A Brief History of the Helmsdale Area
The first written reference to the people of this area, at the end of the first century AD comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who described the people as tall, red headed men who fought bravely with long swords and round shields. St Ninian came here about 390AD and preached at Navidale. Where the old churchyard now stands there was a chapel which was burned down during the Reformation in 1556. Helmsdale came under the Parish of Kildonan which gets its name from the pictish word Kil or Cill or Cell, this meaning the cell of St Donan, patron saint of the Strath, from 580 AD. Christianity, however, came under attack in the 9th century when the Vikings began their raids in the North of Scotland. Tharfin the Great conquered Scotland down to the Moray Firth, and certain cairns and standing stones are said to mark the sites of many ferocious and bloody battles. It was at Helmsdale (from the Norse Hjalmundal - Dale of the Helmet) that a great battle took place between two Norse chiefs, Swein and Olvir Rosta. Swein won a great victory and Olvir's men retreated to some houses which were burned with all their inmates. Olvir escaped by crossing the Helmsdale River and was not heard of again.
As the Vikings mixed with the native population, the clan system evolved and the way of life changed little from century to century. The Act of Union and the '45 rebellion led to the collapse of the clan system and influences from the south changed the attitudes of the clan chiefs, who began to see themselves as landowners with a greater profit motive which led to the highland clearances.
The story of Helmsdale is the story of fishing and the river. The port of Helmsdale is a natural river-mouth anchorage and was first mentioned in the Sutherland family estate records in 1527. Hand-line fishing was practiced near the shore from small boats, but the area's main product from the 17th century was salmon. These were caught in Cruives (fish baskets) set in the first half mile of the river Helmsdale. The fish were bought in advance by merchants, boiled and salted, and by the 1740's were being exported as far afield as Bordeaux.
When the clachans of the east Sutherland straths began to be cleared in the early 19th century Helmsdale was to be expanded for the displaced cottars as a fishing port for catching herrings. In 1816 the Countess of Sutherland's husband, the Marquis of Stafford, began making improvements to the harbour, and built a pier and breastworks. By 1818 520 men, 700 women, 70 coopers and 200 boats were employed in the herring industry, which was to become the third largest in Scotland after Wick and Fraserburgh. 200 houses were built and leased out by the Sutherland family.
In 1839 over 46,000 barrels of herring were cured in Helmsdale, leading to the construction of boat builders yards, a steam mill for coopering purposes, and an ice house with its own artificial pond. By 1864 a total of 365 boats were Helmsdale registered. They included the rudimentary open-decked 'Scaffies' which could be pulled up the shore, and the stronger-hulled 'Fifies' with covered decking. In 1879 the more elegant 'Zulu' appeared (named after the contemporary Zulu wars) and the harbour was provided with a breakwater in 1892. In 1899 steam drifters arrived. The wealthy Helmsdale man Andrew Couper, whose family had operated a fishery office since 1826, himself owned 9 of them. As oil engines were installed in the old Fifies and Zulus the herring industry faltered because of erratic shoals and uncertain markets.
By the 1930's larger-scale seine netting for white fish had taken over. Since then Helmsdale's importance as a fishery has declined.