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Walking Tour of The Royal Burgh of Wick
By David Oliver
With an hour to spare you can visit some of the interesting places in Wick.
On leaving the Tourist Office, turn left down Whitechapel Road, and then turn right. This flat area was originally a market stance and recreational area given to the people of Wick "in perpetuity" by the Duke of Sutherland, but is now part car park and part rose garden laid out in 1989,the Quatercentenary of King James V1 granting the charter to the town which then became a Royal Burgh. Prominent in this garden is a tree planted by H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen mother, also to celebrate that four hundredth anniversary.
On the right side of the road is Wick Old Parish Church, built on the site of an older building in the early 19th Century and reputed to have the widest unsupported roof span of any church in Scotland. Also in the churchyard is the ruined (with modern additions) 13th Century Chapel of St Fergus – the Patron Saint of Wick – an effigy of the saint is on show in the Wick Public Library.
Keep the church on your right and as you go up the hill on St Fergus Road you will see the Kirkhill Gardens ablaze in the spring with thousands of crocuses and daffodils but in the summer usually laid out in some topical theme. Turn right into the High Street which was widened in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, in the process many of the town’s old buildings were destroyed. On the right as you pass the church gates there is the St. Fergus Chapel previously mentioned. On the left is the Jubilee garden laid out in 1977 to celebrate the Silver jubilee of H. M. the Queen'’ accession to the throne.
At the traffic lights, turn right onto Bridge Street and you will see several imposing buildings – the Venetian Renaissance style of the Clydesdale Bank (1875); the Italian style town hall, (1828 – note the plaque to the Seaforth Highlanders) and the similar style Sheriff Court house, (1866); the Royal Bank (1830) and more modern Bank of Scotland (reconstructed 1935).
The splendid street lamps on the town hall and bridge were installed for the Quatercentenary year. The Bridge, (note plaque on west side), opened in 1807, crosses the Wick River into the town formerly known as Pulteneytown – this burgh and harbour were designed by Thomas Telford for the British Fisheries Society (formed to encourage evicted crofters to take up fishing). Pulteneytown was incorporated into Wick Royal burgh in a local government reorganisation in 1902. The town is planned and laid out in a grid, with wide streets. Several streets of the former town were named after commissioners of the society including the town itself after Lord Pulteney.
A brief detour to the right at the end of the bridge brings you to another quaint Victorian plaque set into the wall naming some of Wick’s distinguished visitors. Returning to the bridge continue up the Cliff passing on the right the War Memorial, the Caithness general hospital, newly opened in 1988, and the Carnegie public library on the corner of Sinclair Terrace. The name Carnegie comes from Andrew Carnegie, the Dunfermline man who made a fortune out of steel in the U.S.A. and gave money for libraries to be set up all over Scotland.
Proceed left along Sinclair Terrace noting some of its interesting terraced houses until you come to the Assembly Rooms, go into the car park and look over the wall to get an excellent view of Wick and its harbour.
Across the road you will see the R.C. Church of St. Joachim built in 1835 on land given by grateful Wick townspeople for the work which Father Lovi did during an outbreak of cholera. On the opposite side of Malcolm Street is the Wick Martyrs Free Church, built in 1839.
Continue between the churches down Malcolm Street, turn into Dempster Street which continues into Argyle Square, a picturesque sight especially when the trees are in full leaf. Argyle Square could be considered to be the "centre" of Telford’s Pulteneytown. Continue through the square into Grant Street until you come to Huddart Street – the buildings facing you are the original and compare these with the "modern" ones on the right of Grant Street! Turn left into Huddart Street and left again into Smith terrace with its excellent views over the harbour. Facing you is the pagoda type building called Pilot’s house, built at the turn of the century for pilots to wait in comfort to pilot ships in and out of the harbour. The more modern building is known as "The Old Men’s Rest", once used by retired fishermen, yarning over old times and playing cards and dominoes.
Turn right into Harbour Terrace, down towards the harbour passing the Customs House and the plaque marking where Robert Louis Stevenson (author of "Treasure Island") stayed while his father worked on the outer breakwater which was not a success – remains of it can be seen past the Lifeboat Shed. After exploring the harbour, return to the South end of the Harbour Quay and turn right up the one way street into Bank Row.
The Wick Society’s Heritage Centre is on the left, housed in buildings typical of those round the harbour, curing yards, cooperage’s and dwelling houses built in the heyday of the herring industry. The Heritage Centre is a must for visitors to Wick and, of course, its residents, but you must make sure you have plenty of time to visit this most interesting museum.
Coming back towards the harbour, turn left into Williamson Street and head towards the river. As you cross the bridge from Pulteneytown into Wick again, the cluster of buildings up the hill is called Mounthoolie – the site of a monk’s cell in the Celtic church (before 12th Century) and afterwards the site of a nunnery.
At the first building after the end of the bridge, turn left into East High street which has not been widened and still has old stone setts. The next building, one of the oldest in wick, used to be the ferryman’s house for the ferry across the river. The High street broadens out into market place – the two imposing buildings are Woolworths, built as the Aberdeen based North of Scotland Bank in 1855, faced with, of course Aberdeen Granite, and the Post Office built in 1912 in typical Scottish fashion and complete with crowstep gable.
The High Street narrows again before it joins Bridge Street – in the middle of the road is a cross marking the site of a Mercat Cross and on the council building is a plaque to Alexander Bain inventor of the electric clock. One of his clocks is to be found in Watten Village Hall. On a wall on the other side of the street near the traffic lights is a plaque commemorating Neil Gunn – Caithness’ most famous author.