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Henrietta Munro

This tall gaunt house stands with its feet in the sea on the east coast of Caithness. It is a tower-like structure which bears a resemblance to the tall gaunt Scottish castles which are all around the coast in this northern land. They were built to defend themselves from the Viking raids which were numerous and which lasted for many years.

Freswick House, is very often called Freswick Castle but William Sinclair who built it in the mid 18th century, in spite of his pretensions always called it Freswick House.



William Sinclair was a Sma' Laird who was determined to improve himself. To this end he worked hard, lived fairly frugally and his great delight was to enter into law. This appears to have been one of the chief amusements of the Lairds of Scotland at that time and the records of the courts are full of these. William was sure that by building this great house, with of course, a tower for defence, he would prove to the other lairds in the county that he was the third richest. He made the inside of the house modern and spacious for the times and he determined to have it lit with plenty of windows. Outside there would be houses for a granary to store corn and a brewhouse to turn it into ale along with other necessary buildings, and just up the road he built a magnificent doo'cot.

William's previous house was a large roomy building down the coast at Dunbeath and it was here that he began his glorious fight with the window tax collector. In those days there was a tax on windows if they exceeded a stipulated number. The record of William's argument is kept in a letter to his lawyer. 'As to Mr. Angus the Caithness Collector, I shall honestly tell you the reason I was not civil to him. In the year 1753 he came here and surveyed my windows and reported them to be 28. The next half year he came and surveyed them and found them to be 31 when there was none either added or taken away. In June 1754 he came here again and said he wanted to view my windows. I ordered a servant to go along with him but would not see him myself. Then he left a list showing my windows to be 47 and gave that number to the tax man. I appealed and was charged at 31. The last time he came he said there was 34, and I fell into a passion and swore him that I would be revenged'.

It is difficult to see how there con be any dispute about how many windows a house has but the window tax accounts in the Edinburgh Register House shows that something odd did happen. In 1753 the house at Dunbeath was taxed at 28 windows while in the second half of that year it was 31. Next year the number is given as 47 but 16 of these were let off on appeal. After that the figure was 34 but more was to happen.

In the pages of the window tax accounts books one can follow the building of Freswick House. When it was finally finished and occupied in 1758 it should have started to pay window tax, but never a penny was paid in old Freswick's lifetime. Every year the collector recorded that he had visited it and that it should only be charged the sixpenny house duty of a house with fewer than 8 windows, and it is only in April 1770, when Freswick had been dead for a year, were the windows of the house put at 42, and tax paid on them at 2 shillings each. Of course Freswick could have built his new house with 35 blocked up windows. People did block windows to avoid tax but not on this scale surely.

I prefer to think that the old boy so terrified the collector that he was allowed to escape for 11 years, discretion being the better part of valour. So today the old house still stands on the shore at Freswick, rather more dilapidated now but the outbuildings and the doo'cot are still there and the secrets of the house are still kept.

First Published in Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1989