Am Bratach No. 306
April 2017
editor@bratach.co.uk

 

Golspie hotelier in tune with past
Anne Macdonald talks to Eddie MacRae of the Golspie Inn

Thinking about Sutherland in the nineteenth century, it is almost impossible to escape the long shadow of Dunrobin, which stretched northwards and westwards through the straths and villages of its extensive hinterland. The village of Golspie, expanded to house many of the Sutherland estate’s cleared tenants in the early nineteenth century, was a key witness to the dramas of the century. This month, we caught up with the Golspie Inn’s latest owner, Brora man Eddie MacRae, who moved north from London to take on the challenge of restoring the inn three and a half years ago.

Eddie is steeped in the history of his home area, and puts the past at the heart of his plans for the Golspie Inn. “I’ve known it all my life,” he says. “It’s been a familiar part of my life since childhood. At that point, it was a very stable place. A family owned it for over thirty years and there’s been quite a bit of stability until lately. It was shut for just under two years, and I kept coming back to view it and I thought I could either say, ‘That’s a pity’, or do something about it, although I’ve got no background in hospitality whatsoever.”

Originally named the Golspie Inn, the hotel went under the name of the Sutherland Arms until a previous owner restored its original title. Architecturally, Eddie hopes to make the most of the building’s original features, many of which still survive. His ultimate vision for the place is to “make it the exact same as if you walked into it in 1808 when it first opened its doors.” Window shutters, fireplaces and a Caithness flagstone in the bar are among the period features he would like to see restored, and he is keen to find any original plans of the inn which might help to guide his ideas.

Central to his vision is a wish to make the inn a kind of research base or cultural centre. “What I want this to be, apart from anything else, is a conducive meeting place. So it’s not, ‘Oh, the museum shuts at four o’clock,’ or it’s not interpretive. You know, if you’re from Canada, if I’m from Australia, you’ve got 200 years of common history, whether it’s by eviction or for economic betterment. And they can come and speak about it and individual stories can be told.”

Thus far, Eddie is working on building up a library within the inn, combining antiquarian and modern historical works. In the long term, he would like to see a more permanent heritage development, whether it be the use of a mews building in the grounds, or something more extensive, which he describes as “a street of various houses from the period of two centuries ago, on the hilltop.” The details of this idea are still being worked out, but may have the potential to create a suitable setting for cultural functions. “We could have music and outdoor events and it could be a real focal point for doing things”, Eddie said, “because I feel that music and Gaelic is an intrinsic part of the culture and is to be encouraged.” As a former president of the Highlands and Islands Society of London, he has many contacts in the music world and is well placed to develop this side of the business.

An important beginning has been made with a series of short films commissioned from the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The films are available on YouTube via the inn’s website. Historian Elizabeth Ritchie and archaeologist Nick Lindsay present a series of engaging cameos which succeed in filling in a swathe of the area’s history without compromising on detail. The stories they portray are personal, on-the-spot and moving, with scarcely a mention of the mist, tartan and clashing claymores beloved of the Scottish tourism industry.

Eddie says that the specific, carefully researched nature of the films is quite deliberate, and is passionate about the detail of his own background in Brora. He says that the family home in the village dates back to 1821 and has a direct connection with the Clearances in that so many people were moved from inland straths to Brora, Golspie and Embo. Even the street names hold their own history. “My street’s called Red Row”, he says, “and that was because of the first roof tiles that were made in the brickworks, which was fired by Brora coal as opposed to the ubiquitous slate that’s on every other rooftop. There’s primarily four streets, so there’s Elder Street, Market Street, Red Row and then the one that’s ten yards from my gable end is Salt Street. My mother, if I remember correctly, lived in Salt Pan Building, which is just beside Salt Street.”

Salt and coal feature in one of the heritage films commissioned by the inn. The oldest building in Brora is situated on the back shore — the remnants of a once thriving salt-panning industry dating back to 1598. The salt was evaporated by heating the sea-water, fired by local coal. The Brora coal seam is the most northerly outcrop in Britain and was extracted intermittently from the sixteenth century, production ultimately ceasing in 1975. Eddie points out that the distribution of the coal seam allowed immediate access to the fuel on the beach. “They didn’t have to go to where the coal pits were; they built it beside the river, you know. That was where the main shaft was but the bell pits were on the beach itself. When we were playing as kids you’d dig six inches or a foot down into the sand and you’d hit seams of coal.”

Back in Golspie, the hotel is building on contacts within the Canadian diaspora, and has commissioned work from business students at the University of Strathclyde to look at business-to-business and business-to-customer opportunities. The message, Eddie says, is “come home to where it all started.” Last year, the inn hosted a screening of “The Last Footsteps of Home”, a film about the Highland Clearances researched and written by Brora siblings Robert and Jacqueline Aitken. The film tells the story of Kate Macpherson from Kildonan, a victim of the Clearances who emigrated to Canada. In the film, she is played by Outlander actress Molly O’Brien. Cast and crew were based at the Golspie Inn throughout the filming. Kate’s story has a direct connection to the inn, scene of the so-called Golspie riot of 1813, a protest at the estate’s proposed removal of tenants from the straths of Kildonan and Clyne.

In its time, the Golspie Inn functioned as a public meeting place, where important decisions as to the fate of the Sutherland tenants were made. The sheriff court sat there, rents were paid within its bounds, and deals as to the future of the estate’s lands sealed. In December 1813, Patrick Sellar outbid his rivals for the lands of Strathnaver within the Golspie Inn, setting the scene for the clearances of the following spring. With more than two hundred years of history, the atmosphere of such a place must tell its own story. “If walls could speak,” Eddie agrees, “the events that took place there…”

Although the inn is a modern business, not a museum, its current owner is keenly aware of the market for Highland history both within the UK and overseas. The building’s historical resonances are not confined to the era of the Clearances. In a final note, he brings the history of the inn into the twentieth century, saying that in April 1917, the hotel hosted a visit from a poet whose initials Eddie recalls as “EA” [probably EA Mackintosh (1893-1917), who is known to have visited Golspie during the war]. Eddie is keen to know if any menus survive to recreate the kind of meal that might have been served at the inn in the middle of the First World War, suggesting that the possibilities for bringing the past to bear upon the present are wide in scope.

 

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