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THE VILLAGE OF CAPTAINS
William A Simpson
Many people know about Dunnet Head - with its massive bulk jutting out into the east end of Thurso Bay, with its famous Light House, so helpful to Pentland Firth mariners, with Dwarick House overlooking Peedy Sands, and with many little lochs.
But I doubt if the little village of Brough in the parish of Dunnet is as well known as it was a hundred and more years ago, when most of its boys waited with great impatience to reach the age of 16 years, having left the village school (called Brough Academy by them) at the age of 12 years, hoping to go to sea four years later. Most had only rudimentary ideas of local sea fishing, but to go on deep sea voyages and eventually to hold a master's or extra master's ticket was the cherished ambition.
My father was one of these boys. Born in 1864 two months after his own father had been, drowned a mile off Ham Harbour, he was the fifth child of the family of his crofter-fisherman parent.
There must have been many difficulties in the rearing of the five children without their father.
Walter went to sea, and several years later, was drowned on the Great Barrier Reef. Elizabeth Florence emigrated to Chicago, and changed her name to Mackenzie. Her sister Cecilia married a Light House keeper. John became a very senior Lght House keeper, finally retiring after service at Holborn Head. Over many years I had holidays with him at Port St. Mary's, St. Abbs, Buchanness, Girdleness and Scrabster.
Of John's family of five boys and four girls, sadly all dead now, three boys were connected with Light House duties, but Walter went to sea and became Engineer Commodore of the R.M.S.P Company and served in both World Wars, gaining the OBE and Donald duly got his master's ticket.
My father, Alexander, went to sea, beginning as a deck hand on sailing ships. One was "The Flower of Olrig" (owned and commanded by his uncle William Simpson). My father's Certificate of Mastership in Sail is now a treasured possession of the grandson named after him (my son). Eventually he switched to "steam", and got his extra master's ticket, retiring from active sea service before World War One.
I have been told many stories of my father's boyhood and service at sea. Unfortunately he left no written record. In his day there were many Brough families connected with the sea, and many lives were lost in both wars. John George Wallace became Harbour Master at Wick. His brother Sinclair Wallace did most of his sailing in New Zealand waters. George Shearer become Harbour Master at Scrabster. The Simpsons, Shearers, Calders, Wallaces and Sinclairs, and many other families, had captains among them, so that Brough in the late nineties and Edwardian times richly deserved the title of "Village of Captains.
Without an education, as we know it today, these men showed by their character, ability and experience the value of heritage.
Boys then, being short of entertainment, could be just as awkward as they are today, Once, when a number of boys were at home, they tried to shoot the minister's top hat off his head as he walked home from the church. He did not complain to the Police, but the boys realised they had gone too for, and departed hurriedly next day.
The Mermas, the annual horse fair, was the event of the year, there cannot be many people left who remember Maryrnas Day.
Two of my cousins still live in Brough. It gave me great pleasure to see them last year.
I had a croft in Brough between the two world wars. I was unable to get there during the last war, because of war-time restrictions.
The Clett Rock at low tide was a great temptation and attraction for adventurous youngsters. My nephew fell from the top to the bottom, and was very lucky to get off with a few bruises.
An attempt to create a golf course was not successful.
It was always a great occasion when the Queen Mother passed by on her way to or from the Castle of Mey.
The Rev. George Gunn was a popular summer visitor when he came "home" from his Church of Scotland duties in foreign lands. He had many stories to tell.
He had a soft spot for Muckle Jimmy Henderson - at one time thought to be the heaviest man in Scotland. During one of conversations about the weather Jimmy gave it as his opinion that the Rev. Dr. would be more in touch with "the Clerk" than he was.
The Slip in Brough Bray where the youngsters learnt to swim, is still in good repair. It is of interest that budding swimmers were thrown into the water with a rope round them, and pulled in when they had had enough.
I was in Skarfskerry a year ago at a Golden Wedding Celebration - my first visit to Caithness in mid-winter. The weather could not have been nicer, and I was happy to meet friends of 50-60 years ago.
Of course there were changes. Street lamps were going to be installed in Brough. Automation in the Light House was being discussed. So maybe the road to the light House will not so much used in the future.
But I hope there will be fish in the long Loch, certainly the view from "the Head" by day and by night all the year round will remain, and will still entice Caithnessians back home. There is nowhere quite like it, and it should not be forgotten.
|First Published in Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1989|