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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
As one travels over the far-famed Causewayrnire road - the A895 - from Georgemas to Latheron, the isolated oasis of Rangag is passed. A small community surrounded by the boundless moors of Caithness, growing less in population as the years go by. Until the second world war there were, in addition to the schoolteacher and gamekeeper, about half a dozen farms and crofts one of which kept a shop with a travelling horse-drawn van. Before the first world war there were about a dozen. Now the whole district is divided between two farms whilst an odd house or two is still occupied by pensioners. At the former school of Achavanich ('the field of the monks') the road forks, the traveller making for Badryrie taking the road to the left which ends at the village of Lybster, seven miles distant. Here at Achavanich, the now disused school built about 1875 to replace the older schools of Rangag and Munsary served in its heyday an area within a radius of about five kilometres with a roll of forty odd pupils. The road we take, about a kilometre on, passes on the left the picturesque Loch Stemster nestling amid Its lonely hills. At this point on the left a farm road crossing over a cattle grid winds round the north side of the loch until it too forks at a point near the old ruined farmstead of Achkinlochbeg (the small field at the head of the loch).
The better road to the left serves two of the most isolated farms in Caithness, Ballach!y and Munsary. At the former is an ancient burial ground with the remains of a chapel. Here lie the mortal remains of the past inhabitants of these once heavily populated areas who always fondly referred to the district we are traversing as "the hills". At Munsary, where its two and a half thousand hectares is now completely devoid of people, it is difficult to believe that just over a hundred years ago there was a well attended school where the writer's maternal grandfather went as a pupil with a peat under his arm as well as his books. Munsary was the home of the old family, the Bruces of Munsary, who intermarried with nearly all the families of "the hills" as well as sending scions abroad to distinguish themselves in many fields including one who was Prime Minister of Australia in the nineteen twenties.
Back at Achkinloch the rougher track to the right, deeply indented by tractor wheels and only negotiable by vehicles of the land-rover types, is the way to Badryrie. Away to the right another track leads to the old farm of Achkinlochmore (the large field at the head of the loch). These two farms known locally as Little Achkinloch and Big Achkinloch respectively, are long since both now incorporated with nearby Achavanich. Here on the reasonably fertile southern shore of loch Stemster once farmed William Sutherland, known all over the north as Willie Achkinloch, one of the best known cattle dealers and drovers of the old Falkirk market days. On this farm stands the well known horse-shoe bronze age setting of the standing stones of Achkinloch.
The road to Badryrie leads almost directly in an easterly direction, winding to follow the harder ground, for it is still the original unmade cart track followed by the crofters of this old isolated community. About half way along the two kilometre way one passes on the right the ruins of Boanbean (pronounced "Bonabeen") where in the house there about eighty or ninety years ago lived John Mackay, ostensibly a ditcher and drainer but who was known to make a good living from the art of "smuggling". This was the word always used to describe the honourable and highly skilled process of whisky making. "Smuggled" whisky was, to them, simply home distilled whisky. The loss of the right, so long enjoyed, to make one's own whisky was the first of the countless liberties of the individual since gone by the board, and has turned this nation into a bureaucrat's paradise. Was it not Burns who wrote "Whisky and freedom gang together" ? The whole area we are now traversing was about the middle of the last century very much committed to the smuggling" industry.
As the track winds its way over a ridge on the lower northern slopes of Stemster Hill the chimneys of Upper Badryrie can be seen and in a short distance further along the ruins of the crofts of lower Badryrie come into view. Badryrie consists of about four hundred and forty five hectares of which about thirty six are "inbye" land divided into about sixteen hectares of land in former rotational cultivation with the remainder which is mostly steep and rolling intersected with small burns used for cutting and curing "bog" hay for winter feed. In this area is a small and rather picturesque wood of birch known by the former inhabitants as Torrybea. Of the arable land, one quarter (four hectares) each were held in tenancy by the two crofters of Upper Badryrie, and one half (eight hectares) by the tenant of Lower Badryrie.The "leans", a word used all over Caithness to describe land along the banks of streams, were the "bog" hay area which was held in common by all three tenants as also were the four hundred hectares of hill grazings with the rights of each in the same proportion as the arable. The rights of the hill grazings were regulated by an agreement by which the numbers of stock grazed were one quarter, one quarter and one half each.
It is recorded in the 1831 census that no less than eleven families lived at Badryrie. No evidence of where they all lived now remains and a number are known to have been squatters - refugees from the Sutherland clearances of that time who had been allowed to settle there by the then laird, Sutherland of Forse. Doubtless their habitations were merely of turf and wood. At that time the arable area of Badryrie was smaller, as at least one of the upper crofts did not exist at that time. About 1835-40 the pattern of the three tenancies emerged.
At lower Badryrie there are the remains of two dwelling houses, one in the front of the other separated by a lane with their doors facing and almost opposite each other. The two houses existed on this croft because the family of MacGregor who came there about 1840 from Knockinnon, Latheronwheel, had a son, who, having married, was given half the croft by his father and on his portion he built his own house. The houses here, as on the other two crofts, were of the normal Caithness traditional type of croft house: two rooms with fireplaces situated at either end of the building with a closet or unheated bedroom in the middle opposite the front entrance passage. All, or most, of the partitions were formed by the backs or end of box beds. Some of the houses did not have a central stone built gable. The thatched roofs were supported by couples of the Highland type formed in three parts pinned together with wooden pins. These rafters were laid, not on the wall head, but on scarcements in the wall about three quarters of a metre from the floor following closely the wall to the top and then curving to the apex, giving the roof a rounded effect. The purlins were any odd pieces of wood very close together, and not necessarily fixed, and on these the divots of turf rested with the green side down. These divots were laid in tiers in rows overlapping each other in the fashion of slates and then covered over with generous layers of rushes held down by, in the old days, heather simmons, but later by grass or straw ropes, and later still with wire netting. The inner walls were plastered with a mixture of lime and sand and the outer "pointed" with the same mixture. In the kitchen-living rooms were the traditional hearths with a lazy hole or pit underneath capable of holding a week's accumulation of peat ashes. Plentiful supplies of peat moss lay all around these homesteads. The older house (Fig. 4) has a unique double gable, where between the twin walls constructed in such a way that where a doorway goes through it to the next room one has the impression that it is a normal single wall. As the wall extends towards the back of the house it gradually splits in two forming a substantial cavity where in the old days a distilling plant was operated. A very small doorway, only large enough to crawl through, opens into one of the adjoining rooms where it emerged underneath a box bed under which one would also have to crawl. There was also an opening through the roof where a flagstone camouflaged with thatch was lifted on some kind of hinge. The "worm", a part of the distilling equipment, was found some years ago buried near the end of this building. A water supply to feed this "worm" was actually piped into this cavity from the mill dam a short distance away.
Both houses, as well as all the fairly extensive range of form buildings, are now roofless except for one byre with a wood and felt roof used by the present tenant as a hay store. There had been in the barn a water operated threshing mill fed by water from the two dams, one a short distance from the other. There is also a well built kiln for drying grain attached to the barn, a very helpful device when one is engaged in the whisky trade. Throughout the buildings the stone troughs, mangers and hallans are mostly intact, as also are the "muck holes" in the walls through which the dung was cleared every morning. Both buildings had their kitchen, or "back", doors opening first into the byre through the corner of which one passed into the kitchen. This was a common feature of Caithness crofting architecture even on low ground crofts and made for warmth and cosiness on wild winter nights of drifting snow.
The MecGregor family of lower Badryrie had another "bothy" (a distilling underground hide-out in the moors) some distance away. On one occasion Mrs. MacGregor, the wife of the son who had the place subdivided, a woman of great resource and ingenuity, finding that a shower of snow falling through the night had prevented the men-folk from returning home because of the danger of leaving footprints, drove all the cattle in the direction of the bothy criss-crossing the area in such a way as to make it impossible for any gauger to rind evidence of human activity.
The dreaded gaugers, of course, kept a diligent eye all over the hill areas knowing full well what was going on, but it would seem with little success. No prosecutions to the knowledge of the writer have been recorded from this area. On another occasion, the same Mrs. MacGregor, who incidentally raised a large family of well-doing sons and daughters despite the fact that she was left a widow comparatively young, had just fed to the cows in the byre adjoining the kitchen, some draff (the residue of barley after malting and a most succulent cattle food) when on opening the connecting door she found two gaugers just entering the byre. Quick as thought, she lifted up the large bucket of ashes just cleaned out from the lazy hole and flung it into the byre more or less in their faces. Peat ash is much lighter than that of coal and therefore more devastating as a weapon and, while the two men ran spluttering and coughing outside, the respite allowed the cows to clean the troughs of the tell-tale evidence.
The holding was tenanted by one of the sons and a daughter of this redoubtable lady until the death of the former in 1933 since when it, along with the two other crofts, was incorporated with Ballachly.
At Upper Badryrie there came to the croft on the westward side about 1835 a school teacher also named MacGregor whose wife was a Bruce of Munsary. He built with his own hands the house and steading and won the arable land from the heather. His brother also built a home beside the croft house and set up as a shoemaker serving the surrounding area. The shoemaker's house has long since disappeared but the croft buildings are still there although roofless. The descendants of this family gave up the tenancy in 1920 when the holding was incorporated with lower Badryrie. The writer's mother was born in the house here.
The eastward croft was reclaimed and built by a family of Bruce, a branch of the Munsary family, some time early in the nineteenth century. Here in the kitchen/living room apartment the fire rested against the gable, the smoke simply curling up the wall and through a hole in the roof. This type of fireplace was known as the "brace". The "ben", or "best" end of the house did have a conventionally built fireplace which however was seldom used. In this house was born, about1820, Alexander Bruce who later kept an inn or hotel at Lybster, at that time a rapidly growing fishing port with which he was also actively involved. In the year 1833 Lybster is reported as being the third busiest fishing port in Scotland surpassed only by Wick and Fraserburgh. In his inn at Lybster, Alexander Bruce had the perfect "front" for disposing of the excellent illicit produce of all his many friends and relations from "The Hills". The inn-keeper's son, another Alexander Bruce, was a former town clerk of Wick and a co-founder of the legal firm of Leith and Bruce there.
The Bruce croft fell to the inn-keeper's sister who married a man from Latheronwheel named James Sutherland but who was never known by any other than his nickname "The Ceanaiche" (pronounced "Kyanich") meaning merchant, which his father had once been. He survived his wife and died about 1925 since when the croft has been deserted.
THE WAY OF LIFE
The economics of these crafting communities were based more or less on living directly off the land. Oatmeal, potatoes, mutton, pork, milk, cheese, crowdie, eggs, and hares of which there was an abundance, augmented with salt herring, and of course plenty of whisky, was their staple diet - and not much wrong with it. The cattle they reared were of the true Highland type, horned and shaggy, and their horses were the Highland garron. Each croft had a pair of working horses for ploughing and tilling the soil. Each of the two upper crofts kept about twelve to fourteen cattle and the lower one double that number, while on the hill the former had about forty to fifty Cheviot owes, and the latter again double.
Threshing of the corn crops was done at the two upper crofts by hand operated threshing mills. These required two people to turn handles, one on either side of the machine and it was very hard work indeed. These machines only stripped the grain from the straw and the former had to be winnowed by riddling in the draught between two doors with which all croft barns were provided. At lower Badryrie, as already indicated, a water mill operated. Until sometime in the last quarter of the nineteenth century all threshing was done by the flail. The arable land, at least in the later years, was cultivated on a fifth shift rotation, that is, first year, oats; second year, turnips with a small area of potatoes; third year, oats sown out with grass seed, fourth year, hay, fifth year, grass for grazing. Some potatoes were also grown in " lazy beds" .
An unusual, if not unique, feature at Badryrie is the number of upright stone slabs spaced along the field boundaries. These were used Instead of wooden posts to suspend wire fencing. This must have been a late innovation as in the early days there was no wire fencing, even on low ground farms. Herding of the cattle and sheep was done by the children or young people employed to do so.
In the earlier period the meal mill serving the area was the mill of Aultachleven, situated on the burn of that name which flows between lochs Stemster and Rangag draining the overflow of the former into the latter. Afterwards when this mill ceased to function, the mill at Achingale run by the Sandison family was the one patronised.
The people of "The Hills" worshipped at Halsary church, or meeting house, as it was always called and which was affiliated to the church of Westerdale. There, every Sunday, the writer's grandfather was the "presenter", or leader of the singing, reading the line in the old Highland tradition.
For general shopping, and all other purposes, including, in later years, the agricultural auction mart, Lybster was their centre. The people who inhabited these parts were God-fearing, hospitable to a fault, highly civilised, well read and articulate in both English and Gaelic. Strangely enough, despite whisky being almost on tap, drunkenness never seemed to be a problem.
At the old schools in country districts prior to 1874 Greek and Latin were taught. The writer's great-grandfather was proficient in both. In those days young people attended school until they were grown men and women, going to school in the winter months only and herding the sheep and cattle in the summer.
Happily Badryrie Is far enough off the beaten track to ensure its preservation except from the natural processes of time and decay. Perhaps the financial difficulties of local authorities will be a blessing in disguise for it will stop them and their bureaucratic minions usurping the basic rights of ownership and impudently and arrogantly entering private property to demolish, irrespective of whether the owners or occupiers wish it to be done or not. The relics of crofting life are only just beginning to be studied In depth and the crofter's home is just as honourable a ruin as the laird's castle.