Scottish Cave Dwellers

Tinkler’s Cave 1903

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.

Arthur Mitchell was a physician who specialized in mental illness and who led several commissions on “lunacy”. In 1866 he visited the poor tinkers of Wick Bay in Caithness Scotland who lived year-round in caves on the coast. A couple years later Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson also mentioned them in rather uncharitable terms in a letter to his mother:

In one of these lives a tribe of gipsies. The men are ALWAYS drunk, simply and truthfully always. From morning to evening the great villainous-looking fellows are either sleeping off the last debauch, or hulking about the cove ‘in the horrors.’ The cave is deep, high, and airy, and might be made comfortable enough. But they just live among heaped boulders, damp with continual droppings from above, with no more furniture than two or three tin pans, a truss of rotten straw, and a few ragged cloaks. In winter the surf bursts into the mouth and often forces them to abandon it.

But during his visit Dr Mitchell found they were not actually of Gypsy, or Romani descent:

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 seem to have been true “tinkers” eking out a meager living working with tinned iron. “The men cut, shape, hammer, while the women do the soldering.” “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.

On his first visit Mitchell described many of them as being naked, or only partially clothed, but I wonder if that might be partially because he arrived about 9 pm just as it was getting dark. The next day he visited again in the afternoon and found them:

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. “

The doctor said they had no furniture other than the stones of the cave and slept on beds of straw, grass, and bracken with only a ragged blanked or two on each bed. “Broken noses and scars” told a further tale of a hard life, but not more than a child who had died of typhus stil lying near to it’s father — delirious with the same disease, and likely also not long for this world. In some ways the conditions might not have been a much worse than those of city slums of the time. But I can’t help but wonder if there might have been additional social pressures beyond just poverty that kept them from living in town such as vagrancy laws or similar acts, or prejudice against tinkers and “gipsies”.

It sounds like they were eventually forced to move out of the caves in 1915 under the broad powers of  the WWI “Defence of the Realm Act”, possibly to keep the shore free from fires that might aid enemy ships navigating the coast. But 55 people were still listed as living in caves as of the 1917 government census.

The caves seem to have become partially filled with rubble due to the work of storms and tides over the last century, but I stumbled on to a short Youtube video looking into the entrance.

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