Caithness CWS           Historical Articles         Brubster Index

   Caithness History                               A to Z

Brubster - Pre Improvement Agriculture

J. K. Butler

Brubster is an area of ground on the border between the fertile farmlands of Shebster, Forss and Dounreay to the north and east, and the hill and moor ground to the south and west. It was always marginal agricultural ground and the early agricultural improvers passed it by. It remained an area of small croft holdings with a subsistence economy subject to the fluctuating fortunes of the weather and the market In black cattle. Meanwhile to the north and east the improvers developed substantial "town farms" each with impressive farm buildings and enclosed drained fields. They were:

Dounreay (built 1771)
Skaill (built 1791?)

These farms were on the three estates of Sandside, Shebster, and Forss. The separate estate of Brubster was not directly involved in these changes but its fate become inextricably mingled with that of these three estates and its story can only be told in the context of this larger area.

A ridge of high ground runs along the west border of Brubster and across Shebster, gradually petering out towards Lybster, it was variously known as the Highlands of Brubster, the Highlands of lsauld and the Highlands of Shebster. It was here the gradual encroachment of the improvers culminated in a major dispute over the absorption of the common lands into the town farms with the consequent necessity of clearance of the croft tenants, it resulted in a legal enquiry in 1841 and it is the evidence to this enquiry which supplies most of the historical evidence. There are proofs of evidence from 118 witnesses, including some farmers and clearance employees, but most were crofters and farm labourers and their wives. It presents a most interesting cross-section of the population. It is lodged as item CS 235/A/24/2 in the Scottish Records Office.

The Shebster/Brubster area was later described in the form of folk stories under the pen-name of Jenny Horne. Little of the detail has been linked directly with recorded history but some of it connects up and further studies are probably worthwhile.,

The introduction and expansion of the town farms, and later the creation of sheep farms on the hill land, necessitated the removal of the tenants or at least to deny them access to the newly enclosed common land. In the past the common land had been shared in a true community spirit but as the restrictions made an impact there grew up a pattern of Implicit restrictions on the remaining common as to who had the 'right' to graze animals on which part. Much of the evidence dealt with these implicit rights and some landowners tried to use these as evidence as to which parts of the common they should be able to appropriate. There was certainly rivalry among the estates for appropriation of the common land. For example Donald Henderson in giving evidence - "That deponent remembers being told by his father of a bothy and park having been put up in the hill of Skaill, and deponent cannot tell how many years ago this was, but it was more than 40 years ago, and was put up in a night's time: That this bothy was put up by one James Sinclair, a tenant in Isauld, not the factor; and depones, that there was also another bothy put up on the said hill by the people of Stemster, and deponent heard that the reason for putting up these bothies was to claim right to the place. "

The lsauld/Brubster Highlands were important not only as common grazing but also as vital herding routes to the summer shielings in the more southerly moorlands i.e. on and beyond the present sporting estate of Shurrery. In Shebster the herding routes were along caa's - traditional drove roads - and the enclosures of the town farms narrowed or totally closed these. The introduction of large scale sheep farms made droving to the shieling virtually impossible.

It was around 1805 that one George Innes brought the new sheep to the town farm lsauld. New dykes were erected at Achvarasdale and the sheep farm was extended bit by bit into the valley of the Isauld burn. He built a long dyke at Clashnaracher in 1805 to define his first boundary and built some little houses outwith the area at Clashmore, presumably to house the people displaced from the valley, though that is not stated. He then proceeded to extend the appropriated area eventually reaching the bill of Bien-a-Bad at the head of the valley. At that time the estate, Sandside, was owned by Sir Robert Sinclair and one James Sinclair was his factor. George Innes was the tenant of Isauld and Achvarasdale and he brought a John Burns to be his shepherd. People from the locality who attempted to herd their cattle on the appropriated ground were turned back or had their cattle 'poinded' by Burns.

In 1827 a Capt. McDonald bought the estate of Shebster from the previous owner Mr. Nicolson, clearly with the intention of developing sheep farming. This spelled doom for the crofters of Brubster since the encroachment was now from two sides and their marginal land was now valuable to the sheep farmers' ambitions. Capt. McDonald, in 1828, put a ditch and dyke across the Shebster estate which had a manned gate. This severely restricted access to the Brubster Highlands from parts of Shebster. The removal of crofters from their homes was gradual but persistent until 1838 when a major clearance programme was initiated. This involved the total elimination of crofts from the defined sheep farming areas of Achvarasdale and Brubster.

Brubster was never a village in the sense of a focal settlement serving a surrounding area of farming. Before the clearance it was simply a scattered group of subsistence crofts, with no central point, and its boundaries defined only for landowning purposes.

The settlements which are named in evidence or on maps provided are:



Last known habitation

Boandhu of Brubster














However there were 10 crofting families identified in a list for the year 1830 as given In evidence by Donald Sandison, so there must have been more settlements than those named here. Sandison's list, with additions from other evidence is given below.

Identified residents of Brubster in 1830:

Alexander Sutherland with sons John and Robert (lived there 1793-1840).

George Gunn
Donald Elder
Donald Gunn (Boandhu)
Donald Campbell
James, and his sister, son of John Sinclair (Tornaheiden)
Peter Campbell (Achnacly) and his son Robert
Alexander Cormack (Tofthorso)
David Sutherland and daughter Charlotte (1816-1831) (Claban)
Robert Mackay (1827-1840). Ground Officer for Capt. McDonald
Angus Gunn

Other residents are identified but not specifically in 1830. They are:

William Gunn (Altintonigal) (1817-1823), he had a nephew William Gunn,
John Macleod was a herd
Murdoch MacDonald lived in Forsiescye.
McPherson of Brubster is mentioned.
James Sutherland was a miller
Hugh Farquahar and daughter Catherine lived there 1 year in 1817
Robert Farquahar was Ground Officer at some time
Kenneth Ross lived there later than 1830

In 1839 all the tenants but one had been removed from these settlements and had been offered housing in a model village of 12 houses built by the new road through the glen. These are the houses now obviously seen in a square, deserted and decaying. Houses on three sides of the square still stand, but the fourth side, on the opposite side of the road, are detectable only by the presence of foundations. These houses were occupied from1839 onwards.

It is possible, from the 1841 Census onwards, to follow the fortunes of the district at ten year intervals. It is, indeed, instructive to compare the 1841 Census with the list given previously, mainly of 1830 residents. The immediately recognisable names are:

Robert Campbell, son of Peter Campbell
Donald Campbell
James Sutherland, miller (presumably son of the previous)
Kenneth Ross

Other family names are recognisable, giving here only the householder's name:

Alexander Elder
Hetty Gunn
William Campbell
William Elder
Betty Gunn
John Sutherland
John Mackay
Roderick Sutherland
Hugh Campbell
George Mackay
Janet Mackay
Hugh Campbell
James Gunn

This indicates that there was not in fact a great deal of change of locality over those 11 years, although most of these families during that period moved from a croft to a house in the village square. There were 19 households recorded in the 1841 Census, which is more than could be readily identified at the time of the clearances.

The decline of Brubster over the next 100 years was gradual. A small number of marginal farms persisted or re-established as the great sheep farms declined. The residents of the village had to get employment elsewhere - for example at Achscrabster quarries - and the reasons for moving to a town eventually outweighed the reasons to stay at Brubster.

Now the valley is virtually deserted and the forest is replacing the sheep farm. There are many fascinating aspect of the story of Brubster which can still be told.