Caithness Field Club

The Chapel and Graveyard at Oldhall, Watten
By George Watson

At present the only access to this graveyard is across fields and although it is near the main road is seldom visited. It was first mentioned in 1726 as ‘the burial place of the Sinclairs of Dun and other parishioners of Wattin’, and nearly fifty years later the Rev Alexander Pope, when discussing the Parish of Bower, said, ‘I know of no other place of worship, besides the parish kirk, excepting the chapel of Dun, where a clergyman officiated, before the erection of the parish of Watten’. Watten, of course, had been a parish since medieval times, when it was linked with Bower as the prebend of the Archdeacon and the two parishes seem to have been run as a single unit until well after the Reformation. In 1659, the building of a new parish church probably marked the re-emergence of Watten as a separate administrative unit. This was the event which Pope described as ‘the erection of the parish’ and gives an end date for a clergyman officiating at the chapel of Dun. The graveyard at Dun, appears therefore to mark the site of a pre-Reformation, auxiliary chapel attached to the parish church of Bower or Watten. Nothing of this early chapel survives, except perhaps its position and alignment within the cemetery, where it has been supplanted by a mausoleum of much later date.  When the Ordnance Survey (OS) visited the graveyard about 1871, they described it as "An ancient place of interment and still used as such. It is surrounded by a low stone wall and a few stunted trees". Although there are now iron gates into the graveyard, originally the surrounding wall was continuous. A sunken trackway approaches the south-west corner, where there is a stile and the wall head has flat coping stones on which a coffin could be rested. The earliest date on the gravestones which now block this access is 1877.

Inside the cemetery the OS found, "The walls of this chapel are standing to about 14 feet high. The entrance was at the East end. Three apertures on the south side seem to have been windows. A small vault which is open is in the centre of the ruin." It is interesting to compare this description with one written in 1910 by the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), "....within the graveyard are the ruins of an old church. It measures interiorly 48 ft x 18 ft, has its entrance door in the E end and two elliptical arched windows in the S wall. It appears to be a building of late date. Beneath the W. half of the church is a burial vault which may belong to an earlier structure." It is worth noting that at this time the RCAHMS considered structures built after 1707 as of ‘late date’.

Sometime after 1910, the ruin was shortened from 48 ft to about 30 ft (see attached sketch) which accounts for the discrepancy in the number of windows mentioned by each observer. It would be impossible to insert the vault into an existing building without seriously weakening the wall foundations, hence the RCAHMS inspector’s suggestion that it might be earlier. However, it could also be contemporary with the superstructure. There are no datable architectural features in the vault but when measuring and drawing the structure I was struck by its similarity to the semicircular arch on the nearby Telford bridge, the radius of which measures 7 ft 4 in. The vault radius could not be measured directly but when scaled from a drawing appears to be 7 ft 2 in. Within the errors inherent in this method of comparison, it would appear that the same wooden centreing has been used for both structures. Telford’s road from Wick to Thurso was complete by 1818 and if the similarity in the radius of the arches is not a coincidence then the vault of the chapel must also be of this period. It is also interesting that the tenant of Oldhall farm at this time was William Davidson who had trained in England as an architect. He was responsible for the design of a number of buildings in the county including the farmhouses at Oldhall and Stanstill , St Mary’s church at Lybster and a new aisle on Latheron Church. Davidson would have been about 29 years old when Telford’s bridge was built, and as a practicing architect would have recognised the value of the discarded shuttering. So far I have not been able to link him directly with the building of the mausoleum but a record of his involvement may yet come to light in the family papers of the Sinclairs of Dun or in contracts relating to the building of Telford’s bridge.

i Origines Parochiales Scotiae, Vol 2, Pt 2, page 782, quoting Macfarlane.
ii A Tour of Scotland in 1769, Thomas Pennant, Appendix V.
iii Ordnance Survey Namebook, Watten Parish, p34I
iv Ordnance Survey Namebook, Watten Parish, p33
v RCAHMS Caithness, 1911, No 459
vi An Autobiography, Hugh Robert Mill, 1951, page 6
vii Caithness, An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Elizabeth Beaton, 1996. pages 18 & 21

Published in 2000 Bulletin