Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Some Reminiscences of Helmsdale  Part D

Published in the Northern Ensign on 22 July 1890

To The Editor of the Northern Ensign

Cholera in Helmsdale

“Helmsdale suffered severely from the cholera scourge that passed over the country in the summer of 1832." 

Sketch of a Girl who died of cholera, in Sunderland, November, 1831 artist unknown.
"The herring-fishing boats from the south brought the disease with them, and in some cases one or more of the crew died during the passage. Latterly, the excitement got to such a height that the people lined the beach and stoned the boats attempting to land, when they had to put to sea again with some of their number dead on board.”


“There was a cholera hospital erected in the town, and a man named Hugh Gordon and his wife Babie Mhore, Big Barbara, were put in charge and though they had to handle all the living and the dead in the hospital, they escaped the contagion, while the doctor of the place was cut off and died within that year.  

HINTS RESPECTING CHOLERA was circulated by the Inverness Board of Health, Inverness, 6th September, 1832.
The cholera epidemic originated in India in 1829. Its cause was unknown. The correlation between cholera and contaminated drinking water was not discovered until 1854


"As soon as they heard of the dreaded disease being there, they fled, and went down to ports on the Caithness coast such as Dunbeath and Lybster. As for Wick, the plague broke out there also and a good many of the people of the place were carried away by the disease. Though other places had a second visit of the dread disease, it never reached Helmsdale again."

I am Etc
A Native of Badbea
Glasgow, July 1890

My Comments:

"When the report was heard at Wick that cholera was raging in Helmsdale, more than one hundred of those who were engaged as fishermen in Wick, belonging to the West coast and Skye, abandoned the work with horror, and left the town at night without their masters' consent. Being loath to take the usual road home, as Helmsdale was straight before them on their way, they steered their course through the mountains of Lord Reay's country and Sutherland. They had no money or provisions for their journey, and there were no houses during great part of their solitary and painful travel in the mountains. Some of their companions who left Wick along with them, have not as yet been seen or heard of; and whether they have returned to their masters at Wick, or perished in the mountains with hunger and fatigue, is not known." Inverness Courier.

A day or two ago, in an adjoining village, a tall raw-boned son of the Green Island was pursued by those harmless doves beadles. Pat was aware of their approach to his mansion, and, having put on a red nightcap, remained undaunted at their appearance. On being told he must accompany them to gaol, " Hold back," said he, "as you value your precious existence. I’m an Asiatic cholera patient; and, if you come one step nearer me, as I live, I'll blow my pestilential breath on you." A word is enough to the wise—the beadles postponed their call.

October 10.—There is a striking account of the introduction of cholera into the North of Scotland, and its ravages in Easter Ross, written by Hugh Miller. "In the month of July 1832," he says, "the disease was introduced by some South countrymen, fishermen, into the town of Wick, and a village of Sutherlandshire [Helmsdale]; and from the latter place, on the following August, into the fishing villages of the peninsula of Easter Ross. It visited Inverness, Nairn, Dingwall, Urquhart, and Rosemarkie, a few weeks after. In the villages of Ross the disease assumed a more terrible aspect than it had yet presented in any other part of Britain. In the little village of Portmahomack one-fifth of the inhabitants were swept away; in the still smaller village of Inver nearly one-half. 

So abject was the poverty of the people that in some instances there was not a bit of candle in any house in a whole village; and when the disease seized the inmates in the night-time, they had to grapple in darkness with its fierce pains and mortal terrors, and their friends, in the vain attempt to assist them, had to grope round their beds. Before morning they were in most instances beyond the reach of medicine. 

The infection spread with frightful rapidity. In Inver, though the population did not much exceed a hundred persons, eleven bodies were committed to the earth without shroud or coffin in one day; in two days after they had buried nineteen more. Many survivors fled from the village, leaving behind them the dead and the dying, and took shelter, some in the woods and some among the hollows of an extensive track of sandhills. But the pest followed them to their hiding place, and they expired in the open air. Whole families were found lying dead on their cottage floors. In one instance an infant, the only survivor, lay grovelling on the body of its mother, wailing feebly among the dead, the sole mourner in the charnel-house of the pestilence. Two young persons, a lad and his sister, were seen digging a grave for their father in the church-yard of Nigg, and then carrying the corpse to it on a cart, no one venturing to assist them." Such is a contemporary account of the horrors of this painful time. From the "Inverness Courier." 1832.

Photo from Timespan exhibition

Monday, June 18, 2018

“The Want of Carelessness”

Written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea. 
Part C continued from Helmsdale Part B

Published in the Northern Ensign on 22 July 1890
To The Editor of the Northern Ensign

“…and Donald Ross in the Commercial, a man much respected by the travelling public.”

“From the Commercial the mail coach started her journeys south and north. The bugle was sounded coming from the south at the back of the park, and coming from the north down at the Boghals, to warn the strappers to have the horses in readiness when the coach arrived. Angus Mackay was guard – a good-natured, kind hearten man, ready to give a free lift at a time if out of sight of his employer. On being spoken to on one occasion for a breach of orders he declared that he could not resist the temptation of giving a lift to 'an old man or a bonnie lassie’.”
What Gunn refers to as Boghals is shown on the map as Bogholes.

Scottish Post Office Directories Scotland 1837
Pigot & Co’s national commercial directory. Page 772

“Mr Ross had a peculiar way of expressing himself when any awkward thing happened about his premises. He would say, 'It is just the want of carelessness!’ 

Kildonan Census 1851 Freecen

"I am pleased to know that Mrs Ross carries on the business of the Commercial still with as much of the esteem of the public as ever. She has seen her jubilee in the Commercial and I am sure it would be a pleasure to all who ever came in contact with her to give some tangible proof of their appreciation of her genial and honourable dealings with all and sundry of her numerous customers.”

My Comments:

The Commercial Inn was built in 1816. At a much later date it was renamed The Bridge Hotel because of its close proximity to the Telford Bridge.

It seems that Mrs Margaret Ross outlived Mr Donald Ross. Their son George eventually took over the management of the hotel.
The Helmsdale Bridge was built by Thomas Telford in 1811

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Helmsdale Shopkeepers and Merchants

Written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea.

Published in the Northern Ensign on 22 July 1890

To The Editor of the Northern Ensign

Continued from Helmsdale Part A
Helmsdale village looking south about 1910 - Timespan

Shopkeepers and Merchants

"The shopkeepers, or merchants as they were usually called, were Donald Mackenzie, Joseph Mackay (who, I am pleased to hear is still alive, and engaged in farming; I have many pleasant memories of my interviews with him), "

"Andrew Mackay, David Mackay, Paul Gordon, Donald Ross, ( who, I am pleased to hear is still alive, and also employed in farming, a most intimate friendship existed between us) Robert Rutherford, John Gunn, ‘Major’ John Cooper and ‘Coffee John.’ There were drapers, grocers, etc. Donald Mackay, ‘Losach’ was in the spirit trade:"

"John Gordon in the boot and shoe trade; and Alexander Polson, ‘Na Garlack,’ and Alexander Gordon dealt in miscellaneous goods. David Sutherland was the baker; Charles Ross the blacksmith;"

"and Donald Grant, the tailor; Robert Kaeson, a big man, was in the Surrey Arms; and Donald Ross in the Commercial, a man much respected by the travelling public."

To be continued…

My Comments:

The expansion of the Helmsdale shops and commercial centre was related to the growth of the fishing industry.

The Badbea residents (which Alexander Gunn was as a young man) walked in fine weather to Helmsdale on a Sunday to worship – not that they would have done any trading on a Sunday which was strictly observed as “the Lord’s day’.

Alexander Gunn had such a remarkable memory.

A quick look at the households in the 1851 Kildonan, Sutherland census on https://freecen.org.uk shows many of the names of both the fishermen and shopkeepers that Gunn quotes in his article. The census record is useful as it includes the names of the wives of Helmsdale shopkeepers and details of their families and servants. Invariably they all helped mend the fishing nets or run the shop. The wife of Paul Gordon Draper and Grocer was only 16. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Some Reminiscences of Helmsdale

Some Reminiscences of Helmsdale

Written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea.

Published in the Northern Ensign on 22 July 1890. Part A

To The Editor of the Northern Ensign

Helmsdale 2008

Sir. -Your readers and the natives of Helmsdale have been treated to a sketch of the present state of the place. I propose with your permission and that of your readers, to give a sketch of what the place was like in my young days, when I believe it was in a more flourishing condition than it is at present.

Distillery and Meal Mill

The time was in my recollection when the distillery was in full swing, carried on by William and Alexander Simpson, who were extensive fishcurers as well. They also carried on farming at the Boghals. There was a meal mill in full operation at Navidale, the miller being Robert Gunn, ‘Au Rean.’ 


The limekiln which stood to the west of the distillery was used in burning lime for a supply to those building houses in Helmsdale and the neighbourhood. About this time the pier was extended to its present dimensions and the wall facing the river and the outside of the basin was built.
Old Telford Bridge and curing yard Now Timespan c1910s


Fishcuring was carried on most extensively on both sides of the river. On the north side the curers were Jarvise, John MacLeod, Hampton, William and Alexander Simpson, Kenneth Sutherland, Donald Mackenzie, D. Cooper, Peter Cuthbert, ‘Petrie,’ Robert Fraser, Andrew Mackay, and Methven. On the south side, below the castle, later on, were Donald Ross, John Mackay, ‘Heylum,’ Alexander Bruce, Angus Proucle and Alex Macleod. These were, as far as I remember, the curers. There would be fully 200 boats fishing in Helmsdale about this time.

Fishing Boats

I have seen the river from the bridge to the end of the pier crammed with boats and ships, so that one could walk from end to end of the harbour over boats. Thousands of pounds were circulated in the place during the fishing season, and a large number of coopers were employed during the rest of the year.
Helmsdale Harbour c1880

My Comments:

The village of Helmsdale is a few miles south of Badbea on the east coast of Sutherland where the Helmsdale River flows into the North Sea. The new Helmsdale village was planned on a grid pattern by the Sutherland Estates in 1814 at the time crofters were being cleared. The intention was that crofters could make a living fishing herring. There were fish in abundance but it was dangerous work for men who initially had few of the skills to man fishing boats and bring in herrings in the North Sea. The Helmsdale harbour was built in 1818 and extended in 1823 and again in 1892. It was one of the largest herring fleets in Europe.

The old distillery is shown on the map as a long building over looking the sea to the east of the village. The distillery was originally run by A & D Simpson between 1825 and 1831 and then by Alexander Simpson & Co between 1831 and 1837 and finally by James Christie and Co. Christie went bankrupt and the distillery was closed and dismantled. A modern house is now on the site of the old distillery.

House called 'Lobster Pot' on site of old distillery

The meal mill at Navidale was somewhere near the ruins visible in this Google Earth picture.

I can’t find any trace of the lime kiln but see Geograph picture for what they look like. Lime kilns were just a large furnace with an opening at the top. Chunks of limestone from a quarry would be layered in the kiln with coal or peat and then set alight. The fire would burn slowly for a day or two. When it was cool the quicklime that had accumulated at the base would be raked out. It was a very energy intensive process.  Limewash or white wash was used extensively on house walls and in cellars to improve the light.

To be continued...

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Find of a Cannon Ball at Badbea Shore

Written by Alexander Gunn and published in the Northern Ensign on 27 May 1890

To the Editor of the Northern Ensign,

'SIR – I observed a paragraph in your last week’s issue that a cannon ball had been picked up on the shore at Badbea and expressing wonder how it came to be there. I am not sure I am able to solve the mystery, but it occurred to me that it might have found its way there in this way.'
Ceann Ousdale. The track up to Auchencraig was between the two hills.

'In the good old times when Auchencraig was inhabited by a happy and comfortable people, there was a good deal of smuggling indulged in, and on one occasion when several of the inhabitants had a “browst” on hand, the revenue cutter the Atlanta, put in all appearance on the coast -a very unwelcome visitor at any time, but more especially in the circumstances such as I refer to. When opposite the port of Auchencraig - for it was a port of considerable importance in those days, as no less than thirteen boats went out from that place every night during the herring fishing season, and there were thousands of crans cured there every year -  the crew of the cutter launched and manned their boats and made for the shore.' 
Scrabster harbour 1891

'Their movements were seen from Auchencraig by watchers on the outlook when it was determined that the boat should be prevented from landing for a time at least, till all the stuff should be got into hiding. The plan was this - the male portion of the inhabitants were do their utmost to put the stuff into hiding, and the females were to arrange themselves on braehead and roll large boulders down the steep brae above the shore making it certain death to any one who would venture to land. In this way the boat was prevented from landing. When the captain saw what was going on, he sailed as close inshore as he could with safety, and opened fire on the women, when the balls like hail came showering about them.' 
A jammed cannon ball

This old cannon barrel on Wiveton Green was scrapped because the cannon ball jammed at the end of the barrel when it was fired and the pressure of the charge blew a hole through the side of the barrel.

'Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the boat was not permitted to land till everything was considered safe. Then the cutter's men climbed up the steep rocks in a great hurry and fury and caught every woman they saw and examined their hands to see if they were soiled, expecting in this way to discover those who were engaged in the stone battle. The men kept out of sight all this time. The cutter-men threatened to take some of the women away with them, but did not put the threat into execution, which was as well  as the men were prepared to rescue the women had there been an attempt made to carry them off.  My idea is that perhaps the Atlanta might fire a few shots in passing at Badbea with a view of showing the Badbea folks what they might expect should they at any time attempt a line of defence similar to that adopted by the Auchencraig folks, and in this way a ball would likely fall on the shore at Badbea. This may not account for the finding of the ball, but it is the most likely theory I can suggest. Should it be accounted for in any other way, I shall he glad to hear it.'


Glasgow, 16th May, 1890

My Comments:

A similar recollection by Gunn of the same event was blogged on February 5, 2015.

The date of this incident is not given but since Auchencraig was ‘cleared’ in 1830 and the report below by MacCulloch was published in 1824 it must have occurred well before that date.
 I don't know what the cannons on the Atalanta were like but this one was from the Napolean War 1815 so perhaps not far removed from the time of the above incident. Source: Inniskillings Regimental Museum

As has been noted before ‘smuggling’ or making whisky locally was a widespread practice in the Highlands and was an important source of income. Squirmishes were common. The surveillance was about tax. Taxmen or excise officers were appointed to hunt out small hidden stills but with the hundreds of miles of rugged coastline and countless small caves and caverns in which whisky was both distilled and transported from, the revenue cutter Atalanta operated from sea. That they could fire cannon balls, which would inflict a most hideous death, at Highland crofters seems astounding. But clearly the Auchencraig inhabitants were prepared to roll deadly stones down the brae at the cutter’s men to protect their livelihood. 

Another eye witness of Auchencraig appears in MacCulloch’s ‘Letters to Sir Walter Scott,’ published in 1824:
‘I had occasion to land with a boat under the magnificent cliffs near the Ord (of Caithness), where a party of men, women and children were employed on the herrings, while the rocks were strewn with barrels and the shore with boats, and horse were seen scrambling up and down a narrow track in the cliffs, the sight of which made my head giddy. Such are the ports which nature has bestowed upon a coast to which the herrings have though fit lately to retire from the magnificent bays and lochs of the west; hoping perhaps they would not be so easily caught, salted, barreled off to feed negroes.’

‘The herring cleaners received us in a menacing attitude, and with shouts of defiance and offence. We knew very well they were wild Sutherlanders. It is not uncommon to find that one division of the present race of Highlanders has as little respect for its neighbours as the most prejudiced enemy can have for the while tribe, though they are all confounded under a common term.
 ‘The cause of the impending war was not at first apparent; but the sight of a vessel in the offing with the Union Jack at her gaff (the cutter Atalanta) suggested to us that we were supposed to belong to it, and that we had fallen in with a race of smugglers. It was too dangerous to expostulate or explain under a shower of stones; we therefore hauled off and left the field to the ‘enemy.’