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George Watson

Part 3 - Tracks, Fords and Chapels

A close relationship between the reconstructed road and known chapels was shown on the moorland track from Rumsdale to Spittal.  This pattern can also be demonstrated on most of the other proposed routes.  The poorest fit is along the north coast where the oldest road selected as the skeleton of the reconstruction seems to be of entirely different period to that of the chapels.  Nevertheless the country-wide picture is clear. With only a partial reconstruction of the road network about half of the known chapels can be seen as wayside features.  Of the remaining chapels a number are close to historical fords as the following description of the battle of Harpsdale (1594) shows.

"The main body of the Gunns came from Braemore, the other party of 24 men from Strathy. The Macivers whose headquarters were Quoycrook, Halkirk, and Achorole, Calder, being informed of the approach of the Gunns . . . . . advanced to meet them at Harpsdale. They posted themselves on the south-western slope of Harpsdale Hill, in an advantageous position, which was strengthened by a turf wall about 200 yards in length . . . . . . In a length of 26 chains the stream was fordable in three places, beyond that being too deep. The Gunns advanced to cross the river at what is known as the Pollyhour Ford to attack in the flank but the Macivers sent sharpshooters to dispute the passage. These were repulsed, and the Gunns drove them up the hill on their main body, which was 550 yards to the north of the ford. A detour was made to the right for advantage of grounds, whence they attacked the Macivers on the left flank and front. While the passage was being contested the Strathy Gunns cross the river between Tongside and Olgrinmore. . . . . the Strathy men attacking the Macivers in the rear soon settled the battle. "

Although not specifically mentioned in this account, St. Peters chapel on Olgrinbeg Burn lies opposite the Pollyhour Ford, and the chapel at Achardale is close to the Tongside Ford. Since an earlier fight between the Gunns and the Mackays took place at "Achardle" in 1426 the ford seems to have been well-established and probably represents a cross track which has left insufficient remains to allow it to be included in the reconstruction.

A similar case can be made for the lost chapel opposite Bleachfield, which Dr. Craven recorded as the source of holy grass on the banks of the Thurso. Timothy Pont's map of Caithness clearly shows a river crossing in this area.

If chapel sites near fords are accepted as being on old trackways, and added to those on the reconstructed network, then two-thirds of all the chapels in the County are wayside features.  The organisation implicit in such a distribution is more likely to belong to the medieval church rather than the older Celtic-Pictish missions despite the numerous dedications to early saints such as Trostan/Drostan, Coomb/Colman/Columba, Ninian, Martin and Cieran. A complex system such as this would take some time to grow, presumably in response to increased traffic, and development has already been hinted at, at Mary Ford and Red Ford. A more radical change can be seen in the roads around Wick, the section from 'e' to 'f ' is plainly the original coast road passed St. Martins at Ulbster and St. Ninians at Wick, possibly extending to St. Tears on Sinclair Bay. Section 'e, g, h, i' is a bypass to shorten the journey, and indicates that Orkney rather than Wick was the destination.

Now Orkney was pledged to Scotland in 1468 and by 1470 James III had persuaded the Sinclair Earl of Orkney to relinquish his rights to the Earldom in favour of the king, who set about making the islands part of Scotland.  By 1472 the Bishopric of Orkney had been transferred from Trondheim to St. Andrews.   It is tempting to equate the joint interest of the Scottish Crown and Church in the changing administration of Orkney as the driving force which improved the land routes through Caithness. There would be a need for reliable, all year round communications between the islands and the south. Sea transport might be faster and was without doubt the preferred mode for transmitting news.  But the small ships of this period were often stormbound or blown far off course and the slower but surer land post had great advantages.  If relays were employed the journey times may not have been very different. (It is known that King James IV once travelled from Stirling to Elgin via Perth and Aberdeen in a single day and completed his journey to Tain the following morning in time to hear mass in St. Duthacs.)  Fast journeys would only have been possible, in all seasons, if assistance and perhaps shelter was available at the major hazards.  The practice of reinforcing fords with stakes was not uncommon, in fact the 'Stokfurd into Ros' is mentioned by Wyntoun writing in 1426 of events circa 1107.   Many of the Caithness chapel/fords are likely to have been established as the Orkneys were brought under Scottish control, but there would already have been a number of shrines and chapels along the tracks, for numerous pilgrims must have passed through the County in both directions heading for St. Magnus tomb in Kirkwall or St Duthac's at Tain.  The original design of the great cathedral in Kirkwall was finished about 1200 and must have been the most wondrous building in this northern region. When combined with the relies to St. Magnus the cathedral must have been a powerful attraction to pilgrims. Local Caithness dedications to St. Magnus at Spittal and to the Orkney bishop Bjarni at Banniskirk would seem to reflect this connection.

The body of St. Duthac is said to have been translated from Ireland to his birthplace at Tain in 1253, from that time the reputation of the shrine grew until by the time of James IV it was worthy of a royal visit almost every year from 1493 until 1513.  These royal visits must have enhanced the Saint's already high reputation. It is perhaps a criticism of this article, that the only dedication to St. Duthus in Caithness does not lie on the proposed road system.  But the Caithness connection with Tain is well recorded; about 1428 Alexander Mowat, laird of Freswick was killed by Thomas McKneill of Creich, while sheltering within the Sanctuary of St. Duthacs, and in 1456 Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath directed that 30 successive masses should be said for his soul, 8 in Chanonry (Fortrose), 4 each in Fearn, Tain, Dornoch and Kinloss and 6 in Orkney.  This last record is a useful indication of the communication between local churches in the period before royal involvement with the Orkneys.

The end of the era of wayside chapels can perhaps be glimpsed, when in 1556 John Mor Mackay burned the church of Loth and demolished St. Ninians (or St. Rects) at Navidale. As a parish church Loth was rebuilt, but the chapel at Navidale was not.  By this time, of course, the reformation was looming over the horizon and much of the Church's wealth was being syphoned off by the unscrupulous.

When John Mor Mackay retreated from Navidale, he took a route over the Ord and through the hills towards Morven, for his band was overtaken and mauled by the Gunns on the Garvary Burn.  This is mentioned to underline the fact that pedestrian traffic could and sometimes preferred to take ways that the modern roadmaker would shun.  The pedestrian's ability to cope with difficult terrain needs to be borne in mind in reading the following account, which fills the gap in Fig. 1 between 'b' and 'c'. This blank has been left because I have not yet been able to confirm the ground marks by fieldwalking, but the documentary sources are quite consistent with the picture drawn so far for the rest of the county.

"The water of Berridale formerly mentioned runs close by the gavel of that house (Braemore), about 20 paces to the W. of the House there is a Chapel. The natives thereabouts say that one Eyerdan was the last priest in that Chapel. Opposite to this Chappel which lyes upon the S. side of the water of Berriedale stands the Chapel of Braenaheglish, i.e. the brae of the church on the north side of the water of Langwell. Between these two chappels there is a road which crosseth in the middle of the great hill of Scarbine, which rod is called by the natives, la cois nive, i.e. the rod where the . . . . . travel. It is said that one priest served these two chapels per vices, and it's supposed that the cross rod formerly mentioned was the rod by which the people went and came while attending divine service. It is moreover observed by the natives that when the priests were discharged their office in this country, that either this Eyerdan or some other priest came to the glutt of Berriedale, a secrett and remote place, and built a chapell there which lyes on the N. side of the Water of Berridale. This chappel stands about 2 miles from the chappel on the S. side of the river. I could not understand of what order any of these were of. The greatest part of the Sainct, worshiped in the chapell of Braemore, stands yet in timber there."

The Rev Benton says that 'la cois nive' is a corruption of the Gaelic "Cadha coise nan naomh' meaning 'the path of the saints feet'.  He also mentions Allt Ainglibh (Angels Burn) towards the west end of Scaraben.  Both these place-names have disappeared from the modern maps but the 2.5" 0S map gives Cadha an t'Sagairt (Pass of the Priest) on the very top of Scaraben and a burn called Allt na h'Abaide (Abbey or Abbots Burn) running towards Braemore.  Now there is always the possibility that the 0S names are relatively modern inventions, but the main account given above, dates from 1725 and preserves a much older tradition. From Ausdale the road would appear to have run northwards over the shoulder of Braigh na h'Eaglaise (Church Brae) and down to the Langwell chapel at the mouth of the Strathy Burn, then straight up over Scaraben via Cadha an t'Sagairt and Allt na h'Abaide to Braemore.  At a later date a modified route via the second chapel on the Berriedale, near Creag na h'Iolaire, was taken.  If this was a short cut, the original route from Braemore must have been eastwards towards Dunbeath.  Now this route might be thought a little fanciful, but it will be remembered that two nights before the Battle of Altimarlach, Glenorchy is said to have camped at Braemore, something that makes sense with the old road, and is difficult to explain with the modern route.  At the earliest end of the date bracket for these pilgrim/chapel roads is the description in the 12th century De Situ Albanie of 'Caithness on this side of the mountain, and Caithness on the other side of the mountain' a most appropriate description from the top of Scaraben.

At first sight it might seem possible to go further back and separate the early chapels from the late medieval ones by their dedications, i. e. St. Marys and St. Peters are late and St. Trostans and St. Ciaran are early. Unfortunately in the late medieval period there was a revival of interest in local saints and it has been shown that at this time when the Aberdeen Breviary was being revised many English Saints were removed from the Calendar and replaced with early Scottish ones.  The local saints were chosen to give the Breviary a national appeal and had the encouragement of the King as shown in the royal patent for the first printing press in Scotland. '. . . that in tyme cuming mess bukis, manualis, matyne bukis and portuus bukis efter our awin Scottis use and with legendis of Scottis sanctis as is now gaderit and ekit be ane reverend fader in God and our traist counsalour Williame, bischop of Abirdene, and utheris . . . .'

Local bishops were therefore gathering information about early saints at the time when additional chapels were being placed on the Caithness roads and it is not unlikely that some of them were dedicated to the Celtic/Pictish pioneers.  Archaeology is probably the only way to date these grassy mounds, and several digs along the same road line would be necessary to uncover the whole story.


SINCLAIR, T. The Gunns Wm Rae, Wick 1890
CRAVEN, J. B. History of the Church in Caithness Wm Peace & Son Kirkwall 1908
CANT, R. G. The Church in Orkney and Shetland Northern Scotland Vol. 1 No. 1 1972
MUNRO, R. W. & MUNRO, Jean Tain through the Centuries   1966
BEATON, D. Ecclesiastical History of Caithness Wm Rae, Wick 1909
MacFARLANE, L. J. William Elphinstone and the Kingdom of Scotland Aberdeen University Press 1985
BALDWIN, J. R. (ed.) Caithness: A Cultural Crossroads Scot. Soc. For Northern Studies 1982
FENTON, A. & STELL, G. Lochs and Roads in Scotland and Beyond John Donald Ltd 1984