About the Author

bruce-henderson.jpg
Bruce Henderson is a computer engineer living in Southern California. With the help of his cousins he is researching the history of the Henderson family of southern Caithness. You can contact him at bruce@sigalarm.com

The Highland Folk Museum

Newtonmore  Pan
A wide view of Baile Gean at Newtonmore

One of the great resources that has furthered my understanding of Knockfin, and the nature of a small highland village has been the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore. For my trips to Caithness, it is conveniently located on the A9 in the highlands as I drive north from Glasgow. Started in 1935 by Dr Isobel F. Grant, the museum captures a model of rural village life in Scotland in several periods, including the 1700s.

Newtonmore Dyke
Approaching Baile Gean, the village head dyke (dry stone wall) de-marks the boundary of the village

The 1700’s highland village, “Baile Gean” is located at the south end of the museum grounds, and features a number of re-created highland blockhouses that seek to interpret the types of dwellings found in a typical highland village.

Tacksmans House 3
Exterior of the village main house, where the Tacksman’s family lived. There is clear evidence of a similar structure at Knockfin

In includes the main village house, or the Tacksman’s house, a Cottar’s house (poorer crofters), a Weaver’s house (craftspeople who many not have farmed at all) and a Stockman’s house (crofters who kept livestock). All of these structure follow the type that would be considered a typical highland “Blackhouse” due to their central peat-fired hearth and low thatched roofs. Blackhouses were named thusly as the soot and peat smoke would build up on the couples, rafters (aka Cabers) and the thatch until the entire interior would turn black. This thatch would be replaced and the sooty material would be used to fertilize the fields.

Tacksmans House
Interior of the Tacksman’s house with central hearth and low “creepie” chairs. Tartan rugs decorate the walls.

The village would have a lead family, who held the tack for the village. The tack was the lease or deed from chief or laird for the land and holdings encompassing and worked by the village. The job of the Tacksman was to ensure that rents were collected and paid either in coin or in produce.

Their recreation of the town is based on the floor plans and foundations discovered through archeology of several sites, and study of old structures and long experiments of trial and error where the conservators and staff made multiple attempts to build actual blockhouses and township support structures.

Newtonmore Village 1
Baile Gean township showing multiple high-quality recreations of highland blackhouses.

Much like Knockfin, Baile Gean contains a variety of houses of different sizes and purposes, arranged according to convention and custom. In the case of Baile Gean, the doorways all face as close to East as possible, as it was considered good to have the morning sun great you. In Caithness this was quite impractical, as gale force winds heavy with rain would blow from the sea just to the east. Instead the doors to the blackhouses in Knockfin all seem to point south, again to capture what sun they can.

Much to my delight the buildings at Newtonmore / Baile Gean include a barn, a grain kiln, and sheiling huts, which were features of the village at Knockfinn as well.

Shieling 1
Sheiling huts at Newtonmore.

In the subject of Sheiling huts, these rough shelters were built in the high pastures, they were home when the herds were taken upland to graze in the summer. Frequently this was the work of the women of the village, and these huts provided sleeping shelter, as well as storage for butter and cheese made from the milk harvested during the summer grazing.

Additional high-res photos can be found in the Ramscraigs photo gallery.

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