Caithness Field Club

An Account of Field Club Activities, 1995
Marion Owen

Sunday 23 April
Our first walk on a damp, cold, windy day led by Ernest Jones. We met at Auckengill. We first visited the site where excavation and restoration work had been carried out by the Wick Heritage Society. The dead village of Milltown consists of a mill ruined beyond recall, a large communal kiln - partly restored - and an excavated cottage. More details are not available.

Then on to Freswick House passing the large dam at the entrance and the doo'cot. Cars were parked and we walked via the shore to a large mill house and the farm steading. Then on to the large excavated iron age broch with a folly atop it. There are only two of these promontary brochs in the county, the other one being at Skirza. By now, it was lunch time and we returned to the harbour, lunch was taken in our cars and afterwards the weather showing no sign of improvement, we called it a day.

5-7 May, Club Weekend
We assembled at the Scourie Hotel in time for dinner at 8.00 p.m.

A pleasant windless day - sailed to Handa Island from Tarbet. Magnificent coastal scenery, towering cliffs, and abundance of birds - kittiwake, fulmar, razorbill and guillemot. We passed through the territory of skua and arctic skua, we were too early in the nesting season to be dive-bombed for which we were thankful. Lunch was eaten overlooking the Atlantic; most of us were back in Tarbet by 3.00p.m. Allan then suggested that we went to Sandwood Bay or Oldshore More both of them fairly long walks and as it had become showery and cold by this time most of us settled for a drive instead.

The party split into three. Some went off to Sandwood Bay, others to the bone caves at Inchnadamph and the rest to Kylesku where we sailed down Loch Glencoul to the waterfall of Eas Coul Aulin more than 200 metres high - translates as "tresses of hair". Again, a great variety of wildlife, passing seals only a few yards away who played in the sea or regarded us sleepily from the rocks. Saw all kinds of seabirds; two pairs of heron were at home sitting on their nest, a lone heron and a raven perched high on a crag. Two of our members were fortunate enough to see a golden eagle. Back on dry land, some us repaired to the hotel for a bowl of hot soup. Then we left for home. Gordon MacLachlan proposed a vote of thanks to Allan. It had been most enjoyable.

Sunday 14 May - Brawlbin, Shurrery
Gordon Wilson was leading 26 enthusiastic souls, warmly clad against wintry showers climbed to the Hill Fort at Shurrery passing several chambered cairns and a number of hut circles some with souterains. Some of these, possibly late iron age rather than bronze, also on the way we were shown a bronze age burial cist. Then a welcome break for lunch - worthy of mention a member we will refer to only as "Jean" settled to lunch on her bit of damp heather with a bottle of white wine and glasses --- wet! no table napkins!

Our walk continued with a visit to three old steadings. The first one roofed with Caithness slabs and turfed; the second one housed a grain drying kiln; then a cart shed, the lintel composed of a tree trunk. Finally one small placer dam and an underground lade to an old mill. We wended our way home at approximately 3.15p.m.

Sunday 11 June - Poulouriscaig
Calum McKenzie led, 43 people attended, warmly clad against a cold blustery wind. Two cars were left at Armadale, the rest of the cavalcade continued west for a further four miles where we took a right turn on to a road without a sign post - still east of Kirtomy. Our route led up on past the B.T. relay station to Cnoc Mor across moorland - sometimes boggy - and by lunchtime we had arrived at Poulouricaig.

There had been four dwellings, the last one vacated by the start of the second world war; an elderly local lady told me that the family went to live in Farr, but not a lot is known about the village which was built possibly early 19th century. A very green, pleasant area, the inhabitants presumably kept cattle and lived off the land with fish to supplement their diet.

At lunch time, we explored the burn and admired the scenery, then continued across the moor until a well defined stony track brought us down to Armadale.A lovely walk - very cold - but we had all enjoyed it. We were back in Thurso by 4p.m.

Wednesday evening 21 June - Summer Solstice Dunbeath
Les Myatt was leading. Some thirty people attended on a fine, calm, sunny evening. We started at the car park, Dunbeath and walked up to the broch; after which we re-joined our cars and drove along Dunbeath water, parking at the cemetery. Alas! - cloud descended and although we waited around for some time, it was not to be. Les told us exactly where to look and obediently we did - we will perhaps try again next year.

A delightful walk on a lovely evening; it did not at all matter that we had not seen what we came to see! We returned home about 11.00 p.m. George Watson proposed a vote of thanks to Les.

Sunday 9 July - the Duke of Kent's Monument - Allan led
23 people turned out on a bright cool day. Four cars were left at Berriedale, the rest at Borgue from where we started to walk. A slow, gradual climb took us to the monument where we sat for a while taking photographs and admiring the view. We then continued up the hill to find a most unstable bridge so we could cross the river without getting our feet wet and here we stopped for lunch.

After our break we started the long trek down the west side of Berriedale Water. We didn't see many birds but we did see an adder, I think Don and Elaine saw him first but he soon slithered out of the way and came to rest in a hole in the bank from where he peered out and regarded us suspiciously. This where he had his photograph taken!

Berriedale Water meanwhile wound its sometimes graceful way down the valley and we followed it. The vegetation was fairly high with tree roots to trip over and particularly along the lower reaches of the river, the track was quite rough and a helping hand was much appreciated.
The walk was longer than we had expected; it must have been 9 or 10 miles. 
We were pleasantly tired and glad when the Factor's house and our parked cars came into view but it had been most enjoyable. Marion proposed a vote of thanks to Allan and we were back in Thurso about 6.00 p.m.

Sunday 23 July - Boat Trip to Isle Nan Ron and Neave Island and afterwards to Slettell village - led by Jack Barnaby.
On a day when rain and gales were forecast, 22 intrepid souls set out for Skerray pier. Boatman, Sinclair Mackay then ferried half the party to Neave Island before returning to the pier to take the rest of us to Isle Nan Ron.

Neave is famous for being the home of a group of St. Columba's missionaries for a period of about 200 years in the seventh and eighth centuries. 

Our party was unable to find the remains of St Columba's chapel but enjoyed the spectacular coastline with its precipitous cliffs and lovely beach.

Over on Nan Ron, uninhabited since 1938, the visitors enjoyed looking at the remains of some very substantial buildings which at one time, housed up to 70 people. They also toured the island looking at the varied coastline and the animal and bird life that once helped to sustain the islanders.
Both parties returned to the mainland early in the afternoon and made the short journey to Strathan from where we walked approximately 1 miles to Slettel. This is a deserted coastal village where three families had lived - the last inhabitants left in 1963. There was no road to the village, just a track along which everything had to be carried or transported by donkey or wheelbarrow. Villagers had to travel to Skerray for supplies and to attend the church and school, although later a small school was built at Strathan. Villagers grew cereal and root crops and kept sheep and cattle. This is a very attractive site and there is a plentiful supply of fresh water and access to the sea for fishing.

Fortunately the weather confounded the forecasters by remaining fine and everyone was able to enjoy a leisurely wander round the village before returning to Strathan at 4.00 p.m. to start the drive home. It had been a most enjoyable day.

 27 August - Landforms of Latheron Parish
This was part of Aberdeen University Quincentenary events led by Donald Oman.

35 people attended on a most unpromising day for a motor cade with a difference - we hired a coach and Donald talked to us as we were driving along.

I'm sure that this particular Dunnet's coach - ably driven by a very pleasant chap who answered to "Willie" - wended its way down narrow lanes and was reversed into narrow gaps where coaches were never intended to go.

We started in Lybster, went to the harbour, were told about the Reisgill Born, then to Occumster and the Clyth Burn and a lovely stack just off the coast, that I at least had not seen before. On to Camster Cairns and so back to Lybster for lunch where most people took advantage of the facilities of the Portland Arms.

At 1.30 p.m. we were back in the coach again and were soon at Latheron Wheel with its impressive L shaped stack; we discussed goes and visited the gloup.

At Berriedale, we parked by the old bridge and walked to the river mouth. The sight of all that water was too much for some of our group and they enjoyed a paddle. 

On the way home we were shown the striations at Achkinloch.

Donald talked to us in his usual laid back manner interspersing all the information he was giving us with anecdotes and humorous comments. As usual, some of the knowledge would "stick" and some would be forgotten, but it was a most enjoyable day.

A vote of thanks was proposed by Allan; we arrived back in Thurso at 6.15 pm.

Sunday 10 September - Wag of Forse - led by Gordon Wilson
35 people met in pouring rain (at least it was vertical and not horizontal) at the Clan Gunn Museum. The museum was open by arrangement and Ian Gunn gave us a talk on the history of the Clan after which, we were able to wander around and look at the many exhibits.

Our walk started along the road to Wick, past the house with the unusual lattice leaded window and through the gate on the other side of the road and into the field. The first thing we noticed was a series of three springs - one a washing well with steps clearly visible, then to the East heading for Forse House and the Doo'cot.

We were told that this was a Scottish Lectern type of Doo'cot. Men were paid to chew bread which was subsequently fed to pigeons; the pigeons were crammed into their quarters and sometimes had their legs broken to fatten them more quickly for the table. We noted the ledges on the outside walls to stop rats taking the birds. In approximately 1617, the right to own a pigeon house was limited by statute of the Lairds. Continuing, we passed an early sluice dam and burnt mounds before arriving at the lochan with its dam, for lunch. We had intended visiting the broch on the escarpment but had to abort our plan as the river was in spate. Farther south-west we came upon another unexcavated broch, then very soon we saw the Wag.

Forse Wag dated 1st millennium B.C./early first millennium A.D. appears as a wide collection of stones with a variety of structures - tunnels, chambers and steps. Twice, it has been partially excavated - in 1939 and 1948. It is one of the largest in the county, the site being approximately 80 yards square.On our return journey we passed hut circles and souterrain, a large standing stone and so to the Bell Tower. The story goes that the bell on the original chapel could not be heard over the hill, hence the Bell Tower was erected, so giving church members no excuse for absenteeism. A little to the west there is a lime kiln and more standing stones.

A wet, be-draggled party returned to the cars, the prosect of a hot bath very enticing. It was still raining!

We were back in Thurso for 4.00 p.m. to digest all that we had been told and feeling all the better for the exercise on a day when it would have been all too easy to be thoroughly idle.

Saturday 30 September 1955
The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland's Outing to Mausoleums and Ice-Houses
Twenty-five of us met at Wick Parish Church to look at the Dunbar Mausoleum and incidentally the Sinclair aisle, remains of the Old St Fergus Church, built circa 1680.

The mausoleum is a curious structure. It has an Egyptian style exterior with battered walls and doorway and is roofless. The interior is, by contrast, classical with the end opposite the door covered in elaborate columns with Corinthian capitals and niches between with much elaborate carving on the bases, between them and above the capitals. There was much discussion about these elaborate carvings.

We will have to wait until Elizabeth Beaton's book on an illustrated guide of Caithness is published next year for her explanation, as she has seen similar ones elsewhere. It has been alleged that there are Masonic symbols amongst the carving, but nothing has been ascertained. Elizabeth Beaton maintains the carving represents standard symbols of the era. This mausoleum is not listed, which is extraordinary and while we know the Durbars of Hemprigggs came to Caithness in 1690, the date of this building is not known.

We then went to look at the 1790 two storey coursed rubble masonry ice-house at Wick Harbour and Geoff and helpers tied a rope to the stonework between the two doorways to help us up the steep slope. I regret not taking a photograph of us all climbing up on to the rope. We got some astonished looks from a passing motorist, who came by twice! This ice-house is of vaulted construction with sockets in the wall for a timber floor. George Watson told us there would have been an external timber staircase originally. Presumably the ice was stored below and the fish above but this is uncertain. Ice would have been brought in from lochs and rivers to be stored.

It came through the front entrance which is unusual, as normally the ice is let in through the back wall or roof, not possible in this case as there is a road over it.

We then went to the ice-house at Ackergill, again a coursed rubble masonry vaulted structure but with an anti-chamber and a high level hatch in the side of the vaulted roof to let the ice in, which would have been stored in the inner chamber and packed in the anti-chamber. Both chambers are entered through centre doorways, the outer one in a flat wall immediately below the end of the vault.

The last ice-house we looked at was at Keiss, a smaller version of the Ackergill one, (we only just managed to pack in) but with a projecting gable anti-chamber and centre door. The main chamber is served by a high level hatch beneath the crown of the vault in the landward gable. This ice-house is for sale by United Biscuits. We had a look at the herring and salmon fishing warehouse with their ground floor six bay vaulted cellarage which would have been used as salt stores. There are flagged first floors and joisted second floors. We looked at the 1820 pier, slipway and stilling basin with recessed stairways, one of them now built up. Then we repaired for a much needed cup of tea and a warm up at Caithness Glass.

A courageous few carried on to see the Sinclair Mausoleum at Ulbster dated 1700. It is a square single storey harled building with a raised centre entrance, a flagstone floor over a vaulted cellar and an ogee Caithness slate roof. It is set in a dry-stone walled burial ground with a pair of tall, rather out of plumb, rusticated ashlar gate posts. It is a very fine, most unusual building, which has had some emergency repairs carried out lately to keep it wind and water tight.

by Lyndall Leet

Sunday 5 November - Salmon Spawning at Braemore
Off to Braemore to see the salmon spawning. Bob Walker was unable to lead us so Geoff took over. There were 43 people on a lovely still day with hazy sunshine. First of all, we had a talk on the evolution of the salmon and then we started to walk along the river side. It was a most pleasant walk and although no-one claimed to have seen the salmon spawning at least we saw the bow wave made by two of them!

By lunch time the walk had effectively come to an end and we were left to our own devices. Some of the party took off in the direction of Balcraggie Lodge to explore the Broch and the Homestead.
Two cars went on a Bee Hole hunt in the direction of the Dunbeath Broch. Alas! construction work was in progress on the relevant wall of the farm house and not to put too fine a point on it, Bee Boles were even more scarce than the salmon - there were none. Undaunted, we carried on up the track to see the broch.

We were back in Thurso by 3.00 p.m.

Sunday 4 February 1996
A short winter walk led by Gordon Wilson looking at the Antiquities around the Yarrows area.
We started the walk at Raggra; cars went on to park at South Yarrows farm where our walk was to finish. Thirty people attended on a beautiful sunny frosty day. 

First, we saw stone rows. A dozen examples have been recorded in Caithness and Sutherland - their function is still unclear. The ground was hard with frost and for this we were thankful, it would have been a very wet walk otherwise. We were shown cairns, chambered cairns - Cairn Righ (Reain) was very ruinous, excavated by Anderson 1865; Cairn Brounaran - a round/long cairn greatly robbed and disturbed. Artifacts lost include three urns, thick pottery, skulls and teeth.

Then there was McCole's Castle - a round cairn with stalls on a ridge above the loch; the highest part of the ridge has two standing stones. Now in a ruined condition, although until 1900 it was fairly well preserved - excavated Rhind 1953 and Anderson 1865. Artifacts lost include numerous fragments of pottery and human remains - two articulated crouched skeletons.

Our walk ended with a wander around Yarrows Broch. This is Iron Age with many outer buildings added later; an aisled dwelling better known locally as a Wag. There is some similarity to the Broch at Forse.

Again, what is a broch? Is it a defensive structure occupied at times of seige? Modern thinking tends to be more cautious; a fortress needs a well, usually absent from brochs also there is a distinct lack of evidence of warlike activities at Broch sites. Were they in fact, permanent look out towers. As late as the 1870's families lived in the ground floor recesses. Excavations generally find two or three hearths, broken fragments of pottery and quern stones; most of the pottery of later date.

We arrived a the farm about 2.30 p.m. we had a wonderful walk and no doubt next year more winter walks will be arranged; we shall need to keep our fingers crossed about the weather - surely, we can't always be so lucky!