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The History by Innes Miller
Dale House - The History
- Part One
Looking around from Dale House: Eight green mounds can be seen in fields, on bothy banks of the river and on a ridge above the farm. They are the remains of brochs the defensive keeps of the Picts, or as they were known “Picts Houses”. The first edition of the Ordnance survey map of 1872 states “Dale House built on the site of a Pict’s house” Why there should be such a cluster of Brochs and what was the full significance of these tall slender towers we do not know? Would so many be needed for defence? Were they part of a division of land between families? Or perhaps they were just Pictish neighbours competing with one another for the biggest and most elaborate tower. There is little doubt that such a prime site would have delighted a broch builder, and the original stones of his broch are certainly used in the present building.
The Orkney Saga, part of the great Icelandic Saga Collection, gives us the first mention of Dale as being the home of Moddan, supposedly a nephew of Macbeth, while of Celtic/Pictish descent his family inter-married with incoming Norse and the fertile strath of the Picts became Dalr or Dale of the Viking Bondi or free farmers. It was the dislike of the feudal rule of the King in Norway that drove so many Vikings to adventure abroad and brought them to Scotland. This resentment of rule was to have catastrophic consequences for the Bondi. The Scottish Bishop Adam in Halkirk increased the butter tax he drew for the Church and then increased it again. The Bondi were so enraged; they went for help to Earl John of Orkney and Caithness who was equivocal. They turned from the Earl’s Castle at Braal on the unfortunate bishop and in the Norse way burned down his house with the bishop inside. It was the excuse that Alexander the Second of Scotland needed and had perhaps subtly created to subdue and cement Scot’s rule over Norse Caithness. Eighty men had their hands and feet cut off and their lands taken and given to the church. These included the lands of Dale and the cruives (salmon netting) on the River Thurso. For four hundred years we know nothing about Dale as church property. There is a walled square two hundred yards north of the house, which is consecrated ground and a chapel site in a field formerly known as Aisle Park.
The Reformation came slowly to the North and sixty years after John Knox in 1560 had his “Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” there were still Catholic families in the North and it was to one of these, Budge of Toftingall, that the lands of Dale were gifted as a return for their help and hospitality to priests on the journeys through Caithness to Orkney. In Henderson’s “Caithness Family History” there is a mention of a local tradition that Budges build a house with a tower. It may well be that this was a house built from a tower or old Broch? The beehive Doocot in the walled garden is possibly a century older than the present house, Doocots were the perquisite of a laird so that we must presume that there was a laird’s house near by. Blau’s map of Scotland shows a house there and would have been taken from the original surveys done by Timothy Pont. Pont was latterly a minister in the Caithness parish of Dunnet.
James Budge built the central portion of the present house somewhere between 1740 and 1760. He was the agent for Coutts bank and was one person with cash in what was a barter economy. Caithness exported grain to Scandinavia and James Budge organised shipments and funding, from his correspondence with the Earl of Caithness this was a difficult task as he had to deal with dilatory and impecunious Sinclairs. In a letter to Francis Sinclair of Milntown he orders some “Plank” in 1739 and this could be for the building of the new house. As well as importing timber he must also have brought in, possibly from Moray shire, the sandstone for the window margins and the stair treads. Each roof truss has a number scratched on it in Roma numerals indicating that they had all been fitted at ground level before being hoisted to the top of the walls. Through out the house the Georgian sense of proportion is very evident; in particular the drawing room has a harmony of scale and light that make it a delightful place to be on a Caithness summers evening. The plasterwork, reputedly done by Italians, shows the same delicate restraint in its design. That James Budge needed a new house there is no doubt as in a boundary dispute with his neighbour at South Dun witnesses stated that the march ran so close to the “Mansion House” of Toftingall that in a gale turves that were blown off its roof landed on the next door property. Amongst the Fingask papers in Perth Library there is an account of how the Budges from Dale House used a boat on the river to net fish for salmon.
The last of the Dale and Toftingall Budges, Grizzel, died in Edinburgh in 1800. Her cousin Janet Murray of Pennyland had been the wife of Sir Stuart Threipland of Fingask in Perthshire, Prince Charlie’s doctor during the ‘45. And it was to their son Patrick (Murray) Threipland that the estate now passed. A map, drawn at this time, shows a plan to have the house in a designed landscape of hedge-rowed fields with intersecting rides through woods and a great tree lined avenue a mile long approaching the front of the house. Some vestiges of this plan still remain in shallow banks thrown up to line the avenues. The land was now tenanted by a family originally from Cataig Hill at Dirlot called Gunn. They were one of the first Caithness families to realise the potential of, and practise , large scale sheep farming. Sinclair Gunn was one of the respondents asked to give his views on drainage, land improvement, cattle and dykes to Captain Henderson in his “General Views of the Agriculture of Caithness” published in 1812. In 1861 new farm buildings were erected and all the old farm buildings on the south side of the house were demolished and possibly added to the walls of the walled garden. Sheep farming went into decline in the last quarter of the century, wool and mutton from Australia and New Zealand coupled with disease destroyed the Gunns financially and they had to be baled-out by cousins. A photograph of the house at this time shows the harl peeled off to expose the rubble stonework and the windows needing painting. But it was about to undergo a change of fortune.