IT is a relic of a time when hospitality ruled across the Highlands before the clearances drove people from the land and the roads fell silent. 

Archaeologists have been peeling back the past to reveal and 18-century drovers inn which was once central to local life until the area's community was decimated on the orders of the Sutherland Estate. 

For more than fifty years the building provided shelter to travellers and cattlemen bringing their herds to market until it was abandoned and fell into ruin when trade dried up.

However, a team of specialists from Guard archaeology who investigated the site, known  as the Wilkhouse, believe it was once an impressive structure and a "statement of modernity and affluence" of the people of the region. 


The remains were buried deeply 

Among the artefacts uncovered by the dig include coins dating back as far as 1588 and the reign of James VI, the remains of glasses used to 'take a dram' and the pins, buckles, strap fittings and thimbles left behind by the inn's occupants and visitors as they came and went. 

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"We revealed evidence of inhabitation here over a long period,’ said GUARD Archaeologist Warren Bailie, who directed the excavation. 

"The stone foundations of an earlier structure were found under the north-east gable of the inn while the coins assemblage testifies to the long-term use of the drove road at least as far back as the late sixteenth century. 

"Earlier antiquarian finds, nearby, indicate occupation in the Norse, Pictish and Iron Age periods. The excavation also found a buried Neolithic occupation layer below one of the inn’s outbuildings." 

Made of harled stones with lime mortar bonding, glass windows, double chimneys and a slate roof, the expense spent on the building indicates there was significant money to be made from the cattle drovers passing through. 

A curious inverted cross was carved into one of the hearth stones, and may have been intended to deter witches flying down the chimney.


The chimney's inverted cross

Visitors would have been greeted wit by the Innkeeper on arrival and dined on cold meat, cheese, milk, and eggs, while seafood would have also been on offer at the 'house of the whelks'.

The inn was first depicted on William Roy’s map of 1747-52 and later by John Kirk in 1772, while a detailed account of the building appears in Rev Donald Sage’s Memorabilia Domestica, which documented parish life in the north of Scotland.

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Rev Sage writes: "We stopped for refreshment at an inn below Kintradwell, called Wilk-house, which stood close by the shore.

"The parlour, the general rendezvous for all comers of every sort and size, had two windows, one in front and another in the gable, and the floor of the room had, according to the prevailing code of cleanliness, about half an inch of sand upon it in lieu of carpeting. 

"As we alighted before the door we were received by Robert “Wilkhouse” or “Rob tighe na faochaig” as he was usually called, with many bows indicative of welcome, whilst his bustling helpmeet repeated the same protestations of welcome on our crossing the threshold."

Dr Donald Adamson, whose research into drove roads instigated the excavation, said: "Thus, we meet “Rob of the House of the Whelks” as he was known in the district. Alongside him was his wife Kirsty Fraser, who may have been the daughter of the previous innkeeper, William Fraser. 
"Visitor around 1800 would have seen the inn as distinctly modern in comparison with the three vernacular buildings surrounding it. 

"It was representative of modernity and all that that implied at a time when farming patterns and landscape use were changing across the Scottish Highlands."

The trade patterns which had sustained Wilkhouse Inn, up to and through the Napoleonic wars, suffered a convulsive shift as changes to agriculture took a grip in the northern Highlands.

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An economy based on subsistence farming carried on by a network of sub-tenants, which relied on the export of black cattle as the cash crop, was replaced by huge sheep farms which were let directly to the highest bidders without consideration for family ties.


How the building may have appeared in its heyday

In Sutherland, this involved the movement of most of the people from the interior of the county to the coast, to the Lowlands and abroad. 

The cattle drovers who were the inn's lifeblood were replaced by shepherds while the lands were cleared, the buildings abandoned, roofs removed and the people scattered. 

The excavation was undertaken in 2017 for Dr Donald Adamson through a collaboration between the Clyne Heritage Society, the University of Glasgow, GUARD Archaeology and volunteers. from the local community.