Highland Clearances revisited by links in latitude

VILLAGES which share the same 58° ­latitude as a community created during the Highland Clearances are to be the focus of an online study hosted by a Sutherland museum.

Helmsdale in Sutherland is at 58° latitude. Picture: Dave Conner

The investigation aims to discover how the six settlements around the world ­compare to Helmsdale in Sutherland, learning how they have all been shaped by past events and climate.

Part of the study will involve a 58° North exhibition which will use modern technology to visit the villages, exploring their history and culture. People from the settlements are being invited to join in by contributing words and images of where they live, through video technology and blogs.

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The event is being hosted this month by the Timespan Heritage Museum in Sutherland, which tells the history of the Highlands, and particularly the devastation caused by the 18th century Clearances, when absentee landlords evicted thousands of crofters to make way for more profitable sheep.

Many of those made homeless were moved to new settlements – including Helmsdale. Thousands more left the country for good.

Museum director Anna Vermehren described the project as a “modern pilgrimage”.

She said: “Timespan is setting out on a journey of ­discovery. At its heart is our own northern identity and the ambition to learn from others who share the same latitude. We have drawn a circle around the globe on the 58° latitude in search of creative communities that are located close to the sea with similar populations to Helmsdale.”

Travelling east they first ­visit Borghaug and Lillesand in Norway. Then, across the Baltic Sea, they reach Häädemeste in ­Estonia.

Vermehren said: “These three coastal villages share our Viking past and rich sea fishing and farming heritage.

“Our pilgrimage takes us across the Asian continent, and the Bering Sea to reach Hoonah, a city of 800 people in Alaska.

“From here we continue to Churchill, on the south-west coast of Hudson Bay in Canada, where permafrost instils Arctic conditions. Inuit populations settled at these two destinations, bringing with them rich artistic traditions.”

Churchill is also the place where the first migrants from Kildonan, at Helmsdale, arrived in 1813 after a four-week long treacherous journey across the Atlantic. Completing the circle, they arrive back in Scotland, at Lochinver.

Vermehren said: “Its harbour, like Helmsdale’s, was thriving during the herring boom and the temperate climate allows palm trees to grow on this latitude.

“By drawing this circle and looking north we position ourselves at the edge of a large part of our globe that lies outwith the common ­perception.”