Published: 11/06/2010 00:00 - Updated: 06/05/2011 13:12

Loch Croispol schoolhouse exhibition opens next week

Work continues this year on unravelling the stories behind the old 18th century parish schoolhouse on the shore of Loch Croispol in the parish of Durness.

Over the winter Graham Bruce has explored and mapped the old dyke systems within the pre-clearance settlement of Cnocbreac around the schoolhouse.

Last summer Glasgow University archaeologists completed a dig in the schoolhouse and the school garden. This has generated a far more detailed picture of how the building was used and renovated during its use between c.1760 and 1861. The finds include an inkwell, remnants of a school slate and the remains of a child's shoe or boot.

These and other finds will be on display at the forthcoming exhibition opening in Durness next Friday, 18 June, for four days along with explanations, pictures and diagrams.

The star of the show is of course the black chert arrowhead found in the school garden by a school pupil from Kinlochbervie who was helping with the dig last summer.

Previous survey work has shown a wealth of remains in the area lying between Balnakeil and Keoldale dating back to the earliest settlers. We cannot know how this arrowhead came to be in the garden. Was it perhaps dropped by a hunting party all those millennium ago? Or perhaps shed by an injured animals in the course of a hunt in that era? Maybe it had been found by a past schoolmaster on a local walk and then lost again in his garden.

Coming back to the more recent past, archival research by Graham Bruce has unearthed an intriguing story of a school which latterly had no pupils for some 19 years! This strange turn of events was the result of a still undefined dispute between the parents and the schoolmaster which developed during the 1840s and ended up in The Court of Session. This tale is so bizarre that it even caught the attention of the BBC last year and featured on their website back in October.

The key period of focus for this work notwithstanding the astoundingly challenging timescale which that arrowhead introduces is 1730 until 1860. This is a period of great change and upheaval in the Highlands and in Scotland. The 18th century begins with the Union of Parliaments, hastened by Scotland's brutal experience of The Darien Disaster. The 1715 Jacobite Rising is followed in 1745 by extraordinary events which take a further drastic turn after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746.

During the 18th century, Mackay lands fall into the ownership of the House of Sutherland and the County of Sutherland as we know it today emerges.

In 1846 potato blight strikes the Highlands and Islands leading to years of deprivation, distress, famine relief and much increased outward migration from the north west mainland via Assisted Passages. The basics of daily food and cultivation are hence changing too throughout this period alongside changed settlement patterns.

Clearly therefore the era in which the school at Loch Croispol was in operation is quite dramatic in very many ways for Mackay Country and our study of those local stories give us a window on both local and national change in that time.

The forthcoming Exhibition seeks to give an account of what has been learned so far. A highlight will be the opening talk by historian Malcolm Bangor Jones who will focus on the transition from clanship to crofting in the Durness area.

Alongside the account provided by local historian Graham Bruce, focusing on the schoolhouse itself and adjacent townships, this will be an exciting few days.

Look out for the Saturday events which include history, arts and crafts as well as tea, coffee and sugar in the form of cakes since these items are now very firmly established in the Highland diet!

Work will continue on this research until the end of the year. At the same time Mackay Country is investigating creating a new research project for the whole area "Hostel Days: Happy or Hellish?". Clearly a more recent historic period and one which will elicit memories and photos from very many people at home and away over the next couple of years.

Further information about Durness Development Group's Loch Croispol Project can be found at www.durness.org

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