N E W S F E E D S >>>
April 1982 Index     Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1982 - April


A visit to Whaligoe is a breath-taking experience. Curiosity, fired on the downward journey, matures to genuine appreciation on the upward climb. Unfortunately the few remains at the bottom hardly command attention and one is left wondering who built the staircase and why. The following extracts and notes do not provide a complete answer but they do sketch the history of the creek.

"In 1640 Patrick Sinclair was served heir to Master John Sinclair of Wolbuster, his father, in the town and lands of Ulbuster of old extending to 6 pennylands, with the pendicles, namely. the fields of Watnen, Borroustoun, Quhalogw, with the fishing of the port and the corfhous of the same, the lake of Watnen, the mill-loch and the fishings of the same lands, the mill of Ulbster and certain tenements in Weik, together of the extent of 18 shillings."

A corfhouse was a curing shed normally used for salmon but occasionally used for other species of fish. The curing shed would have been at the cliff top and there must have been at least an access path, if not a stairway to the beach. The stair is first mentioned by the Rev. Alexander Pope of Reay about 1769 when he wrote,

"In this parish (Wick) there is a haven for fishing boats, called Whaligo, which is a creek betwixt two high rocks. Though the height of one of these rocks in surprising, yet the country people have made steps by which they go up and down, carrying heavy burdens on their back; which a stranger, without seeing would scarcely believe. This is a fine fishing coast."

Whaligoe Steps
The lower steps as they are today.

The fishing would have been for home consumption, for this is only two years after the traditional birth of the fishing industry in Caithness, when John Sutherland, John Anderson and Alexander Miller, first went fishing on the bounty. The fishing industry grew and by 1792 the British Fisheries Society in an attempt to break a monopoly which Robert Melville had established at Ullapool, gave David Cooper of Whaligoe in Caithness a loan of 120 to supply salt and equipment to the fishermen of Ullapool.

A couple of years later, the Rev. William Sutherland wrote,

"The fishermen, on this part of the coast, to get to their boats descend a huge precipice by winding steps in the face of the rock, by which some lives have been lost; and yet, from practice, it is often done without assistance, by a blind fisherman in Ulbster. To secure their boats from being dashed against the rocks, particularly in storms and stream tides, the fishermen hang up their yauls by ropes, on hooks fixed in the face of the rock, above the level of the water, where they are safely suspended, till the weather is fit for going to sea. Mr. Brodie, tacksman of Ulbster, had paid some attention to the cleaning of these havens, and rendering the passage easier down the declivity. At one of these creeks (called Faligoe from the fall of water) is a fine cascade, rushing down a very high precipice, which, with the reflection of the sun, makes a very conspicuous appearance, from a considerable distance at sea."

The cost of David Brodie's improvements were,

To clearing the harbour, by
blasting and removing large
stones and building a platform
for boats to secure them from being carried away ..................... 53

Making stairs in the face of
the rock to lead down to the boats ....................................... 8

These costs are clearly for materials and craftsmen's wages. Labouring would be provided by his tenants service labour, which was part of their rent. The platform was designed from the start as a refuge for small boats and was intended as a quay. The method of securing schooners in the geo was given in a description written about 1842.

"About a hundred yars off the road stand the curing stores of Mr. Millar of Leith and a little way below these the curious enquirer finds himself on the edge of the cliffs which drop downwards above a couple of hundred feet into the wild and narrow voe of Whalligoe, his eyes at once falling from that giddy height upon the topmasts of a large schooner receiving her herring cargo. Mr. Millar has cut out a zigzag passage in the face of the otherwise impracticable cliff, and has there planted a good stone stair of 330 steps, in most places six feet wide, with shelves here and there for the women who bring up the nets etc. to rest their burdens on............ Vessels entering here anchor outside, and letting out their cable, they are hauled in stern foremost, and then moored on each side. The heaving of the windlass in the schooner, the wild voices of the boatmen an they hauled their crafts, the screaming of the sea fowl, and the busy talk of a number of good-looking country girls, with the hoarse pervading murmur of the sea, all added to the effect of this truly singular place. Mr. Millar rents the adjoining land from the Ulbster estate. His cottages are all in nice condition, honeysuckled walls and well kept gardens being the order of the day......"

Even in good weather. warping a vessel into this narrow inlet would have been tricky; with an easterly swell it would have been impossible. The iron eyes used to moor vessels can still be seen attached to the rocks on both sides of the geo.

Whaligo continued to be prosperous for many years and the Creek Returns for 1855 show that it had 35 boats totalling 361 tons. There were 12 boats over 30 ft in length, 18 boats between 18 and 30 ft and 5 boats under 18 ft. These boats were crewed by 140 fishermen and onshore there were 4 coopers, 47 gutters and packers, and 102 vendors, net-makers etc.

By 1881, probably due to the growth of Wick and Lybster, there were only six boats and 90 fishermen; and in the returns for 1928, Whaligoe and Sarclet combined, had only 8 boats and 16 fishermen.

In 1903 the first Caithness Field Club visited the harbour. They were guided by ex-Baillie Simpson of Wick, who when explaining the origin of the place-name, recalled that he had seen a whale which measured 86 feet long cut up on the beach. He continued,

"The stair and the coopers stores on the braehead were built about 90,years ago (i.e. 1813) by that enterprising man of business, the late Mr. Miller of the Field (near Staxigoe)........I cannot tell you what rent he paid but his successor Mr. James Methven of Leith paid 370 per annum for the station. In those days all the crofters on the estate were bound to fish at a much lower rate than at Wick, if not they were evicted from their farms. Their boats were open and small, from 25 to 30 ft and cost 40 to 50 each. Our sailing boats now cost 700 each and our steam drifters 3000......... Before I close I may mention that 1700 crans of herring were delivered here in one day, which the largest curer in Wick never approached"

This Field Club visit may well have been watched by a young girl called Minnie Ryrie who emigrated to Canada in 1910 and in a letter written in 1967 recalled her early home.

"I was brought up there (the house at the top of the steps). My father was a fisherman, and I assure you that every crab, lobster, herring and all species of fish had to be carried up on their backs in creels. The men and women both had to do this but as I remember there was a resting place at each bend of the steps, where one stood and rested the creel and took a breather ...... In early spring the salmon fishers used to go out around the coves to shoot the seals, which damaged their nets. I have seen eighteen seals on the tiny beach. The seals were skinned, the skins sent south and made into vests and rugs."

The unique feature of Whaligoe is of course the stairway. Its early development should be seen as the piecemeal replacement of an eroding path by crofter fishermen engaged in subsistence fishing. When David Brodie improved the inlet and repaired the stairs, as part of the Thrumster estate improvements, it led inevitably to the building and leasing of the coopers store on the braehead, and the initiation of commercial fishing. The steps would require regular maintenance throughout this busy period, and the buttressing of the lower flight must date from this time. The decline of Whaligoe was inevitable as fishing became centralised in the larger ports. Whaligoe is now an archaeological site in the making. It is no longer useful, just old, but not venerable enough to be protected as an ancient monument.



Brichan J.

Origines Parochiales Scotiae

Bannatyne Club


Pennant T.

A Tour In Scotland 1769

Melven Press



The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799. Caithness & Sutherland

EP Publishing Ltd.


Sinclair Sir John

Ulbster Estates




The Northern Ensign



Anson P. P.

Fishing Boats & Fisher Folk on the East Coast of Scotland




The Scots Magazine

D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.

Oct. 1967

Published in April 1982 Bulletin