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1975 Bulletins Index  Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club


Vol. 1. No. 6. October, 1975.


The name Wick is Norse in origin, being derived from the Old Norse vik, meaning 'a (little) bay'. In 1140 the name Vik appears and in 1455 Weke (Johnston 1892). By 1530 the spelling had changed to Wik and in 1561 to Weik. The present name Wick is recorded in 1630 and also appears on the map of Blaeu in 1642;(Innes 1841-45.

Within the parish are known the locations of six sites of the early church, a further two are reported to have existed in the town of Wick and a ninth one, which is somewhat doubtful, in Keiss. These are listed in the following table.

Site Grid Reference Dedication Axis (True)
Haster ND 330503 St. Cuthbert 268 deg
Keiss ND 349615 ? ? ?
Killimster ND 292563 St. Duthac 214 deg
Shorelands ND 367545 St. Tear (Trostan) 261 deg
Sibster ND 324522 St. Mary 275 deg
Thrumster ND 334454 ? ? ?
Ulbster ND 336419 St. Martin ?
Wick 1 ? St. Fergus ?
Wick 2 ? St. Ninian ?

Although, in some cases, sufficient remains are evident to give a reasonably accurate alignment of the axis, in no case is it possible to establish a definite plan. Approximate dimensions, where possible, are given for individual sites but only excavation can reveal the true details, since surface evidence, at the best, only shows the outline of turf-covered foundations.

The remains of the chapel dedicated to St. Cuthbert are situated about 400m east-south-east of Haster farm on a slight mound in a cultivated field near Achairn burn. The chapel appears as a rectangular depression in the surface. The plan is difficult to determine due to the dumping of stones in its interior from the surrounding field, but the interior dimensions have been approximately 14.00m x 5.60m. The Inventory describes this as a chancelled building although this is not now obviously so.

A number of large stones appear to be set in the ground at intervals around the boundary of the site, and also the remains of other structures are visible within the boundary. A few metres to the north-west of the chapel is a circular mound with a number of small stones set in the ground on both sides of a circular foundation open on the east side. The outer diameter has been about 4.10m with a possible wall, thickness of 0.90m.

To the south-west of the chapel are visible two sides of a rectangular depression in the ground.

Macfarlane (I,p.60) refers to this chapel as the "Chapel of Haulster called St. Cuthberts Church" and states that the common people bury their dead about it.

The 1877 edition of the 6 inch os map indicates Kirk Tofts, and the site of a chapel at ND 349615. This is also the position of the Keiss "Road Broch" some 100 m south-west of the present burial ground. Reference is made to the chapel site by Innes (1841-5) but nothing further is known.

In the middle of the Moss of Killimster is the site Kirk o'Moss. It is situated on a slightly elevated grass covered piece of ground 5 hectares in extent in the midst of a large area of peat covered moorland. Access to the site is difficult in wet weather because of the boggy nature of the ground but there is evidence of a low bank or causeway leading to it from the south. In dry weather it may also be approached from the east along the north side of the drainage channel.

A field sketch of the site is given in Macdonald & Laing (1967-8) indicating the chapel and other groups of buildings or enclosures to the north and south of it.

The rectangular turf-covered outline of the chapel is still in evidence and appears to have had the approximate dimensions of 3m x 7.5m.

The dedication is to St. Duthac who is the patron saint of Tain, and who died in about 1065. Writing in 1726, Macfarlane (I,p.160), the Rev. James Oliphant, parish minister of Wick. says,

"From the town of Wick to the NW stands Kilminster at two miles distance, where of old stood the mansion house of the Bishops of Cathnesse. There is one remarkable story taken notice of by some of our historians that the last bishop who resided there was boil'd to death in a cauldron by the orders of the then Earle of Cathnesse, it stands upon the east side of the great flow moss two miles large in breadth and in the middle of it, there is a chappell called St. Dudoch's Kirk by the commons, of very difficult access any time of the year, by reason of the flow".

There would appear to be some confusion here with the story of the burning of Bishop Adam at Halkirk.

In the New Statistical Account written in 1840 it is stated:-

"Till within a few years. it was customary for all the inhabitants of Mirelandhorn to visit the Kirk of Moss every Christmas before sunrise, placing on a stone, bread and cheese and a silver coin, which as they alleged, disappeared in some mysterious way."

This stone apparently used to stand in the middle of the Burn of Killimster. Traditionally the site is monastic and Macdonald & Laing (1967-8) confirm this possibility. The fair of Killimster used to be held on the first Tuesday in March.

The remains of this chapel may be seen as a rectangular depression in the ground some 10m from the edge of the cliff. A small burn flows past the outer edge of the east wall where some 0.70m of walling is exposed. Elsewhere no other stones are visible but the interior dimensions have been approximately 11.20m x 6.6om.

Writing after his visit to Caithness in 1762, Bishop Forbes describes the chapel as having windows only in the south wall and being constructed with stone and mortar but without any lime. At this time it was roofless but the walls were almost complete, and the baptismal font lay on the green at the east end of the chapel. By 1861 Muir (1885) states that "not a vestige of the building remains".

The dedication is variously ascribed to St Tears, Tayr, Tay, Ere, and Aire. The origin of this dedication is somewhat obscure, as a result of which various explanations have been offered. Bishop Forbes relates that in 1762 it was the custom of people to assemble there on the morning of the feast of the Holy Innocents and pray, bringing with them offerings of bread, cheese, and money which were put into holes in the walls. The afternoon then followed with dancing to music provided by a piper and fiddler.

Holy Innocents day is 28th December, and the explanation of the dedication offered in the Inventory is that it is transferred in Roman church times from an earlier Celtic dedication to St. Airerain or Ereran whose feast day is 29th December.

The Rev. A.B.Scott (1926) attributes the dedication to St. Trostan and suggests that the name "Tayre" or "Tear" is a corruption of the name of the mother church at Deer in Aberdeenshire. He also points out the name of the early Christian settlement at Deerness in Orkney. Until after the reformation the name was "Deare" or "Diere" in Aberdeenshire and "Tayre" in Caithness. The name "Deer" may derive from deri or der, being the oakgrove with religious connection where pagan rites were celebrated. It was the known policy of the early Christian missionaries to use the sacred pagan sites as places to build their churches which were often of timber from the oaks which grew around them. In Old British the Der-tig was the house of prayer, and in early Irish it was the Dertaig or Derteach. Thus the deri or tier of the pagan Celts became the Christian place of worship of the early missionaries, and hence we find the name Deer.

In the 15th century the chapel was the scene of a battle between Clan Gunn and Clan Keith as described by Gordon (1639 P.92),

"After some dissention betueen the Kaithes and the Clangun, there wes

a meitting appoynted for ther reconciliation at the chappell of St. Tayr in Catteynes, not farr from Girnigo, wher they should meitt, with tuelve hors on either syd. The Cruner, then cheiftane of the Clangun, with the most pairt of his sones and principall kinsmen, came at the appoynted tyme to this chappell, to the number of tuelve; and as they wore within the cheappell at ther prayers, the Laird of Innervgie and Ackrigell arryved ther, with tuelve hors, and tuo men vpon everie hors. So these tuentie-four men rushed in at the door of the chappell, and invaded the Cruner and his company at vnawars, who nevertheles made great resistance. In the end, the Clangun wer slain, and the most part of the Kaithes also. Ther blood may be seen at this day vpon the walls within the chappell, wher they wer killed".

Calder (1887 p.98) gives another version of this battle as having taken place in Strathmore.

700m south of Sibster House, near the junction of the Wick River and the

Achairn Burn is the site of St. Mary's church, about 70m from the bank of the river. All that remains is a rectangular depression on a slight mound. There is some evidence of walling about 0.5m high in the interior whose dimensions are approximately 12.90m x 5.80m. The site is almost entirely overgrown with grass.

Beaton (1909) mentions evidence of a burial ground surrounding the chapel, although this is not now evident. Nearby the 0S map indicates Mary Ford crossing the Wick River. The baptismal font, believed to come from this chapel, is now at Stirkoke House.

It was stated in 1732 in the Wick Kirk-Session records that the chapel was used as a place of certain superstitious practices on the first Sunday after the new moon when it was visited by the common people who would bow and kneel about the building.

At Thrumster is a burial ground, situated at ND 334454 and known as the chapel burial ground. Within this burial ground is the supposed site of an early chapel of unknown dedication. There are now no surface indications to be seen.

A chapel dedicated to St. Martin is supposed to have stood on the site of the present mausoleum of the Sinclairs of Ulbster in the old burial ground 150m south of the Mains of Ulbster. The present building is square in plan, each side measuring 6.70m and is aligned 262 deg. A date on the weather vane gives the year 1700.

In the surrounding burial ground are a number of old tombstones now very much overgrown. The Pictish symbol stone, known as the Ulbster stone, now in Thurso museum, at one time stood in this burial ground.

Auld (1868 P.4) states that by tradition a Danish princess lies buried here and that the place is marked by a stone having some illegible characters on it.

Wick 1
An early chapel dedicated to St. Fergus, the patron saint, is said to have existed in Wick. It was believed by Beaten (1909) to have been situated

perhaps at Mount Hooly, a name which suggests some religious significance and is probably a corruption of "holy". The possibility of the chapel having located in the vicinity of the present parish church is also suggested.

Wick 2
Macfarlane (1726) states "At the Head of Wick is the chappel of St. Ninnian". Various interpretations have been put on this statement, even to suggest that the exact location was known at that time. The location is now unknown, but two possible sites are suggested by Beaton (1909), these are either at North Head or more probably in the vicinity of the Camps. Certainly not far away from North Head we have the Norse name Papigoe which is suggestive of an early Christian site.

The 0S map indicates a site "Kirk Stones" at ND 327648, and running close by is the Kirk Burn. This site was partially excavated by Laing in 1865, an account of which is given in Laing & Huxley (1866). Nothing was found to suggest that the site had any early Christian significance.


Auld Ministers and Men in the Far North Rae 1868
Beaton Ecclesiastical History of Caithness Rae 1909
Calder Civil & Traditional History of Caithness Murray 1861
Curle Inventory of Ancient Monuments in the County of Caithness HMSO 1911
Forbes Journal of the Episcopal Visitation of the Rt. Rev. Robert Forbes of the DioceseB of Ross and Caithness Kirkwall 1886
Gordon The Earldom of Sutherland (1639) Edinburgh 1813
Innes Origines Parochiales Scotiae Bannatyne Club  
Johnston Place-names of Scotland London 1892
Laing & Huxley Pre-Historic Remains of Caithness Williams & Norgate 1866
Macdonald & Laing Early Ecclesiastical Sites in Scotland PSAS Vol 100 1967-8
Macfarlane Geographical Collections Constable 1906-8
Muir Ecclesiological Notes on some of the Islands of Scotland Douglas 1885
Scott The Celtic Church in Orkney Proc,Ork. Antiq. Soc. 1925-6