman at a granite knoll behind Bonar Bridge in 1900. They include a bronze axe head, sets of bronze bangles and anklets and some carved jet and cannel coat buttons.

The Treasure Trove Unit

In Scotland any ownerless objects found by chance or through activities such as metal detecting, field walking, or archaeological excavation become the property of the Crown and therefore may be claimed as treasure trove. The role of the Treasure Trove Unit is to ensure that objects of cultural significance from Scotland’s past are protected for the benefit of the nation and preserved in museums across the country.

The Blacksmith's Hoard

One possible older hoard which was relevant to the inhabitants of Badbea was that said to be associated with the Horne family. In Memorabilia Domestica of 1889 Donald Sage comments “Langwell was purchased by Sir John Sinclair and when he too got unhappily involved, was by him forfeited, at a valuation of £40,000, to one Horne, the son of a blacksmith at Scouthel in Caithness, but who had prospered as a lawyer in Edinburgh.

On 20 May 1977 an article was published in the John O Groat Journal connecting James Horne, the new Laird of Langwell, with the possibility of a hoard.

“There is some mystery surrounding this gentleman James Horne.  He was born at Scouthel, Caithness, the son of a local blacksmith.  A part of the mystery lies in the rise of a blacksmith’s son to the prominence of an Edinburgh notary, and his subsequent possession of the Langwell estate in 1813 for the reported figure of £42000.”

“Caithness conjectural lore has it that somewhere about 1750 Horne the Blacksmith, while ploughing on land near Scouthel, turned up treasure trove in the form of massive gold artifacts.  Caithness was at the time host to many forgers and coiners.  The lucky find of Horne’s was soon converted into gold coin of the day and thus, James Horne was enabled to enter the Edinburgh legal profession for the initial training, and subsequently obtained substantial estate retainers…one of which was that of Sir John Sinclair.


Unfortunately there are a number of articles in this series by Alexander Gunn that are missing. The previous article was XVII – 17 Nov 1881, and this one XXVII - 8 Feb 1883, so ten articles over a year are missing. It is possible that they may have survived in the records at the Wick Library but the librarian has not located them and I am not able to go and search again right now.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Whole Contents of the Paper. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days.

Article XVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 17 Nov 1881 – Part D
A Badbea lintel and fireside. This may have been the house of David Sutherland

“News travelled very slowly in those days, and was but very imperfect often when it did come to hand. There was not much startling news came our length, and I must say that a newspaper was not the most welcome visitor to us. If my father got hold of a paper, our good neighbour, David Sutherland, got word of it, and whatever business might be on hand, and however important or pressing, it got leave to stand, and David came to our fireside, when the whole contents of the paper were gone into, and every word read, and read aloud, with the greatest interest. If David got a paper he acted in like manner. We could not imagine how the old folks felt such an interest in reading the papers. As for us, it was the greatest punishment that could be inflicted upon us, as we dare not move from our seats, or speak a word louder than a whisper. Should we forget ourselves, and speak a loud word, we did not miss our punishment. We could sit a live long winter night and listen to stories about fairies and ghosts till our hair would stand on end like a porcupine’s quills with fair fright, and not a single word out of our head, but we had no taste for politics, or general news, and we could not conceive how anybody else could have cravings that way.”
John O Groat Journal 1845

“A brutal murder was committed at Wick about this time. How the intelligence reached our length I cannot say. Such horrible affairs were not so common in those days as, alas, they are now. Years might pass without a single case occurring in Scotland, or England. There were, however, a few cases of murder in dear Ould Ireland even in those quiet time, even before the shooting of landlords had found a place among the sports in the Irish calendar, and a man in our neighbourhood declared his partiality for Irish newspapers, because, he said, there were murders and outrages reported in them pretty often.”

(To be continued.)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Newspapers and Postage. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 17 Nov 1881 – Part C


"I referred to the library in connection with the school, as the only literature we had within our reach. Newspapers in those days were a rarity in the far north. The John O’Groat Journal and the Northern Star, if I remember right came into existence about the time I allude to, the one published in Wick where it still flourishes, the other, I think, in Thurso. They were both diminutive sheets, perhaps about 12 inches by 10, so far as I can recollect. Then the Northern Ensign came into life, and I need not say still flourishes prosperously. The price of these papers at the time was 3d, I think, and I believe the postage for one of them would cost as much as the price of the paper."


"There was no penny post at that time, and the rate of the postage was very high. A letter from Helmsdale to Berriedale, or Badbea, which was only one stage, cost 4 1/2d. A letter from Edinburgh was 1s 1d, and letters to Canada cost 2s 6d. There was this advantage, if advantage it could be called, there was no rule as to prepayment, and no difference in the rate whether prepaid or not."

My Comments:

As Alexander Gunn tells us, in the1830s postal rates in Great Britain were very high. At the time it was usual for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and distance travelled. In 1837 Sir Rowland Hill proposed an overhaul of the postage system using a glued stamp to show pre-payment of postage. It was first issued on 1 May 1840 and featured a picture of Queen Victoria. The ‘Penny Black’ allowed letters of up to ½ ounce to be delivered at the rate of one penny regardless of distance.

The Grey Hen’s Well was the place Badbea letters were collected and posted from. I doubt most of the Badbea residents could afford to post letters but John Badbea Sutherland received some financial gifts from Christians he corresponded with and over several decades he both wrote and received many letters. The earliest I have a transcription of is 12 July 1838.

See my blogs on August 18 2014 and July 15 2015 for more on the postal services and John’s letters.