Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.


I’ve seen before the deserted black houses of communities in fertile straths that were cleared by absentee landlords to make way for vast sheep farms. I had thought the villagers were often provided with a small croft on the east coast in towns such as Wick and left to make a living from the sea. Or else encouraged to emigrate. Badbea is a deserted community perched on the steep slopes above the cliff tops on the east coast of Caithness. It began to be populated from the 1790s when landowners such as Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster evicted farmers and their families from his land so he could introduce sheep. The families were indeed given small plots but on steep rough land. They had to immediately start to build themselves some form of shelter and begin the task of cultivating vegetable plots.

Some men were employed by Sinclair to build the dry stone to keep his sheep in. Others were employed in the herring industry in Berriedale, a walk of 5 miles or so. For the villagers remaining while these young men were away for days on end fishing, life must have been so hard. There was only one horse in the whole village but this was not used for ploughing. A kind of foot-plough called a chaib was used instead. Any soil improvement would have needed copious amounts of lime. In high winds, livestock, and sometimes children, had to be tethered to prevent them from being blown over the cliff.

In 1814 Badbea has a population of 80 but thereafter it declined. Folks moved to the cities to seek a better life. Some emigrated to New Zealand. The herring fishing, owned by the Laird, was discontinued in favour of salmon which required less manpower. By 1903 all the houses had been abandoned.

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