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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
Vol 6 No 2

An Account of Field Club Activities - 1997

By Marion Owen

16 January, Thursday. The year got off to a splendid start with a well attended talk by Dr Richard Oram. Dr Oram had spoken at our A.G.M. the previous year and we had decided to ask him back for more of the same. We were not disappointed - his subject this time was "Lordship of the Isles" and it proved a most enjoyable evening.

There was a little cause for anxiety when his car broke down at Invergordon on the way north and a rescue operation had to be mounted! However it all ended happily and we started on time.

23 February, Sunday. Our first walk of the year - Brims Ness to Crosskirk - led by Gordon Wilson.

Nineteen people viewed the remains of Brims Castle - a former stronghold of the Sinclairs, now part of a farm steading. All that remains is an interesting old arched gateway with moulding, opening into a courtyard; the castle is now roofless.

Lineage of Brims Castle passed to the notorious Patrick Sinclair who, it was said, murdered his mistress, concealing her body in the castle. After this dark deed he sold the castle and fled the country; legend still persists that the ghost of a white lady haunts the building. (See Item By George Watson, p5 of this Bulletin)

For ships sailing through this rough stretch of water, Brims was a port to pick up local pilots and during the war Brims also had a relief airfield, constructed to take returning bombers if their own field was fog-bound.

We were shown Brims Chapel or maybe Mausoleum - probably late 16th/early 17th century. The east door had beaded and hollow mouldings while the west door is a 20th century insertion to the tunnelled vaulted interior.

It is suggested that a small hut in the nearby graveyard, which is known locally as the gardner's hut, may have been the Chapel, with vestments stored there, services being held in the open air.

Lunch was taken by the river at Crosskirk before crossing the bridge and walking up to the old graveyard. A brief visit to the area behind the old U. S. base showed us a monument that may puzzle future archivists.

It had been a blustery walk with the wind in our faces most of the way. We had prudently left two cars at Crosskirk and drivers and passengers were soon united. We were back in Thurso by 2.00pm.

24 March, Monday. Leslie Myatt gave us a very well researched talk on the adventures of that intrepid pair of travellers - Boswell and Johnson.

25 March, Tuesday. The evening at the 'Brown Trout Hotel" at Watten has come to be an annual event when members show slides and photographs of what we did last year. Gordon Wilson, shared with us his Aberdeen University holiday to the Hebrides, Jim Calder showed us the highlights of his cruise to Alaska and Jack Barnaby produced slides taken on our club outings last year.

27 April, Sunday. Our first summer outing. This is usually a motorcade but this year we had a bus trip starting at Wick, then on to Thurso and so to Durness. This proved a popular idea and 44 members and 24 February guests joined us in this new venture; even the weather smiled on us and it was a beautiful sunny day. Marion gave a commentary along the route highlighting for us points of interest.

First stop was a visit to Eriboll Lime kilns and quarry; we also saw the early pier which is part of the original ferry transport system across Loch Eriboll. From here, a short journey took us to Portnancon to visit the Bronze age souterain - possibly 1OOOBC; the shape of the tunnel can be traced from the surface stones.

We stopped for refreshment at Choraidh Croft Farm where soup and sandwiches were served; some members visited the Farm Park where different breeds of animals and birds can be seen. The more energetic amongst us climbed to the Bronze age wheelhouse on the bridge above Laide, the rest of the party carried on to Durness visiting Balnakiel Church yard and beach.

On the return journey we stopped at the old Church yard at Reay to see "The Reay Stone" set in the west wall of the Chapel - this is possibly a dark age cross slab from the 10th century. Finally, a short woodland walk round Achvarasdal to visit the iron age broch ended a full day excursion enjoyed by all.

18 May, Sunday. Strath Latheron Walk, led by Gordon Wilson.

On a cold and wet Sunday, 25 of the faithful turned out. The walk was cut short because of conditions under-foot. Starting at the old A9 bridge, despite heavy going, we proceeded past an earlier mill of which only the foundations now exist. The track then wound its way through the woods becoming very muddy but everyone managed to stay vertical. Because of the cold, wet and windy Spring the wild flowers were not as advanced as we had hoped; however we saw a number of roe deer and a white rabbit!! Yes! there is one, he has been seen on a number of occasions over the last two years.

We duly arrived at the Neolithic Circle of standing stones and here, we broke for lunch and an exploration of the site. Despite a few gaps 10 - 12 of these large stones remain, probably in their original positions.


We returned above the tree line, again negotiating muddy tracks - sometimes ankle deep - but we are a cheery crowd and we had all enjoyed the day.

Before leaving for home, a number of members visited the Iron Age broch just below the new A9 bridge. We were back in Thurso by mid afternoon.

30 May - 1 June 1997. Caithness Field Club Weekend at Ullapool.

On the Friday evening, in exceptionally fine weather, we assembled at the Harbour Lights Hotel to enjoy an enormous dinner.

We had booked a trip to the Summer Isles on Saturday and again our luck held with the weather. It was an ideal day for a sail, calm sea, hot sun and our skipper a mine of local knowledge. We saw shags, cormorants, seals and dolphins and - a rare treat - two minke whales.

Back on dry land the party split, some going to Achiltibuie, some to visit the museum in the Telford Church and the rest left to their own devices explored the village and enjoyed the sunshine.

The scenery at Achiltibuie was breath taking; the distant mountains providing an impressive background to the chain of islands just off the coast. A number of people visited the hydroponicum though it was, unfortunately, almost closing time.

At the hotel the sun was still shining and we sat on the lawn looking at the view and watching the boats on Loch Broom until summoned for dinner.

Sunday dawned - another bright, sunny day. We wandered around the town in the morning and Lyn Leet showed us some of the more interesting buildings; armed with the RIAS Ross and Cromarty Illustrated Architectural Guide by Elizabeth Beaton and information from the excellent local museum, we started at the new, post modern Ferry Booking Office.

There was a small settlement in Ullapool by 1596 at the latest. The British Fisheries Society purchased over 1000 acres from the Cromarty Estates in 1788 for the establishment of a fishing station (principally for herring) and also a village, which was laid out in the grid pattern we know today. The Society paid for the public buildings and the rest of the sites were leased to the settlers to build their own houses.

Shore Street looks out on to Loch Broom with its 18th century houses, many altered with modern shop fronts but still retaining the slated pitched roofs with dormer windows. The "Captain's Cabin", at the corner of Shore Street and Quay Street, was formerly a three storey warehouse to store fishing gear and salt. It has the distinguishing feature of a forestair leading to its first floor external doorway.

Progressing along Shore Street, we passed 'Ornsay House' c 1829, a former manse to house the minister of the 'Parliamentary' Church. It is a simple two storey house. Just past the manse is the 'Caledonian MacBrayne and Tourist Information Office', a handsome three storey 1790 warehouse, truncated in the 1970s for road widening. It has one modern gable.

We then proceeded uphill along Quay Street to look at the magnificent, cast iron, memorial clock erected in 1889 to the memory of Sir John Fowler and his family.

We then explored West Argyle Street and the outside of the 1829 Telford Parliamentary, T-plan Church, one of 32 built in the Highlands. They were funded by Parliament after the Napoleonic Wars as there was an inadequate supply of Places of Worship. The Commissioners appointed to carry out this task chose Thomas Telford to design these churches. This one is a particularly fine example as it has all its original galleries and fittings, which is very rare. It has been skilfully turned into a museum without damaging the interior.

The 'Old Bank House' in Argyle Street was probably the first bank in Ullapool. It is now an elegant 19th century house with a symmetrical frontage and a very fine, slender columned portico. We continued up Ladysmith Street to the corner of Custom House Street, with its adjoining 'Drill Hall'. At the time we did not know the purpose of the hall, but, thanks to Juliet Rees, the curator of Ullapool museum, and Elizabeth Beaton, we now know that these buildings occupy the site of the Old Custom House which was removed in 1813 due to lack of trade.

The present buildings were built about 1887, the hall was built as a Seaforth Highlanders drill hall and now used by the school. The curved roof would always have been sheeted, another puzzle solved. Surprisingly these buildings are not listed.

25 June, Wednesday. An Evening Walk at Stemster, led by Jack Barnaby.

On a pleasant evening, 17 members were taken on a circular tour of the Stemster Estate. Before we started out, M Donald Coghill of Stemster Mains told us some of the history of the Estate, which he illustrated using maps dating back to 1847.

The walk commenced along a farm road which offered lovely views over the countryside and passed through avenues of trees and woodland areas containing a variety of wild flowers. We then cut across the fields to the Stemster Reservoir and joined a road which led back to Stemster House which is situated in an attractive wooded area containing a variety of buildings dating back to the mid 19th century.

En route, we saw a chambered cairn and a long cairn and we visited the Stemster Doocot. The two dams which once supplied water to power the Threshing Mill at Stemster Mains were also inspected. After a brief look at Stemster House, we returned to the starting point at the farm steadings where Mr Cogbill showed us round some of the old farm buildings. Of particular interest was the stable which, in pre-mechanised days had housed the working horses in a style which reflected their vital importance to the farmer.

Mr Coghill was a most informative and knowledgeable host and we are indebted to him for his hospitality.

29 June, Sunday. A Sail to Hoy, led by Gordon Wilson and Jack Barnaby

Thirty five members and guests arrived at John o'Groats to find (thankfully!) a calm sea with the promise of a good day to come. Jim Calder made the outward sail more interesting by telling us about the islands we passed along the way.

As arranged, Mr Hill in the school bus met us at Lyness where we split into two parties, one led by Gordon and the other one by Jack. One party went off to see the Museum and the rest clambered aboard the bus and headed for Rackwick to walk to the Old Man of Hoy. We were fortunate to have Mary Legg with us who added further interest to our expedition by extending our knowledge on the rarer species of flora.

After this, we proceeded up over the saddle, passing through breeding grounds occupied by Skuas; we also saw black throated divers and - a rare treat - mountain hares. Then past the oldest natural forest still existing in Northern Scotland and back to the bus which had obligingly done a shuttle service between the two parties.

So, to the Dwarfie Stane - a neolithic chambered stone unique to this period. On returning to Lyness, we visited the War Museum and the Cafe which had stayed open for us.

It had developed into a beautiful warm sunny day with tremendous views of the Orkneys giving great opportunities for perfect photographs. The return sail to John o'Groats was as enjoyable as the outward one. It was voted a very successful day.

6 July, Sunday. A Climb to Ben Griam Beg - Led by Calum Mackenzie. Caithness Field Club members and guests gathered on a beautiful sunny day to climb to the hill fort at the top of Griam Beg. We were accompanied by Graham Robbins, archaeologist, Norrie Russell the RSPB warden and Mrs Jean Mackay from the Post Office. We were much indebted to these last two who turned up driving off-road vehicles so that most of us had a lift along a rather bumpy track. Some cars were left at Balloch cottage and we were driven the two miles to Greamachery where the walk started.

We crossed the burn which runs behind the house and followed it westward for about three-quarters of a mile before heading uphill on one of the grassy lanes winding up between stretches of heather. Just one fence to climb and up over a brow at about 1100 ft from where the summit comes into view.

Around 1700 ft we examined some of the extensive stone structures and wall which extend along the western and southern hillside, finding one of the two millstones mentioned by Mercer in his survey report. From here a steep climb past rocky outcrops brought us to the hill fort at the top.

The fort is a complex of four or five areas bounded by low walls and steep crags and extending to about 2.5 ha(6 acres), lying mainly to the west of the 1900 ft summit.

We had lunch on the north side which was sheltered from the wind and gave us a wonderful view of the flow country and across to Hoy which some of us had visited the week before. On the way down, some members explored more of the structures below the summit. We were all down and away from Balloch cottage by 5.00pm.

N.B - For a good description of the fortifications on Griam Beg see Mercer RJ "The survey of a Hilltop Enclosure on Ben Griam Beg, Caithness and Sutherland District, Highland Region".

3 August, Sunday. A Walk around Big Burn, Golspie - Led by Gordon Wilson

Cars were left by the garage next to the Sutherland Arms Hotel and from here we walked down to the Church, crossed the road and down Duke Street to the footbridge. From here we entered Dunrobin woods, the path continues almost straight ahead with frequent glimpses of the sea to the right.

First, we came to Lord Alastair's monument to the younger brother of the 5th Duke of Sutherland and the father of the present Countess of Sutherland. Closer to the Castle we saw the tall, squat, 18th Century Doo'cote whose circular interior is fitted with 500 nesting boxes meant to supply the great house with meat during the winter months. Then the Ice House, where ice, cut in the winter was stored for use in the summer. This building would have been stone-lined and roofed and cut several feet into the earth; the whole lot then covered over with earth making it so well insulated that the temperature stayed constant through-out the year. After seeing the falcons in their cages, we wended our way back into the woods and here, on a low rise surrounded by banks of rhododendrons is the gothic style tall pinnacled memorial to Harriet Duchess of Sutherland, a close friend and Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria. The Queen herself laid the foundation stone in 1872.

Then back to the Castle Drive and up to the A9 where we walked to the picnic area at Backies eating wild raspberries along the way. The walk around the waterfall was very pleasant, well laid out with many bridges and at least two spectacular waterfalls in spite of the recent dry spell. We enjoyed watching the birds, especially the dippers playing about on the stones in the river and for the botanists amongst us, there were wild flowers in abundance.

We made the obligatory stop at Brora for an ice cream on the way home! A perfect end to a hot sunny day.

10 August, Sunday. Walk from Whaligoe to Bruan led by Gordon Wilson.

On a disappointing day of heavy coastal haar 12 brave souls turned up and decided to go ahead with the expedition.

We left Whaligoe by walking along the old Wick to Lybster railway line passing an early croft settlement. Seeing not very much except ghostly outlines we continued past hut circles and pre-clearance settlements until we reached the Neolithic standing stone on the crest of the hill. We ate our rather soggy sandwiches sitting on wet rocks and, the haar showing no signs of lifting, we felt it prudent to abandon our intended route.

We started to descend past Kenny's Cairn and down via the dam to the Ganywhin hill fort and hut circles back to the Cairn of Get; further lime kilns and ruined brochs were glimpsed through the mist. We were home very early afternoon and after much encouragement, Gordon agreed to give a repeat performance next year.

21 September, Sunday. Kildonan to Kilphedir, led by Gordon Wilson

Twenty members met at the Helmsdale car park on a beautiful sunny day to explore the broch and surrounding delights. A few miles up the strath, we parked the cars at the bridge below the broch and walked across the road and down past early settlements passing an old mill site. We crossed the bridge and railway line to a pre-clearance settlement which later became a croft and on to the ruinous broch.

After exploring on this side of the road, we returned to the cars and enjoyed our lunch sitting in the sun beside the burn. Some of us succumbed to the lure of the water, boots and socks were removed and feet were refreshed!

After this, we passed through yet another pre-clearance settlement with remains of a long house and a well preserved corn kiln. Then to Kilphedir broch, which never fails to impress; as we approached we noted the extensive earth works surrounding it which is most unusual. Some of us then climbed to the ridge above to take advantage of the superior viewpoint for photographs.

On returning, we proceeded to the gully edge and on to a substantial hut circle - possibly Iron age and a souterain in almost perfect condition measuring more than 30 feet. Off then to the Suisgill burn where we saw another very ruinous broch also with interesting outer works.

Eventually we headed for home, nicely relaxed; at least one party paused at Helmsdale to devour scones with jam and cream which we thought ended the day nicely!

2 November, Sunday. Salmon Spawning at Braemore, led by Jack Barnaby.

Our annual outing to see nature in the raw - that is stags rutting or salmon spawning happened in unseasonably warm weather. This year, it was the turn of the salmon and twenty five members and guests including one grandson walked up the laid and down the river in the hope of seeing activity. We had been warned that the river was very low but, personally, I saw four fish (though two of them were probably trout). Whatever, they were darting about with great enthusiasm and it was a pleasure to see them!

After lunch, taken leisurely in warm sunshine, those of us who were not in a hurry to get home walked for an hour along the old pony trail towards Dunbeath. We thought we might have seen deer but we were unlucky though on the way back we did find traces of hut circles - probably Iron Age.

It had been a perfect day, encouraging us to think that winter had not arrived yet and Spring was on the way!

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