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History of Caithness
Index & Introduction|
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Civil And Traditional
Chapter 1 - Page Two
Passengers, goods, and stock can, with the greatest facility, be transferred to and from the vessel at the quay; and in this respect, Thurso has greatly the advantage of Wick. Formerly iron rings were kept fixed in the rocks at Scrabster, to which vessels, when it was found necessary, were attached. Every vessel that put a hawser ashore for this purpose was charged by the proprietor of Holborn-head a merk Scots of ring dues; and from this circumstance, the roadstead was frequently called the “Rings.” A lighthouse was erected on the headland in 1862. It is a flashing light, showing a flash every ten seconds, white towards the Pentland Firth and Dunnet Bay, and red towards the anchorage ground at Scrabster. It is elevated 75 feet above spring tides, and may be seen at the distance of 13 miles in clear weather.
Dunnet-head, supposed to be the Cape Orcas of Diodorus Siculus,* forms a peninsula containing about three thousand acres of uncultivated moor, with no fewer than ten small lochs, and is protected by a huge wall of precipices, averaging two hundred feet in height. This immense rampart of “nature’s
* Diodorus Siculus, the geographer, lived in the time of Julius Caesarabout 53 years before Christ; and Pinkerton says, “this (meaning Cape Orcas) is the first mention of any place in Scotland by any writer,”
masonry,” with its numerous wild “goes” and. caves, runs along the northern side of the Bay of Dunnet, and then following the direction of the Pentland Firth, bends towards what is called Easter-head, on which the lighthouse is erected. The entire extent of rock encompassing the neck of land from Dwarwick round to the village of Brough, is nearly eight miles. Easter-head, which is the highest point of the whole, and the most northerly on the mainland of Scotland, being situated in latitude 58° 40’ N., and longitude 3° 21’ W., is fully 300 feet above the level of the sea. From the summit of the contiguous eminence, of which it forms a part, the height above the sea is more than 500 feet. The scene is horribly grand; and, in looking down from the verge of the promontory on the toiling ocean beneath, one is forcibly reminded of Shakspeare’s description of Dover cliff..........
“How fearful and dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
...............The murmuring surge,
That on the unnumbered idle pebbles chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.”
On a green spot near what is called “The Head of Man,” there was anciently a small chapel, the trace of which is still to be seen. It is called by an old writer “templum Donati,” and is supposed to have been a sanctuary or place of penance, and to have been dedicated to St Donatus, one of the multitude of saints in the Romish calendar. The tradition of the place says that a hermit once lived in it. M. Worsaae in his account of Ireland mentions a Norwegian, named Donat, who was bishop of Dublin in the eleventh century. It is probable that Dunnet is a corruption of this term, and was originally pronounced Donat.
The lighthouse, which was erected in 1832, is, at one part, not much more than fifty feet from the edge of the precipice. During a heavy storm from the west, the enormous billows, as they dash against the rugged face of the cliff, throw up the spray as high as the lights of the building, often mingled with stones, which occasionally break the glass. And such is the prodigious force of the wind and the sea united upon the headland, that the very rock itself seems to tremble; while the lighthouse shakes from top to bottom, as if it were affected by an earthquake. The light, which is fixed, is seen at the distance of twenty-three miles. The height of the lantern above the highest spring tides is 346 feet. Easter-head and the Berry, in the opposite island of Walls, in Orkney, form the western entrance of the Pentland Firth. They nearly correspond in their geological properties; and, as is remarked by a statistical writer, various circumstances contribute to render the conjecture probable, that at a remote period the Orkneys were, by some convulsion of nature, torn from Scotland. Dunnet-head is altogether composed of freestone, and the strata dip or incline to the north-east at an angle of 45°.
The point of Dwarwick which I have mentioned forms partly the scene of the following curious legends -It happened that a young lad on one occasion caught a mermaid bathing, or rather amusing herself, in a sandy pool betwixt Murkle and Castlehill. By some means or other he got into conversation with her, and rendered himself so agreeable that a regular meeting at the same spot took place between them. This continued for some time. The young man grew exceedingly wealthy, and no one could tell how he became possessed of such riches. He began to cut a dash amongst the lasses, making them, presents of strings of diamonds of vast value, the gifts of the fair sea nymph. By and by he began to forget the day of his appointment; and when he did come to see her money and jewels were his constant request. The mermaid lectured him pretty sharply on his love of gold; and exasperated at his perfidy in bestowing her presents on his earthly fair ones, enticed him one evening rather farther than usual, and at length showed him a beautiful boat, in which she said she would convey him to a cave in Dwarwick Head, where she had all the wealth of all the ships that ever were lost in the Pentland Firth and on the sands of Dunnet. He hesitated at first, but the love of gold prevailed, and off they set to the cave in question. And here, says the legend, he is confined with a chain of gold, sufficiently long to admit of his walking at times on a small piece of sand under the western side of the Head; and here, too, the fair siren laves herself in the tiny waves on fine summer evenings, but no consideration will induce her to loose his fetters of gold, or trust him one hour out of her sight. Dr Hibbert, in his work on the superstitions of the Shetlanders, mentions that connubial attachments were occasionally formed between the merwomen and the natives, but that these strange helpmates generally in the end betook themselves to their native element.
But by far the most beautiful promontory on the coast of Caithness is Duncansbay-head. It is a small headland compared with that of Dunnet, but it possesses several features of greater interest. It is of a semicircular shape, and about two miles in extent, the greater part of which is surrounded by the sea, and forms a continued precipice, remarkable for its stupendous boldness, and the wild and striking appearance of the few chasms and goes by which it is indented. On the land side the surface is composed of a beautiful green, which slopes gently down towards a small rivulet which bounds it on that quarter. From the summit of the rock there is a magnificent view of the German Ocean, of the Pentland Firth, with the Skerry lighthouse, and of several of the Orkney islands. A little to the south of the head, in the direction of Freswick, are seen the Stacks of Duncansbay, two immense pillars of rock of an oval form, standing out in the sea, wholly detached from the adjacent precipices, and shooting up their fantastic summits to a great height. They are situated in a sort of recess, where in certain directions of the wind during bad weather boats, and even vessels, can lie with safety. On the top of the highest stack the eagle has for ages sat in “undisturbed royalty” and taken out her young. There is a tradition, however, that about eighty or ninety years ago a tailor, of the name of Hogston, one day climbed up to the eyrie for the purpose of appropriating to himself a young eaglet or two. No sooner, however, had he got to the top than the old eagle, a majestic bird of the golden species, came flying forward for the protection of her young. It was a perilous moment for the poor tailor. One flap of her wings was sufficient to hurl him headlong three hundred feet to the bottom. Fortunately he had his large scissors in his pocket, with one stroke of which he managed to fell the bird. Still he was not out of danger. The coming down was greatly more difficult than the going up; and he afterwards declared that he would not perform such a hazardous feat again if he were to get the whole of Caithness. The term Duncansbay is from the Norse, and was originally written Dungalsbae. Near the top of the promontory stood the ancient fort of Dungalsbae, the earliest stronghold of the Scandinavian Earls of Orkney and Caithness. It was generally held by a prefect or captain under the Earl. Not a vestige of the building, which would seem to have been of a circular form, now remains.
About a mile and a-half to the west of Duncansbay-head lies the celebrated locality of John O’Groat’s, situated close by the sea, and near the middle of a long strip of “links,” or downs. The stranger who visits the spot is naturally disappointed, when instead of the house which his imagination had pictured, he sees nothing but a small green mound which is pointed out as the site on which it stood. The sea view, however, is good; and the visitor, if he be a conchologist, will have an opportunity of enjoying his favourite study, and of picking up in his walk along the beach, among others, some of those beautiful little shells called “John O’Groat’s buckies.” Specimens of this shell, the “cyprea Europea” of the naturalist, have occasionally been found with the animal alive, from which it would appear to be a native of our seas. The following is the tradition respecting the far-famed John and his banqueting-house. In the reign of James IV. of Scotland, three brothers,