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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1982 - April

Two Tales of The Bishops of Caithness
Henrietta Munro

In the 12th century Earl Harold assumed control of Caithness. This was not to the liking of William the Lion so he arranged for Reginald Lord of the Isles to recover the county for the king. This Reginald did during Harold's absence in Orkney and then left the county under the charge of the bishop and three governors - at this time Harold was still in Orkney gathering up an army to recapture Caithness. Also at this time William the Lion had Harold's son tortured in Roxburgh Castle - Harold was sure the Bishop of Caithness had a great deal to do with this episode. So in 1201 Earl Harold landed at Scrabster with a very large army and the Bishop seeing the numbers, decided that appeasement was the only policy. When Harold was leaving Scrabster the Bishop left his palace and tried to make peace. Naturally Harold scornfully rejected the Bishop's plea and arrogantly asked where the money was - the money the Bishop was supposed to collect for the Earl which was one penny per inhabited house in Caithness. Regretfully the Bishop had to agree that he had failed to collect this tax. This of course did not improve Harold's temper and he instructed one of his servants - Lomberd by name - to cut out the Bishop's tongue and to thrust a knife into both his eyes.

After the dreadful deed was done they left the Bishop beside the roadside, marched into Thurso and ravaged the town and then overran the countryside. Later Harold sued for pardon from the king and seems to have got off lightly but Lomberd was not so lucky. The Bishop of Orkney received a letter from the Pope as follows:

"Lomberd shall hasten home and barefoot and naked except for breeches and a short woollen vest without sleeves, shall he have his tongue tied by a string and drawn out so as project beyond his lips and the ends of the string shall be bound round his neck and he shall have rods in his hands - in sight of all men he shall walk for fifteen days successively through his own native district, the district of the mutilated bishop and through the neighbouring county. He shall go to the door of the church - without entering - and there prostrate on the earth undergo discipline with the rods he is to carry. He is to spend each day in silence and fasting unto evening when he shall support nature with bread and water only. Then after these fifteen days have passed he shall prepare within a month to set out for Jerusalem and there labour in the service of the cross for three years. He shall further for a period of two years fast every Friday on bread and water unless under the indulgence of some discreet bishop or unless he be sick. He shall never more bear arms against Christians. Receive him in this manner and see that he observes the penance.

Unfortunately there is no record of the outcome of this letter and we do not know whether the sentence was carried out or not.

Now up at Ballachly off the Causewaymire there is a burial ground and the remains of what is supposed to be a Catholic chapel dedicated to Saint Trollhalna. This is the saint who is supposed to have brought the relics of St. Andrew from Constantinople to Scotland in 337. She settled in Forfar and became a recluse but a neighbouring prince swore that he would marry her. The saint heard this and to prove that she really was a recluse and would marry no one, she plucked out her eyes and sent them to him saying,

"Now I no longer see you".

After this she was credited with being able to cure eye troubles. Later on she is said to have come north and in the Orkneyinga Saga it is said that after Bishop John had had his eyes pierced he prayed to St. Trollhalna and then went to a certain place where a woman offered to help him and with her help he recovered both his speech and sight. It is believed that it was to this chapel at Ballachly that the Bishop was taken.


At this time the Norse earldom of Caithness and Orkney existed side by side and both made heavy claims on the predominantly Norse tenants of Halkirk. Although the Norse Earl John held Caithness from the King of Scots and not the King of Norway - to whom Orkney still belonged - it is likely that the bondi or farmers in Halkirk being of predominantly Norse descent, looked to Earl John as their rightful laird.

Anyway they came to him one day in his castle at Braal - the successor to which stands today on the north bank of the Thurso River just opposite the Abbey Kirk on the south side - and complained that Bishop Adam had increased his tiend imposts. Instead of twenty cows for a span of butter - this was a stone on Scots measure - he now wanted ten for every span. Earl John protested that it was none of his business but the farmers became very angry and to get rid of them the Earl is reported to have said,

"Devil take the Bishop and his butter - you may roast him in it for all I care".

And that is just what they did, The Bishop was drinking ale with the Sheriff in the upper room of the Episcopal Manse when the farmers entered and dragged him forcibly down to the kitchen, heaped more wood on the fire (some say butter as well) and burned the Bishop to death.

Alexander the First of Scotland at once marched to Caithness with an army and took vengeance on the murderers by mutilating a number of them and seizing their lands while for good measure the Pope excommunicated them in 1223.

There is also a story that some of the murderers were hanged at Gallowhill near Scrabster - this is supposed to be why the hill has this name.

Earl John who was the last of the Norse earls was himself murdered in Thurso in 1231.

Published in April 1982 Bulletin