Private history or public history?
Small local museums are both repositories of local memory, artefacts and documents and community storytellers. As I wander Helmsdale, my base for the first two nights of my Caithness and Sutherland visit, I am reminded also of how inaccessible and hidden so much of this history is.
Driving up to Helmsdale on the east coast from Inverness means crossing Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths, place names that resonate with anyone interested in maritime matters.
Helmsdale itself is a product of the infamous Clearances, planned to provide accommodation and employment to those evicted from their lands to make way for sheep. In the early 19th century as the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland “improved” their estates for productive and profitable sheep farming, their tenants were evicted from the straths and glens and moved to planned settlements on the coast such as Helmsdale. Many went to Canada and other parts of the New World. Between 1813 and 1819, more than 1,500 people were forcibly moved from Strath of Kildonan and by 1831 there were only 257 people left.
Later Helmsdale was a herring port and the village population grew to several thousand during the herring fishing season. Local families provided crews for the herring boats and the trade supported coopers, curers, blacksmiths and labourers. Women gutted and packed the herring and sold it around the district from creels on their backs. The earlier inner harbour and single lane stone arched bridge further upriver gave way in the later 19th century to a man-made outer Harbour and more recently, a flying modern metal span tying southern cliff top to town. This magnifies the intrusive sounds of huge trucks as they hurtle down through the town and over the bridge and changed the place and landscape for ever. Local people told me that an ancient castle ruin, shown in old black and white photographs standing on the cliff top, was destroyed to make way for the bridge.
I stay in the old Customs House at the end of the outer harbour, a generous B&B run as B&Bs used to be when I first came to UK: a shared bathroom down the hall, fresh milk brought up to the room, conversations with Mrs Macdonald and a fabulous breakfast with no irritating portion control packets. Mrs M’s father and brother were herring fishermen, owning their own boats and her house is lined with photographs and memorabilia of a lost world. She would like to see a monument or memorial of some kind to the fishermen and their fleets such as stand on other harbours up and down the coast but is not sure how to go about getting such a thing.
In the morning from my bed I watch the sun rising over the harbour, the snow on the far southern shore of the firth glittering in the distance. Bunillidh, the last boat to fish out of Helmsdale, stopped in the mid 1990s. Only a few small fishing boats stacked with lobster and crab pots are against the Harbour wall. At times they head out through the narrow entrance, a few men busy with lines and pots.
High above the small town an impressive stone war memorial towers over the landscape, out of all proportion to the surroundings. Built in 1924, it commemorates the 38 men from the parish who died in WW1 and 16 men in WW2.
At some angles the poignant memorial to the Clearances becomes visible also above the town. The Clearances Memorial itself has a history. The 10 feet high bronze “Exiles” statue was funded by a Canadian millionaire who left Sutherland and made a fortune in South Africa. He originally envisaged a 30 foot family of emigrants atop a 90 foot plinth, towering over the landscape, complete with visitor centre but due to lack of financial support, his plans never eventuated. It was to be a response to the huge and controversial statue of the Duke of Sutherland which towers over the neighbouring town of Golspie.
But there is little information for visitors unless they can visit Timespan, the impressive heritage centre beside the river. Timespan has limited opening hours out of season and has been closed on both of my visits to the area which tend not to be in the tourist season. I am sure it tells wonderful stories but I wonder should access to the stories of place and people only be available to those who can visit a “Heritage Centre” in season?
On both my visits I wander the shore in the early morning before breakfast. Like so much of the UK coastline the beach is filled with rubbish of many materials and a lot of plastic – some obviously dumped here from the land, some washed up.
I can’t resist picking up sea glass, marbles and pottery sherds, an obsession of mine for many years. I eat in the Bannockburn Arms most nights, chatting to the landlady who moved here from Brighton 12 years ago. People talk to you here, other diners in the restaurant (all visitors from somewhere else) and drinkers in the pub. They all know the Flows Country project, the reason I am here, and are interested in its progress. With pubs and shops closed, they are hoping it will bring more trade to this quiet, somewhat forgotten town.
As I walk down to the river under the stone arched bridge, I think of Mrs Macdonald’s wish to have a memorial to the herring fishermen she remembers at the harbour. As Alex Salmond said in 2007 at a ceremony in Helmsdale to remember the Clearances, “this statue is not only a reminder of the Highland Clearances, but a great example of the skill and vision of those who remain”. Perhaps the monuments are not only testament to the pain and poignancy of the Clearances and the Great War but also symbolic of how selective the history is that we choose to commemorate. Those who remain might well believe that their more recent history, instead of being hidden and private, is worth the public telling.
I hope Mrs Macdonald gets her monument to the generations of men and women who worked the herring. And perhaps seeing such a memorial would remind us that the herring disappeared along with jobs and a way of life. Just as with the degraded blanket bog of the Flow Country, there are lessons we can take for our own times from this.