Friday, November 29, 2013

Ghosts of Badbea

This visit to Badbea had a bad start. In the Badbea car park next to my car was an expensive Hummer (someone’s steed) with guns, easily visible, lying in the rear. On glancing to the nearby skyline we saw a group of people, three men and one woman, walking across the moor with more guns at their elbows and a hunting dog. It was early in the shooting season and they were probably within their rights but as we scrambled down the track we hoped the hunters on the horizon could tell the difference between our movements and the grouse they were ferreting out! Being direct descendants of an old Badbea family it was not hard for us to get the feeling that the Laird was watching! The voices of our ancestors were saying to us “Be careful. Watch your step. Game is theirs!”

Our whole visit to Badbea was imbued with a sense of our ancestors. 

The stones remaining were not just stones. I found what may have been the stepping stones to the entrance to my great, great, grandmother Christina Sutherland's house. The feeling of kinship was strong.  I touched the stones to complete the connection between us. Did she run down these steps as she went on her way to her wedding with John McLeod in 1822?

What happened just before we left Badbea took my breath away.  I was standing by the monument high on the braes telling my companion the story of Malcom Sutherland. Of him coming in sight of home with a boat load of wood when he was overtaken by a storm and drowned. The skies were heavy with shadows and the chill of the past was affecting. Malcom’s story somehow acquired extra mythical value being told from the place where the disaster happened. We named Malcom Sutherland, and captured his story while rooted in his landscape, “Malcom Sutherland drowned right there.”

As I pointed my arm out to sea, to the waters of the Moray Firth, to the location the boat would have come into view of Badbea, the waters were strangely disturbed. They rose in a small feathery ‘spout’ about a metre high. It may have been a shoal of herrings but there were no sea birds hovering. Then there was the light!  A shaft of light hovered directly both over and in the shivering waters as they moved.

I got my camera out of its bag and was able to capture one quick shot as the waters receded and the strange light went out.  What had taken place was seen by both my companion and myself. My mind mulled over the ancient belief that when a person dies their soul is released but may lurk around if their death was unjust as was the death of young, brave Malcom Sutherland. Malcom has good reason to haunt this specific place as he does. He is asking us not to let such injustice ever happen again. 

We went back to the car, passed the rocks and hard places of the Badbea village to the car park where the Hummer with attitude and her cargo of guns added further to our sense of disquiet.

The ghosts of the living and the dead, both holy and unholy, were present with us this day.

Summer Sea by Joan Eardley 1962

In preparing this blog I have read:
The Ghosts of Place, Michael Mayerfeld Bell,1997
Narratives in a Landscape, Paul Basu, 1997


  1. Hello. I am not familiar with the background of the story about Malcolm Sutherland. Would you possibly share a little more? I am curious what injustice occurred in relation to his shipwreck that leaves his soul so restless.

    1. Hello and sorry for my delay in replying to you. I think this post about Malcom Sutherland needs to be read in the context of some other posts for example 'A Grim Time'. In short, Badbea was turned from a tiny isolated hamlet with the family of William Sutherland living there to a overflowing 'Clearance' village where crofters who had been evicted from nearby settlements such as Ausdale were forced to live in very difficult, crowded and extreme conditions. The way of life for young Malcom Sutherland and his family was totally disrupted yet there are many stories of the support they gave to their new neighbours, for example David Sutherland (only brother of Malcom who survived) was a kind and helpful neighbour. It seems unlikely that Malcom would have been off in a boat getting wood if not for the urgent needs of the new inhabitants of Badbea. Hopes this helps and thanks for your question. By the way my spelling of the name of Malcom is the way his name is spelled on his baptism record - I guess it was the old Scottish spelling.