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Issue 67 - Close to the Edge

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


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Close to the Edge

Roddy uncovers the bleak tale of two Highland coastal fishing communities

Against all of my original expectations, I have been greatly impressed by the list of historic Scottish buildings handed over to the care of the UK-wide Landmark Trust, a Charity formed in 1956 to rescue architecturally interesting buildings from demolition. The notable examples in Scotland are Auchinleck House in Ayrshire; Rosslyn Castle near Edinburgh, and the Dunmore Pineapple near Falkirk. Each of these iconic buildings occupies an individual and eccentric role in the sweep of Scotland's story and by maintaining them, the Landmark Trust has to my mind rendered all of us an invaluable service.

On a more modest scale, the latest additions to the Trust's portfolio are two renovated cottages at Berriedale, situated on the windswept North Sea coastline of Caithness. These humble dwellings, formerly occupied by herring fisherfolk.

Existence on this magnificent coastline of craggy cliffs and isolated seastacks was never easy. In a scenically spectacular region studded with ancient fortifications and towers, the majority erected by the Sinclairs and the Keiths, the Berriedale cottages, on a warm summer day, are as close to paradise as it gets. On a cold winter night, with a storm raging and the ocean in turmoil, it doesn't get much tougher.

In such close proximity, the North Sea interacts without compromise as both enemy and friend. On 26th January 1876, six men, five of the name of Sutherland, one Sinclair and one MacKay, put out to sea to search for haddock. When the wind suddenly changed, all of them drowned leaving five widows and 26 orphans.

A similar community in close proximity to Berriedale is Badbea, where the ruins of crofts established during the Highland Clearances of the 18th century can still be visited.

As with Berriedale, the families who lived here had, in the majority, been evicted from the inland straths to accommodate grazing sheep and, having been allocated allotments on the high coastal cliff tops 10 miles from Helmsdale, were sentenced to a The refurbished Landmark Trust’s cottages serve as a lasting tribute bleak and unrelenting struggle.

A visit to Badbea, today conserved as a tourist attraction, remains an unforgettable experience. When the men returned from the sea, the women set about gutting the catch having tethered the community's livestock, even their children, to rocks or posts to prevent them from being blown over the edge.

By any standards it was a tough, unforgiving existence, although it has to be said that at the height of the herring industry there was plenty of food to go around. For those who knew no better, it was considered a good living. At all times it could be said that they were close to God.

Nevertheless, as early as 1773 the local preacher, a man called John Sutherland, the only man to own a pocket watch in the village, proposed that the entire community emigrate to Pictou in Nova Scotia. This they did, and as The Hector, the Dutchbuilt ship in which they travelled, was leaving Lochbroom, a Highland piper came on board.

Since he had not paid his passage, the captain ordered him ashore, but the sound of his bagpipes so affected the passengers that they agreed to share their own rations with him in exchange for his music during the passage.

The Hector took 11 weeks to cross the Atlantic, bypassing Newfoundland and when it finally arrived at Brown's Point, the surviving settlers found the conditions only marginally better than those they had left behind them.

However, with the determination of the Scots, they went on to survive and for the most part to prosper, with a contingent of them later sailing on to Waipu in New Zealand.

In 1911, one of their New Zealand descendants financed an imposing monument to be raised at Badbea in their memory.

The nearby village of Berriedale, on the sheltered confluence of the Berriedale and Langwell Waters, has survived in a far more intact condition than Badbea, but all the same, the refurbished Landmark Trust's cottages here similarly serve as a lasting tribute to those resolute and fearless Highland fisherfolk for whom no ocean was ever too big an obstacle.