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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Field Club Activities in 2006 (by Marion Owen)

Sunday April 23 – The Coach Trip – to Durness this year. We drove west – our Leader was George Watson and our Driver Raymond Grant. George as usual gave an excellent commentary and pointed out sights of interest along the way. Our first stop was Bettyhill and after that we sped along until we came to Balnakiel. We didn’t linger at the Craft Village though George told us there was a good bookshop there but we had come to see the old churchyard. This is the site of one of the first churches in Sutherland, the oldest part of the ruined church is Pre-Reformation (16th cent. A.D.) but the foundations are much earlier. Here is the grave of Rob Donn, the Gaelic Bard and within the church wall, the grave of Donald McMurchie, a prolific local murderer.After all this excitement we went for lunch at Sango Bay Oasis where we enjoyed soup and sandwiches. Next stop was Smoo Caves – we weren’t able to go into the cave but we walked down the hill and were able to get close enough to peer inside by crossing the stream. After this we headed for home and arrived in Thurso 4.30pm.

Sunday 7 May – A walk across Dunnet Head looking for Juniper. – This is an exercise in conjunction with S.N.H. who need to know the locality of these plants and their condition. It is known that there are colonies of the alpine version in Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross. There was a satisfying number of volunteers,17 in all and Ken split us into three teams to search for this elusive plant. It was all done very scientifically (!!) with the aid of a GPS, areas were roped off and then we proceeded to the next bit. Once we knew what juniper looked like it was quite simple and rewarding and as for sexing the plants – the females had berries so no problem there, but males and barren females are hard to tell apart. We finished our labours around 4.30pm. It was hard work – lots of bending and unfortunately very cold. This is an on-going project and we intend to repeat the exercise this year in another location.

Friday 12 – 15 May The Club Weekend - Elgin this year at the Eight Acres Hotel. We had chosen well, our accommodation was fine, lots of single rooms, pleasant staff and a Leisure Centre for those brave souls who had energy left at the end of the day or more impressively who got up early for a pre-breakfast swim!
Saturday – Elizabeth Beaton had offered to take us around the grounds of Gordonstoun School. The whole estate first named Bog of Plewlands dates from at least the 15th century and many years later – in 1934 it became Gordonstoun School.
We were shown the very picturesque Michael Kirk built 1705 on the site of the mediaeval parish church and market place of Ogstoun as the burial mausoleum for the Gordons of Gordonstoun. It was adapted in 1905 by the Edwardian architect John Kinrose (Edinburgh) as an Episcopal chapel intended for the use of the Gordon Cummings’ of Altyre who spent their summers in Gordonstoun and was first used for the baptism of their son Michael. The kirk is still in use when attended by small numbers and for family events. This was a delightful spot on a bright sunny day but there were more delights to come –namely the aptly named “Round Square” which now serves as a boarding house and library which is fitted with curved bookcases! The late 17th century beehive doo’cot has 750 nest boxes in diminishing circles rising to the neck of the funnel-like apex entrance. Though it no longer exists, there is evidence that a revolving ladder was fitted.The Michael Kirk became too small to accommodate the increasing number of pupils – it became co-ed in 1972 – and St Christopher’s was built in 65/66. This was conveniently central to Gordonstoun House and could accommodate 600; the building also doubles as the school Music Centre both for teaching and performing.
We had arranged to go to the village hall for lunch and here we refreshed ourselves and ate our sandwiches. From here to Duffus Cross and Castle and Burghead which boasts a Heritage Centre, Pictish Fort and Well. Burghead is a delightful old fishing village. Here they still maintain the Age Old Tradition “The Burning of the Clavie”. This takes place on 11 January – the old New Year when a tar barrel is carried around the streets to end up on a bonfire at nearby Doorie Hill.
The Burghead Well was next on our list and this was definitely worth a visit; discovered early 19th century – at first thought to be Roman but now recognized as Pictish. A stair hewn from the solid rock leads down to a chamber 11 feet high with a well almost square and 4 feet deep cut into the floor. It was possibly constructed by the followers of St Columba in the 6th century and served as an early Christian Baptistry. The Harbour and Granary Buildings were designed by Thomas Telford and constructed in 1809. Imports included lime, bone dust, guano, timber for buildings and coal. Exports were salmon, herring, oatmeal and timber for pit props. By 1840 passenger steamers called here but by 1870 the railway systems began to compete for passenger travel.
Sunday – A drive to near-by Brumley car park for a forest walk in Quarrelwood. Again it was a lovely morning. There are three way-marked trails each is marked with a modern sandstone henge and an information board. Elizabeth led us on our chosen track up the hill near the apex of which is a Stone Age Henge thought to date from 2000BC. This is a scheduled Ancient Monument.
We had an early lunch in Elgin and in the afternoon met up with the Moray Field Club by arrangement to join them for a walk around Spinie Loch and a chance to see some bird life – we were particularly pleased to see the marsh harrier.
Then dinner at the hotel and a pleasant evening spent in the bar and that was how we ended the weekend.

Sunday 21 May – A walk Scrabster to Crosskirk –our contribution to the Caithness Walking Festival. There were 15 Field Club members and the Walking Festival provided 3 more - Geoff Leet was Leader. In cool windy weather we climbed past the decommissioned lighthouse and were shown the carbide gun house which was used instead of a fog–horn. At Holborn Head the sighting of a big cat six months earlier was described. The next feature was the damaged monument to Captain Slater, a naval chart surveyor, who tried to make his horse jump to Orkney! The horse stopped so Slater went on alone. The slate quarry gave us shelter for lunch, then downhill to Brims Castle with gun-ports and a two-hole privy. We saw the mausoleum at the cliff edge, and a graveyard. Over the cliff where the crew from a wrecked Swedish ship were rescued by rope ladder, and on to the road end at Crosskirk where the pilot cars returned the drivers to Scrabster. We never actually crossed the Forss River to Crosskirk Chapel.

Tuesday 6 June – An evening walk led by Geoff. We parked at Clyth village hall, and walked up to the Hill o’Many Stanes. It was a beautiful warm wind-free summer evening – we had a few of those last year- and it was a treat to be outside in the fresh air. Next, to the remains of Crowner Gunn’s Castle at Halberry Head. After this, we had intended to go to Whaligoe but plans changed and we continued along the road turning right for Guidebest. I don’t recall having ever driven down this road but we eventually parked outside a farm on the left and walked down a track to find a stone circle close by the left bank of Latheron Burn. I think we counted seven stones. What a magical evening.

Sunday 18 June – A walk around Strathy and Balligill – Ken Butler intended leading this but had to call off and in the event Jack Barnaby led using a GPS primed by Ken. It was a circular walk of about 4 miles. There was no shortage of plants of every description and it was a lovely day. Ken had left a written description which has now become an article in this Bulletin, so you can read all about it there. Eventually we arrived at Balligill and so back to Strathy and the rain started five minutes before we got to the cars.

Sunday 16 July – A 5 mile walk to Scaraben from Braemore was advertised and a lower level walk to the Duke of Kent’s monument as an alternative. Came the day and there was a change of plan – not many people turned up.
We decided that we could not climb Scaraben as there wasn’t a qualified First Aider in the party. Now for the Duke of Kent’s Monument – Allan, Elizabeth and I had done this walk the week before and in spite of trousers tucked into socks and long sleeves we did not escape the attention of ticks. Allan found two ticks the next day and I had three, Elizabeth was more fortunate – the Estate had warned us that ticks were more numerous this year.
Hearing this story nobody was very enthusiastic about repeating this exercise.
However, Jack told us there was a wheel house a few miles up a well marked track. So we phoned the Factor and with his blessing we set off. We were rather alarmed at the first gate where a “Beware of the Bull” notice was prominently displayed but we saw nothing alarming so we went anyway. It was a most pleasant walk in lovely sunny weather, we stopped at a row of deserted cottages for lunch and then became aware that we were being watched by a herd of cattle a little way up the valley. We hoped they were cows but bearing in mind the notice on the gate we decided to amble back.
We had all enjoyed the walk and the company and for an additional treat – Allan’s suggestion – we stopped for scones and tea which finished off the afternoon very nicely.

Wednesday 26 July – a short evening walk with Ken to Isauld Burn There was good attendance for a walk that began at Sutherland’s garage, where we parked (by kind permission) and walked behind the garage and down to the burn. There we saw the coarse grasses and umbellifers typical of the mature sandy soil. There are lots of primroses and several primrose-cowslip hybrids when walking to the golf course. Skirting round the golf course and The Cottage we got into the complexities of wild roses – there is Rosa mollis here and Rosa sherardii as well as Rosa caesia and intermediates too! The thin soil and short turf around this area has delightful dwarfed herbs and some orchids. In the burn at this point is the remains of a ram-jet pump which once supplied Sandside House with water, but it was too overgrown and muddy to reach.
At the mouth of the burn the storms had eroded the turf area and un-grazed, it was overgrown. Walking along the beach there were the usual salt-tolerant plants at high water mark. We turned up the Reay burn and examined the close-mown turf of the golf course and then a marshy area below the clubhouse.

Sunday 13 August – A walk Slettel village to Scullomie and Coldbackie. Jack was leading – There were 12 people. A long drive on narrow roads not helped by a herd of cows being moved and incredibly 6 Jaguar cars in convoy! Some of the cars were left at Coldbackie and the walk started at Strathan on a grey wet morning. The initial climb up the hillside was easier than on previous visits as a new track had been laid out and marker posts erected. The onward journey to Slettel afforded splendid views of the coast and islands and we had lunch in one of the old houses and wandered around amongst the ruins.
We were not able to proceed to Scullomie as in the past as a substantial barbed wire fence had been erected enclosing the whole site and we were forced to leave by a gate which was inland of the old route along the cliff tops. Here it was rough going, the ground was soggy and getting soggier. Entry to Scullomie involved walking through an occupied sheep pen blocking the road watched by not very welcoming crofters. Thus, after a challenging walk we had a brief look at Scullomie Harbour and then to Coldbackie along a pleasant path which crossed fields and woodlands over a burn and up the final hill. Car drivers were taken away to retrieve their cars and Geoff served welcome cups of coffee to those who were left behind. Much appreciated Geoff!

Sunday 17 September – A walk for Archaeology month – An exploration of Broubster Square led by Geoff. 16 people came on a beautiful day though soggy underfoot after the recent wet weather. First we looked at the remains of the stone circle on a moorland ridge between Broubster and Loch Calder. Only 9 of the original 32 remain. Broubster suffered the same fate as Shurrery and Shebster in the clearances and 192 families were removed from this small area. I don’t know how many homesteads there were originally but I believe there was a school built 1893. It is always nostalgic to wander around these ruins and imagine what life was like 100 years ago.
After lunch we had intended to visit the cist on a small island in the river but alas! the river was too high so we had to leave this for another time.

Sunday 24 September – “A Telford Walk “ with Jennifer Bruce.17 people came. This was a different sort of walk – Jennifer has an article about this in the Bulletin so I won’t go into too many details. We followed water channels, lots of little bridges and barbed wire fences and had lunch in a kindly farmer’s barn out of the rain. We visited the harbour to see the outfall and ended the day at Mackay’s Hotel for tea and lots of nibbles; Jennifer had prepared a display of maps and photographs to further explain what we had seen.

Sunday 1 October – A walk for Archaeology Fortnight led by Paul Humphreys – An exploration of Dirlot and Environs. 20 people turned up although early morning had been foggy and it was still very wet underfoot. Paul had lots to tell us – making a living in those days must have been hard work. Three classes of people were involved in farming – Landowners, tenants and cottars. The land owners had their own farm on the best land, the tenant farmers had their small strips of ground for which they paid rent in the form of grain and labour on the landlord’s farm; the cottars were at the bottom of the pile and lived quite frugally on their crofts paying their rents mainly by labouring on the home farm usually their poor ground did not yield enough to keep them. There are fragmentary remains of 20 stone rows difficult to find.
The Castle is probably the most picturesque of any of our castles, built on top of a high and very steep rock. Originally belonging to the de Cheynes it was held by the Gunns, Sutherlands and MacKays. After lunch we crossed the river to Caitaig here we found remains of an old township with remnants of a kiln and barn. Finally to Dalemore where can be seen what was once a lime kiln with two flues. By this time the rain was coming down hard and a bedraggled party made its way back to the cars.

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