Tales from the Travel Zeitgeist: Caithness and Its Tale of Two Houses

I want to tell you the tale of two houses. One is at a place called Badbea (pronounced bad – BAY). The other is just a few miles away.

We visited Badbea while in the far north of the Scottish Highlands. We’d crossed back to the mainland from Orkney, visited a few lovely spots, spent a night at a very mediocre hotel in the northernmost point in Scotland, then began to wind our way south, toward Inverness. This area of the country is called Caithness. It is the northernmost county, surrounded by sea on two of three sides. We stayed with a yarn maker/sheep keeper we know there named Graeme Bethune. On our first full day with Graeme, he took us to this place called Badbea. I really didn’t know anything about it except it was somehow related to the Highland Clearances.

For those who don’t know, The Highland Clearances is the name given to a specific period of time in Scottish history – approximately 1750 to 1850. Through this time period, most of the landed gentry evicted their resident population of tenanted farmers. The estate owners estimated they could make more money from having sheep on their land than from the rents collected from the extant villages. Whole towns, many of whose residents had farmed there for generations, were pushed out. (Often forcefully). There was no legal recourse for those evicted. They were forced to migrate to the cities, start over on peripheral areas outside the fertile lands of the estate owners or (if lucky and with means) migrate to the Americas in hopes of finding new opportunities. Those migrating often did not have the money needed to book passage or enter new countries, so indentured themselves or sold themselves into slavery to escape starvation. It’s not a pretty history. The anger from that time reverberates still in the local working class residents whose families managed to stay.

I know the history through reference, song and hearsay, but have never studied it in detail. It seemed like such a sad chapter. And not one in which I’d choose to delve, if given the choice. However, on this day, we happened to take time to walk to Badbea, the location of a village built and later abandoned by those cleared from their long-held homes, farms and communities.

The road to Badbea is a two-lane byway that follows the coast along the Moray Firth. I was surprised that we parked and got out to walk on the slim bit of land between the highway and sea. We walked straight toward the sound of the sea, through heather, gorse and bracken covered fields, over occasional stones and on a muddy, worn footpath.

Heather and Graeme following the footpath to the clearance village of Badbea.

We came upon a long, low stone wall. The edge of the estate, said Graeme. Villagers were not allowed to be on estate land, hunt there, forage there or really, anything at all. They were allowed to live between that wall and the sea. That was it.

The wall marking the edge of the Sutherland estate.

When I looked past the wall, all I could see was about 50 feet of moorland and then nothing. Nothing! I really saw about 50 feet of land with not a tree on it, mostly stone and heather and gorse and then nothing. The land dropped off right there into sharp, seaside cliffs.

People lived here? I asked. I mean, I was absolutely stunned. When I heard “pushed to the peripheries”, I thought it meant beyond the boundaries of the estates. But then I realized It’s ALL estates. All the land you see is owned by someone. Always was. Still is today. And these people were literally pushed to the edges where the land couldn’t provide its owners with any profit.

So on this precarious edge, they took their families, built shelters out of stone, fished and kept animals, tried to grow something. And in the hardest of times, could be talked back into working for the very estates that caused them to live in this place with the lure of a day’s wage now and again.

Remnants of clearance village houses. One thing the Scottish Highlands has in profusion is stone.
The sign asks Could you have lived here? Could I? Now? Certainly – with present day electricity and a water supply and the internet and a grocery just down the road (and a car that allows you to get there). But then? How did they eat? How did they grow food there??? I was incredulous.

I left that place sobered by what I’d seen.

Ten minutes at Badbea connects you with the Highland Clearances more intensely, more vividly than fifty textbooks ever could. Agricultural and economic transition… landed estates needing new income streams… transition to industrial technologies … blah blah blah… blah blah blah… yadda yadda. People. Forced to live in a place like that because they had no better option.

And then, a day later, we were here.

Dunrobin Castle. Just down the road.

You’ll see only one picture of the castle, home of the Duke of Sutherland. I was physically ill the morning we were here, so didn’t tour the interior or much of the grounds. (Yes, fine now. Not Covid and passed away in a matter of hours.)

Yep, you guessed it. This is the home of the very landowner that removed all those people from their homes and livelihoods, placing them at the (literal) cliff edge of Badbea. Because he wanted to expand the castle and needed income to do so.

I later leafed through the guidebook to Dunrobin Castle. It showed interiors with grand rooms, sumptuous textiles, paintings and silver, commissioned portraiture, the fashions of the day, libraries, a day and night nursery, endless corridors for visiting aristocrats, geometrically laid gardens spreading wide. I saw none of that because I was lying on a picnic bench, waiting for 600 mg of ibuprofen to kick in. Come on, ibuprofen. Do your magic!

But even if I hadn’t been physically ill while there, I think I would have felt just a bit morally ill at Dunrobin. I know the history of the Scottish Highlands, like most places in Europe, holds physical representations of a time when society was so stratified. The poor were often obscenely poor. The wealthy and aristocratic, obscenely wealthy. But it’s hard to swallow that manner of organizing human life, especially for a contemporary person living in the US.

Americans grapple with sins of our own past – slavery, genocide. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to come upon this illustration of great privilege living right next to great deprivation. We grapple with present circumstances also – racial injustice, economic disparity, seemingly endless political upheaval.

However sobering these two visits might have been, I have to believe they also illustrate that we’ve progressed – ARE PROGRESSING – in our evolution toward a better life for all. Even in times of great strife. Despite a worldwide pandemic. In spite of our pitiful past.

These two houses tell me that we humans do a little better with each successive generation. I really think we do.

3 comments

  1. I just visited Badbea and the 500 through the northern most of Scotland on YouTube with a Scot named Stephen Marsh. He did very little historical storytelling so Suzie your’s is far more interesting. On RTTs I enjoy the land, bogs and machair, the modest abodes, far more than the great estates. But, I must say high tea is a always a delight as well as huge rooms and a bath tub built for a lord or lady very much too.

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  2. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this one. The price of economic gains for one, devastation for another. Folks that had made a life on the land forced to the sea for a difficult and dangerous life not of their own choosing. It seems this cycle repeats itself over again in different cultures, different places. Oh that we really could learn from history and do better by each other.

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