Our community is at the heart of the museum and we would like to share stories of past times through the writings, memories and images provided by the people of Helmsdale.
This is the story of our area and how significant events have shaped the way of life. Learn about men and women who have lived here through the ages making Helmsdale what it is today.
Hill to Harbour
The name Helmsdale comes from the Norse Hjalmunsdal (the dale of the tiller or helmet), the Scots Gaelic name is Bun Illidh (village at the base of the river) and the Scots name is Helmsdal.
Helmsdale is a community of change, and of fortune sought on land and sea.
It is a place fashioned by opportunity, and transformed by travellers: an historic community displaced from the land, and resettled on the coast; a point of arrival for wary seafarers from ancient times to the present day, and the place where long journeys began for hopeful mariners and pioneering voyagers seeking a life in the new world.
The village of Helmsdale was first planned in 1815 by the Countess of Sutherland as a commercial fishing settlement for families evicted during ‘improvements’ to their land, to make way for more profitable sheep farming enterprises.
The Clearances marked a controversial dismantling of the centuries-old subsistence farming tradition across huge swathes of Highland land, and the removal of subsistence farming families from land they had lived on and farmed for generations became a notorious period in Scotland’s history. the population of the Kildonan strath fell by 90% from 2600 in 1791 to 260 in 1830, as vast areas of ground were purged of human occupants.
Whilst some families took new employment elsewhere and some emigrated, others relocated to the coast and sought work in the burgeoning sea fishing industry in specially constructed harbour villages. These families were to experience the ebb and flow of an incredible Herring Boom which established Helmsdale as one of the foremost fishing harbours in Europe.
Travel through our museum to explore the extraordinary stories of communities based on northern soil and sea.
Wolf is a short film by artists Dalziel + Scullion. The film is a creative synthesis of the spoken word, images and music, addressing ideas about co-existence and loss, it is based around the story of the last wolf in Sutherland that is said to have been killed by hunter Polson on or around 1700.
The narrative of the film is written by Robin LLoyd-Jones and touches on ideas about migration, land use, religion and ecology. There are long parts of the film where there are no words, only images and the haunting sound of Aidan O’Rourke’s music played on looped solo fiddle.
The work was commissioned by Timespan. This area is synonymous with the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and early 19th century, when hundreds of crofting families were cleared off the land, particularly from the glens that radiate from Helmsdale to make way for large herds of livestock and new ways of managing the land. The film was shot predominantly in Glen Loth and the Strath of Kildonan and speaks further of other types of activities that have cleared or changed the face of the landscape, that of plantation forests, of estate game hunting, farming and even gold panning – activities that fluctuate in relation to economic forces and cultural acceptances.
Wolf examines our failure to co-exist with large predators whose absence have had a fundamental impact on the ecology of the Scottish landscape. It suggest that the wolf’s absence from our landscape is also symbolic of our overall detachment from nature, which is reflected in a spiritual and psychological yearning we carry within us.
Blacksmithing originates from the Iron Age, when people began making tools from iron.
The Smiddy in Helmsdale closed during the 1950’s and the last blacksmith in the village was known as Blackie. The Smiddy was a meeting place: people from the outlying parishes of Navidale, Loth, Gartymore and West Helmsdale would meet and exchange news and gossip while having their horses shod, leaving a piece of farm machinery to be repaired or even getting their hair cut or a tooth pulled!
The shop was an important part of village life. It is where the locals came to buy the items they needed usually once or twice a week. It was and remains a good place to get the news about what is going on.
Gartymore Croft House
The house would have two rooms, a small scullery and a separate byre either attached to or beside the house. All the cooking would be done over the fireplace set into the gable end of the house, using pots and pans suspended on a hook over the flames.
Houses such as this were typical of the homes of families cleared from the Strath to Gartymore in the 1800’s. The landowner, the Sutherland Estate, encouraged tenants to build neat cottages instead of the old style longhouses where animals occupied one end of the building. The estate supplied timber and lime to people who wished to build the new style of houses and tokens of money were even offered as an extra incentive.