In 1662 a local minister named James Fraser began a study that shed light on the population in the Gaelic-speaking community of Kirkhill (Cnoc Mhuire) near Beauly in Inverness-shire.

His Bill of Mortality describes ‘how long people live in our latter age’, mentioning no less than seventeen octogenarians (women and men) who had died in the last several years and one 90-year-old.

It confirms a vibrant younger community with millers, chapmen, shoemakers, wrights, weavers, grieves, ferriers, shepherds, and an ‘Irish harper’.

Despite experiencing extensive in-and-out migration and terrible famine, the population was "healthier than some Highland communities today", says Professor David Worthington, a historian and the author of a book on Fraser.

The Herald: 'Many young people want to stay but feel compelled to leave''Many young people want to stay but feel compelled to leave' (Image: David Worthington)

"You've got a dynamic population, physically present and contributing and a Highland, Gaelic-speaking township that was growing despite the troubles of that age," he added.

The population of Sutherland in 1851 was 25,793 and is now "a mere 13,00- at most", he says.

Prof Worthington heads up an academic centre, in the Cathedral town of Dornoch in Sutherland that is working hard to make inroads into the population challenge.

The Herald:

The Centre for History was founded with financial assistance from Sutherland-born mining tycoon Dennis Macleod and offers a range of undergraduate degree courses run by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

"Dennis MacLeod was determined to create an academic centre in Sutherland precisely because of the legacy of the clearances and because he could see the population challenges," says Prof Worthington.


"A really stark figure is, this. If you look at the 1851 census and also the 1801 census, the 1851 census shows the county of Sutherland to be more than double what it is now.

"We are arguably the most depopulated county in Scotland.

"Dornoch comes across as a flourishing place because it has quite a lot of tourism but go outside and you will find multiple deprivation indicators and real poverty.

"It remains to be seen what benefits things like the spaceport will bring. I don't think we can dismiss tourism but you can't throw everything into tourism."

He says many young people do want to stay but "feel compelled to leave."

"The population has fallen every decade since 1851 so this has been a long-standing issue here," he says.

The Herald: New Highland Clearances

"So I would say the legacy of the clearances has always been apparent here because Sutherland is probably one of the most notorious instances of that.

"The Duke of Sutherland and a lot of the infamous figures associated with the Clearances.

"You saw an attempt to move populations to the coast where it was assumed they would take up fishing but it wasn't thought through. 

"Everyone went to the coastal places such as Helmsdale or Golspie or Brora. 

"Dornoch is the administrative capital of Sutherland and the population is around 1400 and that's the biggest settlement.

"To me that shows the impact of the clearances has never been resolved."

The centre shares offices with a successful golf programme and hospitality students.

"We are trying to buck some of these trends and there are a lot of good things happening," he says.

"We have a terrific alumni database, you can see the sheer numbers of graduates we produce and many of them having stayed in the region to get work.

"Maybe we could shout about that a bit more."