NEW insights have been published into Highland life immediately before the Sutherland clearances of the early 19th century.

Investigations at Wilkhouse, near Brora, led by GUARD Archaeology, centred on an 18th-century drovers’ inn and neighbouring buildings.

The research, which has just been published in Archaeology Reports Online, reveals a place pivotal to the local economy at a time when the continuity of settlement within the Highlands was in the process of developing into modernity before being cut short by the clearances instigated by the Sutherland Estate.

GUARD archaeologist Warren Bailie, who directed the excavation, said: “We revealed evidence of inhabitation here over a long period. The stone foundations of an earlier structure were found under the north-east gable of the inn while the coin assemblage testifies to the long-term use of the drove road at least as far back as the late 16th century. Earlier finds nearby indicate occupation in the Norse, Pictish and Iron Age periods. The excavation also found a buried Neolithic occupation layer below one of the inn’s outbuildings.”

The inn at Wilkhouse was a statement of affluence when it was built. It was constructed with harled stones, lime mortar bonding, glass windows, double chimneys and a slate roof.

The level of investment suggests that there was sufficient passing trade to warrant the spend and was in contrast to many other drovers’ inns in Scotland, which were often longhouses built of drystone with wooden shuttered windows, low walls, central hearths set on the floor and a turf or thatched roof.

However, the researchers say the process of change also brought about the inn’s demise. The roadway was moved up the hillside and out of sight. They say competition from newer inns in Brora and Helmsdale would have been damaging, but underlying these factors lay the demands of the Sutherland Estate.

The Kintradwell estate, recently back in Sutherland ownership after a period in the hands of the Gordons of Carroll, was cleared of its people in 1819. By the time of the coming of the railway in 1870, the inn had sunk into obscurity and was little more than a ruin.

The new archaeological evidence found on the site weaves a rich picture of life in the years leading up until then. Personal items recovered during the excavation include pins, buckles, strap fittings, thimbles and part of a comb.

The trade patterns which had sustained Wilkhouse Inn up until and through the Napoleonic wars suffered a convulsive shift as “Agricultural Improvement” took a grip. An economy based on subsistence farming carried on by a network of sub-tenants, which relied on the export of black cattle as the cash crop, was replaced by huge sheep farms, which were let directly to the highest bidders without consideration for family ties.

In Sutherland, this involved the movement of most of the people from the interior of the county to the coast, to the Lowlands or abroad. The cattle drovers were replaced by shepherds. The lands were cleared, the buildings forcibly abandoned, roofs removed and the people scattered.

The excavation was undertaken in 2017 for Dr Donald Adamson who had completed a study on droving routes in the Scottish Highlands. The excavation involved collaboration between Clyne Heritage Society, the University of Glasgow and GUARD Archaeology, and provided training for early career archaeologists and also volunteer opportunities.