Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The end of project open night

The Open Night on Monday 2nd May was attended by over 60 people and was the culmination of over six months of research work into the history of the houses and past occupants in the villages of Helmsdale and Portgower and surrounding areas. The participants worked right up to the last minutes to produce a wonderful display including 10 street albums, hundreds of archival photos, the 1911 census and colourful pictures from local school children.

Members of the public enjoying looking through the street albums on display in Timespan

The albums are a must for family historians researching ancestors in the area and are available to consult in the Timespan Public Archive.  A big thank you goes out to to all the participants who put the display together and to everyone who contributed photos and information - this was truly a community affair. The research will continue as there are many areas we didn't have the time to cover - if you are interested in helping with this research please get in touch.

There was a lot of chat and reminiscing on the open night!

Friday, 1 April 2011

Esther's Portgower Story

The view most of us get of Portgower is from a car seat when we pass it by on our way north or south – giving little attention to its history or past occupants.  The village of Portgower was one of the areas researched as part of the Timespan project called ‘The Streets Where We Live: A Family History Perspective’, supported by Museums Galleries Scotland.  The research was undertaken by local resident Esther McDonald, who lately delivered a talk about her home village to a packed house in Timespan.  Esther has been researching the area where she lives for a few years now and has amassed a considerable knowledge of the village spanning the last 200 years.

Esther McDonald looking at an old map of Loth Parish

The talk started with Esther showing a photograph of ‘Scarf Rock’, a fallen rock stack, just off Portgower.  The rock was covered in ‘Scarfs’ (or Cormorants), hence the name.  The presence of numerous cist burials show that the area was occupied from at least the Iron Age (3500 years ago).  Esther recalled the story when one of these cists was unearthed during ploughing and its remains, along with a rounded flint knife, was donated to the Scottish Museum of Antiquities by her father, JOF Mackay in 1960.

A map dated 1773 by John Kirk showed that the land on which Portgower was later built formed part of Middle Garty.  Esther explained that the village had been created by the landowners, the Countess and Marquis of Sutherland, as part of their improvements over the wider district.  In 1815, Portgower has 18 named tenants whose rental amounted to £34/9/2.  By 1819 a street of fisherman’s houses had been built (known as High Street).  In 1831 an advertisement in an Inverness newspaper was encouraging fishermen to come and live at Portgower from across the Firth, providing them with land for growing potatoes, ground for a garden, the rights to obtain mussels from Little Ferry and money towards a boat.  Several boats were registered from Portgower, which had an inlet and harbour for landing boats.  Unlike the other crofts in the area, the land for the fishermen was often separate from their house and garden.

Esther’s story progressed a little further when she referred to the 1st Ordnance Survey map dated c1873, which showed a school in High Street (also known as Pokey Row) and another school near the bottom of Portgower Brae, as well as the Portgower Inn and the White Well.  The 2nd edition map dated c1907 showed that both had closed and a new school had opened in 1892 in Portgower.  The road opposite became known as School Street.

Esther then went on to inform the audience about the Portgower Inn where her mother, Catherine Mackay, currently resides.  The heraldic datestone on the front of the inn shows that the inn was built in 1813.  It was first leased to John Matheson, storekeeper, Helmsdale in 1814, who also had the lease of the Inn Farm and the hill grazing of Badstor.  It was then leased to John Thomson in 1830 and Adam Mackay in 1847.  A rare ‘Spirit Book’ in the family’s possession records the spirits bought by the inn and where they came from, e.g. Clynelish, Leith and Pultney, as well as inspections by the customs and excise.  The Inn had a bakehouse and shop attached, as well as a coach house and stables, still standing today.

Some of the photos showed that many of the houses in Portgower originally had thatched roofs.  Some of these buildings were later heightened and slate roofs added.  Some barns were built on the downward slope nestling into the hillside.  High street was demolished in the 1960s and new Council houses were built, collectively called Brae Head Terrace.  Esther showed an amusing photograph of Fraser Mackay with a monkey pictured at the top of portgower Brae, as well as photos of the heavy snow drifts during the 1940s and 50s and past residents, e.g. Johnnie Miller (Moley), James Sutherland (Barney) and Johnnie Melville, to name but a few.

Portgower was a vibrant crofting community that had strong links to the Highland Land League movement in the area.  A local crofter called JT Murray gave evidence to the Napier Commission at the Helmsdale sitting in 1883, which helped crofters to gain some rights over their land.  The day to day work included feeding and watering sheep, cows, pigs and horses – dipping and clipping sheep – cultivating the ground to grow crops for animals and humans alike! Esther explained that her family has been crofters down the generations which continues to the present day with Esther and her sister Claire, as well as other branches of the family. The war dead are commemorated on the Loth War Memorial which is currently situated in the new Loth Cemetery.

The hall at Porgower was built in 1930 by local workmen and residents and has played a vital role in village life over the years, e.g. Burns Nights, dances, fund-raising during war time, children and senior citizen parties.  The current renovations of the hall are nearly finished and it won’t be long before more memorable events will be held there.

Esther’s research has comprised looking through the Sutherland Estate Papers, talking to Donald Bruce, Dina Calder, Catherine Mackay, as well as a wealth of documents held within her own family archive.

A display of street albums, photographs and artwork by the pupils from Helmsdale Primary School will be on display in Timespan from end of April.  Timespan would be delighted to hear from anyone with more information on any of the streets in Helmsdale and the houses in Portgower – all photos will be scanned and returned within a few days.  For more information please e-mail: archive@timespan.org.uk

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Gartymore Crofting Township

Today’s presentation centered on the crofting township of Gartymore, which is situated on the hilly slopes between West Helmsdale and Portgower.  Much of the information was gathered from  Margot Macgregor, Elizabeth Fraser, Esther MacDonald and Joan Murray.  The 2-hour presentation included old photographs of the houses and many of their past occupants, including Nurse Gordon, John Oliver Fraser and Walter Davidson, the shoemaker.  The 35 strong audience buzzed with discussion and many stories were told of bygone days.
Another packed house for the Gartymore presentation

The lands of Gartymore were held in wadset by Robert Pope in the early 1800s.  These lands were redeemed by the Countess of Sutherland in 1815 and set into 'lots' for the displaced people from the Strath of Kildonan.  The lots averaged out at about 2 acres and in 1831 a total of 75 tenants were recorded on the estate rental.  Gartymore is the birthplace of the Highland Land League Movement, where crofters came together to fight for their rights.  The crofters eventually won some rights when the Crofting Law was passed through the houses of Parliament in 1891.  In 1981 a cairn was erected in Gartymore to the memory of the Land Leaguers who often me tin secret to plan their campaign.

Alice MacKintosh, a neice of Joseph Macleod, unveiling the Land League Monument in 1981

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Where is East Helmsdale?

Over the last few weeks the project researchers have focused their attention on the area known as East Helmsdale - but where is it!

 Timespan audience attending East Helsmdale presentation

A map by John Kirk dated 1773 refers to the whole area to the north of the river as Easter Helmsdale and comprises old rig and furrow cultivation and a few small clusters of houses.  This map also refers to a place called 'Boggallan' (known today as the Bogholes) in the area between the village and Navidale.  A later map dated c.1819 refers to East Helmsdale as being between the village and Navidale and the other part as the 'Moor of East Helmsdale' (known today as Old Helmsdale).  It also refers to 'Widdows Cottages' which is the earliest date for the existance of the Almshouse (known today as The Barracks).

 Photo of The Barracks c1930s coutesy of Esther MacDonald, Protgower

By 1820 the area of East Helmsdale was the land at either end of the village, excluding the village itself.  The first Ordnance Survey map dated c1873 shows the location of houses in both these areas, some of which are annotated as 'ruin', as well as the houses on Strath Road.  This map also shows the location of an 'Almshouse' (known today as The Barracks).  

The later developments of East Helmsdale incude the building of the following streets, i.e. Simpson Crescent, Rockview Place, Farr Crescent, The Glebe (a reference to the chuch lands in the area) and Golf Road (locally known as the Pens).

A member of today's audience Edward Mackay shed some light on the Pens.  He informed the group that the original location of the sheep pens was on the land now occupied by part of Golf Road and where his house is located.  He said that he used to play on the Pens Parkie.  This is where the annual sheep sales would have taken place in the 19th century.  He said that the location of the pens for the sheep sales was moved to the other side of the river next to the Helsmdale Graveyard and near the railway station.  This allowed the sold sheep to be easily taken to the station for transportation south.

 Margot Macgregor selling sheep at the Helmsdale sheep sales


Saturday, 29 January 2011

Talking about Sutherland Street

The programme of street talks is well underway and audiences in excess of 30 are coming back again and again to enjoy the banter and learn about the houses in Helmsdale.  The first talk focused on Shore Street and the development of the early fishing village and then proceeded with the second talk about Dunrobin Street and the early commercial development of the village in the early 1800s.  The latest talk on Sutherland Street was presented by Joan Murray, a member of our research group. 

 Joan has really looked into every house in some detail and was able to recount the history to each house to a captivated audience.  She informed the group that there used to be a smiddy (blacksmith) on the street in c1873, but it was gone by c1906.  She showed the group an image of a house called Valhalla, which was formerly the old police station.  A few entries from the police log book gives a fascinating insight into the life of a local bobby back in 1874.

Monday 2 March 1874
At 8 am, left my Station and patrolled the village generally during the day. Completed weekly and monthly reports. Also reported the number of men employed on the Railway between Helmsdale and County March for week ending Saturday 28th ultimo being as follows, viz; Railway Labourers 227, Masons and their Labourers 26, Platelayers 30, Wirefencers 9, Telegraph men 9, Carters 4, Joiners 2. A  total of 307 men. 

Attended the arrival and departure of afternoon trains. Called on D. Macdonald, Station Agent, Helmsdale. Called on Mary Sutherland or Fraser, Lotter, West Helmsdale and warned her according to the CC instructions anent my report of 13th and 19th Ultimo to tie up her dog or destroy it. 

Forwarded an Application for a Pedlar’s Certificate for Ian Harper aged 26 years a Hawker, presently residing at Upper Helmsdale. Patrolled the village during the evening. Attended the departure of mail coach at 8.40 pm. 

Night Duty – At 9.30 pm patrolled the village, visited the Porter and Ale House occupied by Jane Sutherland or Mackay at 11.5 pm, visited Anderson’s Inn at 11.10pm, found them regular. Returned to my Station at 11.30 pm.

The current owner of the house kindly allowed us to photograph the original windows of the cells at the rear of the house, complete with iron bars.


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Chatting in the street!

The Wednesday sessions have progressed from desk-based research to walks around the village to locate houses, take photographs and chat to local residents. It is so nice to see people meeting up to chat about the streets project and some residents have kindly invited us into their homes and gardens to see features from the past. The main aim is to locate the different houses on a street and note where houses used to be, in the past, before they were demolished.

The recent walk along Old Caithness Road brought back many memories by group members Christine Cowie, Jean Sargent and Jim Mackay. Christine used to go to the old school (now called Rutherford Terrace)and then attended the new school built in 1955. She is pictured here sitting on the steps outisde the school as a child in the late1950s and sitting on the steps today - she hasn't changed a bit!

 Christine (back left) sitting on the school steps late 1950s

 Christine sitting on the school steps today

Trip to the Inverness Archive

The new archive centre in Inverness houses a large collection of records from this area, including valuation rolls and census records.  The research trip that took place on Wednesday 12th January was very productive and a second trip is planned for mid February.  The members of the group were able to browse through valuation rolls dating back to 1874 through to the 1980s.  A number of valuation rolls have been copied for both Kildonan and Loth Parishes and  are now available in the Timespan Archive to consult.

Group photograph inside the Inverness Archive