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Mathesons and Helmsdale
The Highland Clearances

The Mathesons from Helmsdale


The Sutherland area was renowned as one of the most brutal during the Highland Clearances, when the owners of the land decided to graze sheep in the Scottish Highlands, and remove the Highland tribes to the coast. These were Gaelic speaking people, with little knowledge of English . Some of the Highlanders were moved to the village of Helmsdale, where cottages were built for them, but the Highlanders were not accustomed to living in a town. They were subsistence farmers, and extremely poor, but could  no longer graze their cattle and provide for themselves. They were encouraged to join the fishing trade, but were not trained for this.

Many families emigrated or moved to cities where they thought they could get work. It is possible that the Matheson family, with their children including Thomas, moved with many others to Aberdeen. When Thomas Matheson married Mary Strath, the service was conducted by the minister of the Gaelic Chapel in Aberdeen, although registered at the Church of St Nicholas. This would  suggest that Mary Straths family  were Gaelic speakers as well, perhaps also originally from the Highlands, as the name Strath also originated in the north.

Thomas age on the passenger lists in April 1838 was given as 27 in April last, and the only birth record found for Thomas Matheson was in 1809, at Midgarty, which is very close to Helmsdale. Four other children have been found for this family, but only the fathers name, Alexander. When Thomas emigrated, only his mothers name, Margaret,  and profession were given, suggesting that his father had died.

At his marriage his trade was given as tailor, and his immigration papers also describe him as a tailor and Mary as a dressmaker.  Thomas would have learnt this trade in Aberdeen, and probably moved there at a very young age.


The entrance to Helmsdale Harbour before the new bridge was built.

This picture is from the Helmsdale Community Website. This site has a lot of information on both the history and modern day Helmsdale. You can find it at
The Timespan Heritage Centre is also a great site to learn more about the history of Helmsdale and the Clearances.

This description of Helmsdale is taken from the Helmsdale Community Site.


Nestling below Creag Bunillidh the traditional Highland fishing village of Helmsdale the ideal base from which to explore Sutherland. It is situated at the mouth of the River Helmsdale (from which it takes its name).
    The village was planned at the time of the Highland Clearances in the early 19th century, on the site of an ancient settlement. Located as it is on the shores of the Moray Firth, it is natural that many of the local community make their living from the sea. The herring industry (the silver darlings) brought prosperity to the village until the beginning of the last century and, although the boom is now over, the visitor can still stand at the picturesque harbour and watch fishing boats prepare to reap today's harvest of lobster, crab and white fish.
           The river Helm tumbles and winds its way down the beautiful Strath of Kildonan, which abounds with wildlife and history, including the historic church at Kildonan and Baile an Or and Suisgill, sites of the great Sutherland Gold Rush of 1869. Many men from all over Britain came in search of gold and there is still gold today.

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