Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dry Stone Wall - Achnacraig, Badbea to Langwell

Dry Stone Wall at Badbea

The Badbea Dry Stone Wall

Dry Stone Walls aka Dry Stane Dykes are seen all over Scotland. In the Highlands where trees and hedges don’t grow so well, stones are plentiful, so a stone wall is a logical way to build a barrier or enclosure. Dry stone walls are not held together with mortar but built with stones carefully chosen and placed. They can last for hundreds of years. It’s pretty amazing when one thinks that every single stone in a wall has been selected and put in place by hand and there it stays.

Stone walls fascinate because they prompt reflection on the way the land has been used and why the wall was built in the first place. Like others the stone wall at Badbea is a story teller. The Badbea wall marches along from the ruins of Achnacraig near Ousdale through Badbea to Langwell and almost to Berriedale. The road distance from Ousdale to Berriedale is 4.7 miles so the wall must be a bit less. In many places the wall was originally five feet high. That’s a very substantial wall and an amazing amount of stone work in a place that now looks deserted and unproductive. So what’s the story?
Red line shows the wall. The line behind it is the road now the A9.
OS one inch to the mile Maps of Scotland, 2nd edition 1885-1900

The Story

At the turn of the nineteenth century, big changes were happening on estates in terms of farming and land use. Plans by large landowners to make more money and adapt their farming practices were developing fast. But these changes were not compatible with the old ways of crofting. In short, crofting families were being moved to new localities so that large scale sheep farms could be established. Hence the old hamlet of Badbea on the Langwell estate was turned into a Clearance village. Despite the plans of proprietors to make more money farming sheep, the Langwell estate changed owners several times because the current owner had financial problems. One owner Sir John Sinclair was very enthusiastic about the good prospects of sheep being farmed on the Langwell estate and moved a lot of crofters as he converted his land use. But Sir John ran out of money and sold Langwell to James Horne whose ruthlessness in eviction was matched only by his successor and nephew Donald Horne. The story of the Badbea dry stone wall is not a nice one.

The Story Gets Ugly

According to Alexander Gunn, born and raised in Badbea, the building of the stone dyke was part of an eviction policy by the Laird Donald Horne. Donald Horne evicted a number of well-established tenants from Achnacraig a thriving fishing village near Ousdale. Here is an ugly part of the story:

‘The inhabitants of the villages were driven to the four winds of heaven, and their once comfortable habitations were demolished and used in building a five feet stone dyke around the place, which was of course converted to a sheep walk.’
Source: Dundee and Perth Saturday Post, September 1855, Evictions on the Estate of Langwell From 1830-31 To 1855, A Native of Badbea

So the southern part of the wall, at least, was built from the long established and comfortable homes of the evicted.

Donald Horne Threatens

From Ousdale looking toward Achnacraig where the wall begins.
The remains of the school master's house are visible. This was
 built later.
So confident was Alexander Gunn in his facts that in September 1855 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Dundee and Perth Saturday Post publicly castigating Horne and denouncing the evictions in the estate of Langwell from 1830-31 to 1855. Donald Horne was alive and still the Laird of Langwell. He was furious and had an Edinburgh lawyer threaten Gunn with legal action if he did not retract his accusations. Gunn refused and hit back saying that if the matter went to court Horne would come out a blacker man than when he entered the court.  ‘I said Mr Horne might have the power to hang me, but no power on earth would make me retract.’ Horne never dared follow with the court threat knowing full well that Gunn’s accusations were true.
 Source: Northern Ensign, 23 June 1892, Land Reform in Caithness – How the Agitation Began, A Native of Badbea
Wall from Badbea looking back toward Achnacraig


Under Donald Horne’s instructions the wall grew and before long was running along behind the Badbea houses. This had a very serious effect on the Badbea residents:
Ewes and lambs at Badbea grazing on heather
‘Badbea proper had a good space of hill pasture at one time that was very useful, and enabled the people to rear a few cattle, which, when sold, helped to pay their rents, and supply them with other necessaries; but the laird set his eye upon it, and seized fully one - fourth of it, separating it from the rest by a deep ditch and high paling. There was no proportionate reduction made in the poor people's rents for this. Then a few years later there was a five feet stone dyke run along the face of the hill behind the houses, only a few hundred feet distant, enclosing them as in a pen. The rocks and the sea on one side and this dyke on the other deprived them of three- fourths of their hill pasture, and yet there was no reduction in the rents. By this state of matters the poor people were driven to a state of perfect desperation, but there was no redress. They dare not remonstrate, however respectfully, unless they wished to be turned out altogether. Latterly, so palpable was it that the poor people could not exist in this miserable state that the usual way was taken of dealing with what was considered superfluous population. One half of them were turned out of their lots which they had cultivated, some for forty years, and others for thirty years..’
Source: Northern Ensign, No Date, Rambling Recollections of Berriedale, Badbea and Neighbourhood, A Native of Badbea.

Cyclopean Dimensions

Another description of the wall was published in 1893 after members of the Royal Commission in Sutherlandshire visited Badbea.

The Northern Ensign reported:  
Today the Commissioners began the work of inspection…

'...They drove through the large farm of Ausdale, which occupies that part of Caithness lying between the Duke of Portland's deer forest and the Sutherland boundary. Leaving the road at the northern boundary of the farm (Ausdale), they struck over the hill toward the sea, and there all at once, and suddenly, came upon a sight that took away their breath, namely, the wonderful settlement of Badbea. It was hard to say what thought passed through the minds of the Commissioners at the sight of this model settlement, though their feelings certainly could not be of admiration. This miserable place is on the Estate of the Duke of Portland; and to give an adequate description of its situation and amenities would simply baffle the resources of language. The township - so called by courtesy – is rigourously hemmed in to the dizzy sea-cliffs by a granite wall of Cyclopean dimensions. This is presumably to shut out the large farm of Ausdale from any chance of being profaned by the vulgar hoof. A possible explanation might certainly be that it was to prevent the flight of the people from such a situation. The wall would certainly have some show of reason and justification were it built along the edge of the fearful precipices to prevent the people from slipping off the barren inclined plane on which they live into the sea. Some years ago this place had ten families. It now has three. The greater and certainly the best part of the arable land which could only have been brought under cultivation by almost superhuman labour and industry, has now been thrown waste and into the apparently insatiable maw of the large farmer. Yet there exist people who talk about unscrupulous agitators! A scramble on all fours through the boulder paved and studded land of Badbea, down through the once township of Achnacraig, now a desolation, a stiff climb up the birch clad banks of the Ausdale burn, past the township of Borgie, also now a waste, and onto the road through the Ausdale parks - that was the course. Then back across the Ord, down through the farm of Navidale, and back by the shore to Helmsdale finished the day's work.
Source: The Northern Ensign, Tuesday, September 19, 1893, The Royal Commission in Sutherlandshire

Horne's Unintentional Monument to Greed

So what can one make of the story the Badbea dyke tells? These days with big gaps and sheep jumping over, the wall has fairly much lost its use value – it may give sheep some shelter, but it can never be encountered blankly as in, ‘Oh here is a sheep dyke’. The nearby farm at Ousdale is well-run and productive, but the land at Badbea where the sheep are grazing looks scruffy and marginal. It was never a good farming idea to try to establish a ‘sheep walk’ here on wind-blown heathery braes facing the Moray Firth. There is an irony that Donald Horne who doggedly thought himself a successful ‘improvement’ farmer and land developer has left such a public legacy of failed farming practice. But with this four mile long, dry stone wall, intentionally built by Horne he has created an immense unintentional monument to his own cruelty, greed and ruthlessness. And it will be there forever. As well, the remains of the crofters’ dwellings between the wall and the cliffs, also unintentionally reveal the true intent of the wall in hemming them in and the unspeakably harsh conditions it created for them.  

Intentional Monument to Remembrance

Inside a gap in the wall, the intentional stone monument – or ‘Cairn of Remembrance’ as it was called on the day it was unveiled in 1912 by descendants,’ built on the site of an early house tells its own story. As one’s breath is being taken away by the giddy location of the houses on the cliff side of the wall, the monument comes into view, raising an unintentional fist at Donald Horne and his predecessors with a symbolic message: ‘Despite your cruelty we helped and supported each other in this place for over a hundred years, and the sweet remembrance of the named members of our community will never go away.’

Speaking the Facts

The last word goes again the Alexander Gunn in his public fight to expose what had happened and what was still happening on the Estate of Langwell in Caithness:
Mr Editor, I have trespassed too much on your valuable time and space, but the well-merited castigation you dealt the Duke of Sutherland for his conduct towards his poor and oppressed people this year, encouraged me to trouble you with these few simple facts, and facts they are which I defy Mr Horne or any one who may take his part to controvert. I do not state them from hearsay; I state them from personal knowledge, and as one who has suffered by his conduct, and I only wonder that no one was bold enough to come forward and plead the cause of the poor. It may be said that what is past cannot be recalled. True, but there are other evictions to follow if public opinion does not avert the blow and shield them from the power and tyranny of the strong. Should you find a spare corner in your spirited journal for these remarks, you will confer a favour on your obedient servant.
Source: Dundee and Perth Saturday Post, Evictions on the Estate of Langwell From 1830-31 To 1855, A Native of Badbea, September 1855

Google Earth image showing the wall

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