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History

The first written reference to the people of this area, at the end of the first century AD comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who described the people as tall, red headed men who fought bravely with long swords and round shields. St Ninian came here about 390 AD and preached at Navidale. Where the old church yard now stands there was a chapel which was burned down during the Reformation in 1556. Helmsdale came under the Parish of Kildonan which gets its name from the pictich word Kil or Cill or Cell, this meaning the cell of St Donan, patron saint of the Strath, from 580 AD. Christianity, however, came under attack in the 9th century when the Vikings began their raids into the North of Scotland.
     Tharfin the Great conquered Scotland down to the Moray Firth, and certain cairns and standing stones are said to mark the sites of many ferocious and bloody battles. It was at Helmsdale (from the Norse Hjalmundal Dale of the Helmet) that a great battle took place between two Nors chiefs Swein and Olvir Rosta. Swein won a great victory and Olvir's men retreated to some houses which were burned with all their inmates. Olvir escaped by crossing the Helmsdale river and was not heard again. Swein and his men committed many ravages in Sutherland before returning to their ships.
    As the Vikings mixed with the native population, the clan system evolved and the way of life changed little from century to century. There were periods of blood and strife mainly caused by lust for land and cattle. The chieftain had power of pit and gallows over all men and yet was regarded by his clansmen as protector and father figure.
Helmsdale Castle
The Couper Park is the site where the Helmsdale Castle once stood. Although, alas it became a rapidly crumbling ruin and was completely demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the new A9 road bridge over the Helmsdale River.


Picture of Harbour with the Castle in the background c. 1820. From Painting by Daniell.

The castle had its beginnings in the 1460s. It was repaired and enlarged around 1600, but it was in 1567 that the famous tragedy was enacted that is said to have inspired the plot of Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
Isobel Sinclair, in a diabolical attempt to divert the line of succession to her own son, arranged to poison her visitors, the 11th Earl of Sutherland and his Countess and their son, while they were taking dinner at the castle. But the plan miscarried and the Earl's son did not drink the poisoned wine, while her own son did, as well as the Earl and Countess.
The original castle was square in shape and had been the hunting seat of the Sutherland family. A find in the Kildonan Strath was a cast iron fireback dated 1633. The grandson of the 11th Earl records that his brother, Sir Alexander Gordon of Navidale, was responsible for the repair of the castle, and his two sons were born there in 1614 and 1616; but in 1621, when the clan troubles were at their height, he built a castle at Torrish, in the Strath, and presumably took the fireback up to it. These ornamental slabs of cast iron were introduced when fireplaces were built into the wall, instead of the usual simple structure in the middle of the room.

The Way of Life


Helmsdale castle and "hulk" before bridge painted by Frances Innes '99.

The way of life during this period is of interest. Millstones from all the mills in the parish were made from the huge porphyritic rocks from Beinn Chriammhor. Kilphedir burn turned the largest mill in the district.
Open boats, about 14ft. long, were used for fishing, and the hand lines baited with mussels and limpets. Trades at this time were "coopers", "gutters" and "packers", and fishing nets were made by the women with white bone needles. The "furnishings" of a house would probably consist of a clay floor, 3-legged stools, deal tables, horn spoons, meal girnels,tallow candles and iron saucers filled with fish oil to act as lamps.

Houses in the 17th and 18th Century

Houses in the 17th and 18th centuries were constructed mostly of stone to a height of about 3ft-then layers of turf or "fail" to bring it up to 10ft. or so. The roof was made of thatched heather, or an alternative was branches of birch covered with divots of turf and then thatched with a thin layer of straw held in place with ropes made from heather.
Some Most Interesting Facts

Some most interesting facts are known about conditions in this village at the end of the 18th century. Corn was imported via Little Ferry, Golspie, and men from the village went thither on horseback to fetch supplies, fording all the streams as there were no bridges. A "corf house" stood at the mouth of the river for collecting the corn rents of the tenants. Down by the shore were the salmon fishery buildings, long and low, and roofed with red tiles. On the beach were many smalls yawls and smacks, while about a mile from the river mouth were the cruives for intercepting the salmon.
     A boiling house cooked the salmon taken from the rivers of Helmsdale, Brora and Shin.
At this time there were no fewer than eight "whisky houses" in Helmsdale; and the only school, at Loth, had 40 pupils. As late as 1730 Sundays were devoted to athletics, such as weightlifting and tossing the giant moss firs ("cabers").
In 1864 the first entry was made in the log of the present school (not the present building). A payment of pennies was taken weekly by each scholar to the school and pieces of peat daily. The Free Church school was built on the site of the present Free Church, and the parish school was in Lillieshall Street. In 1882 the schools came under management of the State, and the former school building (now converted to flats) was erected in 1883.

The early 19th century

Many noble households squandered large inheritances. For example Lord Reay, Caithness lost his whole estate overnight at the gambling tables of London. In the case of the Sutherlands, however, a large proportion of their wealth was used to benefit their estates and, in so doing, the lot of the local inhabitants. This latter aspect involved not only improving communications, but also. In the longer term, living conditions.
    In Sutherlandshire the work done resulted in communication improvements which upgraded the road system out of all recognition, and also brought the railway to the area. The latter scheme both improved future trading prospects, and relieved the hardships of 1870.
    Other measures introduced to benefit the local inhabitants included work at Brora to improve the coal mine, starting an engineering workshop there, as well as carpet factories at Embo, Lybster and Helmsdale. Loans were made to fishermen to purchase new boats, and large sums were laid out on planned villages at Helmsdale and at Brora.
Finance for all this work was only available because, in 1803, the Marquess of Stafford, husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, later to be made 1st Duke of Sutherland for political services, inherited a very large annual income from his uncle, the Duke of Bridgewater. This was in the form of canal profits.
The Marquess decided to use a large part of this legacy to upgrade his wife's Sutherland estate whilst at the same time seeking to improve the estate's profitability. This he wanted to do by converting to sheep farms the large tracts of the land occupied by many small tenants mostly involved in cattle rearing. Just how necessary it was to improve the road system will be appreciated when it is realised that up to that time there was only one bridge in the whole estate of 1'250 square miles. This was at Brora and was used to convey coal from the mine to the harbour. There were no roads at all capable of handling wheeled traffic.
    He seems to have been very badly advised about the conversion of the land to the raising of sheep and also about the men to carry it into operation. This involved the large scale eviction of tenants which, in many cases, was carried out in an outrageous and inhuman fashion, especially during the period 1810 - 1825. This resulted in hundreds of local Sutherland people emigrating to Canada and New Zealand. Those remaining, with great fortitude, created new livelihoods in coastal areas such as Helmsdale, but endured initially the most abject poverty and deprivation.
Obviously the expenditure involved was massive, and whilst an Exchequer contribution of 50% of approved outlays was available this only applied to the main roads, or in the Sutherland case about 90 miles out of the overall total of 500 miles.
    Besides the road works there were constructed the Telford Bridge at Helmsdale, (costing £2,200), one hundred and thirty four other bridges, and two chain ferries for river crossings considered to long to bridge.
When allied to the complementary schemes for inns and stabling at Clashmore, Golspie and Portgower, and a post office at Dornoch, these improvements enabled the Estate to persuade the Post Office to extend the Royal Mail northward from Inverness. Consequently, although it was to be a further ten years before all the bridges were in place, by 1819 stage coaches were travelling through Helmsdale up to Wick and other north coast towns, and so Helmsdale became a convenient resting place for horses and travellers either about to tackle the stresses of the Ord with its exposed roads and steep inclines, or to rest from their after affects.
    Before the new roadwork's began, there were only a small inn and a few cottages round the mouth of the Helmsdale river for those who were working on the nearby salmon boiling and pickling plant. In 1762 the inn was described by the Right Reverend Robert Forbes as having "a little snug garden made out of the Greatest Wild with his own hand; in which we saw Gooseberries, Apples, the hundred-leaf'd Rose, White Lillies,....Firs, Ash, Beech, Oak...and Cauliflowers" He also mentions that " the sea flows up at Tides" almost to the door and that "At the mouth of the water of the Helmsdale there is good Salmon-Fishing, plenty of trout, and a Safe Inlet for Fishing". On another journey he mentions that he "dined at Helmsdale on Mutton-Collaps, and new baked Salmon".
To cop with the additional work the Sutherland Estates required additional staff in the factor's office. Amongst those engaged was an 18th century "whiz kid", William Young, who had made a success of a similar situation on his own smaller estate near Elgin.
    During an inspection of the construction work on the bridge, William Young focused on the possibilities of developing the surrounding area commercially, and reported to the Marquess in 1810 that "Helmsdale seems well adapted for a Fishing Station both from its local situation, and, as the adjoining sea is known to contain Cod, Ling, Haddocks, and other white fish, here the Moray Firth Fishermen frequently come to set their lines. Immediate steps should be taken to get possession of some ground suitable for a Village and to induce Fishermen from the south side to settle at this place".
    At the time of Mr Young's report, the major part of the land there was held by Lord Hermand in wadset (a type of loan/lease arrangement) so, whilst it was 1816 before full legal access could be gained to the major part of the targeted area, construction of this new planned village had commenced in 1814 and it was not long before expenditure of around £20 million in 1990 terms had provided the start of the neat streets of houses we see today, as well as a fish curing shed, and then later, a distillery and a carpet factory.
The area round the harbour was built, but not all of the projected streets. As well as developments on land the number of fishing boats based at Helmsdale had risen from 20 in 1814, to 204 in 1819.

The Helmsdale Ice house


The Helmsdale Ice House is one of the best examples of its kind on the Sutherland Estates, and is now a scheduled ancient monument, registered under the scheme operated by Historic Scotland, which gives it legal protection. It was the Chinese in the 13th century who first realised the potential of ice as a preservative, and in the mid-1700s Alexander Dalrymple, a traveller in the Far East, brought perishable goods back to Britain packed in ice. The Scottish merchant and philanthropist, George Dempster of Skibo, promoted the technique in 1786 and may have been involved in the development and design of Helmsdale's ice house.
    The village had two ice houses originally: one at the harbour for white fish, which was demolished in the early 1990's and the present one near the war memorial at the mouth of the river, which was used for the preserving and packing of salmon. The ice house, built into a natural brae, was constructed of free stone and comprises an ante chamber where packing took place and a vaulted room where the ice was stored. The roof was covered with a layer of soil and turf, giving better insulation, and there are two openings - a doorway at floor level to give access to pack the salmon, and a hatchway at the back of the roof, accessible from the outside, for loading the blocks of ice into the building. Both openings have double doors and hatches for improved insulation.
    There is still visible to this day the outline of a shallow construction behind the ice house, which formed a lake fed by a spring. During the hard winter months, the water froze and the ice was transported by horse and cart to the hatchway for loading into the chamber by a stone-paved chute. Labour was plentiful as during a harsh winter very little work could be carried out on the land.
    During the mild winter ice was imported from Norway. The ice was packed in layered sawdust, again for better insulation and to make it easier to handle when it came to packing the fish.
    The flagstones on the floor of the chamber were laid with gaps between for drainage purposes, but the construction was so well insulated that the melting process was very slow and the ice lasted most of the summer.
    The local fishermen took out leases to catch salmon around the foreshore, and the fish were transported to the ice house for packing. The salmon were packed in full, half or quarter boxes, nose to tail with a layer of ice and greaseproof paper between each layer. The fish were then transported to Aberdeen by boat and latterly by rail to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
    Shortly after the Second World War the antechamber of the ice house was used as a fish and chip shop, and in the early 1990s renovations were carried out to the outside of the building and the area spot-lit to make it an attractive and interesting visitor attraction.

Land League Cairn

A cairn was erected at Gartymore on the croft of John Fraser, a leading light of the land reform movement, the first branch of the Sutherland association, the parent of the Highland Land League. These men by their efforts succeeded in the Highland Land League.
Click plaque for readable size
These men by their afforts succeeded in bringing about the first crofting reform acts, ensuring security of tenure for crofters that they would never again be "treated by owners of tenure of the soil as good for nothing, but to be cast out trodden under feet of men"-(Sage)
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more history of Helmsdale visit Timespan