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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1982 - October
VISITORS BOOK - HUNA INN 1879
Inns and Visitors Books - and none so rare and exciting as the old Huna Inn with the wind rising to a gale and the white fangs of the Men O' Mey livid against the stormy sky you couldn't wish for a better place than the old Inn at Huna. Down by the sea's edge by the Pentland Firth - from the moorland road far off you could see the light like a will o' the wisp - a sudden flash and at the end, bright lamps, peat smoke, doors flung open wide - or you might see the light from a passing schooner and enviously watch the Stroma Ferry make for the warmth of the inn - sailor or landsman everyone in that area knew Huna Inn. But today - newly tarred roads sweep one on to John o' Groats bypassing the old inn and the visitors book with its well worn calfskin cover is all that remains to tell us what it was like.
The picture is livelier than you might think. The Earl of Caithness came to the opening from Barrogill Castle five miles off and brought his heir Lord Berriedale with him - and it was Lord Berriedale who presented the new and shining book to the proprietor - 'presented by Lord Berriedale on attaining his majority and on the opening of the new Huna Inn' 'To remain in the Inn'. Written with all the confidence of the young - and today? The young lord was the last of the line to own the castle - and the Inn has been closed for many a day. So the old book is all the remains to tell us the story.
Pilots as you might expect were some of the first guests - Andrew Mowat and Daniel Henderson and most famous of them all Jock o' the Burn. But the hands that steered so straight by Dunnet Head and Cantick Head running you in any weather clear of the boars or the Men o' Mey found the visitors book a problem - Poor Jock took about half an hour to make his mark. Huna knew the dangers of the sea - who better - so on the counter was a collecting box for the Lifeboat Institution - and poverty or no after only six weeks the box held 2/7d. Pilots came from every quarter - the barge 'Caesarea' from Sunderland to Bergen drops her pilot here as does the 'Moby Dick' sailing from Sunderland to Singapore - why did she go to Singapore and why ever did she carry a pilot so far? As the spring came so did the visitors - a bicycling touring club from Eastbourne: a man from Sydney, Australia and others from Canterbury and Berwick on Tweed. Women knew their place in 1880 - they stayed at home. The occupations are interesting - coachman, driver, architect - and a sheriff's officer - why? Smuggling? This coast was renowned for it - Stroma was said to light a special light on a stormy night to guide ships on to the rocks. Alas! the book does not tell us. And then a reminder of John Knox's Scotland - a wedding on June 6th - but who was the bride? The bridegroom was George Bain and he was married by the Rev. J. Macpherson at 6 p.m. That is all - no mention of bride or guests. (John, you have a lot to answer for.) There were funeral parties too - gathering together after the long and probably bitterly cold walk to the cemetery - gathering in the parlour in their tall hats and remembering the deceased over glasses of whisky. Now summer has come and the family parties arrive - so the ladies do get a mention - in July for the Glasgow Fair they came as they do today - Mrs. G. R. and four children - Mrs. Swanson and twelve of her grandchildren (no mention of grandfather you will note). They are very cheerful and there is even a piper to entertain them. And students -'James Mackenzie, Student, Cambridge' - what better place to spend the long vac. Huna, delectable unusual with its tarry salty smell its tonic air which brought you waves of dreamless sleep and an appetite - well - Huna with the ships so close under your window you could hear the sailors talk - just the place J. R. Robinson of Christ's must have thought as did 'J.R.N. MacPhail' (later to be sheriff MacPhail K.C.) who came in September - and many others as well.
By 1881 the Inn had a good start - visitors from London England, New York America - on October 21 cyclists who claim the record for slowness 'bad roads with rain and wind from Bromley to Blair Atholl and snowed up for two days at Dalwhinnie with a tremendous easterly gale all the way to Huna' yet they liked it. 'Not a single mishap during our journey of 726 miles'. By 1882 they come from Chicago, Manchester, Ireland, Jerusalem and Kansas and Colonel Lovett from Shropshire. Along with J. Sinclair from Wick he studied the barometer 'wind north to east with falling glass, don't go to sea - go see some lass, from south to west tho glass be low it oft means rain and not a blow'. Sometimes there were wrecks - 1883 was a bad year - the barque 'Margaret Gunn': S.S. 'Gladiolus' in February: Prince Victor from Newport Mon in March with Lloyds man down from London in April. Later a Swedish brig a Greenock smack a Grimsby trawler on and on. Strange cargoes came with them - a baby once on a wild November night from a wreck off Stroma and look at this - a Major General complete with Captain Warner, Mr. Rider Haggard and two valets. Three customs officers on the heels of that little party ... one never knew who you would meet at Huna Inn.
The moorland road brought odd folk too - Salango the African lion tamer, with a team from Bostock's Circus (on his way to the Dunnet Marymas?) - Ira. D. Sankey with his hymns - a honeymoon couple in 86 on a bicycle built for two - four old Caithness schoolmates, one from Hong Kong, one from Monte Video, one from Wimbledon and one from Dunnet! An artist from Looe leaving adelightful sketch in the old book - a leisurely coaching tour from Wales who from July to September travelled 1175 miles - Lord Harris and a sporting party for six weeks - the Crofters Commission in 1890 - telegraph linesman layingthe first wires in 1893 and on one fine August day the Lord Mayor of London himself, someone whose last visit to Huna had been with Thomas Carlyle in 1860 - Mr. D. Lloyd George and in '97 on a shooting visit H.R.H. the Duc de Chartres and the Marquis de Breteuil - Huna ended with a grand ,slam - did they all like it? Well, not really - 'Huna dismal bleak and barren - Huna windy Huna rainy - tides that pass it every day - mariners they curse and damn it' The gentleman who wrote that - but only signed his initials - probably did not like what he saw. Then the sketch of a shivering artist lying under a large umbrella just says 'trying to find the scenery' - but Mr. Clancy from Ireland was more cheerful and left a very early example of a limerick in 1890 - there was a young lady of Huna who went for a sail in a schooner, and when she got there ...... a sight to make glad a lampooner'. Now why did he leave out the vital line? John MacNaughton a prentice dyer, from Stockton on Tees found Huna in 1895 'the most magnificent place in the British Isles' Mr. Jessop probably meant well when he wrote 'a perfect holiday - now for England home and beauty'. The Cambridge undergraduate leaves us these lines:
desert land I saw
And that was what the majority of the lost merrymakers thought - the pilots, the shipwrecked mariners and the travellers by road who found a welcome in old Huna Inn by the shore of the Pentland Firth.