Yet the story of The Shore, and of Berriedale’s sister settlement of Badbea two miles to the south, goes back further, to the late 18th century when both were settled as part of the process of economic reorganisation across the Highlands known as The Clearances.
The Clearances were the forcible removal of crofters from the uplands by improving landlords to make way for sheep and better agricultural practice on their land. They remain a deeply emotive subject, debated by those who emphasise the brutality and bleakness of life for the evicted crofters and those who stress rather the improving and even benevolent motives of the landlords. The Berriedale straths (or inland valleys) were cleared of crofters in the 1790s by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who introduced Cheviot sheep in their stead. Sir John had bought the Langwell Estate in 1788 and was a significant figure of his day: improving agriculturalist, roadbuilder, town planner, politician and founder of the (Old) Statistical Account of Scotland. When crofters were displaced from their smallholdings many found a new livelihood on the coast in the herring fishery, which was booming during the Napoleonic Wars.
Sir John settled his Langwell crofters at nearby Badbea (deserted by 1911) and on The Shore at Berriedale where William Daniell captured a picturesque scene in 1819 of fishing boats pulled up on the shingle, nets spread to dry and herring lassies up to their elbows in troughs gutting the fish before they were ‘kitted’ in barrels (packed in salt).
Daniell did not include the site of The Shore Cottages in his picture and it seems most likely that they were built c1840. Sir John Sinclair sold the Langwell Estate in 1811 to an Edinburgh lawyer, James Horne, who leased the fishing at Berriedale to Aberdeen brokers. Berriedale was already renowned as much for its salmon as its herring, the salmon being netted at the mouth of the river as they returned from the sea to their spawning grounds in rivers inland. Horne’s nephew Donald inherited the Langwell Estate in 1831 and by 1840 salmon fishing had been given precedence on The Shore. Larger herring stations were by then well established at Helmsdale, Dunbeath and Wick. Donald Horne decided instead to focus on the higher value salmon and built the cottages and (probably) the icehouse and storeroom/bothy. The annual salmon season ran for a couple of months only, the fish being despatched to lucrative markets in the big cities, packed in ice harvested from winter lochs and stored in the icehouse.
The cottages are first mentioned in the estate records in 1846 and the 1841 census records four households on The Shore, supporting a construction date of around 1840. These would have been model cottages compared to the traditional turf-roofed byre dwellings of Caithness, necessary to attract and keep reliable fishermen for the short salmon season.
In 1856 the 5th Duke of Portland, of Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, bought the Langwell Estate. During our own restoration, we discovered that under the 6th Duke in 1884 (we know the date from a scribbled record left by joiner Marcus Ganson on the reverse of some panelling) the cottages were given a comprehensive refurbishment. The floor levels and roofs were raised some 300-400mm, probably because of inundations from exceptionally high tides. The principal rooms were finished with matchboard panelling, no doubt from the newly opened sawmill on the estate, and were given suspended timber floors. Under one, we found a battered woman’s shoe, perhaps hidden to ward off evil spirits. No. 3 was extended to the rear at the same time, two sheds added as shared privies and a footbridge installed. No. 4 was similarly extended in the 1930s and given a lean-to at the end of the range, since lost but whose floor remains, beautifully made of pebbles from the beach aligned for drainage.