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History of Caithness
Index & Introduction|
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Civil And Traditional
The date of the erection of Auldwick, which is believed to be one of the oldest buildings of the kind in Caithness, is not known. It was, at an early period, a stronghold of the Cheynes, a race of early chieftains who held great sway in the county, and of whom further notice will be taken in a subsequent part of this work. About the end of the fifteenth century it was inhabited by the Oliphants. In 1497, James IV. conferred by charter on George Oliphant and his spouse, Lady Duffus, the lands of Auldwick and Berriedale. A deadly feud, originating in a dispute about some property, is said to have arisen between this George, styled Lord Oliphant, and the Earl of Caithness. Oliphant, it appears, was fond of the chase; and, as he happened to be out one day hunting, in the vicinity of the hill of Yarrows, he was attacked by the Earl and some of his retainers. Oliphant was without any attendants; but, fortunately for him, he had a fleet horse. He immediately set spurs to the animal, and galloped home towards Auldwick, hotly pursued by the Earl and his dependants. Old Wick Castle Photo Gallery
On approaching the castle he found that the drawbridge was not lowered. His pursuers were close behind him, and he had not even time to wind his hunting-horn, and warn the inmates of his return. It was a critical moment, and the noble animal on which he rode seemed fully to understand the danger. No application of spur or whip was needed. Exerting his full power, the horse leaped across the terrific chasm— clearing at one bound twenty-five feet—and landed his rider safe on the other side! Lord Oliphant’s leap was long talked of in Caithness, and was a familiar saying among the people.* Between this old tower and Wick some geological appearances of a curious and rather puzzling kind present themselves. The cliffs in this quarter are about thirty feet in height, and their upper strata would appear to have been deranged by some extraordinary convulsion. Enormous masses of rock have been broken off from their beds, and thrown upon one another in most terrific confusion. One vast mass, apparently more than two hundred tons in weight, has been reft from its original bed, and tossed up on a similar layer immediately above it. Between the masses is a smaller rock, on which the one that has been hurled up rests in a most perilous position, looking as if “an infant’s touch could urge its headlong passage down the verge.” Theorists keenly differ as to the cause of this singular disruption. Some ascribe it to the force of the sea during some more than usually heavy tempest from the German Ocean; others, who are advocates of what is called the glacial theory, maintain that it is the result of ice action at one of those infinitely remote eras in the geological history of the globe, which ingenious men, by the aid of a lively imagination, have described so eloquently. Icebergs driven against the cliffs with prodigious fury, in their estimation, sufficiently account for the entire phenomena.
* The Oliphants were an ancient family, and possessed of considerable property in the county. They were superiors, it is said, of one-fourth part of Caithness. In 1606, the last Lord Oliphant sold all the lands he had in it to the Earl of Caithness. The family is now quite extinct.
Thurso, which lies about twenty-one miles to the west of Wick, is also situated at the mouth of a river, close by the sea. Etymologists differ about the origin of the name. Some suppose that it is so called from Horsa, a Saxon general, who, it is said, landed there some time in the fifth century, and plundered the county. Others, and among them Mr Worsaae, derive the name from the Icelandic term Thorsaa. In the pagan mythology of the Scandinavians, Thor was the title of one of their principle deities; and in the old Norse, signifies a river. Hence Thorsaa, or Thor’s river. This latter derivation seems the more probable. The name of the river was afterwards extended to the town and the surrounding district. Thurso was a place of great note in ancient times, and there is frequent mention of it by Torfaeus. In one place he calls it “oppidum Cathneiae,” the town of Caithness. It has been the scene of some remarkable events, and its environs afford a number of Norwegian memorials. At Ormlie, on a rising ground closely adjoining the new town, stood the Castle of Thurso—the “castrum de Thorsa” of Torfaeus—in which the old Scandinavian earls of the county used frequently to reside. Of this once famous stronghold not a vestige is now to be seen. In clearing away the foundations of the ruins, some years ago, the workmen discovered the well, which was about twenty feet deep. The modern house, named Castle-green, stands nearly on the site of the ancient structure. Thurso was, by royal charter of Charles I., constituted a free burgh of barony in 1633, in favour of John, Master of Berriedale, who frequently resided in it. The seal of the burgh represents the figure of St Peter and the keys, with a tall staff crossed at the top, having the motto, “Sigillum Burgi de Thurso in Caithness.” In 1726, according to the M’Farlane Manuscript, it was four times as populous as Wick. The population by the last census was 3426. For nearly two centuries Thurso was the chief seat of the Sheriff Court of Caithness, and the residence of the several legal functionaries. But at length the superior and magistrates of Wick, considering this an usurpation of the just rights of the burgh, brought the case before the Court of Session, when a decision was given in their favour, and the Sheriff Court was in 1828 removed to Wick.* Thurso was, in consequence, shorn of much of its public importance ; but it has survived the heavy blow and great discouragement, and is now progressing rapidly, both as respects internal improvements and increase of commerce.
* The transference of the courts from Thurso to Wick took place in terms of the decree of the Court of Session in an action at the instance of Earl Gower and the magistrates of Wick against G. Douglas and others. Wick being the royal burgh, and there being, moreover, several statutes ordaining the Sheriff to hold his courts there, the Court of Session found that the Sheriff was bound to hold his regular stated courts at Wick, without prejudice to holding courts at other places, in terms of the 20th Geo. II., c. 43. And further, that the Sheriff-clerk’s office must be situated at Wick. For a particular account of this case, vide Shaw and Dunlop’s Decisions, vol. vi., pp. 650-657.
In point of situation, Thurso has greatly the advantage of Wick; and the surrounding landscape has been much admired by strangers. The view, as you approach it from the eastward, is particularly striking. Immediately before you, stretching along the west side of the river, over which there is an excellent bridge of three arches, lies the town. About two miles further west you see the celebrated roadstead of Scrabster, with a long ridge of Holborn-head ; and, immediately opposite, about two leagues to the north-east, Dunnet-head, at the western entrance of the Pentland Firth. On the hill of Clairdon, some two miles from the town, in an easterly direction, appears Harold’s Tower, a monument erected over the grave of Harold, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, who was slain there in battle in the twelfth century. From the point of Clairdon, near this monument, all along the shore to Holbornhead, swells in the beautiful Bay of Thurso. To the north, in the back-ground, tower up the lofty summits of the Hoy hills in Orkney. Near the mouth of the river, on the east side, is Thurso-east, the seat of Sir George Sinclair of Ulbster. The edifice, though of late considerably modernised, is said to have been erected about the year 1660, by George, the sixth Earl of Caithness of the Sinclair family. Miss Sinclair, speaking of the old castle, says —“In stormy weather, the sea spray has sometimes passed over the roof. Fish have been caught with a line from the drawing-room window; and vessels have been wrecked so close under the turrets that the cries of the drowning sailors could be heard.” Thurso contains some handsome new streets and houses; but the finest building of the whole is the new parish church, which is in a superior style of architecture, with a lofty tower and clock, and cost about £6000. In a square, opposite the east end of the church, is a statue, by Chantry, of Sir John Sinclair, in his uniform as colonel of the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles. Among the recent buildings is an academy, to be named the “Miller Institution,” after its founder, Mr Alexander Miller, of Thurso, a benevolent gentleman who has been at the sole expense of the erection, and has set apart a fund, we believe, for the maintenance of the teachers. There is also a female school, in which young girls of the poorer class are taught gratis. This Institution, which has been productive of immense good, was, much to their honour, originally got up by the ladies of Thurso by means of voluntary contributions, and is chiefly, if not altogether, supported in this way.
It was not till the year 1800 that a bridge was thrown across the river at Thurso. Before then, people going to and coming from the town were ferried over in a small coble. The passage, although short, was in stormy weather, and especially during a “spate,” not unattended with danger; and the small skiff, if crowded, as was sometimes the case on market-days, was liable to be upset. Some melancholy accidents of this nature are recorded, when all on board were swept down by the current, and lost. In 1749, no fewer than seventeen persons were drowned in this way. There were several instances, too, of persons having perished in rashly attempting to ford the stream after a heavy fall of rain, and when the tide was in. In the year 1756, a Mr Richard Sinclair, a merchant in Thurso, was drowned in crossing the water. The accident is remarkable from its having been accompanied or foreshadowed by one of those mysterious appearances, or as they would now be called, illusions of the imagination, which entered so largely into the popular creed of old, and the belief in which modern science and philosophy have not yet been able wholly to remove. The story is told in a curious old work, entitled, “A Treatise on the Second Sight, &c., by Theophilus Insulanus,”* and is as follows
“Mr Richard Sinclair returning home late at night with his servant, as they came to the river close by the town, they found it swelled by a fall of rain, and much increased by the tide, which was in. The latter seemed averse to ford, which his master observing, alighted and gave him his own horse, arid mounted his servant’s horse, with which having entered the river, he was soon carried by the flood out of his saddle, and drowned. His wife knowing nothing then of the matter, as she was going from one room to another in her own house, saw Mr Sinclair go up the stair to his own room, and called to the servant to bring him a candle and make up a fire; but after the servant had brought the light in great haste, she found no person within. In less than an hour the report was through the town that the gentleman was drowned. This account,” adds the writer, “I had from a person that came to the town next day, when the accident of the preceding night was the common subject of conversation.”
The river of Thurso, which is the largest in the county, is valuable as a salmon-fishing stream, and has been long celebrated for the abundance and the excellent quality of the fish caught in it. In the month of July, 1743, no fewer than 2560 salmon were taken in this river at one sweep of the net. The circumstance, though it looks somewhat incredible, is confirmed by the written attestation of the chief magistrate and other two respectable inhabitants of the town, who were present at the time. In this document, which still exists, it is stated that this extraordinary draught took place in the cruive pool above the town; that the net containing the salmon was carried down the water by from eighteen to twenty men, with long poles in their hands keeping down the ground rope, and that the fish were afterwards taken ashore by degrees in a smaller net. About the end of the last century, the shore dues at the river mouth, then the principal harbour, were only one shilling and sixpence, but from this charge vessels belonging to the port were exempted.
The river of Thurso has its rise in a small brook among the hills on the confines of Sutherland. At the distance of eight miles from its source it enters Lochmore. Issuing from the outlet at the north corner of this lake, it proceeds onwards through a pretty wide extent of country. Some of the localities through which it passes, especially in the upper parts of the parish of Halkirk, possess features of no ordinary beauty.
The scene at Dirlet is particularly romantic. Here the banks on each side are steep, and richly clothed with brushwood; and on the summit of a precipitous, rock, said at one time to have been surrounded by the river, arid accessible only by a drawbridge, may be seen the ruins of a castle which, about the end of the fifteenth century, was inhabited by a chief of the name of Sutherland. After a winding course of nearly thirty miles, during which it is fed by many smaller tributaries, the river finally flows into the Bay of Thurso.
I have already noticed the greatly improved condition of Caithness. This is abundantly shown by the large increase in rent,* and the extraordinary rise in the value of landed property in the county since the beginning of the century. One striking instance of the increased value of land may be mentioned. About the year 1788, the late Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster purchased the estate of Langwell for £7000. He sold it in 1813 to the late Mr James Home, writer in Edinburgh, for £42,000; and Mr Donald Home, who succeeded to the property on the death of his uncle, lately sold it to the Duke of Portland for £90,000. In other departments, such as the rearing of stock, the pavement trade,* etc., Caithness is making the same remarkable progress; and, indeed, it may be said the material resources of the county are only beginning to be developed. The present proprietors who have most distinguished themselves for their agricultural and other improvements are the Earl of Caithness, Sir George Dunbar of Hempriggs, Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath, Mr Sinclair of Forss, Mr Traill of Ratter, and Mr Henderson of Stemster. And here it is but proper to mention two gentlemen to whom the county of Caithness is largely indebted, namely, Mr William Darling and Mr James Purves. Mr Darling was, for a considerable time, manager at Stirkoke for the late Mr Home, Sheriff of Haddington; and Mr Purves was for several years also factor for the late James Traill, Esq. of Ratter. Possessed of great intelligence, and thoroughly acquainted with the best mode of husbandry in the south, of which they are natives, they introduced the system, as far as it was practicable, on the estates under their management, and showed in a very satisfactory manner what great improvements, superior skill, combined with a judicious outlay of capital, could effect on a soil not naturally rich, and in a changeable climate like that of Caithness. In the agricultural annals of the county their names will have a permanent place.
Caithness is divided into ten parishes, quoad civilia, and composed of highlands and lowlands. In the former the Gaelic language is spoken, and in the latter the English, or rather a dialect of the Scotch, with some provincial peculiarities. The Gaelic, which is said to be not of the purest school, is fast disappearing before the march of education; and Caithness may in truth be called a lowland county. In 1801 the population was only 22,609. By the last census in 1861 it amounts to 41,216.
The natives are an
intermixture or incorporation of two originally distinct races—the
Celts and Scandinavians; and in personal qualities they yield to the
inhabitants of no county in Scotland. The men are hardy, active, and
well made, and the women are in general exceedingly good-looking.
Finer figures and more attractive countenances than are to be seen
among the latter will not be found anywhere. As a people, the
Caithnessians are acute, shrewd, and practical, with a decided turn
for business. Their imagination seldom
gets the upper hand of their judgment; and they are, consequently,
not very apt to indulge in matters of speculation, or to suffer
themselves to be carried away with any untried or fanciful theories.
There is also a strong clannish feeling among Caithness men, and
wherever any number of them are located they usually form themselves
into clubs and societies. There are four distinguished
societies of this kind—one in Glasgow, one in Edinburgh, one in
London, and one in Australia. Of
the first and oldest of these, the Glasgow Caithness Association, I
shall here give a brief account. This excellent society was
instituted in the month of January, 1837. The objects contemplated
by its founders were the promotion of friendly intercourse among the
natives of Caithness residing in Glasgow, and the relief of any of
them who might be in necessitous
circumstances. At its first meeting, the late Mr Alexander Coghill
was elected chairman, Mr Daniel Macadie was appointed treasurer, and
Mr William Levack, secretary. James Traill,
Esq. of Ratter, was chosen patron, and laid the foundation of the
society by a donation of ten guineas. After
his death, his son, George Traill, Esq. of Ratter, the present M.P.
for the county, became patron, and with the same liberality
continued for many years to assist the society. The succeeding
patrons have also contributed liberally, among whom may be
mentioned Alexander Miller, Esq., a native of Thurso. The amount of
money expended by the society in its legitimate sphere is about
fifteen pounds per annum; but various sums, amounting to about one
hundred pounds, have been sent to Caithness to relieve destitution
there. The number of members is about sixty, and the principal
source of revenue arises from a small sum payable by each of them at
the quarterly meetings. The present office-bearers are five, with