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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
THE EARLY ECCLSIASTICAL REMAINS OF HALKIRK PARISH
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)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the south-east wall of the burial ground is the basin of a font believed to have come from the original chapel.
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