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Issue 96 - The Cave Dwellers of Wick

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017

 

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The Cave Dwellers of Wick

Remembering the people that society forgot

Throughout Scotland's history there have been travelling people who were variably known as tinkers, gypsies and, believe it or not, Egyptians. Accurate ethnic origins of these people remain evasive. Some historians claim that they had an Indian provenance; others, the continental Romani connection.

In a society where strangers were often seen as vagrants, such itinerants were obliged to keep continually on the move to avoid prosecution. Despite an unlikely alliance struck between Johnnie Faa, King of the Gypsies of Yetholm, and James V in the mid-16th Century, the Scottish Parliament in 1609 passed the ‘Act Against Egyptians’. This made it legal for gypsies to be taken prisoner and hanged on sight.

Notably, the St Clair Barons of Roslin, in Midlothian, always granted sanctuary to such people in Roslin Glen. There the men worked, cut, shaped and hammered tinned iron and the women completed the soldering over fires. However, while travelling the country to sell their wares they desperately needed to establish safe refuges.

For centuries, cave dwelling was commonplace. On the east coast of Wick Bay, the Tinker's Cave can be accessed after a steep and rocky descent. Anyone wishing to explore its sloping shoulders and detached rocks, however, should proceed with extreme caution. At high tide, access is nothing if not dangerous. Besides, a degree of uncertainty surrounds the nomadic authenticity of those who once occupied this shoreline. The general conclusion is that, at least by the early 20th Century, the majority of them were local folk evicted from their homes.

In August 1886, the Tinker's Cave was inspected by Dr Arthur Mitchell, an eminent physician, and his subsequent report and photographs revealed 24 inhabitants (men, women and children) crammed into a single chamber.

Other sources maintain that previously there had been as many as 200. Mitchell observed that the scantily clothed cave dwellers were lying on ‘straw, grass and bracken’ close to a peat fire and that each one of them had just ‘one or two dirty, ragged blankets’. After further interrogation of these unfortunate occupants, he was informed that most of them had originated from the islands of the west coast, although a couple described themselves as ‘Caithness men’ that were down on their luck.

Cave dwelling was officially prohibited in 1915 under the Defence of the Realm Act of Parliament. It would be nice to believe that this came about through concern for the health of the cave dwellers, but it is far more likely that the Government of the day was aware of the vulnerability of the coastline from enemy attack during World War One.

No record exists of what became of the Tinker's Cave dwellers of 1915, but they were presumably relocated.

Occasionally there are online enquiries from Canada seeking ancestral MacPhee and Williamson connections with the Tinker's Cave, so one can therefore hope that at least some of them escaped to a better life.