In 1598, Lady Jean Gordon, Countess of Sutherland established
the first salt pans at Brora and revived plans of her
deceased father in law, the 10th Earl, to work the most northerly
coal seams in Britain to supply them. Thus began Brora’s
long relationship with the salt, coal and related industries,
nearly two centuries before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Contemporary accounts record that
Lady Jean was a skilful business woman. She managed the Sutherland
Estate following the death of her husband the 11th Earl in
1595 until her son John, the 12th Earl, came of age.
John, who was sickly, went abroad for his health for long periods from 1598-1600 and 1611-1613, during which times he left the management of the estates in the sole hands of his mother. In a time when most Estate income would have been in-kind, the sale of salt, both home and abroad, would have generated very useful cash revenue.
The salt pans in Brora operated against a background of political unrest, constant feuding between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland, and periodic famine in the Highlands.
John the 12th Earl died in 1616. It is recorded that ‘he left his house overburdened with debt’ and that this was due in part ‘also by enterprising some works - salt pans at Brora, which, at his great cost, were just finished and brought to perfection when he died. His death interrupted their working.’
Jean Gordon in 1566 aged about
21. National Galleries of Scotland.
Lady Jean Gordon in 1598, aged 53
Two years later the sale of ‘the
iron of the saltpannis of Broray’ suggests that
salt making in Brora had ceased.
Ironically, the Scottish salt industry boomed throughout the 1620’s and 1630’s, with a peak in exports and a wave of new salt pan construction around Scotland.
The demise of salt making at Brora, at odds with the growing prosperity of the industry nationally, reminds us of the importance of local issues and conditions in the development of Scotland’s early industry.
Jacqueline Aitken’s 2004 Brora Survey report and CFA’s 2006 Assessment report (Part 1) gives a detailed historical account of the development of Brora’s 16th-17th century salt industry. Go to our Archaeology pages to find out more about the archaeological evidence.
The Excavation reports of 2007 and 2010 give detailed results of the archaeological investigations of the remains of the Old Salt House.