10.5 Craft and Industry

The Highlands is not generally considered an area with industrial archaeology, but a surprising amount of activity took place, much of it linked with developments further south. The Highlands has varied raw materials; grain, cattle, fish, timber, wool, whisky, kelp and cheap labour. The dependence of the industry on southern and international markets, combined with infrastructure which kept the profits in the hands of lairds rather than working population, made the Highlands vulnerable to international downturns and harvest fluctuations. The range and scale of some of the industrial activities show that the Highlands was capable of dynamic change from the second half of the 19th century, sometimes earlier (Devine 2005), though the impact of many of these changes on the local economy can be debated. Trade relations with other countries affected industry from an early date.

A great deal of industrial remains survives in the Highlands. John Hume’s 1977 survey of industrial archaeology in the Highlands remains invaluable, incorporating many old pictures. There have been few regional studies, but these include Sinclair Calder’s (1974) unpublished thesis of industrial remains in Sutherland and Mark Watson’s (2018) exploration of Caithness which both show the potential for detailed work in different areas of the Highlands. Map and documentary sources are available to fill in the picture of what is lost, and a number of local studies have done so as well.

In some cases, the choice of industrial activity taking place in the Highlands was due to the available raw materials. Woodlands and bog iron provided fuel and materials for ironworking, though interestingly the early blast furnaces imported clayband ore. Limekilns and lead mines were situated in areas with good outcrops, operating on a small and large scale. Many industries can also be linked to personal stories or entrepreneurship (see Case Study Spinningdale Mill). Many estate landlords sought to exploit their natural resources, with varying degrees of success; many of these will have left traces in the landscape. There is more work which can be focussed on how resources were used to create employment. Attention should look at both land and sea.

Spinningdale Mill, Sutherland. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council

The Highlands are rich in the remains of mills, once used for carding wool, sawing and boring wood, grinding and threshing grain and manufacturing machinery. Most were water-driven, but steam-powered mills are also dotted in the landscape, mainly for large farms, and there are some tide mills and windmills. Many still preserve architectural details, and are sometimes found in documentary records. There is scope for more recording of this common but important industrial evidence for the Highlands.

Caithness Glass is now Highland only in its name, but in the second half of the 20th century was a major producer and employer. Like a number of crafts, the origin was due to local landowner entrepreneurship, in this case designed to provide employment in an area affected by farming and fishing downturns.

10.5.1 Metalworking

10.5.2 Mining and Quarries

10.5.3 Salt and Kelp

10.5.4 Peat

10.5.5 Forestry

10.5.6 Textiles

10.5.7 Brewing and Distilling

10.5.8 Commercial Fishing

10.5.9 Power


Case Study: Spinningdale Mill

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