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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Thursday, 24 May 2012

App Tells Clearances History As It Was

This Travel feature appeared in the Sunday Herald on 20.05.12

“The townships in every strath and glen, and on every hill, which once teemed with life, are now desolate and silent; and the only traces visible of the vanished, happy population are here and there, a half buried hearthstone or a moss-grown graveyard.”
Rev Donald Sage, circa 1818

Timespan Museum & Arts Centre in Helmsdale - the starting
point for The Museum Without Walls Clearances Trail App

The beautiful Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland on Scotland's
north east tip

THE week before the Mackay family first set foot on the Strath of Kildonan’s broom-covered slopes, my husband, David, and I attended a parents' evening with our 10-year-old son, Ciaran. 
As we sat in our small plastic seats basking in the reflected glory of our son’s seemingly effortless glide through primary six, we were suddenly jolted by a note of negativity.
“So, Ciaran,” said his teacher, “why are you dragging your heels with reading The Desperate Journey?”
Our young genius wriggled in his seat. “I dunno,” he replied. “I just haven’t got into it.”
“Well,” said his teacher, “sometimes if you persevere with a book past the first few chapters, you get a lot out of it. I think you’d really like it.”
Now that the story of Highland Clearances – one of the most controversial episodes in recent Scots history – is firmly rooted in the curriculum in Scottish schools, Kathleen Fidler’s book The Desperate Journey has become a standard textbook for children in primary schools studying the subject.
The novel, set in 1812, merges fact and fiction as it tells the story of the fictional Murray family’s arduous journey from from Culmailie in Sutherland, where they were cleared from their cottage to make way for sheep, via Glasgow to the Red River Settlement (now the city of Winnipeg) in Canada.
This fictional account echoes the real-life experience of hundreds of other families from the Highlands who ended up in north America.
It seemed like a fine case of educational happenstance that the Mackay family was about to travel to the same area where The Desperate Journey began now that a new 69p App from iTunes looks set to reclaim the landscape and history of one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland.
Ciaran’s teacher thought so too. Gold stars all round... 
A week later, Ciaran and his sister Mia, aged eight, are standing on the site of a ruined long house at the former township of Marrel in Sutherland, just like one from which Davie and Kirstie Murray from The Desperate Journey were evicted. 
“Mum,” said Ciaran, “if you didn’t know what you were looking for, these would just be stones. But people actually lived here!”

My children, Mia and Ciaran, on the site
of a ruined long house – iPhones at the ready

We are in the Strath of Kildonan, a five hour drive from our home outside Glasgow, with Jacquie Aitken, heritage officer of Timespan Museum and Arts Centre in Helmsdale. Jacquie is the driving force and ‘author’ of a new Clearances Trail App called Museum Without Walls, which went live yesterday (May 19).
The App has been developed over the course by Timespan and funded to the tune of £22,407 and £45,900 respectively, by Museums Galleries Scotland and The Heritage Lottery Fund. 
The aim of this unique App is to merge mobile digital technology with Timespan’s vast treasure trove of photographs, old maps, and material relating to the history of this area to give virtual and actual visitors a hands-on and interactive trip around 10 key locations in the Strath of Kildonan.
It will also prepare the way for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the clearances from the Strath in 2013. Thousands of visitors are expected to travel to this area from Canada next year. Many of them will be descendants of the original crofters, who settled in the city of Winnipeg in Manitoba.
With Jacquie as our ‘actual’ guide on the 17-mile-long trail, which starts at Timespan – a former curing yard for the herring industry – and ends at Kinbrace Cemetery, our eyes are opened not just to the beauty of the place, but also to its history.
The green and fertile Strath runs north west from Helmsdale for twenty miles. Although there is a railway line which was built in the late nineteenth century, today there are very few houses. Two hundred years ago it was a different story. A relatively large population lived in small scattered communities called ‘townships’ throughout the glen, as they had done since the Bronze Age.
The App trail starts at sculptor, Gerald Laing’s Emigrants’ 10ft-high bronze statue in Helmsdale’s Couper Park. Erected in 2007, it depicts a Highland family leaving their home and looking out to the North Sea to an uncertain future.
It is a poignant place to start our own journey of discovery. 
The village of Helmsdale, Jacquie tells us, was designed and built in the early part of the nineteenth century by landowners of the Sutherland Estate as part of so-called improvements to encourage displaced tenants to take up fishing at the time of a herring boom. 
“It didn’t quite work as they had planned,” she tells us. “Many crofters didn’t take to the sea and skilled fisherman from Moray shire had to be brought in to teach the men how to fish. Many men preferred to work as coopers, curers, smiddies and labourers.”
As we drive on the single track road out of Helmsdale, Jacquie explains that in 1811, the population of the Strath was 1,574. “This is an area which had been lived in for more than 2000 years,” she explains. “Between 1813 and 1819, the area was forcibly cleared of almost all its inhabitants. Many went to live in the new settlements such as Helmsdale, but others decided to leave Scotland forever.”
Jacquie draws our attention constantly to aspects of the landscape which we are looking at, but not really seeing. “Do you see these stone walls?” she asks Ciaran and Mia as we climb the slopes of the ruined township of Kilphedir.
They nod. It is difficult not to see these dry stane dykes as they are everywhere. “They are sheep pens,” she tells us. “If you look closely, they enclose a huge area. At various points in the walls, there are little gaps. They are ‘sheep creeps’ to let the sheep in and out.”

Ciaran and Mia on the site of an old corn-drying kiln
once used by crofters who lived at Kilphedir 

“Why sheep?” asks Ciaran. “Well, there was a war on,” Jacquie replies. “The soldiers needed warm woolen uniforms so the price of wool was rising all the time and the landowners knew they could make a lot of money from sheep.”
Our two children, like most kids their age, are slaves to digital technology and Ciaran quizzes Jacquie about how the App will work while snapping away on my iPhone. At Kilphedir, which is location three on the trail, Jacquie tells Ciaran and Mia to stand in what looks a hole in the ground on a hillside. “What do you think this is?” she asks.
They look blank. “It’s a corn-drying kiln,” she explains. “The crofters would smoke their corn here and they were often the warmest places in the township, which meant that they were used as gathering places. Sometimes, they were even used as schools.”
Later, we discover that a kiln at Kildonan, further up the trail, was even used as an illicit whisky still. 
The 17-mile-long trail from Hemlsdale to Kinbrace, is aimed at people using cars and bicycles although it can be done on foot. 
“We’re not encouraging people to visit the sites in the landscape as there are no public footpaths,” explains Jacquie. “The idea of the App trail is that users can access information and images, at the roadside, about sites they can see from each waymarkers and sites hidden from view further away. 
“Visitors will gain a much fuller understanding of how the landscape has changed around them, especially from the later 18th century to modern times. 

The App is an historical
treasure trove

“The Strath is really beautiful in the summer time, but this is when the vegetation, most notably bracken, obscures the old township remains. The App’s new collection of images were taken in November when the vegetation was much reduced, making it easier to see and photograph the old ruins.”
The detail in the App is exhaustive. The story which caught my attention was the one about Catherine McPherson from Balnavaliach, who immigrated to Canada with the first party from Kildonan in 1813. 
Catherine, we are told, nursed the sick after typhoid broke out aboard the ship which took the Highlanders to Canada before surviving a severe flood that carried away her log-built home. 
On board the ship, Catherine met Alexander Sutherland of Gailable and they married in 1814. The couple were allocated Lot 10 at the Red River Settlement by Lord Selkirk, who had offered land to the displaced Highlanders in Canada.
On the App, you can read passages from letters by Catherine’s brother William, writing from Scotland to their brother John at the Red River Settlement in 1815, listing items such as ‘black and white sewing thread’ and ‘three dozen of several kinds of forks’ which he has sent with members of the second party traveling to Canada.
The Sutherlands, we are told, had one child John, who was appointed Manitoba’s first senator in 1871. Alexander and Catherine both died within months of each other in 1867 and in a poignant echo of their shared history in two different continents, they are buried in Kildonan Cemetery, Winnipeg.
It took me and my family the best part of a morning to explore the Strath of Kildonan, but the insights offered up to us that day still linger on in the imagination. That night, Ciaran and I started to read The Desperate Journey together. “Mum,” he said, after a few chapters. “This is a great story. Imagine if it happened to us...”
The Museum Without Walls Clearances Trail App costs 69p and is available for download for iPhones, iPads and tablets. The App includes GPS navigation, historic map layers, 3-D longhouse illustrations, the audio and visual story of the Clearances, locations of all the townships and related sites of interest in Kildonan, as well as a game for young people using QR codes to collect items to put into an emigrant’s kist. iPods are available to hire from Timespan Museum and Arts Centre in Helmsdale.

Helmsdale is a two and a half hour train journey from Inverness. It takes one and a half hours to travel by road from Inverness to Helmsdale.
Gerald Laing's large bronze
sculpture, The Emigrants,
looks out to sea high above
Information on an old gravestone at Kinbrace Cemetery
is accessed digitally

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