Caen Longhouse Excavation 8th-23rd June
The settlement is located a few miles north of the fishing village of Helmsdale along the Strath of Kildonan road. It is located in a narrow valley along the banks of a tumbling burn that flows into the Helmsdale River.
Caen was one of over a hundred small farming settlements in Kildonan and it is estimated that nearly 2,000 people populated the Strath around 1800.
In 1813, the settlement of Caen is described by Donald Sage, the minister’s son, as……
“The last farm or township on the banks of the Helmisdale is Cäen, a snug sheltered spot, surrounded with hills to the N.W. and E., and having a southerly exposure. During the earlier years of my father’s ministry, this place contained nearly a hundred inhabitants.”
The people lived in long and narrow dwellings known as longhouses commonly found in small clusters in the inland Straths of Sutherland. It is thought that the use of a rectangular building plan was influenced by the Vikings, who settled in Sutherland in the 9th century AD.
It is characterised by having the main living quarters at one end and a byre for cattle at the other end, although there are variations on this plan.
The narrowness of these buildings was determined by the limited availability of wood and the need to support a heavy thatched roof. As long as the houses were narrow, there was no restriction on length; in fact some in Kildonan exceed 30m. Most of the longhouses in Kildonan were inhabited up until the clearances.
The story of the demise of Caen as a farming settlement is closely linked to the events that took place at the time of the Clearances 200 years ago when the wider Strath was cleared to make way for more profitable sheep farming.
The last inhabitants Caen left around 1825 and the old rig and furrow cultivation near the river on the valley floor was overlaid with large walled sheep encloses. Some of the people cleared emigrated to the Red River Settlement in Canada in 1815. Today the only inhabited dwelling is the shepherd’s house.
The building remains survive as low stone footings covered in grass and you can see the remains of old rig and furrow cultivation on the land around the township.
This excavation is an exciting opportunity to learn more about the homes of the people of Caen and the sequence of events that led to the abandonment of their settlement.