Recently I was given a small booklet, published by the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Group, called ‘Harbour Lights’ by John R Hume. Ranging from Wigtownshire to the Orkneys it records a variety of buildings and towers, which supported leading lights used to guide ships and boats towards harbour entrances. It is a timely publication for these lesser lights, like the major lighthouses, are becoming redundant. The frontispiece is a photograph of the lighthouse at Lybster and this reminded me that traces of early aids to coastal navigation may still be recognised in Caithness.
From the deck of a small fishing boat returning from a night’s work, the coastline of the county presents a surprisingly uniform silhouette. In the days of sail, it was usual to keep up-wind of the landing place to reduce the need for tacking when close to what was often a lee-shore. Natural features or buildings which projected above the sky-line were often in the wrong position to be ideal markers. More accurate local landmarks were built by the fishermen themselves to guide them into specific creeks.
Local lore has preserved some details of these early landmarks and recognition of the type enables others, whose use has been forgotten, to be recognised.
Shortly after Latheronwheel harbour was built (c1840) a simple ‘lighthouse’ was constructed on the southern headland. Now only traces of the walls remain but a photograph taken c1925 shows a rectangular, two storey building. A lanterm placed on the upper floor provided a simple guiding light. When the new lighthouse at Lybster started up in 1884 it had to carry a red light to avoid confusion with this beacon at Latheronwheel which was still operating a ‘white’ light.
On the southern slope of Berriedale, the well-known ‘chess-men’, erected by the estate, were intended to guide boats into the river-mouth but frequent movement of the shingle banks made them ineffective.
Tradition avers that boats approaching the rivermouth at Dunbeath used the prehistoric chambered cairn, Cnoc na Maranaich, (said to mean the ‘hill of the seamen’) to guide them. Its silhouette must already have been quite distinctive as there is a large standing stone nearby and this outline has been enhanced by the construction of several modern drystone cairns on top of the ancient one. Two of the modern cairns align with the headland at Portormin, a suitable spot for a foresight. Here we have the local tradition of an existing feature which was so useful that it was modified to make it more distinctive; indicating that the mark was used over a considerable period.
One of the few natural advantages which can be claimed for Whaligoe is the waterfall from the mill race. In the low morning sun, it is visible from several miles out to sea but shrouded by cliffs from the north east. It is therefore not surprising to find here, an arrangement very similar to that at Dunbeath. About a mile inland a modern drystone cairn has been erected on top of the prehistoric Carn Hanach (or Kenny’s Cairn) a name which probably applies to the fisherman who initiated the building of this useful landmark. Once again, on the ground, modification and continuity can be inferred. The original back marker may well have been a standing stone known as Crow’s Stone which need not be prehistoric. It has partially fallen and it would have been easier to build a modern cairn on top of the nearby prehistoric mound, where there was a ready supply of building stone, rather than re-erect the standing stone.
Those who have walked round the archaeological trail at South Yarrows will be familiar with drystone cairns which surmount the most southerly prehistoric mounds. From their construction and location these modern cairns are plainly navigation markers for they are visible from a wide arc of sea, which stretches from Wick round to Clyth. There are a number of inlets on this stretch of coast, where navigators would have found these cairns handy. Perhaps some local yachtsmen could run down the lines of sight and confirm which inlet they served.
Just north of Wick, on Hillhead farm, is a prehistoric mound known as The Pap, which has been the landmark for Papigoe. The line of sight has now been blocked by a later house but there can be little doubt that this nipple on the skyline is the Pap which lent its name to the inlet.
The tower-like remains of the old kiln-barn at Brabster, some three miles from the coast, was used as a ‘meeze’ by the Freswick fishermen. The abandoned buildings provided a ready source of building stone, however their demolition was stopped when it was realised how essential the kiln was to the Freswick boats. Even today boats from Freswick line up the corner of Freswick House with this kiln, and use either the roof or windows of the lower floors to position the boat over the best fishing spots.
Along the north coast the prominent church steeples at Reay, Dunnet and Canisbay probably served as landmarks. The method of using such a mark is illustrated by a little poem attached to the Castle of Mey:-
"The tower of Mey, a handspike high; the Men of Mey you may pass by"
At Reay, the mound above the beach called Cnoc Stanger was another marker, for the name indicates that there was once a sighting pole on this hillock.
The drystone cairn on Holborn Head is very similar in construction to those at Yarrows and like them it is difficult to be sure how visible it is from the sea or how it was used to guide vessels approaching Scrabster. It was presumably used before 1861 when the lighthouse at Scrabster became operational.
About a mile inland from Murkle bay, a marker cairn has been built, slightly to the west of Sailor’s Farm. Folklore now associates this cairn with wreckers, an interesting distortion of fact, for it is plainly a back marker used to guide boats into Murkle bay.
There are probably many other landmarks round the coast, known to members of the Field Club, which should be recorded before they are completely forgotten.
Lest We Forget, The Parish of Canisbay, ed. Anne Houston, 1996, page 347