Not far south of John O’ Groats – the most northerly point of the British Isles – lies a beautiful fishing village with a vibrant present and a fascinating history
(A twelve minute read, 1500 words)
(Above: Helmsdale’s modern outer harbour. It has two…)
We’ve finally caught up with ourselves – this twin-telling of the central and incidental places on the Silent Eye’s Pictish Trail and Ancient Orkney workshops intersects here, just off the main A9 road to the very tip of north-east Scotland.
This thread is the one we’ve worked backwards, from Orkney to Inverness rather than the more serious and sequential Thursday blogs (see below) which tell the story in chronological order. This Thursday’s post will see the story of the Pictish Trail coming north to Dunrobin Castle and then on to the magical island of Orkney, with its incredible place in the ancient world, prior to the Vikings.
This anarchic series of side-stories tells the incidentals, the out-takes, the places of beauty, shock, warm-heartedness… and just plain surprise. And occasionally something as wonderful as a chip butty when you’re at your most hungry!
I’ll get to the chip butty… It was life-saving at the time but it’s trivial compared to the beauty of this lovely fishing village whose story is linked to one of the darkest episodes in Scotland’s history – ‘The Clearances’ – the forcing from the land of thousands of poor farmers; ‘crofters’, whose simple and barely subsistent lives prevented the Scottish gentry farming large flocks of lucrative sheep.
(Above: Helmsdale is located in Sutherland, near the very top of Scotland. The islands above are the archipelago of Orkney, from which we have travelled in these stories, and to which the Thursday blogs are headed for the serious stuff…)
But, unlike the Clearances, this is not a tale of darkness, rather one of compassion and care. Helmsdale is linked to an aristocratic lady who was moved so much by the displacement, hunger and destitution of the poor crofters that, in an age dominated by men, she did something about it…
Helmsdale lies a few miles north of Dunrobin, one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles and the Scottish ancestral home of the Dukes of Sutherland… and our very special lady: Elizabeth Stafford.
(Above: Dunrobin Castle, home of the Dukes of Sutherland. Our forthcoming Thursday blog will highlight this wonderful place)
Helmsdale is named after its river. There has been a port at Helmsdale since 1527. Historically, the North Sea offered plentiful herring fishing, which helped sustain north-eastern Scotland for millennia.
By the 1800s the Scottish Clearances were well under way. The origins of this program of near-genocide were complex, and involved the royal and political powers in England and Scotland, who saw the replacement of simple croft-farming by sheep husbandry as not only a route to riches but also a method of breaking the power of the traditional Clan system, whose existence had resulted in so many uprisings against England.
Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, was the wife of the Duke. She was moved by the plight of the simple farmers, who, with their families, were driven into homelessness and destitution by the Clearances. With the backing of her husband, she envisaged a programme that would see many of the displaced Sutherland crofters become fishermen. This was not a simple task for two reasons: the early harbour at Helmsdale was neither sheltered nor deep enough to support the landing of larger boats; additionally, the crofters needed education in the more advanced fishing method to make the project viable on a larger scale than the inshore fishing of the time.
(Above: the original plans for ‘Elizabeth’s harbour’ at Helmsdale)
In 1814, the Duke (Marquis of Stafford) covered the cost of creating an inner harbour; a vast figure for those times of £1,600.
(Above: The inner harbour created by the compassionate vision of Elizabeth Stafford)
The work was carried out by local engineer George Alexander who built a quay with a small rectangular basin on the north bank of the river. This harbour survives today, and was the basis of the growth of Helmsdale, whose fish processing and smoking operations grew up the hill behind it.
(Above: A heritage boat typical of the advanced designs of the early 19th century. Elizabeth’s vision was to re-train the crofters to use such deep-water boats, thereby making Helmsdale viable on a much large scale)
To provide the skills, Elizabeth brought in experienced fisherman from further south to teach the local men to catch fish out at sea, instead of the inshore methods used by smaller boats of the time. It was a dangerous way to make a living. Some crofters elected, instead, to be trained in land-based jobs like curing and coopering. Women were also employed, mainly as herring gutting girls. Helmsdale diversified around its fishing core and grew, rapidly.
(Above: Alexander Simpson’s fish curing yard, located behind the new harbour)
Success brought streamlined methods. A man named Alexander Simpson became the first herring merchant in Helmsdale. His fish curing yard was built for him by the Sutherland Estate, at the behest of Elizabeth, who continued to watch over the project until her death.
Helmsdale narrowly survived a cholera epidemic in 1832, inching its way back to viability after being abandoned for several years. Eventually, Helmsdale became one of the major Scottish centres of herring fishing. The herring were known locally as the ‘Silver Darlings’.
‘Elizabeth’s harbour’ flourished until 1892, when a deeper harbour – as seen above – was constructed to modern fishing standards. A dramatic change occurred in 1972 when the new road bridge was built to carry the faster and more streamlined A9 trunk road.
(Above: the old (inner) harbour in its entirety. It’s hard to believe that, at its height, over 200 large boats of the time were crammed into its modest space. Ironically, the modern A9 road spans the old harbour entrance with this new bridge)
The Fifie Fishing boat (below) came to Helmsdale in 1990 from Findochty. The boat, on display near the old harbour, is over 100 year old. The Fifie had a vertical stem and stern, two masts and was very fast. It was carvel-built, meaning that planks of the hull meet each other end to end. At the height of the herring boom in the mid-nineteenth century, two-hundred such boats were crammed into the small inner harbour.
And so to the chip-butty… It’s a pile of chips dripping in salt and vinegar between two slices of well-buttered bread. On the day we went to Helmsdale, we’d travelled all the way from Orkney by early morning ferry, via Scrabster, Thurso and John O’ Groats – where we were expecting at least a coffee and sandwich. It was still only nine in the morning when we got there, but nearly five hours into our day.
John O’ Groats was closed… all of it. We journeyed on, and by the time we saw signs to Helmsdale, two hours later and along a very attractive part of the Sutherland coast, we were tired and very hungry. Our final destination of Inverness was still a further two hours away.
We’d never visited Helmsdale, before. Didn’t even know of its existence, to be honest. The sight of the lovely harbour, glistening in the sunlight of a September morning, stole our hearts and we turned down the valley towards the sea. Opposite the harbour wall, there were a few wooden tables with printed menus, outside what appeared to be a cafe. We scanned the menu quickly. Covid-19 rules were in force, so the take-away serving point was a caravan with a hatch in the garden of the cafe.
(Above: The famous chip butty – a north of England speciality we did not expect to find in Sutherland… But we were very glad we did)
It turned out the lady owner, Helen, had been listening to our hungry conversation. She greeted us in a broad Manchester accent. “Will that be chip butties all round then, love?”
We have happy memories of Helmsdale, and plans to return to study and explore it a little more. The story of Elizabeth Stafford is inspirational, and remains, for me, one of the highlights of the trip.
I couldn’t manage another of Helen’s chip butties, through… well, maybe one more for old time’s sake.
Other posts in the Pictish Trail series, here and on the Silent Eye blog:
©Stephen Tanham, 2020.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.