N E W S F E E D S >>>

History of Caithness
J.T. Calder

Civil And Traditional History Of Caithness

Preface To First Edition
I had long cherished a desire to draw up something like a regular history of Caithness, but on making the requisite investigation, I found that neither the public records of the county, nor yet family papers, afforded sufficient materials for the purpose. The present work, therefore, is merely a sketch or outline mostly drawn from other sources, and in some measure aided by local tradition. The writer to whom I have chiefly been indebted for information regarding what may be called the ancient history of Caithness, is Torfaeus, whose authority on this point is justly entitled to credit from the following circumstance:- When the Orkney Islands, of which Caithness formed a part of the earldom for so many hundred years, had, from increase of population and proximity to Scotland, become valuable as an appendage to the crown of Norway, an historiographer was appointed to reside in the island of Flotta, and to record all transactions of any public moment that took place in the two counties. These were regularly entered into a diary or journal, entitled the “Codex Flatensis,” or Book of Flotta. The work, which was one of national importance, was for better preservation, afterwards deposited in the royal library at Copenhagen; and from it, and the “Orkneyinga Saga” - the latter a compilation of Jonas Jonaeus, an Icelandic scholar - Torfaeus drew the materials of his history. “Torfaeus,” says Chambers, “sustains the character of a faithful historian, and the facts he details are probably as authentic as the early records of any portion of the British empire, while he has enabled us to correct several errors in the commonly-received accounts of Scotland.” And Samuel Laing, a still higher authority on this point says that “his history may be regarded as the only authentic record of affairs in the North for many ages.” The period embraced, so far as regards Orkney and Caithness, is from 876 to 1260.

The following are a few of the leading particulars of his personal history. Thormod Torfeson (Toraeus being the Latinised name) was a native of Iceland. His father, Torfe Erlendsen, was a person of some consideration in that country. The son was born in 1636, and educated at the University of Copenhagen. While attending this seminary, he became distinguished as a student; and his classical acquirements were such that they afterwards procured him the honourable situation of historiographer to Christian V., King of Denmark. His great work, which he composed in Latin, was published about the year 1690, under the title of “Orcades, seu rerum Orcadiensium Historiae.” He is also the author of another curious work entitled “Historia Vinlandiae Antiquae” which gives a description of the maritime adventures of the Norwegians and their alleged discovery of America five hundred years before Columbus. He died, according to the best accounts, in 1720 at the advance age of 84.

With regard to the more modern history of Caithness, my information has chiefly derived from Sir Robert Gordon’s elaborate work, entitled a “Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland,” which contains a full account of the various feuds and conflicts which for so long a period existed between the two rival houses of Caithness and Sutherland. Sir Robert, however, with all his industry and research, cannot be considered an impartial historian. He everywhere discovers a strong prejudice against the Sinclair family; and his statements in regard to them, and to Caithness matters in general, must be received with large deduction. The continuator of his history, Gilbert Gordon of Sallach, in a eulogy of his many virtues and talents, candidly admits that he was a man of a passionate temper, and a “bitter enemy”. Sir Robert was the second son of Alexander, Earl of Sutherland, and Lady Jane Gordon, who was divorced by Bothwell, and was born at Dunrobin 14th May, 1580. He received the best education that Scotland could afford at the time, having attended both the Universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrews. He resided much at the court of King James I. Of England. James, with whom he seems to have been a favourite, conferred on him the honour of knighthood, and he also granted him a yearly pension for life of £200 stg. Sir Robert was the ancestor of the Gordonstone family, to whom he bequeathed a large estate in the county of Elgin. He died about the year 1650.

Among other works which I consulted, and which supplied me with some important facts and details, may be mentioned Mackay’s “ History of the House and Clan of Mackay, “ Henderson’s “Agricultural View of Caithness,” Balfour’s “Odal Rights and Feudal Wrongs,” Brand’s “Description of Orkney, Shetland and Caithness,” “Pennant’s Tour,” the Origines Parochiales Scoiae,” and a most interesting volume entitled, “ An Account of the Danes and Norwegians in England, Scotland, and Ireland of the National Monuments of Denmark.

For much interesting information connected with the rentals, roads and pedigrees of some families in the county, I am indebted to Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath; James Sinclair, esquire of Forss; John Henderson, Esquire, Banker, Thurso; Mr James Mackay, Messenger-at-Arms, Thurso; and Mr George Petrie, Clerk of Supply for the county of Orkney. Mr Sinclair of Forss furnished me with the valuable paper on the Caithness roads, and Mr Mackay with the curious document entitled the “Liberties of Thurso.” I would have gladly given, had they been sent me, some more pedigrees of Caithness families, as genealogical details of this kind are to many persons exceedingly interesting.

I have not, from my slight acquaintance with such subject, touched on the geology, botany, or ornithology of the county. In this respect, however Caithness presents a wide and varied field, and one which in skilful hands, I have no doubt would afford materials for a highly interesting volume.

The work which I have ventured to publish is, as I have said, merely an imperfect Sketch. Such as it is, however, it may afford some interest to local readers; and with the help of additional sources of information, should any cast up, it may prove useful to some future writer in supplying materials for a fuller and more connected history of the county.

J. T. Calder

Preface To Second Edition
The first edition of my work on Caithness having been received by the public with a degree of favour exceeding my most sanguine hopes, it is with great pleasure that I now publish a second impression, in which the reader will find a good deal of new and curious information bearing on the civil and traditional history of the county. To John Henderson, Esq., W.S., in Thurso, I have once more to express my obligations. That gentleman, besides furnishing me with additional notices of his own, very kindly favoured me with the perusal of a manuscript entitled “The past and present state of Caithness” by his brother, the late Patrick Brodie Henderson, M.D., which displays great research on the part of the writer, and is particularly valuable as embodying the stasitics of the county from about the year 1700 down to 1837. Dr. Henderson was the eldest son of the late William Henderson, Esquire, Sheriff-Substitute of Caithness, and appears to have been a man of more than ordinary talent and accomplishment. He died at Dingwall , in 1840, of fever caught in the discharge of professional duty.

I might have considerably enlarged my book by giving more of the antiquities and statistics of the county from Dr. Henderson’s compilation; but details of this kind, though interesting to a few, appear dry and uninviting to the majority of readers, who relish most the events and incidents of local history when they are related in anything like a readable style. A work chiefly intended for the public must contain somewhat of the element of popularity.

Before concluding, I would here express my obligation also to Mr Alexander Gunn, Brachour Cottage, in the parish of Halkirk, for the striking tradition respecting the capture of Sutherland of Dirlot by Mackay, his uncle, and for several new and authentic particulars connected with the famous duel which was fought by Sinclair of Olrig and Innes of Sandside.

To those conductors of the press who honoured me with favourable notices of the first edition of my book, I have to return my best thanks. The only critical objection of any moment I have seen, is the numerous details of barbarous clan fights, and still more barbarous assassinations, in the olden time, which it has been said have a tendency to shock the feelings of the reader. There is no doubt some truth in this; but if I had purposely omitted all mention of atrocities of this nature, I would not have acted the part of a faithful annalist. I may observe, further, that, so far as regards ancient criminal statistics, Caithness does not present a darker moral picture than any other county in Scotland. Outrages fully as revolting and cruel as any I have described will be found in the local records of them all. Human nature in its progress from barbarism to civilisation is everywhere the same; and to the Christian philanthropist the present condition of Caithness, compared with what it was in former times, will afford a pleasing happy contrast.

I have only further to add that I have carefully revised the text, and corrected several inaccuracies which had crept into the former edition, so that it is hoped the work as now published will be found more worthy of public approbation. No doubt errors will be found in this new edition also; for it would be ridiculous presumption in a mere annalist to claim exemption from the common frailty.
J T Calder

Chapter 1 Page One