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Caithness Field Club

A Possible Site For The Monastery At Murkle (ND 166696)
G Watson

The Monastery, or nunnery, at Murkle is often mentioned in Caithness history. Torfaeus says that a queen of Norway died in it and that an Earl of Caithness was buried there in 960. Calder records that 'there John one of the old earls of Caithness, signed a document binding himself and his followers to support Edward I of England in his war with Scotland". It was also the establishment where, according to Calder, the two unwanted daughters of Reginald Cheyne were secretly brought up by their mother until their father could be reconciled to them.

The precise location of the site has never been officially recorded and it seemed reasonable to try and find it, before the industrial development of Murkle Bay uncovered it accidentally and too late.

Beaton's Ecclesiastical History of Caithness (pp. 44,45) gives two good descriptions of the remains:-

"The Rev. Alexander Pope, writing in 1769 says, 'I was told by the late Earl of Caithness that there was a nunnery in ancient times near his seat at Murkle. The country people call the place the Glosters, but no vestige of the building is extant except the remains of the garden wall, which enclosed a rich spot of ground. (Pennant' s Tour I 350 4th Edit.)';

and -

"The nunnery stood at a place called Redlands Farm There is a well there which is still called 'Redlands Well’.

I am also acquainted with a man still alive who some sixty years past, used some of the stones of the building in drains, etc., the ground at that time being improved and enclosed in a field on West Murkle Farm. The ruins of what is supposed to have been the monastery lay about a quarter of a mile to the east on the seashore. The field between the two places is named 'Cloisters' and is so spelled in the farm books still”. (Extract from a letter to the writer (Beaton) by Mr. Henry Manson, librarian, Thurso)The Well of Redlands is marked on the O.S. map and is easily located. It has been filled in, but the dark green grassy depression with the stones and sheep bones showing through the infill, is unmistakable. A search from the well to the beach showed no signs of ground marks, even to the, most hopeful and optimistic eyes.

Enquiries of the nearest house produced friendly directions to a site immediately south of Murkle Mains (now East Murkle No. 2).A sketch plan is shown of the low grass covered walls and banks of this unrecorded site. The roughly rectangtular area approximately 50m x 7Om is excavated out of a gentle south facing slope and fits the "garden wall” description very well. It is also near Murkle Mains (the Earl of Caithness's seat?) and the sea, and is less than ,a quarter of a mile from the "Cloisters'. To the, east of the site, and not shown on the plan, are indications of further foundations and walls in the grass covered sand. Built into the gable of one of the farm steadings on East Murkle No 2 is a badly weathered triangular carved stone, which is said to have come from this site.The record cards of the Archaeology Division of the Ordnance Survey note that human burials and iron spearheads were found here in 1840 and that a brass horseshoe was also found a few years later. Ono card states "Cartloads of human bones can be found along the, sandbank at this place". This is supported by a local tradition that quantities of bones were uncovered when digging house foundations in the early years of this century.

There is nothing to confirm, that this site is ecclesiastical, the bones could be a shipwreck burial, or the remains of those killed in the battle which ranged from Clairdon to Murkle in 1196. However there are enough clues to make this an interesting spot, and there is the intriguing possibility of finding the “nunnery” site nearer Redlands Well.

Published April 1976 Bulletin