Life On The Edge

View from Badbea out to the North Sea

View from Badbea out to the North Sea

On the Caithness east coast, five miles north of the town of Helmsdale, you will see the ruinous remains of the once inhabited village of  Badbea which saw its last resident leave at the start of the 20th century.

The Highland Clearances affected thousands of Highland families who were made to move from their homes. Some were persuaded through finacial means, such as having their fare to North America or Australia or New Zealand paid for, whilst the more unfortunate were forced out through violence and intimidation, where it wouldn’t be uncommon to see landlords have crofts burnt down. The people of the Highlands who fled ended up settling all over the place; with families moving to the lowlands or cities of Scotland and northern England looking for work in textile or shipping industries; or they emigrated to foreign countries; or some relocated to nearby coastal areas which were deemed unhabitable for the money-making sheep which replaced them.

Badbea was one of these coastal areas that some families were moved to. It was a cliff-top village established in 1793 when a number of tenant crofters were evicted from their homes to make way for the much more profitable sheep. The families were displaced on a steep, rough, small area of land. They were forced onto the tight area between the high Berriedale cliffs facing the North Sea and a large drystone wall built to protect the sheep.

Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster was the landowner who forced out many of the families from the nearby town of Ousdale, destroying their crofts to create room for the sheep. Sinclair was a politician, and also a writer on finance and agriculture who was a strong advocate for the protection and improvement of British wool.

The Badbea Monuement

The Badbea Monuement

Badbea was a tough place to live in; the conditions were horrendous with the land being barely fertile enough for the crofters to live on. Many of the families living there were from Ousdale, though there some from Auchencraig and Kildonan.

Each family who arrived was given their own plot of land to live on and farm. However there were no buildings actually present, and the families would have to clear their area and hack away at the difficult terrain and then build the houses from the stones they found. Each plot had enough space for a longhouse with a shed at the end, a couple of outbuildings and a kailyard. The rest of their land was then used for some cattle, a pig, and a few chickens. It was kind of primitive living for the most part as the whole village only had one horse, and so had no plough. Instead the fields were ploughed manually with the men using a spade-like instrument called a chaib. The harrow needed to be pulled by the men instead, and the manure was carried by the women on their backs in creels.

The families were industrious and frugal, with each household having a spinning wheel in the home where the young women would learn spinning and carding.

With the land provided it was impossible to be able to make a living from farming. The area wasn’t incredibly fertile, with the land being quite rocky. Also being right on the coast like they were the winds coming in from the North Sea were so violent that it would have been practically impossible to grow anything substantial there anyway. In fact, the winds were so strong that when the adults were working any children or livestock outdoors had to be tethered to rocks or posts to stop them being blown over the precipice.

Herring fishing was the the main source of income. The men would go to sea, and the women would gut what was caught. Fishing was a very dangerous occupation, especially in the North Sea. Before the Clearances most of these people lived in the sheltered inlands of the straths and the glens, and so were not accostumed to being out at the sea. However, at its height there were 13 fishing boats in use, and the herring fishing provided a lot of food for all families, including for the widows who had children to support children.

By 1814 the Laird’s Estate had been sold to James Horne. At this point the population of Badbea was 80 people within 12 different families. Though for the families in Badbea, this would turn out to have unfortunate consequences.

Donald Horne, James’ nephew, put a stop to the herring fishing, favouring to fish salmon instead. This put a stop to the community’s main form of employment, meaning that the people had to survive on much less, and the widowed families having to occasionally do without. However there were other means of income. Some of the women would weave baskets, or make flails of birch for threshing corn corps and then sell them at Dunbeath Market in November.

Inscription on Badbea Monument

Inscription on Badbea Monument

On the landlord’s estate there would sometimes be some menial jobs to be done by people from Badbea, but the rate of pay would be very low, and in no way appropriate. This would encourage some of the men to look for work on other estates or elsewhere. However, if they were caught doing this by their landlord, as punishment the men and their familied could face being evicted from Badbea.

A notable resident of Badbea was John “Badbea” Sutherland. John was a very popular and respected member of the community. He lived most of his life in Badbea where he was preacher and doctor to all. John was thought of as a man of great piety and worth, and it is said that he possessed the only watch in the village. John died in his house at the age of 76 on the 31st August, 1864 and was burried in the burial ground at Berriedale.

The village of Badbea was occupied for over 100 years, with the last resident leaving in the early 1900s. In 1911 a memorial was errected in honour of the families who lived in Badbea and suffered during the Highland Clearances. The man who commissioned the monument was David Sutherland who visited Badbea in 1901 when only two tenants were left. Born in New Zealand, David was the son of Alexander Robert Sutherland who was born in Badbea and brought up by John “Badbea” Sutherland. Alexander emigrated to New Zealand in his 30s in 1839 and although he prospered in his new country, he never forgot Scotland. The memorial was built using the stones from the croft that was lived in by John “Badbea”.


About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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