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An Early Royal Visit To Thurso
Henrietta Munro

In 1874 the railway was opened from Inverness up to the north - largely financed by the Earl of Caithness and the Duke of Sutherland. So what more natural that the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were paying their first visit to the north and were staying at Dunrobin with the Duke and Duchess - they should pay a flying visit to the most northerly town on the British mainland. And so it was arranged.

At that time Thurso was the only town in the north of Scotland which adopted the Free Libraries Act - the library consisted of about 2000 volumes and was largely used by the townsfolk. And so the inhabitants decided to add to the number of books available and also to have a small local museum. For this purpose they organised a great exhibition - such as was never seen in the north before. The venue decided upon was the old Free Church in Traill Street (now Miller Calder's shop) as this would need very little interior alteration.

When it was known that the Prince and Princess of Wales were to be at Dunrobin and that they might visit Sir Tollemache Sinclair at Thurso Castle, the organisers of the exhibition asked Sir Tollemache if it would be possible for the Royal couple to perform the opening ceremony. And so that was arranged. And an even bigger and better exhibition was arranged. Paintings formed the chief part, mostly contributed by Sir Tollemache, the Ear] of Caithness and the Duke of Sutherland as well as by a number of local gentlemen. Many were copies but a few originals come from South Kensington Museum. Glass cases were made and filled with geological samples and items of local interest. Crafts were represented by wrought flagstone cabinet work, and sewn work in both wool end silk. There was a large collection of stuffed birds and two fine stuffed salmon, one of 501bs. and one of 42lbs., both caught in the Thurso River.

And now after all the preparations the great day arrived. Their Royal Highnesses arrived by special train from Dunrobin Castle about 2 p.m. I understand that it was then that the lovely little thatched station was built at Dunrobin - this was in use until before the Second World War and the building still stands. The Royal couple accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, Lady Florence Gower, Prince John of Gluckenburg, Lord Aylesford, Lord Charles Beresford, Sir Augustus and Lady Paget, Colonel Teesdale, Mr. and Miss Knollys, Captain Glyn, Mr. Montague and Mr. Cockerel. In charge of the train were Mr. Dougal, manager of the Highland Railway, Mr. Jones, locomotive engineer and Mr. Paterson, resident engineer. The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sutherland travelled in the engine all the way. Imagine! A real train elegantly painted in the livery of the old Highland railway and a Royal prince and princess at Thurso Station. No wonder the Rifle Volunteers were drawn up as a guard of honour and the platform laid with crimson cloth.

As the train arrived the volunteer band played "God Bless the Prince of Wales" and as the Prince descended to the platform there was a hearty cheer from the waiting crowd. Mr. Henderson, convenor of the County and Mr. Bremner, Chief Magistrate of Thurso were presented by the Earl of Caithness and both read addresses of welcome. Then the Princess took the arm of' the Earl of Caithness while the Prince escorted the Duchess of Sutherland and with the rest of the party following, they took their seats in the open carriage with the Duchess of Sutherland and Sir Tollemache Sinclair - the Prince wore a kilt of Sutherland tartan and the Princess wore a richly trimmed grey dress. When the procession moved off, led by the volunteer band the Freemasons of Wick and Thurso along with the magistrates and authorities of the Burgh followed on.

The street decorations were arranged by Messrs. Tyser & Co. of Manchester and appeared to be very splendid. Unfortunately while the Illustrated London News had prints of the wonderful decorations in Golspie, there are none of the Thurso scene but it is described as follows: venetian masts in crimson cloth were placed at regular intervals from which festoons hung while every house on the route exhibited flags. The front of the exhibition building was draped and relieved by heraldic devices and plumes of feathers. The railway station was highly ornamented with heraldic devices, shields and flags. All round Macdonald Square (now Sir John Square) were venetian masts joined together with streamers in various colours while a Gothic arch was placed at the top of Caithness street (now Sir George Street). One wonders if Messrs. Tyser had just either finished a venetian exhibition or had just furnished the stage for The Gondoliers!

The procession went straight from the station to the exhibition where the Prince made no speech but formally declared the exhibition open. The party remained for a short time looking around the room and then went directly to Thurso Castle for refreshments with Sir Tollemache. A public banquet was held in the Town Hall with Baillie Tait in the chair and the usual Loyal toasts wore drunk.

The Prince started on his return journey to Dunrobin about 4 o'clock and the town was brilliantly illuminated in the evening.

At the time of the opening of the railway The Illustrated London news took the opportunity of publishing several etchings of the northern area - it looks rather strange to us to see prints of Duncansby Stacks and Kirkwall Cathedral with the caption 'At the Opening of the Highland Railway' .

When the railway was opened first and for many years after that each of the directors had his own key to open a carriage which he kept for himself. I still have a key and identity card belonging to a local gentleman who was one of the directors. But I do not suppose it would do me any good today.

First published in Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1984