100 Weeks of Scotland: Sutherland

The view from Invergordon, on the Cromarty Firth. Picture: Alan McCredie
The view from Invergordon, on the Cromarty Firth. Picture: Alan McCredie
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My first acquaintance with Sutherland happened long before I ever went there; ‘O’ Grade History.

Week 93

The Highland Clearances. Double-periods that lasted only 80 minutes, but seemed at the time to have taken up most of my life up until that point. The facts went in, to be scribbled down later, hastily, in exams and then forgotten, replaced by music, girls, football, and absolutely everything and anything else. 15 years old and no interest in stories of sheep, crofts and empty lands.

Years go by. Visits to crofts near Bonar Bridge, the church at Croick. Long drives through Ross-shire, Cromarty, Caithness. The long-ago forgotten facts from school are, in fact, not forgotten after all and slowly they become real. The stories that happened here and the people sinned against never really went away. The Highland Clearances were one of the darkest and most shameful episodes in Scottish history.

On top of Ben Bhraggie, overlooking the town of Golspie is an enormous statue to the perpetrator-in-chief of many of the most brutal and most biting of the clearances in this area - the first Duke of Sutherland. Vastly wealthy already, he and his wife, the Duchess of Sutherland saw even more profit to be had by replacing people with sheep and in doing so ‘improving’ the land. What was improved was the Duke’s wealth, nothing else. Very little, if any, regard was given to the displaced by their actions.

Dunrobin Castle, their home, which lies a few miles north of the town may well be beautiful, and would not be out of place in the Loire Valley, but it was built stone by perfect stone on foundations of misery; the misery of the tens of thousands forced off the land to line the pockets of the landowners and their cohorts.

Golspie itself, is a quiet and pretty little town which, when I visited was still festooned with flowers from Gala Week which had only recently finished. A typical Scottish town, with its long main street of low two story houses, painted pale blues and pale browns, hotels, pubs, butchers, fishmongers and one (very) large fish and chip shop.

Golspie’s beach is stunning and inland lie waterfalls and rock lined walks.

Further north, and Brora springs determinedly from the grey coastline with its long beach, and startlingly small harbour. Once known as the ‘Electric City’ due it being the only town in the north with electricity (thanks to the presence of a healthy wool industry in the town), it also once boasted the most northerly coal mine in the country. The quarry here provided the stone for London Bridge (now residing in Arizona) and Liverpool Cathedral.

What the Duke of Sutherland could not have known were the riches that lay beyond the greedy gaze of his statue, out under the cold North Sea. Just to the south, at Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth the oil rigs cluster and congregate for repair.

It is oil where the riches can now be found and oil that brought the people back to this area. One day the oil will end and the industry will leave, but despite all the schemes and avarice of the first Duke, the people will remain.

• Alan McCredie began the ‘100 weeks of Scotland’ website in October 2012, and it will conclude in Autumn 2014. McCredie’s goal is to chronicle two years of Scottish life in the run-up to the independence referendum.

Alan says ‘one hundred weeks...’ is intended to show all sides of the country over the next two years. On the site, he says: “Whatever the result of the vote Scotland will be a different country afterward. These images will show a snapshot of the country in the run up to the referendum.

“The photos will be of all aspects of Scottish culture - politics, art, social issues, sport and anything else that catches the eye.”

Follow the project at 100weeksofscotland.com. You can also follow Alan on Twitter @alanmccredie.