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Helmsdale and the Clearances

Many noble households squandered large inheritances, but in the case of the Sutherlands a large proportion of their wealth was used to benefit their estates and, in so doing, the lot of the local inhabitants. This latter aspect involved not only improving communications, but also. In the longer term, living conditions.
    In Sutherlandshire the work done resulted in communication improvements which upgraded the road system out of all recognition, and also brought the railway to the area. The latter scheme both improved future trading prospects, and relieved the hardships of 1870.
    Other measures introduced to benefit the local inhabitants included work at Brora to improve the coal mine, starting an engineering workshop there, as well as carpet factories at Embo, Lybster and Helmsdale. Loans were made to fishermen to purchase new boats, and large sums were laid out on planned villages at Helmsdale and at Brora.
Finance for all this work was only available because, in 1803, the Marquess of Stafford, husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, later to be made 1st Duke of Sutherland for political services, inherited a very large annual income from his uncle, the Duke of Bridgewater. This was in the form of canal profits.

The Marquess decided to use a large part of this legacy to upgrade his wife's Sutherland estate whilst at the same time seeking to improve the estate's profitability. This he wanted to do by converting to sheep farms the large tracts of the land occupied by many small tenants mostly involved in cattle rearing. Just how necessary it was to improve the road system will be appreciated when it is realised that up to that time there was only one bridge in the whole estate of 1'250 square miles. This was at Brora and was used to convey coal from the mine to the harbour. There were no roads at all capable of handling wheeled traffic.

    He seems to have been very badly advised about the conversion of the land to the raising of sheep and also about the men to carry it into operation. This involved the large scale eviction of tenants which, in many cases, was carried out in an outrageous and inhuman fashion, especially during the period 1810 - 1825. This resulted in hundreds of local Sutherland people emigrating to Canada and New Zealand. Those remaining, with great fortitude, created new livelihoods in coastal areas such as Helmsdale, but endured initially the most abject poverty and deprivation.

Obviously the expenditure involved was massive, and whilst an Exchequer contribution of 50% of approved outlays was available this only applied to the main roads, or in the Sutherland case about 90 miles out of the overall total of 500 miles.
    Besides the road works there were constructed the Telford Bridge at Helmsdale, (costing 2,200), one hundred and thirty four other bridges, and two chain ferries for river crossings considered to long to bridge.
When allied to the complementary schemes for inns and stabling at Clashmore, Golspie and Portgower, and a post office at Dornoch, these improvements enabled the Estate to persuade the Post Office to extend the Royal Mail northward from Inverness. Consequently, although it was to be a further ten years before all the bridges were in place, by 1819 stage coaches were travelling through Helmsdale up to Wick and other north coast towns, and so Helmsdale became a convenient resting place for horses and travellers either about to tackle the stresses of the Ord with its exposed roads and steep inclines, or to rest from their after affects.

    Before the new roadwork's began, there were only a small inn and a few cottages round the mouth of the Helmsdale river for those who were working on the nearby salmon boiling and pickling plant. In 1762 the inn was described by the Right Reverend Robert Forbes as having "a little snug garden made out of the Greatest Wild with his own hand; in which we saw Gooseberries, Apples, the hundred-leaf'd Rose, White Lillies,....Firs, Ash, Beech, Oak...and Cauliflowers" He also mentions that " the sea flows up at Tides" almost to the door and that "At the mouth of the water of the Helmsdale there is good Salmon-Fishing, plenty of trout, and a Safe Inlet for Fishing". On another journey he mentions that he "dined at Helmsdale on Mutton-Collaps, and new baked Salmon".
To cope with the additional work the Sutherland Estates required additional staff in the factor's office. Amongst those engaged was an 18th century "whiz kid", William Young, who had made a success of a similar situation on his own smaller estate near Elgin.
    During an inspection of the construction work on the bridge, William Young focused on the possibilities of developing the surrounding area commercially, and reported to the Marquess in 1810 that "Helmsdale seems well adapted for a Fishing Station both from its local situation, and, as the adjoining sea is known to contain Cod, Ling, Haddocks, and other white fish, here the Moray Firth Fishermen frequently come to set their lines. Immediate steps should be taken to get possession of some ground suitable for a Village and to induce Fishermen from the south side to settle at this place".
    At the time of Mr Young's report, the major part of the land there was held by Lord Hermand in wadset (a type of loan/lease arrangement) so, whilst it was 1816 before full legal access could be gained to the major part of the targeted area, construction of this new planned village had commenced in 1814 and it was not long before expenditure of around 20 million in 1990 terms had provided the start of the neat streets of houses we see today, as well as a fish curing shed, and then later, a distillery and a carpet factory.
The area round the harbour was built, but not all of the projected streets. As well as developments on land the number of fishing boats based at Helmsdale had risen from 20 in 1814, to 204 in 1819.

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