Investigating a Highland drovers’ inn

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Excavation on the site of an 18th-century drovers’ inn has offered insights into life in an area of the Highlands before the Sutherland clearances.

A hand holding finds including a nail, pottery, and glass, in front of the excavation
Some of the finds from the Wilkhouse excavation [Image: © GUARD Archaeology Ltd]

Wilkhouse Inn is mentioned in multiple historical records, and appears to have been central to the local economy at the time. It would have stood out in the landscape as a statement of modernity and affluence, with its harled stones and lime-mortar bonding, glass windows, double chimneys, and slate roof, all in contrast with the drystone longhouses with wooden-shuttered windows and thatch roofs which were common in the area.

GUARD Archaeology’s investigation of the site in 2017, which has just been published, revealed details of the inn in the years before its demise in the early 19th century, as well as its much-longer history. Analysis of animal bones suggests that people had a varied diet; in addition to cheese, eggs, mutton, and beef, evidence of rabbit, birds, fish, and marine shellfish (including the whelks which gave their name to the inn) was also identified. A total of 15 coins were found, mostly dating to the last phase of Wilkhouse’s operation, although four earlier coins suggest that the site was occupied in the 17th century and even before. Also discovered were two military buttons, shards of ‘shot’ glasses, and other personal items such as pins, buckles, strap-fittings, thimbles, and part of a comb.

In 1819, the area was subsumed into Sutherland ownership and cleared of its occupants. The archaeological evidence suggests that the inn was forcibly closed at this time: the presence of a key, a clock-winder, and a broken cooking pot conjure an image of a sudden abandonment, while the scarcity of complete roofing slates suggests that they were largely removed for use elsewhere. There is, however, evidence that the building was used sporadically at points after its abandonment – for example, by workmen building the railway in 1870.

The new report, published at, tells the story of Wilkhouse as a sophisticated building with a long history of occupation, whose demise was brought about by the same forces of modernity that it was intended to represent.

This news article appears in issue 358 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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