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Cave Dwellings of Scotland

From Cliff Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe by S. Baring-Gould, M.A.

Modern Troglodytes

Sir Arthur Mitchell describes some troglodytes in Scotland. ["The Past in the Present," Edin. 1880, pp. 73-7.] "In August 1866, along with two friends, I visited the great cave at the south side of Wick Bay. It was nine at night, and getting dark when we reached it. It is situated in a cliff, and its mouth is close to the sea. Very high tides, especially with north-east winds, reach the entrance and force the occupants to seek safety in the back part of the cave, which is at a somewhat higher level than its mouth.

"We found twenty-four inmates--men, women, and children--belonging to four families, the heads of which were all there. They had retired to rest for the night a short time before our arrival, but their fires were still smouldering. They received us civilly, perhaps with more than mere civility, after a judicious distribution of pence and tobacco. To our great relief, the dogs, which were numerous and vicious, seemed to understand that we were welcome.

"The beds on which we found these people lying consisted of straw, grass and bracken, spread upon the rock or shingle, and each was supplied with one or two dirty, ragged blankets or pieces of matting. Two of the beds were near the peat-fires, which were still burning, but the others were further back in the cave where they were better sheltered.

"On the bed nearest the entrance lay a man and his wife, both absolutely naked, and two little children in the same state. On the next bed lay another couple, an infant, and one or two elder children. Then came a bed with a bundle of children, whom I did not count. A youngish man and his wife, not quite naked, and some children, occupied the fourth bed, while the fifth from the mouth of the cave was in possession of the remaining couple and two of their children, one of whom was on the spot of its birth. Far back in the cave--upstairs in the garret, as they facetiously called it--were three or four biggish boys, who were undressed, but had not lain down. One of them, moving about with a flickering light in his hand, contributed greatly to the weirdness of the scene. Beside the child spoken of, we were told of another birth in the cave, and we heard also of a recent death there, that of a little child from typhus. The Procurator-Fiscal saw this dead child lying naked on a large flat stone. Its father lay beside it in the delirium of typhus, when death paid this visit to an abode with no door to knock at.

"Both men and women, naked to their waists, sat up in their lairs and talked to us, and showed no sense of shame. One of the men summoned the candle-boy from the garret, in order that we might see better, and his wife trimmed the dying fire, and then, after lighting her pipe, proceeded to suckle her child.

"In the afternoon of the next day, with another friend, I paid a second visit to this cave, when we found eighteen inmates, most of whom were at an early supper, consisting of porridge and treacle, apparently well cooked and clean. One of the women was busy baking. She mixed the oatmeal and water in a tin dish, spread the cake out on a flat stone which served her for a table, and placing the cake against another stone, toasted it at the open fire of turf and wood. This was one of three fires, all situated about the centre of the wider part or mouth of the cave, each with a group about it of women and ragged children.

"There was no table, or chair, or stool to be seen, stones being so arranged as to serve all these purposes. There was no sort of building about the entrance of the cave to give shelter from the winds, which must often blow fiercely into it. Yet this cave is occupied both in summer and winter by a varying number of families, one or two of them being almost constant tenants.

"I believe I am correct in saying that there is no parallel illustration of modern cave life in Scotland. The nearest approach to it, perhaps, is the cave on the opposite or north side of the same bay. Both of these caves I have had frequent opportunities of visiting, and I have always found them peopled. Only occasional use is made of the other caves on the Caithness and Sutherland coasts. Of these, perhaps the cave of Ham, in Dunnet parish, is the most frequented. It is the nearness to a large town which gives to the Wick caves their steady tenants. The neighbouring population is large enough to afford room for trading, begging, and stealing--all the year round.

"The occupants of the Wick caves are the people commonly known by the name of Tinkers. They are so called chiefly because they work in tinned iron. The men cut, shape, hammer, while the women do the soldering.

"The Tinkers of the Wick caves are a mixed breed. There is no Gipsy blood in them. Some of them claim a West Island origin. Others say they are true Caithness men, and others again look for their ancestors among the Southern Scotch. They were not strongly built, nor had they a look of vigorous bodily health. Their heads and faces were usually bad in form. Broken noses and scars were a common disfigurement, and a revelation at the same time of the brutality of their lives. One girl might have been painted for a rustic beauty of the Norse type, and there was a boy among them with an excellent head. It is possible that one or both of these may yet leave their parents, from dissatisfaction with the life they lead."

These cave-dwellers of Wick were the offscourings of society, such as might be found in any town slum. "Virtue and chastity exist feebly among them, and honour and truth more feebly still; they neither read nor write; they go to no church, and have scarcely any sort of religious belief or worship. They know little or nothing of their history beyond what can be referred to personal recollection."

These, like the slum dwellers of a town, are recruited from outside, they do not constitute a race; they are the dregs of a race--persons who have dropped out of the line of march.


An interesting account of the excavation of two caves at Archerfield, in Haddingtonshire, is given in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for 1909. Both caves are natural, but one had been walled up in front, with a doorway and window and with oven; both had paved hearths in the centre, and there was evidence that they had been tenanted some time after the Roman occupation of Britain, as among the fragments of pottery found was some Samian ware. It would appear that both had been inhabited simultaneously, but not consecutively, for a lengthy period, and no doubt can exist that they were mere rock refuges. In a note to the article we read: "On the coast of Island Magee (Ireland) there is a cave, south of the Gobbins, which has been frequently used as a place of refuge. So late as 1798 it was inhabited by outlaws, who constructed a kind of fortification at the entrance, the remains of which still exist." [Footnote: Cree (J. R.), "Excavation of Two Caves," in "Proceedings of the Soc. of Arch. of Scotland," Edin., 1909, vol. xliii.]

A cave in the Isle of Egg, one of the Hebrides, has a very narrow entrance, through which one can creep only upon hands and knees, but it rises steeply within and soon becomes lofty, and runs into the bowels of the rock for 225 feet. The stony, pebbly bottom of this cavern was for long strewn with the bones of men, women and children, the relics of the ancient inhabitants of, the island, two hundred in number, of whose destruction the following account is given. "The Macdonalds, of the Isle of Egg, a people dependent on Clanranald, had done some injury to the Lord of Macleod. The tradition of the isle says that it was by a personal attack on the chieftain, in which his back was broken; but that of the two other isles bears that the injury was offered by two or three of the Macleods, who, landing upon Egg and behaving insolently towards the islanders, were bound hand and foot, and turned adrift in a boat, which the winds safely conducted to Skye. To avenge the offence given, Macleod sailed with such a body of men as rendered resistance hopeless. The natives, fearing his vengeance, concealed themselves in the cavern; and, after strict search, the Macleods went on board their galleys after doing what mischief they could, concluding the inhabitants had left the isle. But next morning they espied from their vessels a man upon the island, and immediately landing again, they traced his retreat by means of a light snow on the ground to the cavern. Macleod then summoned the subterranean garrison, and demanded that the inhabitants who had offended him should be delivered up. This was peremptorily refused. The chieftain thereupon caused his people to divert the course of a rill of water, which, falling over the mouth of the cave, would have prevented his purposed vengeance. He then kindled at the entrance of the cavern a large fire, and maintained it until all within were destroyed by suffocation." [Footnote: Lockhart's "Life of Sir Walter Scott," Edin., 1844, p.285.]

Robbers' Dens

In Pitscottie's "Chronicles of Scotland," and in Holinshed's "Scottish Chronicle," at the end of the reign of James II there is a story of a brigand who is said to have lived in a den called Feruiden, or Ferride's Den, in Angus, who was burnt along with his wife and family for cannibalism, the youngest daughter alone was spared as she was but a twelvemonth old. But when she grew up she was convicted of the same crime, and was condemned to be burnt or buried alive.

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