Highland Folk Museum - An attraction for all ages
History Tour

Raitts (Continuity and Depopulation)
Neither homes nor townships of the Baile Gean sort survive intact, or anything like intact, in the modern Highlands. How, then, is it possible to be sure that Baile Gean's buildings and ground plan approximate to those of the actual townships which, 300 years ago, were the basic units of human settlement in every part of northern Scotland? The answer to that question, I discovered, is to be got on the site of one such township. Its name is Raitts.

One of my favourite authors is a twentieth-century Canadian novelist, now dead, called Hugh MacLennan. This Canadian writer's great-grandfather, Neil MacLennan, was one of the numerous Highlanders who, during the nineteenth century's opening decades, were forced to leave the Highlands for North America.

Neil MacLennan came from Kintail - a scenically spectacular district traversed nowadays by any car-borne tourist making his or her way to Skye. Hugh MacLennan visited Kintail in the 1950s, driving north across the English-Scottish border in an aged Vauxhall: 

"Next day I was in the true north of Scotland, among the sheep, the heather, the whin, the mists and the homes of the vanished races. Such sweeps of emptiness I never saw in Canada before I went to the Mackenzie River later in the same summer. But this Highland emptiness, only a few hundred miles above the massed population of England, is a far different thing from the emptiness of our own North West Territories. Above the sixtieth parallel in Canada you feel that nobody but God has ever been there before you, but in a deserted Highland glen you feel that everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone."

Raitts today is one of those numberless Highland localities where everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone. Above ground, all that survive of the township's buildings are the stony outlines of those buildings' walls. Below ground, however, there can be found rather more. Just how much more has been made clear by the programme of excavation conducted here, over several summers, by Glasgow University archaeologist, Olivia Lelong.


This has been a really important dig for us,' Olivia tells me when I ask about what's been found at Raitts. 'Although the Highlands contain thousands of deserted settlements like Raitts, only a handful have been excavated systematically. So we're making lots of discoveries here about the way eighteenth-century Highlanders lived.'

Among the many finds made by Olivia's team are part of an iron cooking pot, a musket flint, brass buttons, a flat iron and numerous pottery fragments. All such items tell us something of the folk who owned and used them. The nature of those folk's buildings tell us more: a large home here, a smaller home there; a kiln used for drying oats and other grain; different types of housing for animals.

Flints and other 5,000-year old objects from the neolithic period (once dubbed the Stone Age) have been discovered in Raitts. Nearby is an extremely large and well-preserved souterrain, or underground chamber, dating from some 20 centuries back.

The builders of the Raitts souterrain may well have been tribesfolk of the kind the Romans - whose extensive frontier fort at Inchtuthil, near Dunkeld, lay some 50 miles south of here - called Caledonians. Later, the Caledonians evolved, as it were, into the people the Romans knew as Picts. Later still, from the ninth century AD onwards, the Picts became subject to the rule of monarchs who - moving outwards from the various power-centres they established in present-day Perthshire - succeeded in creating the kingdom which became known as Scotland.
The early rulers of Scotland were Gaelic-speakers. They were descended from men and women who, centuries before, had migrated from Ireland into present-day Argyll and whose language, culture and institutions were gradually to displace those of their Pictish predecessors both in Badenoch and in most of the rest of the Highlands.

Among the more prominent members of the Gaelic-speaking society which thus took shape in what's now the northern half of Scotland were Christian monks who were instrumental in having their faith accepted by this area's previously pagan inhabitants. The most renowned of those monks was Colum Cille, or Columba, whose monastery on Iona was to become a major centre of the Gaelic civilisation which Columba played no small part in establishing in the Highlands and which, in a sense, has endured here ever since. But Columba did not operate in isolation. Among his near contemporaries, for instance, was Moluag who founded a monastery on Lismore - and to whom (according to surviviving medieval documentation) there was dedicated a chapel which, though its site can no longer be identified, once stood in the vicinity of Raitts.

Badenoch remained predominantly Gaelic-speaking into the nineteenth, even into the twentieth, century. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, the wider Kingdom of Scotland - its monarchs and its governments moving, at this point, from Perthshire to Edinburgh - was, at the centre anyway, already turning its back on its Irish and Gaelic beginnings. 

Increasingly, as the middle ages advanced, Scottish kings looked to England and to continental Europe for their ideas as to how Scotland should be organised. Feudalism - with its castles, its knights, its charters - began to be adopted. And feudal magnates, most of them Norman-French in origin, were encouraged to acquire Scottish estates.

It's tempting, when thinking about the way the Highlands used to be, to imagine a largely isolated, largely static, society. This temptation ought to be resisted. Even in the eighteenth century, Raitts - and in this the township was typical of the rest of the Highlands - had experienced a great deal of change. The locality of which Raitts was part had been Pictish-speaking, then Gaelic-speaking; it had been pagan, then Christian; it had witnessed the comings and goings of the Comyns, the Wolf of Badenoch and a whole succession of less well-known strongmen. 

But Raitts folk, for all that, are likely to have felt themselves rooted in a place characterised more by continuity than by its opposite. In the Gaelic which they and most other Highlanders had spoken now for a thousand years, the eighteenth-century inhabitants of Raitts - in the manner of their contempories all across the northern half of Scotland - would have sung songs and told stories which embodied their sense of being rooted in their particular place. And prior to the eighteenth century's closing decades, the notion that they or their descendants might one day be ordered out of Raitts would have been considered, by the township's residents, as utterly beyond belief.
" Sometimes ", Olivia Lelong comments, " she and her team have turned up material from which it's possible to gain extraordinarily intimate insights into the way that life was lived in Raitts ". While excavating one township home, for example, Olivia and her colleagues found, beside what's left of that home's hearth, a compacted deposit of decayed turf. " This has been interpreted ", Olivia goes on, " as the remains of a fireside seat. All around that seat were discarded splinters of clay pipe ". And so there emerges a picture of someone sitting habitually beside that fire of an evening - smoking, talking, telling tales.

Hold on to that picture. It's as close as it's now possible to get, I feel, to the people to whom Raitts was home.



Raitts Township
Raitts Township

Archeology at Raitts
Archeology at Raitts

Baile Gean