Restored Blackhouse

Restored Blackhouse

Barn Interior

Barn Interior


Auchindrain (Scottish Gaelic: Achadh an Droighinn) lies on the A83, six miles south of Inveraray in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. It is the only township to survive substantially unaltered from amongst the many hundreds that existed across the Scottish Highlands before the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The major feature of the museum is the 22 buildings and building remains of the township. Twelve of these buildings are mainly complete, with the remains of the other 10 either needing or undergoing restoration work. Much of this work is carried out by volunteers and enthusiasts like the West of Scotland Dry Stone Walling Association. Also within the 22 acres of museum grounds are other man-made structures in various condition of repair, including stone dykes, stackyards, stack bases, kailyards, middens, pathways, roads, a corn kiln and evidence of run rig farming methods


Achadh an Droighinn/Auchindrain is first found in documentary references from the early 16th century. At this time the settlement was clearly an established one. It is not known precisely when the township was initially established, but because of its location on the relatively high and poor ground of the watershed between two rivers, the “field of….” in its name, and its nearness to the former township site of Braleckan – Bràigh Leacann, it is suggested that it may very well have been founded through “splitting” of the Braleckan township as a result of population growth in the late medieval period. From the early 1500s to the 1770s Auchindrain was just another township, one of thousands spread across Scotland. Almost nothing is known about this period other than the identities of successive owners or principal tenants, and the appearance of some of the township’s people’s names where they appear in legal documents.


In 1776 the Duke of Argyll reacquired the township, the Duke and his Chamberlain (factor) were early enthusiasts for the principles of agricultural improvement. Auchindrain is included in a list from 1779 of all those living on the Duke’s land. A plan was made in 1789, by the surveyor George Langlands, for the township to be rebuilt and reorganised into crofts as many of the other townships in were. In Auchindrain this was never implemented, possibly because the investment required would not have justified the financial return. In 1875, when Queen Victoria was staying at Inveraray Castle, she visited what she called the “primitive villages” of Auchindrain and Achnagoul (between here and Inveraray). The name of the place is Achadh an Droighinn in Gaelic, and Auchindrain in the Scots language although until the 1950s the spelling was often Achindrain. In the past, the name was sometimes translated into English as Thornfield. Achadh is the Gaelic for “field”, and droighinn for the blackthorn or sloe tree – Prunus Spinosa. The correct pronunciation is Achan-DRYan, with a soft “ch”. Say the “a” and the “i” in the Scots language spelling as two separate letters, and you won’t be far wrong.


The origin of the name blackhouse is of some debate. It could be less than 150 years old and may have been synonymous with inferior. On Lewis, in particular, it seems to have been used to distinguish the older blackhouses from some of the newer white-houses, with their harled (rendered) stone walls. There may also be some confusion arising from the phonetic similarity between the dubh, meaning black, and tughadh, meaning thatch. The buildings were generally built with double wall dry-stone walls packed with earth, and were roofed with wooden rafters covered with a thatch of turf with cereal straw or reed. The floor was generally flagstones or packed earth and there was a central hearth for the fire. There was no chimney for the smoke to escape through. Instead the smoke made its way through the roof. This led to the soot blackening of the interior which may also have contributed to the adoption of name blackhouse. The blackhouse was used to accommodate livestock as well as people. People lived at one end and the animals lived at the other with a partition between them.


Run rig, or runrig, also known as rig-a-rendal, was a system of land tenure practiced in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and islands. The land was divided into touns or townships, comprising an area of cultivable "in-bye" land and a larger area of pasture and rough grazing. The in-bye was divided into strips - "rigs" - which were periodically reassigned among the tenants of the township so that no individual had continuous use of the best land. From the mid-18th century the system was steadily supplanted in Scotland as the in-bye was divided into crofts under fixed tenancy, however run rig survived into the 20th century in some parts of the Hebrides. In Ireland, a similar system was called rundale. The run rig system of tenure should not be confused with the agricultural management practice known as ridge and furrow. A kailyard is a small cabbage patch (or kale patch) or kitchen garden, usually adjacent to a cottage.


What became known as the Clearances were regarded by the landlords (clan chiefs in the main) as necessary improvements to make agriculture viable. They are thought to have been begun by Admiral John Ross of Balnagowan Castle in 1762. MacLeod of MacLeod (the chief of Clan MacLeod) began experimental work on Skye in 1732. Chiefs hired Lowland, or sometimes English, factors with expertise in more profitable sheep farming. They "encouraged", sometimes forcibly, the population to move off land judged suitable for raising sheep. To landlords, "improvement" and "clearance" did not initially mean depopulation. At least until the 1820s, when the price of kelp had steep falls, landlords wanted to create pools of cheap or virtually free labour, supplied by families subsisting in new crofting townships. Having the crofters collect and process kelp yielded profits to the landlords, and they petitioned successfully for legislation designed to stop emigration, leading to the Passenger Vessels Act 1803. Attitudes changed during the 1820s and, for many landlords, the Great Potato Famine, which began in 1846, became another reason to encourage or force emigration and depopulation.


Another wave of mass emigration came in 1792, known to Gaelic-speaking Highlanders as the Bliadhna nan Caorach ("Year of the Sheep"). Landlords had been clearing land to establish sheep farming. In 1792 tenant farmers from Strathrusdale led a protest by driving more than 6,000 sheep off the land surrounding Ardross. This action, commonly referred to as the "Ross-shire Sheep Riot", was dealt with at the highest levels in the government; the Home Secretary Henry Dundas became involved. He had the Black Watch mobilised; it halted the drive and brought the ringleaders to trial. They were found guilty, but later escaped custody and disappeared. The people were relocated to poor crofts. Others were sent to small farms in coastal areas, where farming could not sustain the population, and they were expected to take up fishing as a new trade. In the village of Badbea in Caithness, the weather conditions were so harsh that, while the women worked, they had to tether their livestock and their children to rocks or posts to prevent them being blown over the cliffs. Other crofters were transported directly to emigration ships, bound for North America or Australia[


It was only in the early 19th century that the second, more brutal phase of the Clearances began. Most notorious are the examples of landlords trying to exploit changing economic circumstances to their financial advantage by clearing uneconomical tenants from their land, making room for more profitable uses such as sheep, deer forests or tourism. Two of the best documented such clearances are those from the land of the Duchess of Sutherland, carried out by her factor Patrick Sellar, and the Glencalvie clearances which were witnessed and documented by a London Times reporter. In 1807 Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland, touring her inheritance with her husband Lord Stafford (later Duke of Sutherland), wrote that "he is seized as much as I am with the rage of improvements, and we both turn our attention with the greatest of energy to turnips". As well as turning land over to sheep farming, Stafford planned to invest in creating a coal-pit, salt pans, brick and tile works and herring fisheries. That year his agents began the evictions, and 90 families were forced to leave their crops in the ground and move their cattle, furniture and timbers to the land they were offered 20 miles away on the coast, living in the open until they had built themselves new houses. This plan has been described as a "typical example... of social engineering which met neither the hopes of the benefactors nor the needs of the beneficiaries, but produced social disaster." The Sutherlands' first Commissioner, William Young, arrived in 1809, and soon engaged Patrick Sellar as his factor, who pressed ahead with the process while acquiring sheep farming estates for himself. The Sutherlands were responsible for brutal clearances between 1811 and 1820. Sellar personally supervised the eviction of any who showed reluctance to go, and the burning of cleared houses (especially the roof timbers) to prevent re-occupation. Evictions of 2,000 families in one day were not uncommon. Many starved and froze to death where their homes had once been. The Duchess of Sutherland, on seeing the starving tenants on her husband's estate, remarked in a letter to a friend in England, "Scotch people are of happier constitution and do not fatten like the larger breed of animals.


Tenants were generally treated according to due process of law, being served with notices of eviction and given time (typically three months) to vacate. However, many were reluctant to leave, did not obey the eviction notices, and were evicted with force. The methods used were sometimes harsh and brutal, even by the standards of the early 19th century. Donald McLeod, a Sutherland stonemason, wrote about the events he witnessed: 'The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description — it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day, and even extended far out to sea. At night an awfully grand but terrific scene presented itself — all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once. I myself ascended a height about eleven o'clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew, but whose present condition — whether in or out of the flames — I could not tell. The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing-place by the lurid light of the flames.'


Accounts like those of McLeod and General David Stewart of Garth brought widespread condemnation. Two old people evicted at Sellar's orders were too ill to go far. He left them exposed to the chill northern air and they died. He was acquitted on a charge of manslaughter, but the Duchess wrote: "The more I hear and see of Sellar the more I am convinced that he is not to be trusted more than he is at present. He is so exceedingly greedy and harsh with the people, there are very heavy complaints against him from Strathnaver." In due course Sellar was dismissed from his post. Elsewhere, the flamboyant Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry portrayed himself as the last genuine specimen of the true Highland chief while his tenants (almost all Catholic) were subjected to a relentless process of eviction. As in Ireland, the potato crop failed in Scotland during the mid 19th century, and a widespread outbreak of cholera further weakened the Highland population. The ongoing clearance policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when families either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted. There were many deaths of children and the aged. As there were few alternatives, people emigrated, joined the army, or moved to growing urban centres such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee in Lowland Scotland and Newcastle upon Tyne and Liverpool in the north of England.


With the development of pseudoscientific racist ideas from about 1850, the Clearances were at times supported by belief that the Celtic "race" was inferior to the Anglo Saxon "race". George Combe's popular and influential The Constitution of Man, published in 1828, provided a framework which would be used by some to support theories of racial superiority[citation needed]. In 1850 Robert Knox published The Races of Men which asserted the inferiority of the Celt compared to the Anglo Saxon and Nordic races. The view that the economic failures of the Highlands were due to the shortcomings of the Celtic race was shared and expressed by the two most important Scottish newspapers, The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald – and even the more northerly Inverness Courier. In 1851 The Scotsman wrote that "Collective emigration is, therefore, the removal of a diseased and damaged part of our population. It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part." Similar views were held by senior public officials. Sir Charles Trevelyan was co-founder with Sir John McNeill of the Highland and Island Emigration Society. In a letter to McNeill in 1852 he wrote that "A national effort" would now be necessary in order to rid the land of "the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts". The exodus would then allow for the settlement of a racially superior people of Teutonic stock. He welcomed "the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing numbers – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic." Karl Marx was living in London during the peak of the national controversy over the Highland Clearances. In Das Kapital he described them as 'The spoliation of the church's property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism...'


Auchindrain is a genuine historic site: with the exception of their 1970s Visitor Centre everything you see was here back in history. Nothing has been added or taken away – even the ruins. Most people find a visit to Auchindrain to be a magical experience, but they want you to visit them knowing what to expect. Don’t come expecting to see exhibits in glass cases. This is very much a museum, but the buildings are every bit as much part of the collections as the objects within them. The same is true for the landscape, which contains evidence of how it was used and evolved over time. The township is preserved as it was in the past, and they consciously avoid dressing it up to look good. So come expecting, understanding and appreciating its gritty realism. Your visit will be self-guided from the guidebook (available in English, French and German) you will be given on arrival. This includes a site map, and the text sets out a route around the township. The guide books will be replaced by electronic tablets. Allow 60-90 minutes to see the place properly. Expect a walk of about a kilometre (a bit over half a mile) from the car park to the furthest building and back again. Although most of the buildings are open, they are quite small and the museum is mainly experienced in the open air. So check the weather forecast and if necessary bring your waterproofs. They advise walking boots, wellies or strong shoes because the township’s roads and paths are traditionally-surfaced rather than tarmac: they may be uneven and in places muddy. Auchindrain is not an easy place to visit for people with mobility difficulties, because adaptation for full accessibility would affect its special nature. The roads and paths include gradients (marked on the site map), and most wheelchair users are likely to need assistance. They do not yet have a fully-accessible lavatory, and there are steps up to the doors of the Visitor Centre. There are, however, plenty of places to sit and rest on the way round. In a small way Auchindrain is still a working farm. They have free-range hens and the sheep may have been out, so watch your feet and please wash your hands before eating. There may be Highland cattle in the fields, and if you are lucky Cat Liath, the grey cat of Auchindrain, will come and find you to see what’s going on. Assistance dogs are welcome.


From November to March they are open most weekdays except over Christmas and New Year, but please telephone to check before you leave home. In the winter the Visitor Centre is closed and you take them as you find them, but admission is free.


Location : Auchindrain, Furnace, Inveraray, Argyll PA32 8XN

Transport: Garelochhead (National Rail) 15 miles. Bus Routes : 428 and 926 (from Glasgow 2 hours) stop close by.

Opening Times : April to October, daily 10:00 to 17:00

Tickets : Adults £6.50;  Concessions £5.50;  Children (to 17) £4.00

Tel : 01499 500235