Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Good Neighbour - Part A

David Badbea Sutherland - Part A

David Badbea Sutherland is a 'braw' man to pull up from the Grey Hen's Well. He was described by Alexander Gunn as 'Our Good Neighbour.' I'll tell why.

David Sutherland was born in Badbea in 1770 and lived there all his life. He probably could have left at some stage but he didn't. His father was William and his grandfather David Sutherland of Ousdale. His mother was Christian Finlayson of Langwell.

Little is known of the early life of David but the stories told of him in later life show that he learned many skills growing up in Badbea. Keeping in mind that Badbea was a hostile place, extremely cold in winter, with salt laden winds and frequent fierce storms hammering the settlement a lot of the year, David's skills and knowledge of this environment must have made the difference between eking out an existence and insufferable hardship for the families cleared to Badbea.


Census Badbea 1851

Barrels at Timespan, Helmsdale

The census of 1851 tells us that David was a cooper, meaning he was a maker and repairer of wooden barrels. The barrels were used in the fishing industry.

Although the herring industry in the North of Scotland grew substantially in the mid-nineteenth century, the 1818 engraving of 'Castle Berrydale' by William Daniell shows fishing activity established in Berriedale then.

The Berriedale scene is of fishing boats pulled up on the shore, nets spread to dry, lasses gutting fish and barrels made by coopers ready to pack the catch. Berriedale was only a four mile walk from Badbea so it is likely that David Sutherland worked in the Berriedale fishing industry as a cooper, passing the Grey Hen's Well every day on his way to work. From Berriedale he would have undoubtedly learned early to help catch fish for his family, thus gaining important local knowledge of the sea and its dangerous currents. 

Here is a 21st century view of this inlet and the remains of the ancient 'Castle of Berrydale'  from the old Berriedale Cemetery.

Tee Names

It was common practice in Caithness in those time to attribute to some people Tee-names or community nick-names. This was the case with several Badbea personalities whose given names were in widespread use. David Sutherland was thus known as David Badbea Sutherland.

David's House

About the time David's father William married for a second time and there was a new young family in that household, David, about 30 years old, built himself a house very near his father's house. David's house was an improvement on older Badbea houses. It was the largest house in the hamlet, had two chimneys and was the only house at that time that had a level foundation. David was a home maker and an entrepreneur!
He was also said to be the builder and handy-man for the settlement. Despite having a new house David never married. The new house showed his commitment to staying in this difficult place and over time it was well used. 

 Could these be the ruins of David Badbea Sutherland's house

These ruins are very near the centre of the old community on flat land. Clearly there is also a fireplace at the end of the house. 

About ten years after David built his house, his father William and step-mother Katherine both died. David's half brothers and sisters were left orphaned. David and his cousin John Badbea Sutherland (another Tee name) shared the responsibility of caring for these children. It seems probable that Christina lived with David until she married in 1822 and left Badbea. Christina and David remained especially close to each other right until David died. As well David was held in remarkably high esteem by his brother Alexander in New Zealand. David kept working in the fishing industry and supporting his orphaned brothers and sisters. 

The 1841 census shows a whole family living with David. The 65 year old bachelor has a Gunn family with 5 young children plus a Female Servant living with him in his house. 


There was a long history of Highlanders distilling whisky at home or in nearby bothies or caves. In the eighteenth century the government began to tax whisky, thus driving the distillers underground. The illicit distilling of whisky was known as smuggling and was standard practice for most Highland communities, Badbea included, with no moral stigma attached. The tax was difficult to enforce in remote districts. Battles between smugglers and the gaugers or excise officers were regular and ongoing. 

Whenever the excise men stopped at the Berriedale Inn on their way round the district a signalling system from the owner of the Inn and the Badbea people went into action.
Highland Whisky Still by R R McIan

At Badbea stills were cleverly hid in the heather clad hills or in a cave at the bottom of the cliffs. Distilling whisky was an important way money could be raised. 

Alexander Gunn reports on the outcome of a visit by the excise officers to Badbea.

'Should there be found any tubs or barrrels in the bothy, they would be hurled over the cliffs down the face of the rock and would reach the shore in staves. With the excise out of sight the staves lying scattered on the shore would be gathered up and handed to David Sutherland, better known as 'David Badbea' who combined the offices of joiner and cooper, and in twenty-four hours they were all in their former shape and ready for use..' 

The News

David Badbea was able to read and write and was knowledgeable with figures. He read English, surprising when Gaelic was used in much of the Highlands. There was no school close to Badbea when he was young and it was not common for everyone to read well. How he learned to read is anyone's guess but one commentator has a theory that Christian Finlayson, David's mother, had a brother who was a school teacher in Dunbeath. Perhaps Christian could also read and taught her eldest son, or perhaps David's uncle the school master taught him.
Source: Roydhouse unpublished

Alexander Gunn who was a lad in Badbea has this to say:

News travelled very slowly in those days, and was but very imperfect 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 of 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, but we had no taste for politics, or general news, and we could not conceive how anybody else could have cravings that way.

Newspapers were a rarity in the far North. The 'Northern Star' and the 'John O Groat Journal' came into existence at this time I speak of. Both were diminutive sheets, perhaps about 12" X 10", Their price was at the time 3d., and the postage would be as much as the cost of the paper.

Source: Northern Ensign 17 Nov 1881

A Cooper at work

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