18th Century inn abandoned during Clearances is unearthed

The Wilkhouse inn as depicted in John Kirk's 1772 map of the old Kintradwell Estate, Sutherland. PIC: Map courtesy of National Library of Scotland.
The Wilkhouse inn as depicted in John Kirk's 1772 map of the old Kintradwell Estate, Sutherland. PIC: Map courtesy of National Library of Scotland.
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The remains of an 18th Century inn that was abandoned during the Highland Clearances have been unearthed by archaeologists.

Evidence of life at the old Wilkhouse inn which overlooked the sea near Brora, Sutherland, has been excavated by Clyne Heritage Society, Guard Archaeology and a team of volunteers.

Drone footage of the site of the old Wilkhouse inn near Brora, Sutherland. PIC: Courtesy of George Gunn.

Drone footage of the site of the old Wilkhouse inn near Brora, Sutherland. PIC: Courtesy of George Gunn.

Dating from the 1740s, it is believed the inn was well used by passing travellers and drovers moving cattle from north Sutherland and Caithness to markets at Crieff and Falkirk.

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The inn, which had a large cattle stance and a pond, closed around 1819 and was left to decay after the land was bought by Sutherland Estates.

Historic accounts detail the warm welcome once received at the inn from the host, Robert Gordon, and his “bustling, talkative wife” with customers heartily dining on cold meat, eggs, new cheese and milk.

The hearth which contained the ashes of the last fire lit at the old inn around 200 years ago. PIC: Contributed.

The hearth which contained the ashes of the last fire lit at the old inn around 200 years ago. PIC: Contributed.

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Pieces of wine and beer bottles were among objects found by the excavation team with bits of fine 18th Century porcelain, buttons and a butchered sheep shin bone also discovered.

Archaeologists believe the inn was well built and well financed given that a piece of window glazing, a rare luxury in Sutherland at the time, was found during the dig as well as thick, lime mortared walls which were also unusual during the period.

Dr Nick Lindsay, chairman of Clyne Heritage Society, said: “No inn has been dug in Sutherland before and we’re pretty excited about the evidence that we have found. It’s a ground breaking excavation.”

Dr Lindsay said a number of those working at the site felt “linked” to the old inn and its history while at work.

He said: “You are absolutely linked to it. Since it was closed down and left to rack and ruin, we were the first people to see the floors and doors and the fireplaces.

“An amazing thing was in the fireplace at the north gable, there were still the ashes of the last fire lit at the inn. You could imagine Mrs Gordon tending the hearth for the last time and cooking the last meals for travellers.”

Thirty coins were also found at the Wilkhouse site, including a French Louis XIII Double Tournois which dates from between 1610-1643.

These finds suggest the site was used as a stopping place by travellers long before the inn was built, Dr Lindsay said.

The inn was originally on land owned by Kintradwell Estates which was later bought by Sutherland Estates which embarked on a third wave of clearing its land of people and property to make way for sheep farms during 1819 and 1820. An estimated 5,500 people were removed from their homes during this time.

Dr Lindsay said Wilkhouse inn was likely stripped of everything valuable, such as timber rafters, slates, glass and masoned building stones.

He added: “It was then likely left as a ruin, which gradually collapsed over the decades and centuries to a broad pile of rubble.”

Sutherland Estates then built a number of coaching inns as part of its investment in new villages such as Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie, Dr Lindsay added.

The inn was first depicted on William Roy’s map of 1747-52 and later by John Kirk in 1772 with a detailed account of the inn given in Rev Donald Sage’s Memorabilia Domestica which documented parish life in the north of Scotland.

Rev Sage said: “As we alighted before the door we were received by Robert “ Wilkhouse,” or “ Rob tighe na faochaig,” as he was usually called, with many bows indicative of welcome, whilst his bustling helpmeet repeated the same protestations of welcome on our crossing the threshold.

“We dined heartily on cold meat, eggs, new cheese, and milk.”

The account also notes how the floor of the inn was covered half an inch of sand.

The dig at Wilkhouse last summer was funded by Dr Donald Adamson, chairman of Guard Archaeology, with the final report on the excavation completed by colleague, Dr Warren Baillie and presented at the end of last year.

Around 50 people worked on the excavation site in total, including a number of volunteer diggers, rehabilitating ex-servicemen and local school children.