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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
April 1975

L. Myatt

Halkirk is the second largest parish in the county of Caithness. The original parish name was Scynend (1223, Sutherland Charters), or Skenand - now Skinnet. At some time after the beginning of the thirteenth century it was divided into the three parishes of Skenand, Halkirk, and the Hospital of St. Magnus of Spital. The original boundaries of these parishes are unknown prior to their reunion into a single parish under the modern name of Halkirk sometime in the sixteenth century.

The modern parish has numerous examples of the remains of the early church. Some seventeen sites are listed, and although the remains of these early buildings are not extensive they vary from a few metres of vertical walling to, in some cases, little more than small mounds, or nothing at all where the exact location is no longer known. The following table gives the list of known or supposed sites, and the grid reference and dedication where known. The orientation of the main axis has been measured where sufficient remains make this possible. In each case this is never found to be exactly true east-west.

Site Grid Reference Dedication Axis (True)

Achanarras ? St. Magnus? ?
Achardale ND 116565 ? 253deg.
Achscariclate ND 082442 St Bridgit ?
Banniskirk ND 171571 ? ?
Dirlot ND 126487 St. Columba ?
Dorrery ND 077547 St. Gavin 278deg.
Gerston ND 122594 ? ?
Halkirk (1) ND 135597 St. Tarlogan or Fergus ?
Halkirk (2) ND 138599 St. Katherine ?
Olgrinbeg ND 111536 St. Peter 278deg.
Rumsdale Water ND 985406 St. Ciaran ?
Scotscalder ? ? ?
Sibster ND 151596 ? ?
Skinnet ND 132621 St. Thomas 230deg.
Spital ND 159549 St. Magnus 257deg.
Westerdale ND 127524 St. Trostan ?
Westfield ND 066641 St. Trostan ?

The exact location of this site is unknown. The Old Statistical Account refers to ecclesiastical buildings, with this chapel larger than the rest, at a place on rising ground to the west of the chapel of St. Magnus Spital (ND 159549). It is described as at a place called Auchinarras (Achanarras) which mans the Field of the Altar. Horne, in his County of Caithness, gives the dedication as being to St. Magnus.

The site of this chapel lies 300m north-west of the farm of Achardle. It is situated on a natural grassy mound, and appears as a rectangular depression in the mound. What little remains of the lower courses of the walls is turf covered.

The interior dimensions have been approximately 5.7m X 3.7m and in places walling can be seen through the turf. The wall thickness is about 0.7m and the long axis is aligned 253deg. true. The entrance my have been in the centre of the west wall. (56)

On the south side of the site the land has been ploughed to within a distance of 5m of the chapel wall and there is no surface evidence of a burial ground, although it is reported by Beaton that one existed.

Some 50m to the east of the site is another grass-covered mound on which there is evidence of the remains of a square building which may or may not have been associated with the chapel. It appears as a slight depression in the ground. Three sides are in evidence whilst the fourth, to the south, is not so distinct. The dimensions are approximately 3.1m square.

The river Thurso is about 80m distant from the c1hapel site, and that stretch to the north-east, at the bend in the river is known as the Chapel Pool. Also the adjacent field is known as the Chapel Field.

To whom this chapel is dedicated is unknown.

All that remains of this site is a grass-covered mound lying approximately east and west and situated about 30m north-east of the ruined farm of Achscariclate. A few large flat stones protrude from the mound which appears rounded at the west end where the stones are upright. The approximate dimensions of the structure within the mound are 11m east-west, and 7.4m north-south.

The chapel is said to be dedicated to St Bridgit or Bride.

A few metres to the NW is a so-called holy well which still contains water.

Known locally as the site of an early chapel, is a small natural rise in the ground 250m SSE of the farm buildings of Banniskirk Mains. The ground has in the past been ploughed and there is no remaining evidence of any buildings. In the region of where the chapel is supposed to have stood there is rather more loose stone on the surface of the field than elsewhere

Large scale Ordnance Survey maps indicate the site of this chapel. It is said to be within the burial ground to be found at this spot, and dedicated to St. Columba. N visible remains are to be seen from the surface.

About 400m south-east of Dorrery lodge, is a rectangular walled enclosure approximately 37m x 25m, surrounding a burial ground. In the centre of the burial ground, which has been in use up to the beginning of this century, are the remains of a chapel having a nave and chancel. The interior dimensions of the nave are 5.Om x 3.9m and of the chancel 2.0m x 3.lm and the thickness of the walls is 1.1m. Writing in 1769, Rev. Alexander Pope describes the walls as still standing. There is now a large amount of fallen stonework on the exterior, and particularly to the south. The highest piece of walling, which appears to have been dry-stone built, is about 1.1m.

The main axis is aligned 278deg. true.

The chapel is known as Gavin's Kirk, or Temple Gavin, and stands on land which at one time belonged to the Bishops of Caithness.

The New Statistical Account makes reference to a chapel site at Gerston. The 1877 edition of the six-inch Ordnance Survey map indicates a supposed site at approximately ND 122594 but it is omitted from the modern editions. No surface evidence of such a site or to whom the chapel may have been dedicated is known.

Halkirk (1)
The place-name Halkirk is the Ha Kirkiu of the Sagas meaning 'high church'. In 1222 we find the name Hakirk; 1274, Haukyre; 1504, Haikrik; 1567 Halkrik; 1620, Halkrig; 1642, Hakrig; although the modern spelling of Halkirk was used in 1500.

The site on which the, now disused, parish church, built in 1753, stands is known as Tor Harlogan. It is on this same site that an earlier chapel is said to have existed, known as Kirk Teaumpul Harlogan. Tor Harlogan is a corruption of the gaelic, Torr Tharlogain, meaning Tarlogan's hill or hillock, and Teampull Tharlogain in gaelic would mean Tarlogan's church. Whilst the placename still persists there is now no evidence of an early chapel.

This chapel is also said to have been dedicated to St. Fergus who is also commemorated in Wick. Both Tarlogan and Fergus were possibly two of the associates of St. Donnan mentioned in the Tallagh Martyrology where the names of Donnan's fifty four companions who were murdered on the Isle of Eigg are given.

This association of the names of Tarlogan and Fergus is also found at Fordyce in Banffshire.

There are various references to a chapel used by the Bishops and dedicated to St. Katherine. Writing in 1769 Rev. Alexander Pope of Reay describes it as near the Bishop's castle (ND138599) with nothing remaining except a heap of rubbish.

In Sinclair's book "The Gunns" it is described as having stood in a green spot full of stones near Quoycrock but the exact location of the site is now unknown.

Standing on an elevation on the north bank of the burn of Olgrinbeg, and some 300m south-east of the farm buildings of Olgrinbeg are the remains of the chapel of St. Peter. Situated close to the burn, the lower part of the wall of the rectangular building is clearly seen. Apparently dry-stone built without mortar, the interior dimensions are 7.70m x 3.50m, with a wall thickness of 1.10m. The maximum height of exposed wall appears in the interior at the north-east corner and on the exterior at the south-east corner, where, in each case 0.80m of dry-stone walling is visible. Owing to fallen stone and overgrowth no entrance, or other feature, is visible apart from some evidence of large flat slabs protruding in the interior. The long axis is aligned 278deg. true.

The mound, on which the structure stands, exhibits a rectangular outline to the north side of the building, and to the east of the mound is a flat plain encompassed by the burn. Within this plain my be distinguished a slightly elevated bank curving northwards from the south-east corner of the building.

Running approximately east and west, at the northern extremity of the site, is a dry channel which has the appearance of a mill laid.

According to tradition, Sir Reginald de Cheyne is buried in this chapel. He had his residence in a castle at the outlet to Lochmore and owned extensive lands in the county. When he died, in about the year 1350, it is reputed that at his request, his grave was filled with sand taken from the shore of Lochmore.

The lands surrounding this site at Tormsdale, Westerdale, Easterdale, Leosag, Olginey, Gerston, the sheiling lands along Sleach water, and the pasture lands of Dorrery, were all lands belonging to the Bishops of Caithness. There were cruives on the Thurso river at Gerston, and there was a mill for the use of tenants on the Braehour burn.

Adjoining the chapel site is a field known as "an Abaid"; 0.9km to the north-east is a farm by the name of Appat (possibly a corruption of Abbot or Abbey), and to the west of this is Appat hill. These are all place names which probably have some ecclesiastical significance. It may suggest evidence of an earlier Christian site in the area. or perhaps the chapel may well have had an earlier pre-Roman dedication.

Rumsdale Water
At Dalganachan (ND 009399) is the source of the Thurso river at the confluence of Glutt Water and Rumsdale Water. Some 2km from this point and upstream of Rumsdale Water is a sharp bend in the stream. Here, on the north bank is the place name Dail Chiaran opposite which, on the other bank the large scale Ordnance Survey map indicates the site of a chapel on which now stands a circular sheepfold. There is now no surface evidence of any other building at this spot.

The chapel is said to have been dedicated to St. Ciaran, (Ciran, Kiaran or Queran), who was one of the associates of St. Donnan. Perhaps this chapel was founded by missionaries passing into Caithness from Kildonan.

At a distance of 200m southwest of the farm of Sibster, and at the side of the Thurso-Georgemas railway line, the large scale 0rdnance Survey map shows a chapel site. The field wherein it stands is known as the Chapel Field but no evidence of any building is to be found, the ground having been long since ploughed over.

The chapel at Skinnet, dedicated to St. Thomas, is described as having a been a 'large, coarse, massy' building, and extensive remains of it are still to be seen. It was, as has already been stated, at one time the parish church, and had therefore attained a status of some importance.

Surrounded by a line of trees on both the west and south, the site lies400m north-east of Skinnet farm. Between the Chapel and the trees, to the south, lies the burial ground. From the dating of the tombstones it has been in use to at least as late as 1866. Partly overgrown, and in some cases damaged, are to be found some very fine carving on these tombstones.

Much eroded by weathering, and about 2m from the south wall, stands a slab 1.50m high x 0.85m wide and O.11m thick. On it, carved in relief, are remains of an equal limbed Celtic cross which is now very difficult to recognise.

As late as 1797 were known the remains of another building described as 'The Abbey ', not far from the church. From what could be seen, at this time, it appears to have been a large building but its purpose is unknown. Near to this building is described the remains of a fine monumental atone standing nine feet high above ground and known as St. Thomas's chair. No further details of it are known except that it was subsequently demolished by vandals. The exact location of the abbey site is now unknown.

The chapel has been a building of the chancelled type measuring 20.7m,x 7.30m, overall. The chancel tapers internally from 4.30m at the west end to 3.60m at the east, as shown in the plan. The walls vary in thickness from 1.20m to 1.36m and the highest part in the south-west corner is 2.20m. Also in this corner may be seen mortar between the courses of stone.

It was after the murder of Bishop Adam in 1222 that his body was buried before the altar of this chapel. Subsequently his remains were removed to the Cathedral in Dornoch.

Found within the wall of this chapel was the class II symbol stone now removed to Thurso museum.

At the edge of a field 300m northwest of the house of Spital mains are the ruins of a chapel and burial ground. Much of the walling of the chapel still remains with the east gable almost complete, being 3.5m high at its highest point. The highest part of the south wall is now only about 2m.

The chapel interior, which contains much loose masonry, measures 2Om x 5.76m, and the wall thickness is 1.03m. Built of small flat stones of Caithness flagstone, with mortar between the courses, the building stands on a slight mound with the long axis aligned 257deg. true. The entrance, 1.10m wide, is situated near the east end of the south wall, and there is possible evidence of a window towards the west end of this same wall.

There are gravestones within the building dated early in the last century, and in the burial ground, on the south side of the chapel, are gravestones dating up to the beginnings of this century. The burial ground, which is one of the burial places of the Clan Gunn, is much overgrown and open to cattle. On its southern extremity are the remains of an enclosing wall. Also within the burial ground is a hollow depression, rectangular in shape, aligned approximately east and west, open at the west end, and about the sane size as the chapel. There is evidence of a wall footing around it.

The chapel is dedicated to St. Magnus. Although there are a number of saints by this name, it is probable that the Magnus referred to here is Earl Magnus of Orkney who was brutally ki11ed on the island of Egilsay about the year 1117, and to whom the cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated. Certainly it is known that the church of Orkney had lands in Caithness since it is recorded that about the year 1620 land near Dale was gifted to Budge of Toftingall for providing an escort to Orkney clergy when they had occasion to travel south through Caithness.

Close to the chapel existed a religious building known as a hospital, also dedicated to St. Magnus. It is believed that this may have been a charitable form of hostel in which shelter and hospitality were given to travellers and, and the poor, and relief to the sick. It is from the word hospital that Spital village derives its name.

A charter by James III to William Sinclair son of the Earl of Caithness dated 1476 gives the earliest known reference to the hospital. In another charter of 1566 it is recorded that the lands attached to the hospital were those of Spital, Achalone, and Mybster. These lands were known as Skittebriche. The hospital was probably demolished for building material during the seventeenth or eighteenth century.

Situated 500m south-east of the farm of Balantsionnach near the corner of a field is the chapel site of St. Trostan. Little remains to be seen since the land around has been ploughed. The site comprises a slightly elevated mound of rough grass with evidence of a few stones showing here and there. It is not possible to determine the chapel outline from the surface.

To the south-east of Westfield farm and at a distance of some 300m is a burial ground. It is at this spot that the large scale Ordnance Survey map indicates the site of another chapel dedicated to St. Trostan. Although the burial ground is to be seen, there is now no evidence of a chapel building. Beaton, however locates the site of the chapel to the east of the burial ground on the opposite side of the canal which was cut to drain Loch Lieurary. Here is a circular grass-covered mound which from its shape and size resembles the remains of a chambered cairn, although there is no means of identifying it certainly as such.

In the south-east wall of the burial ground is the basin of a font believed to have come from the original chapel.

The Plans
The plans, to a scale of 1:200, have been drawn from measurements taken at the sites. Features are shown where they can possibly be seen, but in some cases such as Olgrinbeg and Dorrery tumbled walling has prevented the exact location of entrances to be determined.


Auld Ministers and Men in the Far North Rae 1868
Beaton Ecclesiastical History of Caithness Rae 1909
Calder Civil and Traditional History of Caithness Murray 1861
Curle Inventory of Ancient Monuments in the County of Caithness HMSO 1911
Innes Origines Parochiales Scotiae Bannatyne Club 1841-5
Mackay History of the Province of Cat Reid 1914
Scott Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae Vol. 7 Oliver & Boyd 1928