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The Artillery Batteries at Mey and Castletown.
G Watson

An official circular, issued on 12th May 1859 to Lord Lieutenants, authorised the formation of local volunteer regiments. The country was not then at war and the immediate public enthusiasm for this patriotic venture quite surprised the Government for instantly, all over the country, companies sprang up. Initially there were no regulations governing uniforms and each member of a company dressed in his own version of military dress. Balls, bazaars and other money raising projects were organised to finance each company and eventually, at least at company level, uniforms were standardised. A simplified army drill book was issued to each unit and capitation grants were made from central funds, the amount depending on the number of volunteers who attended weekly drill sessions. The combination of a smart uniform and a developing esprit-de-corps ensured strong support for the movement during its lifetime. It was eventually disbanded in 1908, in favour of the new Territorial Army.

The 1st Company of Artillery Volunteers in Caithness was raised in Wick early in 1859, and it was quickly followed by the 2nd Company in Thurso. Representatives from these companies appeared at the infamous ‘Wet Review’ in Edinburgh in 1860. In December 1860 a Rifle Company was formed in Thurso which seems to have been an offshoot of the Artillery Company. A similar development took place in Wick in January 1861. The Rifle Volunteers, in time, separated from their parent organisation and have their own history.In Wick the Artillery Company had a battery at the North Head and practised by firing their cannon at targets moored in the bay. In 1903 the company bought the former Free Church (which stood on the site of what is now Presto’s supermarket) and converted it into a drill hall. A photograph of some of the company grouped round a cannon beside this hall appears in Times Gone By - Vol 2 Dec 1928.The Thurso Company had its battery on the cliff top, opposite Pennyland Farm. This site was wantonly destroyed by the Job Creation Scheme a few years ago and only the place-name Battery Point, some earth mounds and a new stone seat mark the spot. Their magnificent Drill Hall built in 1873 is now the Masonic Hall in Olrig St.

In 1866 under the influence of the Earl of Caithness, an Artillery Company was formed at Mey and shortly afterwards a second company was raised in Castletown. No doubt one of the company’s first tasks was to build a training battery and to apply for cannon to man it. The sketch of the batteries at Mey and Castletown shows that they are surprisingly complete and a mirror image of each other. The main difference lies in the angle of the embrasures. Bronze hinges were a safety feature of the powder-room door as they were less likely to produce sparks. The Drill Hall at Mey, almost opposite the gateway to the Castle, has the appearance of an estate cottage which has been extended to accommodate the volunteers. The extension carries the date 1875 and there is a neatly carved field gun over the main porch. Inserted into the wall is a shield "Erected by No 5 Company 1st CVA and Friends in memory of Corpl Alexander T Sinclair, 2nd Brabant’s Horse, Killed in Action at Dordrecht (Bird’s River) S Africa, 16th February 1900. Aged 27 years". Corporal Sinclair was presumably a former member of the Mey company.In Castletown, the Drill Hall in the main street opposite the garage, carries no identification marks or dates but the quality of its architecture catches the eye. The two cannon which ornament the front of the Castle of Mey probably came from the Mey battery; they have a bore of 6˝ inches and a barrel length of 94 inches. These cannon have been heavily painted and it is not easy to read their identification numbers. The west one carries a George lV cypher with a date of 1820(?) which means it was rather an elderly piece when issued to the company. The cannon from the other batteries have not been located, although the three in front of Thurso East must be strong candidates. The single cannon in the riverside park in Wick carries a brass plate recording that it was presented to the Pulteney Harbour Trust as a fog signal gun in 1881. Although it is similar in type it has a slightly smaller bore and may not have passed through the custody of the Caithness Artillery Volunteers. 

The numbering of local Artillery companies is not absolutely clear. In order of formation Wick was 1st, Thurso was 2nd, Thrumster (a short lived company) was 3rd, Mey was 4th and Castletown 5th. However the photograph, previously mentioned, of the Wick Artillery Volunteers is captioned 1st and 2nd Companies. If the number of volunteers in Wick eventually justified the formation of a second company in the town, there may have been a re-allocation of numbers.

 Although never called into active service the Volunteer force provided trained recruits for the regular army and moulded the characters of many young men, such as Sir William Smith. It was a focus for much of the social activity in the county as a result of fund raising drives. The company often paraded as escorts to visiting dignitaries and twenty one gun salutes were fired from the large guns to mark Royal events. The band was frequently requested by other organisations to play at balls and soirees.

The two remaining cannon batteries are in reasonable condition and with a little attention would make an interesting tourist attraction especially if the cannon were replaced. The substantial nature of the structures and cannon means that they would be relatively vandal proof.

Photocopy of plans

We hope to have a copy of the plans at a later date.