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History of Caithness
J.T. Calder
Chapter 1

Index & Introduction
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Contents Chapter 1
General Description of the County
State of Agriculture and roads
Origin of John O'Groats house
The Kennedys of Stroma
The Herring Fishing
Harold's Tower
Appearance and Characteristics of the People
Glasgow Caithness Association
Ancient Military Spirit of the Youth
Representatives at the Scottish Parliament


Civil And Traditional
History Of Caithness

Chapter 1

Caithness is the most northerly county on the mainland of Scotland. It bore originally, with Sutherland, the Gaelic name of Cattey or Cattadh. The present name is of Scandinavian origin. In the old Norse the county was called Kataness, which means the naze (Anglice, the nose) of Cattey; and this corresponds, exactly with the appearance of the district, which forms a real naze, shooting out in a north-eastern direction at Duncansby Head. Caithness extends from south to north about forty miles, and from east to west about thirty. It is divided from the Orkney’s by the Pentland Firth, and from the county of Sutherland by a picturesque mountain range stretching from the celebrated headland of the Ord to Drumholisten on the north Atlantic. The greater part of Caithness is what geologists term a secondary formation, consisting chiefly of flagstone and more or less calcareous matter. With the exception of the Ord, which is a mass of granite, all the other headlands and rocks around the sea-coast are mostly composed of sandstone. The general aspect of the county, which measures in area about 712 square miles, is flat; and this peculiarity is rendered still more striking by the almost total absence of wood. There are a few plantations, at Castlehill, Berriedale, and one or two other places, but it requires much nursing and shelter to get them to attain to any height. The only tree that indicates congeniality with the soil is the common “bourtree” or elder, which thrives everywhere without any protection from the northern blast. This is more remarkable, as the county would seem at one period , to have been almost a complete forest. It contains a vast deal of moor or peat-moss, the well-known product of decayed vegetable matter; and, in cutting for fuel, trunks of birch, pine, hazel, and other trees have been very frequently found with the bark quite entire. Some of the roots seem charred with fire, and appearance which gives countenance to the tradition that the woods were burnt down for the purpose of expelling the wolves and other wild animals with which the county was anciently infested.

There is another tradition, that the Danes wantonly set fire to the old forests, and thus caused that lack of wood which acts so injuriously on the climate. But M. Worsaae, the learned Danish archaeologist, satisfactorily, we think, disposes of this charge against his countrymen. “Similar discoveries,” says he, “are very common in other countries, as for instance, in Denmark itself, where trunks of trees, especially firs, have been dug up as in the Scotch Highlands. They are the produce of vegetative processes in the pre-historical times; and fires, or more probably by the simple mode of felling trees in use among the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe, who, like certain savage tribes of the present day, were obliged tot burn the trunks of trees they wished to fell.”

“But the most remarkable evidence of ancient woods in Caithness, “ says the author of the New Statistical Account of Wick, “ is found in the Bay of Keiss. Between the links and the sand, and running down under the sea, are found the remains of a submarine forest. These are, like peat-moss, entirely composed of decayed wood. The barks of various kinds of trees are quite discernible, and even the seeds of birch and ash are so well preserved as to appear but lately taken from the tree”. But if Caithness is destitute of trees nature has liberally supplied it with plants and flowers; and in this respect, it offers a highly interesting field to the botanist. The native flowering plants and ferns enumerated amount to about 420. In the moors, and along the hill-sides, which are covered with the finest heather, you find, in their proper season, the bilberry, the cranberry, and the barberry. The Scotch myrtle, thyme, woodbine and juniper, are also to be met with in several places. White and red clovers are indigenous. The different species of wild flowers are innumerable. Amongst these may be particularised the bird’s-eye primrose, the Scotch primrose, the blue-bell, the foxpglove, and the beautiful gem called the white flower of Parnassus. The following with their Linnaean names, are some of the more rara and interesting plants hitherto not regarded as natives of the county:- Draba incana, Pyrus aria, Saxifraga stallaris, S. tridactylites, Valeriana dioica, Hieracium boreale, H. prenanthoides, Arctostaphylos, alpina , Anchusa semper virens, Veronica polita, Rumex sanguinens, Juneus Balticus, Carex limosa, Osmunda regalis, Isotes lacustris, Lycopodium Annotinum, etc.
See Also Plants In Caithness

Within the last forty years the appearance of the county has, by means of excellent roads* and an improved system of agriculture, undergone a mighty change for the better. Indeed, no county in Scotland, or in England, considering its local disadvantages, has made such remarkable progress as Caithness. In proof of this may be adduced the following statement, drawn up by an eminent statistician:- “It is, “says Dr Cleland of Glasgow, “perhaps the most extraordinary circumstance recorded in the history of political economy, that the remotest and most northern county of Great Britain should, on an accurate comparison between the two last enumerations, surpass all of the other 85 districts of the kingdom in regard to that great criterion of national prosperity, when it is properly regulated and employed, increased population.

It proves what would have been the prosperous state of the other districts in Great Britain, had the same zeal for improvement by which this remote county was actuated been extended with equal judgement over the other districts of the kingdom. The increased rate of population is certainly much owing to the establishment of a valuable herring fishery, to the erection of villages for carrying it on, and to the number of persons employed in it. But, the improvement of agriculture, and the cultivation of waste lands, have gone on progressively with the fisheries; and hence it is that, not withstanding the great addition to the population of Caithness, there has been no occasion for importing grain from other districts at home and far less from foreign countries. The formation of roads, accompanied by the establishment of a mail-coach to Thurso* have like wise contributed to the prosperity of the county.” Compare this highly-improved condition of Caithness with the state in which it was visited by Pennant, the celebrated tourist in 1769. At that time there was not a single cart, nor a mile of road, properly so called, in the county. Pennant describes the whole district as little better than an “immense morass” with here and there some fruitful spots of oats and bere, and much coarse grass, almost all natural, there being as yet very little artificial. “Here,” says he, “are neither barns or granaries; the corn is thrashed out and preserved in the chaff in bykes, which are stacks in the shape of bee-hives, thatched quite round.” And he adds,” the tender sex (I blush for the Caithnessians) are the only animals of burden; they turn their patient backs to the dunghills and receive in their cassies or straw baskets as much as their lords and masters think fit to fling in with their pitchforks, and then trudge to the fields in droves. The common people are kept in great servitude, and most of their time is given to their lairds, an invincible impediment to the prosperity of the county.” Such is Pennant’s picture of the county in 1769. Could he have seen it at the present day, he would have been struck with the extraordinary change which has taken place since then.

I have alluded to the want of wood in Caithness. Wood, unquestionably, adds much to the warmth and beauty of a country. It is poetically speaking, the finest feature of a landscape. There is, however, a difference of opinion, or I should rather say of taste, in this matter as in everything else. An anecdote is told of an American tourist who visited John O’Groats some years ago. In his progress through Caithness, he continually ejaculated, “Beautiful county! Very beautiful county!” Some one remarked to him that it could hardly be called a beautiful county from its want of trees. “Trees!” cried the Yankee, “all stuff; Caithness, I calculate, is the finest clearance I ever saw in my life!” Notwithstanding its nakedness in this respect, when the corn-fields and pastures are all green and smiling in the genial summer sunshine, the scene is the highest degree interesting, and may even be pronounced beautiful. The richness of the scene makes up, in great measure, for its tameness. Nor is the county destitute of interest to the lover of the “wild and wonderful.” The sea-coast, which is generally lofty and rugged, presents scenery of the grandest description. The iron-bound, precipices are cleft by innumerable “goes,” or fissures, whose steep sides, in the breeding season are covered with thousands of wild-fowl. At their base, gloomy caves open out: and here and there shoot up tall isolated pillars of rock called stacks, which impart a peculiar and striking feature to the scene, and have been, poetically, likened to so many “advanced pickets of land standing out amid the ceaseless turmoil of the breakers.” Some of them are hollowed into arches by the restless surge, which, when agitated by a gale is ever and anon seen pouring through them with a rush of foam. One of the most remarkable of these stacks is situated at the mouth of a small haven at Hempriggs, to the south of Wick. This immense rock is perforated from the top to the bottom, and from side to side, and exhibits two large pillars so regularly formed as almost to appear artificial. The passage is so wide that a boat can easily pass through it.

There are several lofty headlands along the coast, but the four most celebrated are the Ord of Caithness, Holborn-Head, and the promontories of Dunnet and Duncansby. The Ord so well known as a formidable pass between Sutherland and Caithness, is situated at the eastern boundary of the two counties. According to Jamieson, the derivation of the term Ord is either from the Gaelic “ard” or the Icelandic “urd” both of which signify a steep hill or eminence. I am inclined to think it from the Icelandic, more especially as the names of most places along the Caithness coast are Norwegian. Besides, in Shetland, where the names of the places are all purely Scandinavian, there is a promontory near Lerwick called the Ord of Bressay. The Ord is the “Verubium Promontorium” of Ptolemy; and in a curious geographical fragment, entitled, “De Situ Albaniae,”* and generally ascribed to Andrew, Bishop of Caithness, who died in 1185, it is called “Mons Mound.” The Ord forms the termination of a long mountain ridge, and is, strictly speaking, the brow of a steep hill overhanging the sea, whose strand, at the lowest state of the tide, is the perpendicular face of the rock. On the Sutherland side, the headland is cleft into a huge ravine or gorge of great depth, running a long way up into the interior among the hills. The old road, the only practicable route without making a circuit of some twelve or fourteen miles, was a mere path, or rather shelf, along the outer edge of the promontory, and without any protection from the precipice, so that it could not be passed with any safety in stormy weather. This terrific path, which never failed to inspire travellers with dread, was about a mile in length. Its dangers have been alluded to by several tourists. Pennant, who was accustomed to such passes, describes it as “infinitely more high and horrible then Penmaen Mawr, in Wales.” The Rev. John Brand, in his “Description of Orkney, Shetland and Caithness,” in the year 1701, quaintly says, “ The Ord, which divideth Caithness from Sutherland is a high mountain down which our way from Caithness to Sutherland doth lie. The road is narrow and the descent steep, and if any stumble thereupon they are in danger of falling down a precipice into the sea, at the bottom of the rock, which is very terrible to behold.” Travellers in carriage or on horseback, when they came to the Ord, always alighted and crossed it on foot, leading their horses, or having them led by servants. In 1802 a Government survey of the Ord was made by Mr Charles Abercrombie, an eminent engineer, who suggested a new plan of a road, by which all danger would be avoided; and the ascent, instead of being so uncommonly steep, would not exceed one foot in thirty in any part of it. It was not, however, till1811 that the new road was constructed, and a bridge thrown across the wild yawning chasm, by which means the entrance from the one county to the other is now rendered perfectly safe and easy at any time. By the traveller from Helmsdale the old path may still be seen like a sheep track winding up the steep brow of the hill, some three or four hundred feet above the rolling surge. The scene altogether is one of that wild and savage character which would have afforded a fit subject for the pencil of Salvator Rosa.

Holborn-head, which lies about three miles from Thurso, is a magnificent promontory. It runs out along the west side of the roadstead of Scrabster; and, with its bold precipitous ridge, forms, as it were, a gigantic wall to protect it from the fury of the Atlantic. At the extremity of the headland there is an immense insulated rock called the “Clett”, fully 400 feet high, which adds considerable to its picturesque and striking appearance. The roadstead of Scrabster, which may be termed the “portus salutis” of Caithness has long been famous as an anchorage. The most violent gales from the west or north-west leave it comparatively unruffled. Al local writer, speaking of its natural advantages as a resort for shipping says :- “It is large enough to contain from 200 - 300 sail at a time, is well sheltered on all sides, especially towards the south and west, has good holding ground, with no tide-way, with from eight to ten fathoms of water, and sufficient room to work out with any wind that blows.” This account must be received with some little deduction. It is exposed to the north-east and a storm from this quarter raises a very heavy sea in Thurso Bay , which renders the anchorage somewhat unsafe; and vessels have, not unfrequently, been driven from their moorings, and gone ashore on the sands. Of late an excellent harbour has been erected at Scrabster, of sufficient extent and depth of water to accommodate steamers.

Index & Introduction
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