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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

An Account of Field Club Activities 2001
by Marion Owen

This account will be rather shorter than in previous years. Due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease we had to cancel almost all our plans for the summer. Even the much anticipated Club Weekend was a casualty and had to be put back to later in the year. Hastily, a short programme was published which did not involve walking over farm land. We hope to make up for our enforced idleness this year!

Sunday 20 May – Our first outing - a fossil hunt led by Jack Saxon. The original plan was to visit Achanarras but this was closed to us and the venue was switched to the shore section between Thurso and Scrabster.
Jack gave me his notes and I have reproduced them below –

We visited the west end of the beach first. At the west side of Thurso river is the reef known as the Kirk Ebb. This and the “Slates” at Thurso East belong to the Spittal Beds. The geological survey shows a fault line in the river mouth. This is a mistake. Both the Kirk Ebb and Thurso East, contain fragmentary remains of Homosteus, Glyptolepis and Gyroptychius milleri. The cliffs and the wave-cut platform to the west of the beach belong to the overlying Mey beds where the characteristic fossils are Millerosteus minor and Thursius pholidotus which do not occur at Thurso East.

At the sea stack called the Needle E’e it is possible to descend to the shore at all states of the tide and here we see a couple of faults and a section of laminite. This is an impure limestone with fine laminae, alternately dark and light which indicates the light coloured summer sediment and the dark coloured winter sediment caused by the seasonal die-off of the blue-green algae).

At the Needle E’e fish bed we could see numerous specimens of Millerosteus. They were all disarticulated, probably indicating the action of scavengers in a shallow water environment. Millerosteus was an armoured fish with a naked tail. The jaws had a shearing surface similar to pinking shears. Since they are small – about 100mm and occur in large numbers, it has been suggested that they shoaled and tore their prey to pieces. Other disarticulated material included groups of rhomboid bony scales belonging to Thursius.

The sea stack was examined and a thick band of false-bedded sandstone indicated the presence of a brief but violent flood. There were similar rocks under the Bishop’s Castle. Amongst the fragments found was an almost complete Millerosteus armour and a beautifully preserved spinal column. One of the Thursius specimens showed a mass of scales with one intact fin.

Moving westward, the bands of yellowish sandstone became more frequent suggesting a John O’Groats facies. More small specimens were found on our return including a group of articulated scales of Dipterus, weathered to the beautiful blue of the mineral Vivianite which is rare in this locality.
We then returned to Victoria Walk.

Sunday 26 June – George Watson led us on a Harbour Tour – It was a beautiful day and even though most of us were familiar with the harbours it was lovely to visit them again. We started at Scrabster and saw all the changes in progress in preparation for the new ferry. Then to Thurso harbour and on to Castlehill built to provide a haven for schooners coming to load up with dressed stone. Dwarwick came next – a small pier where a monument commemorates a landing by the royal family in 1953. It is said that under the cliff is a cave where a mermaid imprisoned her unfaithful human lover!! Next came Ham Harbour, now in a ruinous state, and the 18th century Ham farmhouse, sited on a rise overlooking the mill and mill pond. This was followed by Harrow, early 19th century; date stone on engine house reads 1871 RC MEY. Again associated with the flagstone industry. On the way to our final harbour - John o’Groats - we visited Gills, the new Orkney Ferry Terminal.

Now to John o’Groats – not a lot to say about this except we did make one discovery. Apart from the regular sailings to Orkney, an enterprising boatman is offering sails around the cliffs the better to see the bird life. One condition attached to this is that the would-be sailors have to dress from head to toe in yellow oilskins!! We were fortunate to see one lot returning – wet but jubilant – and we spotted two familiar faces!

Sunday 15 July – Thurso walkabout and again George Watson led us on a most informative tour. We visited familiar places too numerous to mention – The meadow well, the old brewery, the statue of Sir John Sinclair in the square erected 1856. The public library in Davidson’s Lane – originally Miller Institution 1859 – 1862, to Millbank and a look at the fine old houses on Janet Street. We saw Thurso Castle, the Museum, Harold’s Tower, there was much more and inevitably we finished at old St Peters Church. I know it is well documented but just a few comments would not be out of place. It was in use from early 12th century until 1832, superseded by the Parish Church – St Peter and St Andrews. The last burial was Charles MacLean 1894 and it is now a listed building under the care of the Highland Council.

On a lighter note, in October 1996 Vykky Harwood married local man Neil MacIntosh in the ruins and prior to that in August 1985 another Thurso man William Sutherland married Australian Merl Wharton. The bride’s great grandmother married here in 1823.

Sunday 5 August – Wick Heritage Centre – Iain Sutherland showed us around the museum (which seemed to have developed considerably since I was last there). We saw the Herring Buyer’s house and Iain’s pride and joy – MV Isabel Fortuna housed in the Lifeboat shed. It was not a very long visit and most of us finished the afternoon at Allan’s house for coffee and shortbread before returning home.

Sunday 12 August – A Bus Ride to Portmahomack – Our first stop was at the Links Hotel Brora for coffee, then to the Old Church at Nigg where Dr Isabel Henderson had gallantly given up Sunday lunch to show us the delights of the area. Nigg Parish Church – 1727 – was our first treat, standing in its own burial ground sheltered by trees – a charming rural church. The Nigg stone now housed inside the church - a Pictish Cross slab- was really impressive. Dr Henderson had a rapt audience and when the Shandwick stone was mentioned not very far away, we asked to be shown this as well. Eventually, onward to the Tarbat Discovery Centre where we were met by George McQuarry, site manager. Here, we were split into two parties, George showed one half around the Dig whilst the other half explored the museum and then we changed over. We would have liked more time in the museum, there was much to see and a video film as well. I expect we shall return at some time for further exploration especially as now excavation is being done on the Hilton of Cadboll site not too far away.
Very soon, we started for home with just the obligatory stop for ice-cream at Brora!

Tuesday 14 August – Dr Adam Jackson and his team from Edinburgh University were excavating the Everley Broch at Freswick and those interested went along by invitation to see what was going on. It was a beautiful evening but with the most voracious midges and we did not stay too long! Dr Jackson followed this with a talk during Archaeology Week and he and his team are hoping to return next summer.

Tuesday 26 August – We had permission from the Langwell Estate for a private visit to the gardens and a walk along the strath. We were fortunate that Francis, the gardener was able to show us around and accompany us on our walk. It was a beautiful day and the gardens were a wonderful sight. All that colour !!

THE CLUB WEEKEND – 7-9 September – This had to be postponed from our usual spot in late May. Blair Atholl had been chosen this year. On the Saturday a visit to Killecrankie and a walk down the river to Soldiers Leap, followed by the Bruar Falls. We drove to Old Struan to see the Pictish stone in the church and had lunch on the grassy bank above the river. Back to Blair Castle for conducted tour and a wander through the gardens. After dinner a rather long illustrated talk by a local historian entitled “The Heart of Atholl”.
Sunday – Motor to Queen’s View – looking up the Tummel Valley, then to Tummel Bridge, a spectacular hump-backed Telford Bridge. On to Kenmore and the Crannog Centre where we had a practical demonstration of weaving and wood-turning crafts. Lunch at a picnic park nearby and on to the Birks of Aberfeldy, then we visited a water mill in the town where meal is still being ground. On the way back we looked at the Logeriat pictish stone in the church yard. That evening, to round off the proceedings, there was a ceilidh with a two man band, which was a fitting end to a good weekend.

Wednesday 3 October – A talk in the Pentland Hotel by Jane Downes. Her subject – “Bronze Age Burials in Orkney”. Jane was one of the archaeologists involved in the Dig at Mine Howe.

Sunday 21 October – There was to be a walk for Archaeology week led by Gordon Wilson exploring the area between Cairn of Get and Loch Watenan. There had been incessant rain for a few days prior to this and on the 21st, the world was shrouded in thick mist! So with regret we cancelled. There will be other times!

Sunday 28 October – Salmon spawning at Braemore. All morning the rain fell unrelentingly! The salmon, very wisely took refuge at the bottom of the river or at least there were none to be seen. After lunch the sun came out and we enjoyed a walk on the way home looking at old cottages and old bridges and the day ended well.

Sunday 11 November – A walk in Balligill – Another wet day – we walked north with Geoff to Dun Mbairtein promontory fort seeing the souterain from the cliff. Walking back up the road we noted club-skews and Estate bargeboards and the mill in the valley. Then a walk to see the big kilns also caves used by Donald Mackay’s grandfather during the clearances. On to Strathy Point – to Port Ghrantaich (Cable and slipway) and lighthouse dated 1954. Still the rain fell, so early afternoon we headed for home.

Friday 23 November – The year finished as it usually does with the Annual Dinner. This year at the Portland Arms. Our guests were Malcolm Earl of Caithness and his son Master of Berriedale – known as Berrie. We enjoyed a talk on the proposed future of Castles Girnigoe and Sinclair and the trials and tribulations of trying to raise money for the work to be done. In addition, we had an excellent dinner and everyone seemed to enjoy the evening.

Here’s to a more active 2002!!

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