Thursday, September 26, 2013

Seeing is Believing

Although I have only a very few records of the lives of William and Christian I have stood on the very ground on which they lived their married lives. There are many commentaries, for example the BBC saying: 

"The remote settlement of Badbea perched on cliff tops above the sea, is one of the most notorious locations to have received dispossessed Highlanders, as well as one of the earliest."

 But it takes a visit in howling wind and rain squalls to even half appreciate what a perilous place it was to live and raise a family of six sons. A scramble, down a track finds flattish areas of poor soil that slope away to hazardous cliffs several hundred feet high that are too dangerous to venture close enough to look over even on all fours. Later, lives were indeed lost over the cliffs, mangled on the rocks below.

Is this just a pile of old hewn stones or the entrance to the doorway of William and Christian's house? The stones are huge and may even be relics of the earliest settlements here.

The winter winds here are high, the days short and dark, while snow often covers the ground. The summer evenings are light almost to midnight. A warm bright Scottish summer day makes Badbea feel possibly survivable – but only just if one is still cautious.

Back in the late eighteenth century, there were no formed roads between hamlets. At Badbea there were neither horses nor carts (told in later correspondence). It was utter wilderness between Ausdale and Badbea. So how did work get done? Everything had to be carried on people’s backs in woven baskets called creels. Seaweed was brought up death defying cliff tracks in creels to manure the poor soil

Seaweed on the nearby Helmsdale shore
Household water for this early settlement was drawn from the tiny Badbea burn that ran across the braes (hills) and over the cliff.

The land was tilled with a primitive sort of spade, known as a chas chrom, that had a long bent handle and was forced into the ground by pressing it down with the right foot, the handle pressed down on the left knee, then prised up and turned over. This spade was especially useful on rocky land. The men dug the land, while the women carried the seaweed for manure in woven creels (baskets) on their back, tended the crops, reaped them and carried the crop home on their backs.

The main crops grown were oats and barley. Threshing was a shared task. William would likely have grown the ‘new’ crops -  potatoes and turnips - which had been introduced to the Highlands mid century. Kale was long a staple in these parts. The two photos shown would have been taken maybe 120 years later than when William and Christian were tilling the land at Badbea but the principle of the use of the chas chrom was the same.

Source: Electric Scotland
Peat – the main source of fuel was readily available but very hard work to get cut, dried and carried home for use in the household. Bringing in the peats involved every member of the family. Peat deserves, and will get, a blog of its own. 

Mary at the Western Isles. 
Source: Am Baile Facebook
The men were often away fishing or away doing the obligatory work for the landlord (to pay the rent) so the wife had to turn her hand to whatever needed doing on the land and in the house.  She was also responsible for spinning wool to be made into garments for her family, and bore and raised the children. Bearing at least six sons in this isolated environment was both a great accomplishment and very risky matter for Christian. With very limited midwife support many women died in childbirth at this time.
Women often used their spinning wheel outside where the light was better. 
Source: Am Baile Facebook
"The native game found at Ausdale, Badbea, Struie and the moors bounding these places included deer (both red and roe deer), grouse, ptarmigan, black game (woodcock, snipe and plover), and hares. Badbea was noted for being the habitat of numerous foxes, wildcats, and Adder snakes (still there). Along the Badbea cliffs and amongst the rocks that were the resort of foxes and wild cats was a place called 'Clach-an-garabh' from where the foxes came at night to prey on the Badbea fowls."

"Also there were, along the cliffs at Badbea, great numbers of sea fowl - a source of food when all else failed. These fleshy, fishy sea birds were known as 'borries', the flesh of which, even after being buried for a time in the earth, as was recommended treatment to reduce the fishy flavour, still leaned to the strong side in the opinion of persons who would not have been considered over fastidious. 'Bories' were sometimes dried." 

Ferguson fowling on St Kilda. 
Source: http//

"At some times of the year, gull's eggs were gathered at great risk to life and limb in scaling the cliffs searching out nests. Nests with three or occasionally four eggs were not touched, for the eggs would be hatching - nests with just one egg, or if desperate with two eggs, were those robbed, for in these nests the eggs were 'new laid." Source: Alexander Gunn
This awesome picture of the Badbea cliffs by Sylvia Duckworth shows what a hazardous place it was to live. The settlements were close to the cliffs.

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